By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
The agriculture festival of ‘Losar’ symbolizes the onset of spring and is celebrated with gaiety across Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, various parts of north and north-eastern India. It is an important festival for the Tibetan refugees living in the Indian subcontinent. It is observed from the first through the fifteenth day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar.
Losar is also referred to as the New Year.
Interestingly enough, this festival actually traces its origin to the Bon religion, from the pre-Buddhist period in Tibet. Every winter people gathered to offer large quantities of incense to please local spirits and deities. It is also widely believed that during the time of the Tibetan king (the 9th king), Pude Gungyal (617-698 CE), Losar merged with the harvest festival to give rise to the present annual Losar festival.
It is often compared with the Chinese New Year. But there are some striking differences too. Both can occur on the same day in some years, but on different days in others. There are differences between the Tibetan and Chinese calendars.
Preparations for Losar begin with the onset of the 12th Tibetan month. Tibetans cultivate barley shoots to offer to their respective family deities. Towards the middle of the month, they eat a special food made of deep-fried dough. Before New Year’s eve, each household sculpts a sheep’s head and keeps a container, both are symbolic of an upcoming good harvest. This is generally sculpted from ‘dri’ (female yak) butter and fills up a grain container with a mixture of barley flour and ghee, fried ‘qingke’ barley kernels and the monorchid herminium herb. On the twenty-ninth day and two days before New Year’s Day, each household is cleaned, arranged and decorated in the morning and a performance of an exorcism is conducted at night.Both ceremonies are aimed at driving out evil and welcoming the good from the household.
The ceremony also involves the eating of a special noodle called ‘guthuk’.
On the first day of Losar, Tibetans wear good clothes, worship their respective deities and sit down in order of seniority to drink their very first cup of butter tea on New Year’s Day. Younger members of a family greet the elders with a container of grains as well as ‘khataks’. Then they visit their neighbours to exchange greetings. The next day, they travel distances to see friends and relations to wish them. The evenings are filled with fun and games, dancing and singing.
The celebrations begin on the tenth month of the Bodhi calendar, which is sometime in December. Earlier, Losar festivities started on the first day of the Bodhi New Year. Since the Cultural Revolutions, Tibetans in Gannan have been celebrating it according to the Chinese Calendar.
There are various interpretations and stories associated with the date of the beginning of Losar. According to one such story and belief, from the 16th century, Chewang Namgyal, a king of Ladakh, decided to celebrate Losar two months earlier, in anticipation of an imminent battle. However, this idea is critiqued. Many say that Losar has been celebrated from time immemorial by Ladakhis on the present time-period. Interestingly, Losar also coincides with the birth anniversary a Buddhist reformer of 15th century, Chonkhapa.
It was widely believed that the constellation- ‘Karma Mar’ (‘mar’ means red) signalled the beginning of spring. The name refers to a particular bright red star in the constellation that rises in the east during spring. December is heralded by the constellation ‘Karma Mindrup’ which is seen right after sunset. This also signals a period to start making new woollen clothes for Losar in February.
During Losar one can see the Ibex deer dance and mock-fights between boys. Boys go out in groups, brandishing burning torches and conducting mock-battles in open spaces. This is a much-loved part of the festival for children, who also make bonfires of dried twigs and leaves. One of the young boys narrates folktales associated with Losar. This event continues till the first day of the 11th month. During this time, local musicians, called ‘Mon’, keeps fast, travels around the village with a drum and plays a special tune at all the houses and also at all the holy places. In return, especially in earlier times, he was rewarded by the local landlord or the zamindar in kind (flour and other edibles namely).
Losar is associated with dances also, namely, Shon dance, Koshen dance and Jabro dance. Shon was performed generally in front of the king of Ladakh by members of highly specialised families. The Koshen dance was presented at Leh bazaar, led by ‘Lardak’, the head of horsemen, at the end of a horse race.
Losar food is special, being a symbol to represent the New Year. Tibetan potato curry (Xiangzhai), rice and potato stew (Droma), sweet saffron rice (Dresi), kapse fritters, and on the eve of New year, the very famous Guthuk, a soup with noodles and dumplings which have omens hidden in them in the form of chillies, salt, wool, rice and coal, each one signifying an aspect of life and an identity. For example, a pebble symbolises a long and healthy life; cayenne pepper suggests that the individual has a temperamental personality; and a piece of charcoal indicates a person with a ‘black, cold heart’.
Among Tibetan refugees Losar is an occasion to clean houses. They visit the temple of the Dalai Lama at Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama blesses people on the second day of the New Year by touching their heads and giving a piece of red and white string. The masses tie this string around their necks as a symbol of good luck and protection against illness.
Losar is slightly different in neighboring Bhutan. The celebrations can be traced back to 1637, to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who commemorated the completion of the Punakha Dzong through an inaugural ceremony where people from all over the country came with offerings which were produced in the various regions of Bhutan. Traditional food is eaten with fruits, sugarcane and green bananas. The celebrations also include games, dancing, singing, feasts, dart playing and archery.
In Nepal, Tamu Losar is celebrated by the Gurung people, Sonam Losar is observed as the Tamang, and Gyalpo Losar is a Sherpa tradition. In Nepal, Losar is also an important part of the lives of Tibetan refugees. They visit the stupa in Bodhnath, on the eastern side of Kathmandu, and watch Lamas perform rites. The festivities are marked by blowing of copper horns, masked dance performances, alongside the display of a portrait of the Dalai Lama.