The Tibetan word Losar translates as New Year, lo means ‘year’ and sar means ‘new’. From the beginning of their existence, Tibetans celebrate harvest by either dancing or singing folk songs, and as time passed by, they began associating the ripe season (initially barley harvest) as the beginning of a New Year.
Celebrated with great fervour, Losar festival also marks the end of the harvesting season, hence a significant day for all the farmers and locals, and much awaited time for the Tibetan/Buddhist communities. According to some historians, the history of the Losar festival goes back when Buddhism was introduced in Tibet and then later spread to neighbouring countries including India, Bhutan and Nepal as the Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhists began spreading. Whereas some historical sources say that this festival originated in Tibet in the pre-Buddhist period (BCE 127 – CE 629) which was then known as the Agrarian Festival, in order to celebrate the blossoming of the apricot trees. It is believed that they followed Bon religion and conducted a spiritual incense-burning ceremony every winter. In India, it is majorly celebrated in Sikkim, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh (including Lahaul and Spiti Valley), where it is a main socio-cultural occasion.
Originally, it was celebrated as a winter ceremony in which large quantities of incense was offered to appease local deities and ward away the evil spirits. Gradually, due to the change in the Tibetan culture, it came to be celebrated as a harvesting season and New Year. In the present times, Losar festival is a main festival for all Tibetan Buddhists globally. There are offerings made to the Gods, in both Gompas (monasteries) and their shrines. In Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyal monastery offers prayers to the Goddess Palden Lhamo, protectors of Dharma; Dalai Lama and other Buddhist dignitaries usually attend the ceremony.
The Losar festival usually falls in the month of February coinciding with the 29th day of the 12th month of Tibetan lunar calendar, and lasts for 15 days. It can also fall in November, December, and January as dates change every year, as per the lunar calendar. During these festive weeks, the first three days are most crucial ones, where one can witness the streets, houses and monasteries adorned and decked up in vibrant colours, with people shopping for new clothes and jewellery, and meeting their friends and relatives for family meals. They also prepare a special delicacy, ‘Ghutuk’, made of nine ingredients including dried cheese and different grains along with other popular drinks and foods including ‘Chang’ or 'Chhang' (or Changkoi barley beverage) and ‘Kapse’ (cake) and in some communities, yak butter tea too. In some areas, the good harvest called the phyemar is symbolised by a five-grain bucket, which also contains Zanba (tsamba, roasted barley flour), and barley seeds.
The first day of the festival is ‘Lama Losar’ meaning ‘the Festival of the Guru’, on this day the devotees worship His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetans, and carry out processions to honour him. This day also sees flag decorations in every corner along with religious offerings that are made, called ‘Lama Losar’. In some places, the second day, (King’s Losar for some) when people visit their relatives, they take qemar, which contains barley power, fried barley, straw of barley, flowers and tsampa made of yak butter as the New Year’s greetings. In some parts of the world, on the third day, people visit monasteries with offerings of herbs, animals and demons made from a kind of dough called torma, along with Wei Sang, a burning pine tree branch and cypress and hang prayer flags that stand for peace and happiness. During the festival, some people make votive offerings to the Nagas, the spirit of water.
Few days before the festival begins, the occasion of ‘khepa’ is observed, when people fetch small branches of a thorny bush and keep at their house doors to seek protection from the evil spirits. To welcome the New Year and celebrate the agricultural prosperity, people decorate the doors, walls of the kitchen and wooden columns with auspicious images of the Ibex deer and other symbols.
One of the awe-inspiring features of the festival is the ‘Cham Dance’, a masked dance usually performed by monks, wherein the dancers wearing colourful and elaborate costumes and masks, perform the ‘devil dance’ signifying the triumph of good over evil. They perform and dance for the entertainment of the gods and followers who visit the monasteries to pray during Losar. The stories for the dances are about moral and Buddhist values and ancient Tibetan legends including the depiction of the story of the death of the evil Tibetan King Langdarma (9th century). Another highlight is the Yak dance usually performed by the young people on the streets, adding to the festive mood. Other mesmerizing highlights of this festival are the humorous filled Ibex deer dance and amusing battles between the King and his officials. The rehearsals for the performances are done before the beginning of the festival.
According to the Buddhist scriptures, Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon in the serene landscape of the Deer Park at Sarnath. Jatakas (Buddha’s birth stories) mention that one of Buddha’s former incarnations was a golden deer king. Yaks are considered the biggest ‘asset’ of the nomads as they are important to the economic and personal wellbeing of their families, hence yaks are treated with utmost respect and honour. In Tibetan plateau, the Tibetan people regard yaks as the “family heirloom”.
This festival witnesses ancient ceremonies to represent the between good and evil, one such ceremony is the “Metho” ceremony wherein hundreds of people with flaming torches and chanting prayers parade on the streets to ward away the negative spirits and hungry ghosts. The torches are later discarded depicting the warding off the evil. Another unique ritual is the lighting of butter lamps by the lamas, signifying Buddha’s enlightenment. Hence, this festival is an amalgamation of ancient rituals, staged dance dramas, music and dance.
Every New Year is associated with an animal and an element. You would have heard greetings, Losar Tashi Delek (Happy year of the Ox), as 2021 was the year of the Ox. It is a sheer lifetime experience for those who witness it!
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