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The Buddhist Festival: Losar

By Devik Balami at
praying to Jokhang Temple in Losar

Losar is a Buddhist festival celebrated by the people who follow the Tibetan Buddhism. This festival is celebrated on the first day of the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. Therefore, it occurs on various dates depending on location and tradition and corresponds to a date in February or March in the Gregorian calendar. But it occurs on the same day or around the Chinese New Year and the Mongolian New Year because the Mongols and Tibetans adopted the Uyghur calendar which was the adoption of the Chinese calendar. But the traditions of Losar are unique to Tibet and are also celebrated by the people of Nepal and Bhutan.

Historical Background

It is believed that the festival Losar predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet. It has roots in a winter incense-burning custom of the Bon religion. During the reign of the ninth Tibetan king, Pude Gungyal, it is said that this custom merged with a harvest festival to form the annual Losar festival.

Before the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1950, Losar was celebrated with a morning ritual ceremony at Namgyal Monastery which was led by the Dalai Lama and other high-ranking lamas along with government officials to honor the Dharmapala, Palden Lhamo. But with the initiation of Cultural Revolutions and exile of Dalai Lama, many monasteries were dissolved and the culture of celebration of Losar was also somewhat lost. But at the present period, Tibetan Buddhism practice in Tibet has been somewhat restored. Now, the Losar is celebrated but without the former ceremonies surrounding the person of the Dalai Lama.

At the earlier time, the celebration during Losar was quite different, the people visit the local spring to perform a ritual of gratitude. The people then make offerings to the nagas, the water spirits who activates the water element in the area. The people light up the incense sticks and make the offering to the local spirits associated with the natural world.

Historian and anthropologist suggest that this kind of traditions were not only the projections of human fears onto the natural world but also the way of relating to the elements originated in the direct experiences by the sages and common people of the sacred nature of the external and internal elements.

Celebration of the Buddhist Festival, Losar

The Buddhist Festival, Losar is celebrated for 15 days but the main celebration is only on the first three days. On the first day of Losar, people make a local beverage, changkol out of chhang (a local beer). The second day of the Losar is known as Gyalpo Losar or King's Losar. On the third day, families visit each other and they celebrate with the great feast.

Prior to Losar, families prepare for the New Year day in advance by thoroughly cleaning their homes; decorating with fragrant flowers and their walls with auspicious signs painted in flour such as the sun, moon, or a reversed swastika. They also prepare cedar, rhododendron, and juniper branches for burning as incense. On this auspicious day, the debts are settled, quarrels are resolved if there was any. The families are found to be enthusiasts to buy new clothes. They are motivated to make special foods, Kapse. There is a tradition to fashion a sheep's head from colored butter since the words sheep's' head and the beginning of the year sound similar in Tibet. Another traditional decoration, phyemar or five-grain bucket symbolizes a good harvest. Generally, a bucket with a wooden board that creates two vertical halves within, is filled with zanba and barley seeds. This bucket is decorated with barley ears and colored butter.

On the main day, the people gather around the premises of Jhokhang temple to pay a homage to the Buddha statue. Apart from this temple, the people also visit Tibetan monasteries, chant mantras and also offer gifts to the monks.