LOCAL LOSAR CELEBRATIONS
Tibetans living in different areas celebrate Losar in different ways and at different times. For instance, the Tibetan people living in the pastoral area of the northwestern Sichuan celebrate the festival according to the Han lunar New Year's days. The Tibetan people living in Jiarong, the rural area of Aba prefecture in northwestern Sichuan celebrate it on the 13th day of the l0th or 11th Han lunar month and call it the Tsampa New Year's.
The Tibetan people living in Baima, the steep mountain valley areas ranging from northern Sichuan to southern Gansu, celebrate New year it on the l5th day of the first Han lunar month, calling it the Torch Festival, while the Tibetan people living in Mianning area in southeastern Sichuan celebrate New Year in the middle of the 6th Han lunar month, also calling it the Torch Festival.
In this eastern Tibet prefecture, the residents celebrate the Tibetan New Year on the first day of the 10th Tibetan lunar month, usually in December. This local custom began in 1904, when news came to Nyingchi that the invading British troops were arriving. Local Tibetan men in Nyingchi Prefecture began preparing to join the fight against the British invaders to defend their home villages. In order not to miss the new year celebrations, the local people decided to hold the festival events before the men left for the battlefield. This happened on the first day of the 10th Tibetan month, and the tradition has been handed down until this day.
Losar in Lhasa
In Lhasa, Losar begins on the 29th day of the 12th Tibetan month and usually lasts a week in urban areas of Lhasa and two weeks in the countryside. New clothes are made, houses and monasteries alike are cleaned from top to bottom, various shapes of kase (fried wheat twists) are made, and walls are painted. The streets are overflowing with people singing and dancing and exploding of firecrackers.
On Tibetan New Year's Eve, the family gathers around a steaming hot pot of dumpling soup called "Guthuk". A dough effigy that represents the collective evil and ill will of the past 12 months is made and put in on top of everything else. A woman carries the pot out of the house. A man follows her with a burning torch made of wheat stalks shouting: "Get out! Get out!"
Then, the whole family moves to the middle of an intersection of roads or paths, where they throw away the remains of the Guthuk and the burning torch while the children set off firecrackers. So the city of Lhasa is illuminated by torches and resonant with the sound of firecrackers. This ceremony is conducted to get rid of all the negative forces at the end of the year so that the New Year will begin unencumbered.
On the morning of New Year's Day, the family rise early, put on their new clothes and finest jeweler, make offerings of barley flour mixed with butter and sugar at the family shrine. After having breakfast, the family members, all dressed up, solemnly wait for the dawn, when they will begin to worship the deities and greet and toast each other. Then they go to monasteries. Tens of thousands of Tibetans swarm into the Jokhang, Zhaibung and Sera monasteries, and the Potala Palace, all in Lhasa, to worship Buddha. People add roasted highland barley, wheat, and juniper and cedar branches into the incense burners on Barkhor Square. Smoke fills the area.
The family's best carpets and finest silver are also brought out. The Eight Auspicious Symbols, which appear as protective motifs throughout Tibetan-populated areas, are painted in strategic locations. Butter lamps are lit. Flowers are placed on altars. Piles of juniper, cedar, rhododendron, and other fragrant branches are prepared for burning as incense.
On the second day of the Tibetan New Year, people begin visiting their relatives and friends. They feast on rich holiday foods, drink highland barley liquor, play mahjong, dice and card games, and sing and dance around huge bonfires at night. The revelry continues from three to five days. On the third say in Lhasa, people flock to Bumpari Hill in the eastern suburbs and Chakpori hill in the western suburbs to burn cypress and juniper branches, erect prayer flag masts and hang multi-colored prayer flags while praying for the mountain and river god's blessing.
Horse races are held in Lhasa on the third day of Tibetan New Year. About 10,000 people show up to two dozen equestrian events including horse riding archery, horse riding shooting, and picking up bowls and white silk karda while riding. There are also performances like dancing on horrseback and making pyramid while riding on a horse. Watching the horse races is said to bring good luck. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]
Losar in Shigatse
Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet after Lhasa. Tibetans in Shigatse Prefecture also begin their Tibet Lunar New Year holiday on December 29th of the Tibetan calendar. On that afternoon, local Tibetan men wash their hair after cleaning their houses and painting the Eight Auspicious Symbols on the walls. It is said that this will help the men have black and shiny hair and bring good luck to the family. Women cannot wash their hair that afternoon because it is believed it would have the opposite effect.
On New Year's Eve, the same ceremony to drive out evil spirits is carried out in every family. Instead of throwing away the remains of the Guthuk and the burning torch, the men of the family climb onto a hill far from the house and burn a boiled sheep head until black, which will be offered at the family shrine as a sacrifice.
The young men and women get up around dawn on New Year's Day. Dressed in their festive best, some of them climb onto hills to erect new prayer flags for the village. Prayer flags are square pieces of fabric with prayers printed on them, strung together and hung from a large timber flagpole. Each flutter of a flag in the wind is another recitation of the prayer printed on it, for the benefit of the community. The others go to streams or wells for "new water." Then the family will have lunch at which they share a sheep's head, sausages and wheat porridge, and drink highland barley liquor on the first day of the first Tibetan month.
On the second day of the new year, all families gather in their neighborhood squares to burn juniper branches and offer highly alcoholic barley liquor and snacks as sacrifice to the area's deity of the land and protector deities. Starting on the third day of the New Year, banquets for friends and relatives are held one after another. In the Tsang region centered in Shigatse, people worship the God of Land and the guarding deities on the second day of the new year and they burn cypress and juniper branches and set poles of prayer flags on the flat roofs of their houses to worship the deities on the third day.
Gtsang Tibetans in Shigatse Celebrate Four New Year’s Day
Tibetan people in Shigatse called Gtsang Tibetans who have a custom to celebrate New Year’s Day four times each year: the New Year’s Day in the Gregorian calendar, Chinese Spring Festival, Tibetan New Year and Gtsang New Year or Farmers’ New Year. But they take the Gtsang New Year most importantly, and celebrate it most joyously, with Horse Racing, Archery Show and other activities.
The Gtsang New Year is held generally at the beginning of the first month according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s the end of the whole year’s hard work, when crops have been harvested and farmers are sharing the happiest moment. Gtsang New Year in Tibetan calendar is deduced from the Buddhism calendar, it’s also an old festival based on the husbandry activities. Activities during the festival are closely related to the husbandry. Therefore, it is also called Farmers’ New Year. With lives of peasants becoming better off, people celebrate this festival more and more ceremoniously.
On the New Year Day, housewives can have a good rest in the day after a whole year’s hard work, meanwhile all the housework would be done by men and women would dress to the nines accepting their husband and children’s greeting, regards and services. All the housewives receive presents, Hada, and highland barley wine from their families. In the morning, a fiesta activity would be held in the hope of better harvest of crops and the safety of both man and livestock in the coming year. All the family members take the firewood of coal and kind of cattle excrement firewood, climbing to the top of the house to hold the morning fiesta to pray in an undertone for the future harvest, safety and happiness.
Later, people clear up the threshing ground and spread some highland barley, wheat, peas, rapeseeds, and buckwheat on it. They stand on the top floor of the house and sincerely wait for the birds to eat the crops. If birds like eating a certain kind of crop, the crop is indicated to be a bumper crop. On the contrary, people would not have a good harvest for the crops birds seldom eat. If birds like to eat all kinds of crops, people welcome a great harvesting year. They believe that birds are the holy spirits sent from the heaven, they can predict if people can reap the harvest or not.
On the second day of the Gtsang New Year, people fetch the slim willow branches and sew them on ribbons and prayer flags. Usually, one piece of player flag is different from another in colors, and different colors have different signs according to the farmers. On the top of the branches, people sew on blue prayer flags which presents the blue sky; and lower, the white prayer flags standing for pure clouds are sew on; the third layer, red prayer flags means fire and the fourth, green means water. On the last layer, yellow prayer flags present the earth.
Losar in the Amdo Region
The Amdo region refers to Tibetan areas in Qinghai, southwestern Gansu and northwestern Sichuan provinces. Most of the region is covered with vast grasslands and many Tibetans here have traditionally been and still are nomads. In Amdo region, people climb to mountaintops to burn cypress and juniper branches for deities on the New Year's Day and then visit the elderly in their villages and give them New Year's greetings.
In Amdo, the first thing that Tibetan nomads do on the morning of the Tibetan New Year isalways to climb to the top of a hill near their settlement and try to be the first person to burn juniper branches to worship the local protector deities. It is a great honor to be the first to burn juniper branches, for he or she has the right to sound the white conch to inform the others living around the hill, and the first smoke can be seen for a great distance. Other people at the top of the hill will then add more juniper and cedar branches to the fire and offer liquor and highland barley flour to the local protector deities.
Different from Lhasa and Shigatse, house cleaning and water drawing are prohibited on New Year's Day in many areas of Amdo region. In some Amdo areas, men get up early in the morning of New Year's Day and run toward the cow or sheep sheds to see in which direction the animals are pointing while they sleep. Wherever their heads point, whether east, south, west or north, that direction will have auspicious conditions in the New Year. Cows and sheep will be painted with three colors or tied with five-color cloth stripes, and made to move in that direction for some distance to ensure good luck.
Losar with the Gongpo in Eastern Tibet
One Chinese reporter wrote in the China Daily: I arrived in Nyingchi prefecture of eastern Tibet autonomous region last November. The Dongbitang village is near the town of Menri but is rarely visited and has kept the traditions of the Gongpo people, a branch of the Tibetans. Village chief Nima Tsering told me the locals would celebrate New Year the next day. The Gongpo people wear cubic furry hats and a "waistcoat" that goes all the way down to the knee and celebrate New Year on the first day of the 10th month in the Tibetan calendar, which is two months ahead of the traditional Tibetan New Year. "The Gongpo people are very happy-we enjoy two New Years," says Nima Tsering. [Source: China Daily February 1, 2009]
Legends say that invaders came to the area centuries ago and that the King of Gongpo led them in battle. It was close to the New Year and many soldiers were depressed that they might not make it home for the festival. A sage advised the king to celebrate the New Year ahead of time, which boosted morale and eventually won the war. To commemorate the warriors who died, Gongpo people offered sacrifices and kept vigils. In time, this tradition became the Gongpo New Year.
When I followed Nima Tsering home, I almost tripped on the floor. His wife had rubbed the floor with butter to make every inch shine and smell pleasant. With a small basin of zamba (roasted qingke barley flour), she put white dots on columns, the stove, door, wall and cupboards while chanting "tashi dele" — a Tibetan phrase for good luck. As the family head, Nima Tsering busied himself with redecorating the Qema box, which is a perennial offering to the deities. He emptied the box and refilled it with newly ground qingke flour and butter shaped into flowers and other auspicious symbols. He also changed the peach branches and wheat straws for blessings of a bumper harvest.
As the sun set, the whole family gathered in the sitting room for the grand meal on the Eve of the New Year. The diligent housewife had spent the whole day preparing a pot of milky white soup with yak bones. Exhausted after my long trip, I couldn't stay up long enough to see the New Year's first event, a sort of competition between the local women. With a water pail on her back, each woman leaves home at about 3 am to fetch the year's first bucket of spring water before the cock crows. They believe the woman who gets ahead of others will bring greatest fortune to the family.
I slept soundly and didn't wake up until the sitting room became boisterous with throngs of villagers coming to offer greetings. Before I could find out if my hostess had succeeded in her adventure, I was offered bowls of qingke wine and became light-headed. I felt as if I were walking on cotton clouds as I joined the crowd to visit other families. Strong young men carried a big jar of wine and shared it with everyone to exchange good wishes.
A light snow during the night had turned the village into a silver fairyland. Compared to the quiet roads, each family's sitting room became full of merriment. People joined hands to form a circle, dancing and singing from dawn till late into the night. The village's proximity to forests has enabled locals to use plenty of wood and build themselves two-story houses. As dozens of people stamp their feet and leap in uproarious joy, the entire building shakes and joins in the frenzy. I found it hard to stand upright and caught glimpses of the cups, plates, pots and pans also dancing merrily with us. "Tashi dele!" another bowl of wine appeared. There was no excuse for opting out of the New Year's greetings and I gulped down the fuel. Feeling my brain running like an overheated engine, I threw myself into the chorus of throaty songs and foot-stomping ... and left behind concerns about the building collapsing.
Losar Dog Celebrations in Gongpo
In this part of Tibet, locals are fond of dogs, as the region boasts dense forests and dogs are not only house guardss, but also hunting helpers. During the New Year's Eve, dogs are invited to share food with their masters. Traditionally, the food the dogs choose to eat will be abundant in the coming year. See Gongpo Below
In the Gongbo ((Kongpo) area, New Year begins on the first day of the tenth Tibetan lunar month. On New Year's Eve, before having dinner, people let a dog serving as a fortuneteller, eat first. What it eats hints at what is in store for the family in the coming year. If the dog eats ghee or grated cheese, this signifies a blossom pasture, if it eats tsampa or cake, it predicts a good crop harvest; but if it eats meat, it is a very unlucky sign, meaning that death or pestilence may occur in the family. Curiously, the dog seems to understand the wish of the family, and eats little meat.
Afterwards, the family begins their New Year's dinner. They try to eat as much as possible, because otherwise they believe they are carried away by ghosts. In the early morning of the New Year's Day they eat only barley flake gruel, which has long been a laughing matter for the people of other areas. The legendary explanation for the utterly different New Year's month of Gongbo region is as follows: In order to encourage the Gongbo men to focus themselves to resist an invading enemy, the Gongbo king decided to celebrate the New Year Festival quite ahead of time. This practice has been passed down to today.
Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated September 2022