Losar (ལོ་་གསར; Wylie: Lo Gsar) is the biggest and the most colorful holiday in Tibet. Whether you are familiar with this celebration or have never heard about it, we are confident that you'll learn something new from this article. We want to express our gratitude to Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo, the director of the Shang Shung Institute School of Tibetan Medicine, who kindly shared with us her wisdom and traditional ways of celebrating Losar in so much detail.
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo
Shang Shung Publications: For those who don't know, what does Losar mean?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: "Lo" means "year", "Gsar" means "new", so it means "New Year".
In general, in Tibet, we have several Losars based on different regions, but there are two main Losars. One is on the first day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar (not January). Another one is on the first day of the twelfth Tibetan calendar month. We call the common one just Losar (ལོ་་གསར; Wylie: Lo Gsar). And the other one is called Sonam Losar ( སོ་ནམ་ལོ་གསར; Wylie: So nam lo gsar). Traditional So nam lo gsar is indigenous Lo Gsar, and some Nomadic people call it Be'u lug lo gsar (བེའུ་ལུག་ལོ་གསར).
Be'u lug lo gsar and So nam lo gsar are the same because So nam lo gsar is the name given by the farmers, and Be'u lug lo gsar is the name given by Nomadic people. They celebrate at the same time, on the first day of the twelfth month.
In the Tibetan calendar, once we get to the first day of the first month, it's already Spring, farmers are preparing to plant seeds. So they don't have much time to celebrate, and they do it one month before, during the twelfth month. They start celebrating on the first day of the twelfth month. In Tibet, Losar is one of the biggest celebrations. The whole month people are not working, and there is still Losar energy.
Nomadic people celebrate Be'u lug lo gsar because sheep, goats, and other animals start having new babies by the end of the first month. So people need to prepare for that. For that reason, they celebrate before new animals arrive, and they are busy after that. So these two Losars are common, indigenous Losars.
Today, we have official Losar, which happens on the first month of the Lunar calendar. Eastern and Northern Tibet are mainly Nomadic and celebrate Be'u lug lo gsar on the twelfth month. Western Tibet is mostly farmlands, so there people celebrate So nam lo gsar on the twelfth month. But in Central Tibet, where the government and the capital are, people are used to celebrating Losar in the first month. The whole Tibet wants to celebrate main Lo Gsar because they wish to unite instead of celebrating many different holidays.
These are a couple of different Losars, and there are some other ones that smaller groups celebrate, but Losar is an important national holiday, with religious and cultural ceremonies.
SSP: On what date people celebrate Losar?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: Sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later, according to the Tibetan calendar. We have a Tibetan calendar counting system, which is not the same as the Western calendar, and it says how many months are in the year. Sometimes we have one extra month; sometimes, we have one missing month. There are 30 days in some months and 29 days in others. Based on this, we calculate, and in the calendar, it says when Losar is. So we need to look at the Tibetan calendar. Last year Losar was on the 24th of February; this year, it is on the 12th of February. So it goes up and down, but we follow the Lunar calendar.
SSP: How important is Losar for Tibetan people and why?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: This is a national holiday. The way of celebration, dressing, greeting, and cooking are all set things. You usually have to do that with your family. If you lost some family members this year or a close friend, then you and your close relatives would not celebrate this year. If something happened to a special senior member in some small villages, then this year the whole village will not celebrate. Other than that, no matter which family, which financial situation you have, what your family's class is, everybody, every family does the same essential thing.
SSP: How do people prepare for Losar?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: First, we need to clean. Cleaning day is either on the 19th day before Losar or, better, on the 29th. 29th is the day of cleaning. We clean the house, the clothes, the body, which means that we clean all the obstacles and negativities in the past year. We clean up, and we don't want to carry dirty things from the past year into the new year. It is essential in every household.
Second, we need to cook a certain type of cookie; we call it khapse (ཁ་ཟས; Wylie: Kha zas). Whether you have a big family or a small family, you have to cook at least several pieces. Because kha zas are made of wheat, and in Tibetan, wheat is "gro", which means "warm, nice, gentle, prosperity". For this reason, we consider it is important to eat a piece of gro on Losar. It shows that there will be warm, peaceful, and gentle energy this year, not cold or dry.
When we cook khapse (Kha zas) in Central Tibet, we also have special Kha zas not for eating but for offering to the altar. Also, we have Kha zas for offering to the nagas, to the deities, and the ones for eating. So we need to cook a lot of Kha zas.
When the 29th day comes, we clean the whole first part of the day. In the afternoon, we start cooking what is called guthuk ( དགུ་ཐུག; Wylie: dgu thug). By the evening, around 6-7 pm, we eat the soup, and then before it's completely dark, we need to take out of the house dirty things that symbolize all the negative, impure, karmic energies. Also, to purify negative energy, some monasteries do dogpa practice, Singhamukha practice, or Fire Puja for a month. Some monasteries do that in the last two weeks, and then on the 29th day, they throw everything dirty or old out.
By 6 pm, you need to be indoors before people start taking all the things out. If you cannot be indoors by 6 pm, you need to decide what to do, for example, enter the house in the city. But most people get home before that.
Dgu thug on the 29th is very important also. "Dgu" means "nine". Nine is the maximum number; from 9, you go back to 0. So nine also means that something is complete. To make dgu thug, we need at least nine ingredients, including meat, cheese, and vegetables. Sometimes we can count salt and water, and sometimes we don't count them. But in any case, there should be at least nine ingredients. Most people put a lot of things.
We offer the part of soup to the deities, then we eat, and then when we take things out of the house, we also carry a small portion of the soup to offer to lower beings.
"The first purpose of dgu thug is to reunite the families."
On this day, children who study away from home and people who work away from home have to come back if they can.
Mostly everyone succeeds because it is a national holiday and we have at least two weeks of holidays. And most have the whole month to celebrate. So families can unite.
The second purpose of dgu thug is that we put a lot of unusual things into the dough-balls. For that reason, we call it a divination soup - it tells about your personality, character, habits, and wishes. We put different ingredients in the dough, and the descriptions of their meaning vary by region. For example, in Central Tibet, we consider salt heavy, so if someone gets a pinch of salt in the dough, it means they are lazy. Some regions like Eastern Tibet think that salt means "satisfied", and you don't have much anger or greed.
Also, the ingredients that we put in the dough depend on the region. For example, we put spices like chili pepper, and if you get chili peppers, it means you are very harsh. It helps see your character and habits, but we also use it as divination. For example, we put a symbol of shoes on a piece of paper, and that means that you will travel a lot.
The third purpose is to be together, to have fun as a family. It is very beautiful, whether your family member is eating soup with you or not. If the person is missing, family members open one dough-ball for the person who is missing.
The night before the first day of Losar, we prepare the next morning's offering, སྡེར་ཁ། (Wylie: sDerkha) the altar, before going to sleep. We put something that symbolizes food, something that represents the material level, and flowers. Nomadic people also offer the head of a sheep made of butter, with beautiful ornaments, so this symbolizes gratitude to the animals and the wish to have good animals.
Farmers plant barley into a small container, and a green shoot is also an offering - a wish to have a good harvest next year.
When we make an altar, many things symbolize animals, made of wheat like khapse. These things come from Bön tradition. We make an altar slightly differently in Eastern Tibet, Western Tibet, and Central Tibet. But Central Tibet is where the capital is, so they have the most complicated, elegant offerings. It's beautiful.
SSP: What do people do on the first day of Losar?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: Normally in Tibet, a big family lives in one house; there are grandparents, parents, children, siblings. On the first day of Losar, middle-aged members of the family get up in the early morning. One interesting thing that I found in the West is that New Year starts in the middle of the night, the next day begins in the middle of the night. In Tibet, it's not. In the early morning, when it is dawn, and you can see the palm of your hand, this is when the day starts.
For that reason, middle-aged people in the house get up in the early morning, around 5 am. They prepare the first food, chang cooked with groma rice, which is sweet. We call it Chang skol ( ཆང་བསྐོལ ). "Chang" is a fermented drink, like beer, "skol" is boiled. Inside this boiled chang we have rice, groma (root), cheese and sugar. We cook them together, and it is symbolic of the farmers.
We eat it with khapse (Kha zas) first thing in the morning. And we serve it to younger children and older parents when they are still in bed so they can stay there. Around 5:30 am, everybody needs to get up.
The first thing we do is wash our face and hands. Then the father, or the grandfather, or the grandmother in the family does Sang, smoke offering, the practice of purification.
Then everybody sits in the house, and one of the younger family members serves food. Everybody greets each other, grandparents give gifts to younger children, and younger children greet grandparents. In Tibet, in general, a senior is always respected.
It happens in the very early morning. Then if someone wants to go back to sleep for a little bit, they can. After that, we cook a traditional Losar breakfast that usually includes groma with rice, khapse, and cooked meat from the head of the sheep.
After the sun rises in the morning, we go to the spiritual teachers who live nearby and monasteries to make offerings.
"We start the year with virtuous actions, generosity, kindness, and respect."
By the afternoon, all the family members get together to play and drink. On the first day, we don't go to other people's houses. We can go to see our siblings, but not other people.
Starting from the second day, Tibetans invite each other. First, we invite close relatives, and on the third day in the morning, we put prayer flags on the roof, eat breakfast, and around 11:30 am start visiting each other. On the first, second, and third days, we still go to closer relatives and friends. Later, on the fourth, fifth, and sixth days, we visit other relatives and friends.
After that, the whole village is going out. Today I invite you, tomorrow you invite me. For example, in my family in Lhasa, every year, relatives come to my house on the third day. Sometimes, in bigger villages or communities, you are not finished by the end of the first month. It is the cultural aspect.
SSP: Can you tell a little bit about star water?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: On the first day, around 5:30 am, when everybody gets up, we use star water for washing. It is the water that was outdoor for a night, without cover, under the sky. In many regions in the countryside, we still use river water, so in the very early morning young ladies go to the river to get water, they boil it and then use it for washing.
In the city, people put a container of water outside in the evening to leave it under the stars for a night. We use star water because we consider it very healing. In general, when we look at the qualities of the sun, the moon, stars, they have big healing power. The main purpose of star water is to purify all the negativities and bring in the light, to harmonize.
In Western culture, there are New Year resolutions. In Tibet, we try to start Losar with positive energy, purify everything negative, the past. And then we bring everything clean, on the physical and mental levels, and especially on the inner level. It means that we want to be more harmonized, benefit society, and carry the meaning of human life.
In the countryside, on the 3rd day, people go to the mountains and put prayer flags where local guardians are. In Lhasa city, we mostly go to the birthplace. You need to keep a connection with the guardians of the place where you were born, so for that reason, if you are born in one place, and you still live in that place, then you go there to the guardians.
Hanging prayer flags is also a national activity; all the Tibetans do that, every region, every house.
SSP: What are the games and cultural activities that people do on Losar?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: We play games like bagchen, sho (which means "dice"), migmang, and the one that we call in Eastern Tibet thege, or abchug. This game is played with a unique piece of bone in the knee joint of a sheep. We make symbols of a horse, a donkey, a sheep, and a goat. So this one small piece of bone symbolizes four different animals. Children play this game a lot. Another game that children play is with five small stones called rdo chab. So the celebration is full of fun.
By the end of the day, the whole family sits together in a circle, and the younger ones sing, the older ones drink, and everyone dances. The same happens when we invite people or go to other people's houses. In the morning, everybody sits calmly, drinks tea, eats, and talks, and then after lunch, someone starts playing, someone starts drinking, and there is always singing.
SSP: Do people do something to go through the year more harmoniously?
Menpa Phuntsog Wangmo: Every household does an astrology chart or divinations at the end of the year. At the beginning of the year, they do different pujas, practices to harmonize the coming year. When we do that, we do household astrology called keg rtsis (Wylie). When we do keg rtsis, we look at all the family members and see which one has some life-threatening situation this year or health issues. We look at these five things: life (sog), health (lu), capacity (wangthang), fortune (lungta), and energy force (bla).
If you open a business this year, will it be good or bad? If there is no luck this year, maybe it's better to do next year. Then we do practice based on that.
So in the first month of the New Year, besides celebrating Losar, we also do many practices. We invite many monks or offer things to the monasteries and ask them to do practice for us. Every family does something to practice for the new year. If children or family members are studying or working away from home, we do astrology for them to check their health, life, finances, and so on. We do an astrological chart and practice for every member of the family. It helps the journey into the new year to go more smoothly.
Sometimes in Eastern Tibet, and also in other regions, we do practices village by village. We decide collectively what this village should do this year. So we invite an astrologist to do astrology for the village members, and then we do practice for that.
Of course, we still get problems; they are not missing. But we believe that more significant problems become smaller, and smaller problems disappear. Something is changing for sure.
On the other hand, it's good to offer. We believe that it's essential to offer to the monasteries, offer to poor people, sponsor something. It is the way of moving towards generosity.
In the meantime, we also do a lot of practices related to health and life. Also, it prevents us from doing negative actions and reminds us about what we should do. It helps because the environment is important. If you repeat something every year, at least you remember: be careful with nature, be cautious with the environment, respect seniors, do certain cultural and religious activities. To maintain the family, we need to get together; it is important. When we unite, we shouldn't only talk about business, but also have fun. We remember relationships between the communities, relationships between relatives. So this is very important.
We also like singing and dancing. No matter what you sing, it makes you happy, more harmonized, but also behind the songs there is a lot of meaning: singing for the motherland, singing for the culture, singing for your village, singing to your mother. So I think this is very good because songs and dances are very important in presenting the culture. Tibetans like circle dances. When we get into Tibet, each town has its own circle dance system.
So Losar is a big job. Another example is that you need to prepare a lot of jewelry. In Tibet, jewelry and traditional Tibetan dress is an interesting topic. We usually wear chupa; this is a standard dress. But to make a real traditional dress, we spend a lot of money. And Tibetan jewelry is very expensive. But we need it for special days like Losar, a wedding and special ceremonies. When we go to these special ceremonies, we wear traditional dresses and traditional jewelry. Often we think this is not necessary; Tibetan jewelry is not useful. I personally believe there is a lot of culture behind it, so it is interesting.