Losar is the most significant festival in Tibetan Buddhism, celebrated to mark the beginning of New Year as per the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. The festival is usually a three-day event and coincides with the Gregorian months of February or March. However, the dates of celebration may vary from place to place depending on the local customs and traditions.
Losar Festival in 2019 and 2020
Losar in 2019 began on Tuesday, 5th February and concluded on Thursday, 7th February. In the year 2020 Losar will be celebrated from Tuesday, 25th February 2020 to Thursday, 27th February 2020.
Meaning of “Losar”
“Losar” is formed by combining two words “Lo” and “Sar”. In the Tibetan language “Lo” stands for “new” and “sar” means “year”. Thus “Losar” means “New Year”.
In Tibet, the festival is also called “Gyalpo Losar” meaning the king’s New Year. In neighboring Nepal, the festival is called Lhochhar and is celebrated eight weeks before the Tibetan Losar.
When is Losar Festival Celebrated?
Losar is celebrated to mark the beginning of a Tibetan New Year. Tibetan Buddhists follow a lunisolar calendar, in which every year has either 12 or 13 lunar months. Each month begins and ends with a new moon. Losar is celebrated on the first day of the eleventh month on a new moon.
The exact date of the Losar celebration may vary from place to place. In China, Losar is usually celebrated on the same date as Tibet or the date may vary by a couple of weeks, while in Nepal it is observed eight weeks prior to the Tibetan Losar. This is due to the difference between the Chinese calendar and the Tibetan calendar.
History of Losar Festival
The roots of the Losar are traced to the period long before the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. The festival is believed to have evolved from Bon religion’s incense burning ritual in winter. There is a small story which states the origin of Losar. The incident dates back to the reign of King Jamyang Namgyal (1595-1616 AD), who was a 17th century Namgyal dynasty king of Ladakh, India.
Once, the king was setting out on an expedition against the Baltistan forces, during winter. However, his courtiers advised him to not leave before New Year. The king was adamant to go on the expedition and neither wanted to disregard the advice. He came out with a feasible solution of celebrating the New Year, two days prior to the actual date.
This custom is followed till today and Losar is celebrated on 1st through 3rd day of the first lunar month of Tibetan calendar; where the first two days are the last days of the 12th month and the third day is the first day of the first lunar month.
Sometime around 617 to 698 century, when Tibet was under the rule of ninth ruler King Gungyal a festival of incense burning was observed during the winters. This festival is known to have merged with the major harvest festival, which was being celebrated since the Namgyal dynasty. The two festivals combined together to take the shape of an annual Buddhist festival came to be known as “Losar”.
Rituals and Celebration of Losar Festival
Losar is mainly a three days celebration, with the first two days being the last two days of the last month, while the third and last day being the first day of the first month.
Losar is celebrated grandly in the Ladakh region of India because of its significant Tibetan population. However, the festival is also celebrated by the Buddhist population of India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
The preparations begin much in advance to the actual date. People start cleaning and decorating their houses with fragrant flowers and colorful auspicious signs. Families prepare the branches of locally found trees like cedar (deodar) and rhododendron to be burned as incense sticks.
People consider it a good time of the year to settle debts and resolve disputes. New clothes are purchased and festival foods are prepared. Chang, a Tibetan alternative of beer, made from barley is very popular during the festival.
Buddhists visit their local monasteries and make religious offerings to their deities. On the first day of Losar, a drink chhaang is prepared, which is a Tibetan substitute for a beer. Another festival delicacy is Guthuk, which is a soup prepared from meat, potato, wheat, cheese, pepper, etc.
Huge processions are taken out with artists wearing masks and dressed like various characters and animals. Artists perform stage fights and fire dances to entertain locals and tourists. During the night, locals make torches out of straws and burn firecrackers, to ward off evil spirits and ghosts.
On the second day of the festival, people visit monasteries to worship the deities and donate money and other articles to the monks. Ingredients to make festival dishes are bought on this day. The place of worship inside every Tibetan house is offered goat head, green barley shoots, dry fruits, etc.
On the final day, the whole family gets up early in the morning and wears new clothes after taking bath; after which, the family gathers at the place of worship to pray together. Replicas of animals and demons made from local dough are offered to the deity. During the day the family sits together to eat. People visit monasteries and tie prayer flags.
Ancient Celebration of Losar Festival
The ancient celebration of Losar occurred during the winter solstice. It was more a spiritual activity lacking modern day’s extravagance. Offerings were made to the local deities and people visited water sources to thank the deities who supposedly let the water available. It was basically observed as an incense festival to venerate local deities. Later, in the course of time, this festival merged with a major harvest festival celebrated around the same time of the year.
Before, China occupied Tibet in 1950; Losar was celebrated as a morning ritual at Namgyal Monastery, which is the personal monastery of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, located in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala. The ritual would be led by Dalai Lama himself and other high ranking lamas, in the presence of government officials.
After the Cultural Revolution and Dalai Lama’s exile, the custom of celebrating Losar was restored in Tibet, but without the involvement of Dalai Lama.
Significance of Losar Festival
Losar is the most important holiday celebrated in Tibet. It marks beginning of a new year and celebrates a good harvest. The festival is celebrated as symbolic to the victory of good over evil. People discard their hard feelings for each other, if any, and begin a new year filled with happiness and prosperity. They pay their debts and clear other pending dues.
The festival gives people a chance to introspect on their religious, cultural heritage at the same time taking time to enjoy the fruits of harvest and longer sunny days.