Losar Festival – Tibetan New Year

Meaning and Tibetan Calendar

The Tibetan New Year is early spring and is therefore celebrated on the same date as the Chinese New Year. Originally, Tibetans used a different system of calculation. It was the calendar of the Bon religion. According to the records, Tibet had its own calendar before the 1st century BC. The method of calculation was very simple, based on a system of lunar months based on the full moon, the new moon and the half moon. In this system, New Year’s Day was the first day of the eleventh month of the current Tibetan calendar

When Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty, who in 641 went to Tibet to marry Songtsan Gambo (King of Tibet), she brought many books, some of which dealt with astronomy and the Chinese calendar, which led to played a role in shaping the Tibetan calendar

Instead of using the lunar periods to fix the New Year, we took the position of the stars as a point of reference. Some regions of Shigatse are still observing the new year according to this method of calculation. From the ninth century, the Tibetan calendar began to resemble that of the Han, and it was under Phagpa (1235-1280) that it experienced its greatest development and reached its current form.

Based on the movements of the sun and the moon, the Tibetan calendar breaks down into twelve lunar months of twenty-nine or thirty days.
Every three years or so, an intermediate month is added every 1000 days to compensate for the discrepancy with the solar calendar of the seasons, according to which agricultural work is organized.

This mathematical aspect of the calendar has been superimposed on distant Chinese influences. Thus, we find the association of an animal and a natural element to name each year. In this astrological pantheon are twelve animals (hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, mouse, ox and tiger) and five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water).
The first year of the Tibetan calendar corresponds to the year 127 BC of our Gregorian calendar, date when the Tibetan king Nyatri Tsenpo acceded to the throne

The festivities

In Tibet as in the Tibetan diaspora, the Losar is the most important festival of the year. This is the moment when we symbolically get rid of everything that has been negative over the last twelve months, and we are joyfully preparing to enter a new year full of promise. New Year’s ceremonies are primarily family-based and are spread over several days. Their preparation begins long before the beginning of the 12th month.

On New Year’s Eve, Tibetan families gather to begin the rituals. Exorcism ceremonies are held in the monasteries and the house is thoroughly cleaned to eliminate anything that is considered unclean. Then we share the Gouthouk, the “soup of the twenty-ninth day”. This soup, garnished with wheat flour balls, meat and radishes, carries omens, symbolized by some unexpected ingredients: wool yarn for benevolence, little white pebble for a positive spirit, pepper for courage, piece of charcoal for negative thoughts to reject … At the end of the meal, one symbolically purifies the body by rubbing it with balls of tsampa (grilled barley). Charged with the negative elements of each, they will be placed outside and burned in the company of an effigy, also in tsampa, representing the evil. Finally rid of all these bad waves, we can start the year under better auspices.

On New Year’s Day, everyone wears new clothes and it’s time to present their wishes. The deities are not forgotten, to which one throws handles of tsampa in sign of devotion. The altars of each household are also decorated with offerings of all kinds: donuts, chang (barley beer), tea, salt, sheep’s head carved in yak butter, etc. The day is spent with family, between prayers, games and festive meals. Indeed we must not make visits the 1st of the year.

On the second day, it’s time to go out to see friends, relatives and exchange greetings.

It is the third day that we can see, hoisted on the roof of each house and places of worship, new prayer flags while the old ones are burned. This is to pay homage to the divinities of the roof. The Tibetans move away from the city and will light, on the surrounding hills, small fires of juniper, ultimate ritual intended to invoke the benevolence of the protecting deities.

The rest of the New Year festivities take place from the 3rd to the 17th day through the Mönlam ceremonies.