Losar in the Tibetan language translates to New Year. Lo means year and sar means new. It is one of the major festivals of the Tibetan people as it marks the beginning of a new year of the Tibetan lunar calendar. This year, the first day of Losar falls on February 24 which is the start of the year 2147 according to the Tibetan calendar.
While official celebrations start on the first day of the new year, preparations begin much earlier. Tibetans spend the days leading up to the new year engaged in rituals to rid oneself of the negativities and bad luck of the previous year. This period which starts two days ahead of Losar is known as Gutor.
The first Gutor or Nyi Shu Gu falls on the 29th day of the last month of the year. On this day people clean their homes, take bath as part of purifying their environment and their bodies of negativity, sickness and obstacles. At night, families drink a soup dish known as Guthuk which is made of meat, wheat, peas and a variety of beans. The soup contains dough balls, inside which ingredients such as chilies, salt, wool, and coal are placed. Each family member is served a dough ball inside their soup, and the ingredient the person finds in their dough ball is supposed to allude to their character. For example, if a person finds coal in his ball, then that person is believed to have a “black heart.” It’s a fun tradition that usually ends up in a lot of laughter.
The second part of the night involves setting alight a lyu effigy which symbolizes evil spirits and disposing off drilue in order to dispel illness from one’s body. A lyu is usually made in the shape of a tiny man using flour and water, and a drilue basically is pieces of dough which is handed out to each family member who squeeze the drilue to leave an imprint of their hand. At the end of the night, the dough balls along with leftover soup will be placed in a dish containing the lyu and drilue. These will be disposed off at an intersection away from the house.
During the days preceding Losar, Tibetan monasteries and temples also undertake specific rites to expel negative habits from the old year. Monks perform week-long rituals, some of which culminate in the well-known spiritual dances known as cham.
On the eve of Losar, the families spend their time decorating the house, setting up the altar and getting a feast ready for the next day. While there’s no strict rules as to how to set up an altar, the basic essentials are luggo (sheep’s head), chemar, (made from roasted barley flour, sugar and butter), food and drink offerings.
The festival officially starts on the first day of the New Year. Tibetans consider it an auspicious occasion, and it’s believed that one should wake up long before dawn on this day. Everyone is encouraged to dress in new clothes and start the day by praying at the altar and making offerings of chemar. Tibetan families traditionally drink Tibetan butter drink, eat khapse (fried Tibetan pastries) and dresil (sweet rice dish) as breakfast on this day. The rest of the day is spent relaxing at home with family members and extending greetings to neighbors and relatives.
On the second day, people visit their friends and relatives and spend the day connecting with each other over food, drinks and games. Children get gifts from their elders. This is perhaps the most fun day for those who like to socialize and eat good food. Chang (Tibetan rice wine) is also served at host families’ homes.
The third day is for visiting monasteries and spiritual teachers. Tibetans who live in large settlements also convene on this day to offer lhasang – an incense offering, which is essentially an offering of smoke from medicinal and fragrant herbs. During this day, many Tibetans also replace the old prayer flags on the rooftop of their homes with new ones.
While in Tibetan, Losar celebrations extend upto 15 days, in the diaspora community, celebrations last for three days. From the fourth day onwards Tibetan families also go on pilgrimage to religious sites.