Tibetan Losar – Celebrating Life with Festivals Galore

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Tibet horse festival. Image: flickr/Wen Yan King

Tibetan Losar, the Tibetan New Year is one of the most important festivals, which is held on the 1st to 3rd days of the first lunar month in the Tibetan calendar. Accordingly, in 2015, it will be observed on February 18. Now, before proceeding further, a short explanation about the Tibetan calendar is called for. Tibetan months are about six weeks behind those in the solar calendar. Usually, the first month falls in February. With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about the festivals of Tibet.

Losar is actually a 15-days festival. The first three days are the main celebration days. On the first day, ornaments called chemar and chang (rice beer) are offered to household deities, as well as to the water dragon. Gambling is also a big thing during Losar, with dice (sho) and pakchen (mah-jong) being the favorites. Expectedly, as with most other festivities, feasting and drinking is the way to go, and there are special dishes prepared for the occasion. On the third day, the tar-choks and dar-shings on the roofs of houses are replaced and thick bunches of fragrant grass (sang) are lit.

Perhaps because of Losar’s importance, it is preceded by a festival called Gutor on the 29th day of the 12th lunar month, that is, a day before New Year’s Eve. It is an occasion to prepare households to welcome in the New Year. In addition to feasting on different kinds of dishes, lots of fried sweets in different shapes and forms, called kapse, are made, and the New Year is heralded with tray heaped with these sweets. People also make dumplings filled with things like rice, chili peppers, salt, wool, and coal. These are supposed to reveal certain things about the person who finds them inside the dumpling he/she has selected. For example, a chili means that one is talkative and coal points to a black heart, while salt is lucky. Also, as part of the preparation for the New Year, the previous year’s bad spirits are exorcised by running all over the house with a figure of a fierce god in one’s hands.

Losar is closely followed by two festivals established by Tshong Khapa, the founder of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama orders. Monlam, the Great Prayer Festival, is held from the 4th to the 11th day of the first Tibetan month, followed by the Butter Lamp Festival (Chunga Choepa) on the 15th day. Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the main site for Monlam, and it is a big religious festival participated in by thousands of monks. As for Chunga Choepa, it is held to commemorate the victory of Sakyamuni in a debate against non-believers. Barkhor Street is the site for this festival where giant butter and Tsampa sculptures based on auspicious symbols are exhibited.

The most important festival for Tibetan Buddhism is the Saga Dawa Festival which is held on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month. It commemorates Sakyamuni’s life: his birth, his enlightenment, and his leaving the mortal body. Charitable deeds are the order of the day, and pretty substantial amounts are donated to religious orders and monasteries, as also to beggars. It is believed that whatever you give on this day will be returned 300 fold later. Animals are also liberated from captivity during this festival. All told, a most lovely festival.

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Thanka unveiling at Shoton Festival at Drepung Monastery. Image: flickr/Robert Stanford

The Buddha Unfolding Festival, held from the 14th to the 16th day of the fifth lunar month, takes place in Tashilhunpo Monastery. It is said to be a 500-year-old festival. This is when the monastery’s walls become an exhibit site for truly giant thangkas of Sakyamuni, Amitayus, and Maitreya. The Shoton Festival (Yoghurt Festival) is held on the 13th day of the 6th lunar month (end July or early August). It’s a very old festival that was established during the 17th century when people offered yoghurt to monks coming out of a tough retreat. Later, the monks were also provided entertaining relief through opera performances. This festival is the time when giant thangkas are unveiled on the mountain side opposite Drepung Monastery, and opera troupes strut their stuff at Norbulingka. A festivity called Shining Buddha is held in Sera Monastery on the occasion.

All festivals are by nature enjoyable, but perhaps none more so than the week-long Bathing Festival that begins on the 27th day of the seventh lunar month. That’s when Venus shows up in the sky, and that’s when people camp out along river banks, picnic, and have leisurely evening baths under the night sky. These baths are believed to cure all kinds of ailments and bring you luck as well. Then, there is the Nakchu Horse Race Festival in early August, an occasion that holds pride of place among Tibet’s folk festivals. It takes place in Nakchu town, but not really in it since a veritable tent city is built near it. It’s a festival participated in by herdsmen who come in their thousands and dress up for the big occasion. Their horses too are dressed up as finely, for they are after all the stars of the event. Besides the exciting horse races, contests are also held in archery as well. Another similar event is held in June, the Gyangtse Horse Race Festival, during which contests are held in horse racing, archery, and so on. Fact is, horse racing and archery are part of many other festivals as well.

August is also the month when another important festival takes place. This is the Ganden Thangka Festival-held at the old Ganden Monastery. It is attended by thousands of Tibetans, some of whom come from quite a distance around the country. The highlight of the festival is the unveiling of a huge thangka that is extra special because it is a hand woven tapestry depicting a large Buddha figure with numerous symbolic images around it.
Well, the above-mentioned festivals are but a few of the many festivals in Tibet, but they should give you a very good idea of their diversity and vindicate the fact that the Tibetans sure know how to have a good time!

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