The monks’ faces show traces of exhaustion. They have spent days preparing for Losar, sitting for hours molding torma, intricate statues made of butter and wax. I stare at the large figure of Mahakala, one of the Buddhist deities sculpted out of the same waxy clay and painted black. At least ten men struggle to hoist the statue and throw it into the raging bonfire in the courtyard outside. I watch the creature’s eyes melt and disappear into flames.
I ask some of the monks what the black Mahakala statue represents, something to do with letting go of the bad energy and mistakes of the past year, but their answers are short. Older lamas are busy with chores and duties, racing from temple to kitchen to bonfire. Teenage monks serve butter tea to the waiting devotees. The drink is oily, but in the cold winter months a welcome beverage to stay warm. Khapse is eaten along with it, deep-fried pastries synonymous with festive occasions.
Losar, the Tibetan word for New Year, falls on dates dictated by the lunar calendar. The several-day long celebration often corresponds to the Chinese New Year and tends to occur in February or March. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries throughout Asia conduct rituals for as long as two weeks, with monks donning intricate costumes, dancing rehearsed routines, and spending hours in temples reading books of Tibetan prayer. During this time, Tibetan Buddhist communities will visit monasteries and prepare their homes for the year to come. Delicious food, song, friends, and cultural costumes are incorporated into daily life. Prayer flags are strung from rooftops, and silk prayer scarves, called khata, are offered in blessing.
Many Losar ceremonies and traditions are believed to remove obstacles and ease challenges before the New Year begins. According to the Tibetan calendar, each year is named according to a specific animal (rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog, pig, mouse, bull, or tiger) and element (fire, earth, iron, water, or wood); the New Year will be characterized by corresponding traits.
The monks have had little sleep in the past week, waking up early and chanting from morning until night. I join them for the final day of the ceremony, and I am transfixed. Smoke filters through gaps between the banners that cover the temple’s entrance. When a monk passes, the large Tibetan infinity knot sways back and forth. Mallets of cloth hit drums stretched of leather and reverberate the floor on which we sit, cross-legged in rows. Brass horns echo into the valley below.
Cultures around the world have adopted their own ways to mark the beginning and end of seasons. In Nepal, groups across the country recognize their own New Year holidays: Tamu Losar is celebrated by the Gurung caste, Sonam Losar is the Tamang equivalent, and Gyalpo Losar is the Sherpa tradition. Since Tibet is frequently closed to travelers during Losar, Nepal is a fantastic substitute to watch and participate in various New Year activities. With influences from Tibet and Bhutan, India and China, even Malaysia and beyond, Nepal provides travelers an experiential feast.
Yet if you do find yourself lucky enough to be in Tibet for the New Year, you’ll find an enthusiastically celebrated holiday. Losar has become a kind of carnival for communities: parades, sporting competitions, horse races, and revelry. Homes and gardens are scoured and cleaned to perfection, and Chemar boxes can be found in each residence. These detailed containers hold barley and tsamba, roasted flour mixed with butter, sugar, and Tibetan tea—all thought to bring good luck, good health, and a flourishing harvest. New paintings are hung and doors are colored with signs to welcome good fortune and a long life. Gutu, a festive New Year’s Eve dinner made of special soup with balls of dough, is eaten with levity. Doughy dumplings conceal surprises for the diners: wool, pepper, salt stones, even coins are hidden in the center. Depending on the item found, unsuspecting family members are thought to have some aspect of that ingredient in their personality (a pepper might signify a fast temper, a stone could mean a stubborn heart). Barley wine always lightens the atmosphere.
Areas throughout Tibet have adopted their own customs: exorcisms and jiaxie dances are performed in Shigatse; communities around Gongbu throw rocks into corners of houses to scare ghosts and dogs are invited to participate in celebrations (depending on which food the dog first consumes, a hopeful or misfortune year is to come); in Lhasa, horse racing draws masses; and in Yushu, yaks are trained to participate in contests.
Similar activities can be found throughout Bhutan. Festivities begin with Nyi Shu Gu, Losar New Year’s Eve, and can last for two weeks. Some of the same traditions found in Nepal and Tibet are celebrated here, and guthuk is heartily consumed, a creamy noodle soup also containing surprise-filled dumplings. Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan, hosts celebrations at the old palace Punakha Dzong. Nestled at the crossroads of two rivers, the area provides a beautiful backdrop for annual festivals. Sweet smells of sugar cane and green bananas are plentiful and thought to bring good luck for the coming year. Local traditions color Bhutanese celebrations, with communities incorporating their own customs and beliefs into the holidays. It can be helpful to consult with a tour or travel operator to plan your visit.
I watch an elder monk dance beneath a silk costume with embroidered folds. A mask balances precariously on his head as he lifts his heavy boots to the beat of handheld cymbals. The rest of the monks stand shoulder to shoulder, the yellow plumes of their hats spilling toward the ground. Once the last of the Losar rituals have been performed, I stand in line with the other attendees to receive blessings from the oldest lamas. Though the line wraps around the temple, everyone is happy, smiling, and excited. Small pieces of braided thread are tied around our wrists. The five colors are thought to bring protection for the coming year, a block against evil spirits and unfortunate happenings.
Losar can be traced back to the mystic Bon religion, when a winter festival was held to please spirits, yet modern day ceremonies continue to offer unique cultural experiences. As a traveler, have an open mind and show respect. Though a practice might seem foreign or different to you, it may hold great meaning to others. Monasteries are places where men have dedicated their lives to religious study and practice; it is their home. When visiting, you can say “Tashi Delek” as a greeting, the Tibetan equivalent for “namaste.” Enjoy the dancing, the celebrations, the reverence.
Though the way in which New Year is celebrated differs, hope for the future remains the same. And Losar offers the perfect time to welcome a new year.
This article and photos originally appeared in Issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.