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How Tibetans celebrate the new year - Losar

Not yet published by Keith Lyons

Country: Taiwan

The Experience

All over the world, different countries and different peoples celebrate their new year. Not just on the 1st of January each year.

For Tibetans living in the greater Tibetan area, as well as those in exile overseas, the Tibetan New Year is an importance occasion. And it's a great time if you happen to be braving the winter in the Tibetan plateau or borderlands.

The new year celebrate often happens around the same time as the Chinese New Year, and like Chinese New Year, the event isn't just one day but a celebration that lasts for more than 2 weeks.

The festival has its origins in ancient Tibet, before the arrival of Buddhism, when Bon was the dominant religion, and many rituals were required to placate the spirits and deities to ensure a good harvest in the upcoming year. The focus is on purifying and getting ready for the new year.

In the lead up to the change of year, around some Tibetan areas the monasteries will hold elaborate rituals including mask dances to reinforce the virtues of a devout life, and also act out the battle between good and evil. The temples give offerings to the protector gods, while in people's houses they clean the house and their clothes in preparation for the new year.

When the 1st day of the 1st month of the new year begins, there is activity at the monasteries and in households, the head of the house will sometimes get up early to make offerings to the local water source and also outside the house to protect it.

On the times I've experienced Tibetan New Year with Tibetan families, the day starts with a simple meal together, with yak butter tea, roasted barley and perhaps some wheat bread. The first day is the most important, as the family are reunited for this occasion, as a sign of unity and harmony. Everyone wears their new or clean clothes, often their ethnic costume.

It varies from place to place, but on the first day, locals often visit the main monastery nearby, light incense and juniper, string up prayer flags, and leave offerings for the monastery.

Often each place will have a circuit - visit this monastery on the first day, another on the second, and another temple on the third day.

As well as a family and religious festival, Losar is also a community event. From the second day people go out to greet their neighbours, and bring gifts to thanks those who have helped them during the past year.

During the first few days, families often enjoy together special foods or delicacies. And in the evenings there might be singing and dancing, as well as drinking of barley wine or spirit.

So as a guest, what should you do? First, bring along some gifts for your hosts. Second, be prepared to greet each person with 'tashi delek' - a Tibetan greeting.
Third, be prepared to fully take part in whatever is happening. This might mean you have to sing a song from your country. Or join in the circle dancing.

Losar goes on for 15 days, to the new full moon. Across the Tibetan world, it is usually held in the dark days of winter, but can be a rare opportunity to experience Tibetan culture at its richest.

When to Go

Check first when the Tibetan New Year starts - it changes each year - and then decide which part of the Tibetan world you want to be in when it happens.

Many choose Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but for travel to this area you need a permit, a guide, and all the travel arrangements.

Which is why going to a Tibetan area outside the TAR is easier - Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan or Yunnan. You might also be able to combine your visit with other festivals and events, particularly in Yunnan and Sichuan, which has a variety of ethnic groups as well as distinct Tibetan groups.

Tour operators such as Lijiang Guides, CITS and Drolma Tours offer trips into Tibetan areas, and can include home stays with Tibetan families.

Odds n' Ends

Tour operators like Lijiang Guides and Drolma Tours can arrange home stays with Tibetan families.

You need to bring clothing for the cold, sub-zero temperatures at night time. During the day it is often sunny and warm.

In Tibetan areas, be careful not to point with your fingers at anything.

Language Guides

Japanese , Mandarin are some of the languages spoken in Taiwan. If you know of a freely available phrase book or podcast for one of the missing languages, let us know!


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