In the Tibetan language, “lo” means year, and “sar” is short for sar po, which means new. So Losar literally means ‘New Year.’ Tibetans celebrated a New Year harvest festival prior to the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. Many elements of the ancient harvest festival remain, however Buddhist rituals have easily been incorporated into these ancient practices.
Tibetan Buddhists engage in ritual behavior for the new year in order to bring about good, or auspicious circumstances. We might regard this as creating our own good karma for the year ahead.
For this reason, for the first few weeks of the new year, Tibetans customarily make extra efforts to perform virtuous activities.
Monasteries, such as Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, host elaborate pujas to eliminate negative influences and prevent them from continuing into the new year.
These celebrations finish with meditative ‘cham or lama dances. Normally, huge crowds gather at the monasteries to watch these intricate ritual performances. You can read more about lama dances here.
First day of Losar
Customarily, on the first day of Losar, people arise in the pre-dawn hours, dress in their best clothing, and gather in their local monastery. The monks and lamas perform a ceremony of auspiciousness. Monasteries offer Tibetan butter tea and special foods to all participants.
At the end of the ceremony, people enthusiastically shout new year greetings and toss around a mixture of barley flour and butter (chémar). The atmosphere is joyful and relaxed. Then, throughout the day, people visit the lamas with whom they have connections in order to offer khatak (white ceremonial scarves) and other offerings.
Second Day of Losar
On the second day of the holiday, people gather with their families and friends. Devotees continue to visit monasteries to greet the lamas and monks and receive blessings.
Third Day of Losar
The third day of Losar, Tibetan communities come together for a grand offering ceremony. Lamas and monks lead prayers and offer an extensive lhasang (incense offering). For more information on sang offerings see here.
When the offering concludes, all the people take a handful of tsampa or roasted barley flour. They recite a common chant and then toss this offering into space. Participants end up covered in clouds of flour. This shower of tsampa increases the prosperity, health, and happiness of all sentient beings. It also raises “wind horse,” or luck, bringing forth auspicious circumstances.
Ritual Cleaning and Tibetan New Year
In the days leading up to Losar, Tibetan Buddhists engage in pacifying activities and cleaning, which represent the removal of all negative influences. People clean their homes and buy new clothes to represent renewal. On the final 29th day of the last month, you can see monks, nuns, and laypeople busily engaged in major cleaning. In homes and monasteries, everyone gathers together to dust, clean, and tidy all the rooms. Everything is swept, shaken, polished, and purified.
Traditional Losar Foods: Gu-thuk
On the eve of the penultimate day of the outgoing year (i.e. the 29th day of the twelfth month according to the Tibetan calendar), most Tibetans uphold an ancient folk tradition by having a family get-together for a special dinner called ‘Gu-thuk.’ This New Year soup’s name is derived from the name “thukpa,” for noodle soup, the prefix “gu” designating the 29th day of the month on which it is eaten.
This ritual symbolizes banishing all evil and malevolent spirits who may hang about the household. This tradition seems to come from very ancient folk beliefs about evil spirits. Neither monks nor tantric practitioners, Bon or Buddhist, are expected to participate in this ceremony. Because no prayers or special offerings are made during this meal, which leads anthropologists to suspect a secular origin. All members of the family, male and female, old and young, unite to share the ‘Gu-thuk’ and then ritually drive out all evil spirits without outside help.
Traditional Losar Foods: Khapsé
Young and old alike delight in eating this deep-fried pastry delight made with butter, flour, eggs, and sugar. Tibetans generally offer guests small twisted rectangular pieces. At monasteries and big gatherings, however, you will find very elaborate shapes and some enormous versions of this popular and delicious treat! The large khapsé shown in the image gallery are colloquially referred to as bongü amcho or “donkey ears” because of their shape.
Traditional Losar Foods: Chemar (Butter-flour bucket)
Many monasteries and homes display a chemar (butter-flour)) when they open doors to welcome guests. A wooden board divides the bucket into two vertical halves, filled with tsampa, roasted qingke barley flour, and barley seeds. It is decorated with young wheat sprouts and colored butter. The chemar represents auspicious blessings for a good harvest.