Celebrating Losar at a local home
Being invited to celebrate Losar with local friends at their house is the highlight of the festival for foreigners like me, but it needs a quick learning of traditions.
The first thing that should be done upon entering any Tibetan house during Losar is to make a chemar offering, usually brought to you by the host. The chemar is barley and tsampa in a decorated box, a pinch of which is ritually flicked into the air three times by each person who enters the house to symbolise offerings to the house protector deities.
Next comes the chalice of chang that can vary in size between delicately small and intimidatingly big. Usually a blob of butter will be stuck on the side of the chalice to show that the house owner has some wealth (butter used to be expensive for city folk in the old days). Using the ring finger, three little flicks of the chang need to be offered to the house deities once again, before you take one small sip. The cup is topped up, and a bigger sip is taken this time. The cup is topped up once more and this time the whole thing needs to be drunk - hence the intimidation felt when an oversized chalice is chosen for this ritual!
Chang is barley wine that is usually home-made, but can also be found canned in supermarkets. The canned variety tastes similar to cider and is usually fairly weak (less than 3%), but the home-made kind can sometimes be more like a rice wine that’s around 60% and burns the whole way down.
Chang is also the main ingredient in a popular Losar breakfast: chang-kul. Literally meaning “boiled chang”, this is a filling soup made from chang, tsampa, churra (Tibetan cheese), and droma (Tibetan wild yams that look kinda like raisins). Made only at Losar time, this is a popular meal for its sweet taste and the way that it fills you up and gets you a little tipsy at the same time! It’s pictured at the top, in the bigger bowl.
First day of Losar Traditions
The new year festival of Losar goes on in Lhasa for the first 15 days of the month, but it’s the first few days that are the most important.
For Tibetans day one is supposed to be spent at home with close family members, day two is for extended family and very close friends, day three is for a wider group of friends, and so on. When a friend was explaining this to me he also joked: “it’s a good way of telling how important you are to your local friends, depending on which day they invite you over for”.
On the first day of Losar there is one important thing to do for the pious - make a pilgrimage to the three most important sites in Lhasa: Jokhang Temple, Ramoche Temple, and the Potala Palace. Pilgrims will spend most of their day queueing outside each of these to get in, rush around and make offerings, and then run off to the next one.
During Losar Tibetans young and old wear their finest chupa. Even young adults who would usually stick to jeans and leather jackets step out in traditional dress for the holiday, and they look amazing. Everywhere throughout town people are checking out each others chupa and offering compliments to the beautiful girls.
Some talisman for sale at Ganden Monastery. These little discs are a popular find in Tibetan markets, often bearing a four-pronged dorje on one side (representing a diamond thunderbolt - the indestructible force of wisdom and the foundation of the universe), and the twelve animals of the zodiac on the other side.
Tibetans wear them on their belts for luck and protection.
Dust storms in Lhasa
It’s a typical, perfect Lhasa day - bright sunshine, clear blue skies, and unbeatable views of the mountains. The suddenly out of nowhere a huge gust of wind comes tearing down the street carrying on its back the loose dust from the dry mountains that surround the city.
And just like that the blue sky is replaced by grey and the views of the mountains disappear from view. The city is engulfed in smog-like conditions, and pedestrians hurry to put on their face masks as they head to the nearest teahouse for refuge.
These days this is a normal afternoon in Lhasa - the mornings will be beautiful and clear, but mid-afternoon the winds pick up and within a matter of minutes visibility is reduced to a few kilometers and it’s no fun being caught outside in that.
Lhasa hasn’t had rain for months (maybe since last October) meaning that the city is exceptionally dry and loose dust and sand is abundant - a lot of which ends up on my clothing and in my hair if I’m unlucky enough to be outside when the winds pick up.
On the plus side, when the winds die down the view of the mountains is clearer than ever thanks to all of the dust being blown away … until the next day.
Everything needed to create a good shrine in your home for Losar in Lhasa is available at the Barkhor market.
Detailed wooden chemar offering boxes are to be filled with tsampa, sugar, and barley seeds and placed centrally on the altar. As each guest enters the house they must offer three small pinches of the tsampa to the gods by throwing it lightly into the air.
The goats heads are supposed to encourage health and good fortune for the coming year, and are crowned with an image of the sun and moon. These days the goats heads are usually made of clay or ceramic so that they can be used year after year, but traditionally they were made of butter and tsampa - much like torma. One of my local friends told me that years ago some people would even use real goats heads on their altar. I’m very glad that isn’t the case any more.
Dried fruits, nuts, and sweets for sale outside the Barkhor Supermarket in Lhasa. A large mixed bag is a popular gift to take when visiting friends and relatives during Losar. The stall vendors are usually from Xinjiang (the Chinese province north of Tibet) which is known for it’s delicious dried fruits.
Different forms of barley for sale outside the Barkhor Supermarket
Beautifying the city for Losar
Throughout the last couple of weeks in Lhasa preparations for Losar have been visible in every part of the city. Markets have sprung up, special items have appeared for sale on every corner, temples have been busy polishing statues and re-dressing them, and even the outsides of buildings get a makeover.
Photo #1: Ramoche temple in central Lhasa has had new, colourful curtains put up above the entrance where usually there isn’t one. Other temples have been doing the same.
Photo #2: Individual householders have been busily hammering up new white curtains above their windows - revealing how weather worn and tattered the old ones had become.
Photo #3: The flower boxes / security fence that separates Jokhang Square from Yutog Lam have been made to replicate Tibetan traditional Losar offerings - barley grass on the left and a chemar with tsampa, grains, torma, and coloured barley stalks on the right. These are usually seen on Tibetan family altars at this time of year.
Welcoming in the New Year in Lhasa
At midnight we left the university campus, dressed as warmly as we could against the cold night. Midnight marked the start of the new Tibetan year - the year of the wood-horse - and we decided to welcome it in as locals do by visiting the Jokhang temple.
Walking quickly warmed us up, so that by the time we reached the Barkhor we were no longer shivering. However, the sight of the long queue made us shudder - it wrapped around the whole Barkhor like a snake and then wound down Yutog Lam and onto Jiangsu Lu (the main road to the south of the old town). We joined our friends at the end and the waiting game began.
We started off fine, chatting and singing and laughing and ignoring how tired we felt. But as the hours wore on it became harder and harder to keep our energy up.
Two hours after joining the queue we made it to the Jokhang square … Finally we felt like we were making progress even though we still had to get around the whole Barkhor. Our legs and backs were aching, our feet were cold, and our bellies were hungry.
Three and a half hours after joining the queue (now 3:45am) we made it to the front door of the Jokhang temple at last … but we still had to get in and through to the holy Jowo Sakyamuni image. We perked up a bit in excitement at finally being inside the Jokhang and being able to see the sacred image.
Four hours after joining the queue we finally had open space in front of us again - we were back outside in the Jokhang square. It was now 4:15am but pilgrims were still rushing to join the end of the line. We were so tired we could barely think of anything but getting home to our warm beds.
It was wonderful to be a part of the sea of pilgrims lining up in the early hours of the morning to see a statue, but I think next year I’ll try to be more prepared with hot tea and snacks to keep us going.
Losar Tashi Deleg
New Year Blessings to you all!
Preparing for Losar
With the first day of Losar - Tibetan New Year - quickly approaching the city has been in preparation mode, most noticeably outside the large Barkhor Supermarket on Beijing Lu where hundreds of stalls have sprung up full of supplies for the festival.
Photo #1 shows torma in shoeboxes for sale. Torma are offerings made of butter and tsampa that are coloured with dyes and sculpted into religious designs.
Photo #2 is dried and coloured barley stalks that are stood up in offerings of tsampa on altars in people’s homes.
Photo #3 is yak butter (technically dri butter) that has bears images of swastika - representing the eternal turning of the world of samsara.
Photo #4 shows a market stall selling torma, candies, plastic fruit decorations, and clay goat heads - all essential elements needed for the home altar on Losar.
Photo #5 is the many forms of dried Tibetan cheese and rice snacks. These are rock hard and often can last hours when sucked.
Photo #6 is newly sprouted barley grass. Around the new year it is traditional to plant barley grass in your home - how well it lives is an indication of your luck in the coming year.
In and around the Barkhor Supermarket
One of the most popular destinations in Lhasa city right now for locals is the new Barkhor Supermarket area for the dozens of stalls that have been set up to sell Losar related products.
Crammed into the tiny area is everything you could need for the upcoming celebrations - dried fruits, sweets, butter, tea, biscuits, offering bowls, offerings, barley seedlings, tsampa, oats, prayer flags, jewellery …
The last week here has been mad - like shops at home get around Christmas time - as everyone makes sure they have more than they need to get through the holiday. Already almost half of the Tibetan shops around the old town have closed so that the owners can either travel home for Losar or start preparing their homes properly.
The pressure is on. Now let the celebrations begin!
Losar Tradition: Gu-thuk Dinner Night
Two nights before the first day of Losar, it is an old Tibetan tradition to gather with family and eat gu-thuk - a type of noodle soup with nine special things in it. Last night we decided to take part in this tradition.
'Gu' means 'nine', and 'thuk' means 'noodle' but is usually used to refer to a noodle soup of any kind. There are two lots of nine special parts of the soup - nine special ingredients that create the flavour base, and nine surprises hidden in dumplings that are believed to tell fortunes.
We had not planned to make gu-thuk today, but when walking around the market we saw many stalls selling the nine base ingredients and figured we’d give it a go! The stalls each had the nine ingredients in little containers, and once the stall-keeper knew how many people you would be cooking for they measured out spoonfuls of each into a small plastic bag. It didn’t look like much, but then again we had no reference to compare it to, so we just had to wait and see how it worked out.
Unfortunately because of our late-afternoon decision to make gu-thuk we had no time to make the proper dish with dumplings as it should be made.
Traditionally gu-thuk is made by a family elder for a lot of people. Many little dough dumplings are rolled to be included in the soup, but nine of these dumplings will have a hidden surprise inside them such as a chilli, a bean, seeds, a gemstone, or any other natural object. The family elder who creates the meal will devise meaning behind each of these objects, so that when someone discovers one during their meal it can be read as a fortune for that person.
Photo #6 shows a dumpling with spices inside it - apparently meaning that the person says nasty things about others and should be careful! This photo was from a friend of mine who for the record definitely does not say nasty things about people.
Despite our soup not having the dumplings of fortune it was a simple success. We gathered with some friends here at the university, poured some chang (Tibetan barley beer), and enjoyed our semi-traditional gu-thuk dinner.
After eating there was still one more part of the tradition that we had to partake in - making an offering to the ghosts of the old year. We were advised to leave a small amount of the left over soup in a bowl outside for the ghosts to eat. But there was one important part of this offering that we had to be careful about - we had to make sure that after leaving the offering we didn’t look back or else the ghosts would follow us inside and our new year would be very unlucky.
We left our offering and didn’t look back.
Tashi Deleg for a happy new year!