Four great seasonal festivals celebrated by all Tibetan
Buddhists are: Losar, Saga Dawa,
Chokor Duchen and Lhabab Duchen.
During those times, it is believed that
the effects of positive or negative actions are multiplied ten million times.
The Tibetan type of calendar is similar to other ancient ones in
that it requires periodic adjusting. This type of system produces some doubled
months and occasional missed days. Therefore it can happen that the first month is doubled
the case in 2003; then the New Year celebration may be held in the second First
When does a day begin?
We need to know, so we can observe anniversaries and
holidays on the appropriate day. Consider Western observances. Sometimes
we say the day starts right after midnight, but sometimes it is when the light
of morning appears. For some, an observance begins at dusk when a dark and a
light thread can no longer be distinguished. For others, when the first
Tibetans consider that the day begins at first light. The
moment is determined by the ability to see the lines on the palm of your
hand. Of course this tradition is only useful in places that have not been
polluted by ambient light from artificial sources.
Two Tibetan Calendar
The introduction of the traditional calendar system dates to the
enthronement (127 BCE) of legendary ruler, Nyatri Tsenpo, the first of the
Chogyals (Dharma Kings.)
The Tibetan way of tracking the years is similar but not identical to that of the
Chinese system of 12-year cycles. Five elements: wood, metal [or iron], air, fire,
and water rotate among 12
animal signs to produce 60-year units. The animals are of the two
sexes, so that makes each distinctive era consist of one full round of 120
years. A round is called in Tibetan, rabjung; we are in the
17th rabjung, according to the predominant tradition.
The most prevalent Tibetan calendar is based on an astrological treatise called
The Oral Teachings of Pundarika (Tib. pad- dkar zhal-lung) by Phukpa Lhundrub
Gyatso (fl. 1447.) This is the basis for the Phukluk astrological tradition
used by the majority of Tibetans and currently regarded as the official Tibetan calendar.
Another tradition known as the Tsurluk derives from the revised astrology of the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339)
as found in his Compendium of Astrology (Tib. rtsis-kun
bsdus-pa.) The Tsurluk tradition is used by Dr. Tendhar
In 2006, some
Kagyu (such as KTD) celebrated Losar at the end of January but some others,
such as the Jamgon Kongtrul labrang in Pullahari, Nepal, and members of Kagyu
Samye Ling in Scotland observed it with the majority of the Tibetan exile
community, along with the Gelugpas and others, in the second of a doubled first month.
That is, at the end of February.
Losar is the Tibetan New Year.
It is determined by the conjunction of the lunar calendar with the solar cycle.
It falls at New Moon preceding the spring equinox, usually in February. In Ladakh, the New Year is
earlier, celebrated on the first day of the eleventh
(The preceding night -- the dark of the moon -- is
celebrated by Hindus as Shiva Ratri.)
Losar is said, by sources in Dharamsala, to have originated as a farmers' festival in the pre-Buddhist period
when, in the Lhokha Yarla Shampo
region, the first signs of blossom appeared on the apricot trees.
Preparation begins a month in advance with general
housecleaning. Auspicious signs are drawn with white powder in
courtyards and on kitchen
walls. Surfaces are decorated
with the eight auspicious symbols, and thresholds with swastika symbols.
Families sprout barley seeds
and place them before the family shrine on New Year's Day as a prayer for an abundant harvest.
A p'ye-mar, or
bucket is vertically divided in halves by a wooden slat, and filled with
tsampa (roasted barley flour with butter) and barley seeds or the
auspicious five grains, and decorated with stalks of barley and colored butter.
On the preceding evening, stacks of special bread, such as
kyapse, and other festive
food and is placed on the household shrine. Delicacies like
khu-khu, gachen, nayashok, mokdung, nagarlen, pin-pin and chang (Tibetan
beer) are some of the holiday fare.
Losar is officially celebrated for three days. The first day of the new
year is called Lama Losar (the day of the Guru) and is often dedicated to the Dalai
Lama. The second welcomes guests and the third day is devoted to
In some cases, the celebration can last
for 8 or even 15 days, since Losar also commemorates the period during
Buddha publicly performed miracles for the benefit of all beings. From the 1st to the 15th of the 1st month
he bested all
challengers in an 8-day contest of miracles, and then continued to
manifest various siddhis [miraculous accomplishments] for another 8
The final day of this 15-day period is known as Chötrul
Düchen. On that day, it is said that the consequences of one's positive
and/or negative actions increase 100,000,000 times. Therefore many people
devote that day to prayer.
According to Khenpo Lobsang Jamyang of Sera May, in the Mongolian
tradition people cry tears mourning the end of a year of life, but Tibetans are
joyful in anticipation of new life. They greet each other with "Losar Tashi Delek" and observe the offering
ritual of sangsol in which barley flour is thrown into the air to
Some say that "sheep's head" and "the beginning of a year" sound the same, and
the sheep has traditionally been regarded as an auspicious animal in Tibet.
In a herder's home, a real (boiled, then roasted) sheep's head is on display. Others form one out of colored
butter or use a replica made of ceramic or wood (more
about this below.)
The first day of the celebration is given to religious and family observances,
and offerings are made at the family shrine and the temple. The second is the
King's New Year -- in the past, largesse was distributed at public festivities
and on the third day, offerings are made to local deities and other beings, and
general partying may continue.
Nowadays, since people have to work the festivities may be
postponed until the closest weekend after the 'official' date.
Extracts from Jan. 30, 2004, China Daily: "Tibetans Warm Up for Celebrations"
The start of the Tibetan New Year is usually close to, but not necessarily, the same day as
Chinese (or, Han) Lunar New Year.
Also different from Han practice is the fact that Tibetans living in different
regions celebrate New Year in different ways and at different
times. In 2011, Losar began either February 3rd or March 5th,
depending upon lineage affiliation and local factors. Kagyu Samye Ling
(Karmapa's seat in Scotland) opted for March 5th, while Karma Triyana
Dharmachakra (KTD,) Karmapa's seat in America, as well as his seat at Rumtek in
Sikkim, India, opted for Feb. 3rd.
In the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, the holiday begins on the 29th day of the 12th Tibetan month.
During the holiday which usually lasts one week in urban areas of Lhasa and two weeks in the countryside, new clothes are made, houses and
monasteries alike are cleaned from top to bottom, various shapes of kase
(fried wheat twists) are made, and walls are painted.
The family's best carpets and finest silver are brought out.
The Eight Auspicious Symbols, which appear as protective motifs throughout Tibetan-populated areas, are painted in strategic locations.
Butter lamps are lit. Flowers are placed on altars. Piles of juniper, cedar, rhododendron, and other fragrant branches are prepared for
burning as incense.
On Tibetan New Year's Eve, the family gather around a steaming hot pot of dumpling soup called
gortu. [or, guthuk]
Some of the dumplings have surprises wrapped in them. As the meal begins, each person opens one of these special dumplings. The object one
finds will indicate, much like a fortune cookie, that person's personality.
If one finds salt, that is a good sign and means that one is all right; the one who finds wool is very lazy; coal indicates maliciousness; a
white stone foretells a long life; pepper means that one has a glib tongue.
Everyone takes what is left in their bowl and dumps it back into the pot, as well as a piece of hair, a fingernail, and an old piece of
clothing at the end of the meal.
A dough effigy representing collective evil and ill will of the past 12 months is made and put in on top of everything else.
A woman carries the pot out of the house. A man follows her with a burning torch made of wheat stalks shouting: "Get out! Get out!"
Then, the whole family moves to the middle of an intersection of roads or paths, where they throw away the remains of the gortu and the burning
torch while the children set off firecrackers. So the city of Lhasa is illuminated by torches and resonant with the sound of firecrackers.
This ceremony is conducted to get rid of all the negative forces at the end of the year so that the New Year will begin unencumbered.
In the morning of New Year's Day, the family rise early, put on their new clothes and finest jewellery, make offerings of barley flour mixed
with butter and sugar at the family shrine, and then go to monasteries after breakfast.
On that morning, tens of thousands of Tibetans swarm into the Jokhang, Zhaibung and Sera monasteries, and the Potala Palace, all in Lhasa, to
People add roasted highland barley, wheat, and juniper and cedar branches into the burning incense burners on Barkhor Square. Smoke fills
On the second day of the Tibetan New Year, people begin visiting their relatives and friends. They feast on rich holiday foods, drink highland
barley liquor, play mahjong, dice and card games, and sing and dance around huge bonfires at night. The revelry continues from three to five
On that afternoon, local Tibetan men wash their hair after cleaning their houses and painting the Eight Auspicious Symbols on the walls. It
is said that this will help the men have black and shiny hair and bring good luck to the family. Women cannot wash their hair that afternoon
because it would have the opposite effect.
On New Year's Eve, the same ceremony to drive out evil spirits is carried out in every family. Instead of throwing away the remains of the
gortu and the burning torch, the men of the family climb onto a hill far from the house and burn a boiled sheep head
(lung-po) until black, which will be
offered at the family shrine as a sacrifice. As a result, the day has
become known as "the smelly last day."
The young men and women get up around dawn on New Year's Day. Dressed in their festive best, some of them climb onto hills to erect new
flags for the village. ... . The others go to streams or wells for "new water."
Then the family will have a lunch at which they share a sheep's head, sausages and wheat porridge, and drink highland barley liquor on the
first day of the first Tibetan month.
In the second day of the New Year, all families gather in their neighborhood squares to burn juniper branches and offer highly alcoholic
barley liquor and snacks as sacrifice to the area's deity of the land and protector deities.
Starting on the third day of the New Year, banquets for friends and relatives are held one after another.
The Amdo region refers to Tibetan areas in Qinghai Province, southwestern Gansu Province and northwestern Sichuan Province.
Most of the region is covered with vast grasslands. Tibetans living there are mainly nomads.
For the Amdo Tibetan nomads, the first thing to be done on the morning of the Tibetan Lunar New Year is always to climb to the top of a hill
near their settlement and try to be the first person to burn juniper branches to worship the local protector deities.
It is a great honor to be the first to burn juniper branches, for he or she has the right to sound the white conch to inform the others living
around the hill and the first smoke can be seen for a great distance.
Other people at the top of the hill will then add more juniper and cedar branches to the fire and offer liquor and highland barley flour to the
local protector deities.
Different from Lhasa and Xigaze, house cleaning and water drawing are prohibited on New Year's Day in many areas of the Amdo region.
In some Amdo areas, men get up early in the morning of New Year's Day and run toward the cow or sheep sheds to see in which direction the
animals are pointing while they sleep.
Wherever their heads point, whether east, south, west or north, that direction will have auspicious conditions for the New Year. Cows and
sheep will be painted three colors or tied with five-color cloth stripes, and made to move in that direction for some distance to ensure
In this Eastern Tibet prefecture, the holidays for the 2004 Tibetan Lunar New Year will at this time actually be over, because the residents
of the prefecture in Eastern Tibet celebrate the Tibetan Lunar New Year on the first day of the 10th Tibetan lunar month.
The special local custom began in 1904. That year, news came to Nyingchi that invading British troops were arriving. Local Tibetan men in
Nyingchi Prefecture began preparing to join the fight against invasion to defend their home villages.
In order not to miss the New Year celebrations, the local people decided to hold the
festival events before the men left for the battle field.
The locals are fond of dogs, as the region boasts dense forests and dogs that not only guard houses, but also
[act as] hunting helpers. During New Year's Eve, dogs are invited to share food with their masters. Traditionally, the food the dogs choose to eat will be abundant
in the coming year.
The Buddhist anniversary and
spring festival usually coincides with Vesak (Vaisakha) or Wesak
as it is called in
Indian languages. In Tibetan
it is called Saga Dawa [Buddha's Moon]. It combines Buddha Shakyamuni's
birth [Skt.: purnima] on the 7th day of the 4th month with three other
events: On the 15th day of the same month he is believed to have entered
his mother's womb, and on that day decades later, he attained complete
enlightenment at dawn. Then, a lifetime later, he passed into parinirvana
at dusk on that same day of the year.
In some communities, the image of the Buddha is bathed and
special offerings are made, and sometimes there is a procession of Buddhist
In India, monastics may make
a pilgrimage to Lumbini or another holy spot.
This is a summer celebration on the 4th day of the 6th
month. It commemorates the Buddha's First
Turning of the Wheel, that first sermon concerning the Four Truths.
Tradition has it that Buddha was not convinced through his own
reflections that teaching what he had discovered through his meditations would
be of any benefit to others. It took the intercession of the great
gods, Brahma and Indra, to persuade him to do so for the benefit of all sentient
beings. The Buddha then addressed the five people who had been his
companions during the time spent with the forest yogins concerning the Truth of
Suffering, and the other Noble Truths.
The benefit of any virtuous action, including the recitation of
mantras, is believed to increase 10 million times when performed on this
Lha-bab Deuchen [Tib.] is the
autumn festival that commemorates the
descent from the Trayastrimsha Heaven of Buddha Shakyamuni.
He had agreed to descend on the 15th of the 9th month, but actually descended on
He had vowed to repay
his mother in gratitude for all that she had done for him, and so he spent three
months in Tushita teaching her and other gods and goddesses in order that they, too,
might be released from the pitiable state of samsara -- the otherwise
eternal round of birth, life, and death.
When he was in his 41st year, the Buddha participated in a great debate
at Shravasti, and defeated all opponents by manifesting miracles. Immediately
-- some say to avoid being offered gifts and being treated as a god -- he vanished.
He reappeared in the realm of the 33 gods, where he gave teachings to
a company of celestial beings that included his mother. One of his Great
Disciples, Anuruddha, could see him there and reassured the others. After three months, Maudgalyayana,
another of the Great Disciples, begged the Buddha to return to
He agreed he would return in a week's time, so
on the 7th day, Indra and Brahma constructed
3 ladders of lapis lazuli
(or "beryl"/sapphire,) gold and crystal. The triple staircase reached from the
summit of Mount Meru to Samkashya.
At the appointed time, He descended the central flight of steps with Indra and Brahma on either
side to be received by crowds gathered at its base.
Legend has it that the triple staircase used by Buddha, Brahma and Indra
slowly faded away, until only the part enclosed by Emperor Ashoka's temple
remained. As time passed, even that disappeared so that only the
subterranean structure was left. Now it, too, has vanished.
This is a two-week prayer festival beginning at Lhosar that was
initiated by the founder of the Gelugpas, Tsongkhapa, in 1409 CE in Lhasa,
The different denominations may have a Monlam at different times
(in 2003, the Kagyu Monlam began at the end of December.) Nowadays people of all
denominations often gather to celebrate and practice together. Since 1959,
these gatherings have taken place in various Buddhist centers including Lumbini but Bodhgaya, the
site of Buddha's enlightenment, is the most important.
The Yearly Round of Tibetan Holidays
|Lunar month #
||Lunar day #
||Monlam, 3 weeks
||10th - 15th
||Cho Nga Chopa
||Kalachakra New Yr.
||Birth of Buddha
||Lam Rim, 1 mo.
|| Jigche Choto begins
||Tor Dok exorcism
||Ganden Ngamcho (Tsongkhapa)
||ancient Tib. New
||Ngenpa Gu Dzom (9 bad omens)
||Winter mo. of doctrine
||Dead in New Yr. revealed
||Making new tormas
||03rd - 09th
||Demchok Choto beg.
||P'hurba cycle beg.
||21st - 22nd
||P'hurba ritual, upper
||23rd - 25th
||P'hurba ritual, lower
||P'hurba ritual, lower
||Good Omens Fest. beg.
~ Michael Erlewine's complete, comprehensive calendar by Heart
Center Publications is available at Namse
Bangdzo. It includes a teaching by Khenpo Karthar and has tide tables,
Xigaze Prefecture: The political
reality since the 1950's is that, besides the Tibet Autonomous Region
(which can hardly be considered "autonomous,") large portions of Tibet
have been absorbed by China.
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