Right now, if you walk through the streets of Lhasa, you will see Tibetans everywhere carrying wooden buckets full of different grains and yak butter. On this third day of the Tibetan New Year or “Losar,” these buckets or “qemar” are given to friends and family to symbolize a good harvest. During this time of the year, Lhasa is at its all time peak in terms of activities and is definitely one of the best opportunities to witness Tibetan culture at its finest.
Losar is one of Tibet’s oldest festivals, predating the arrival of Buddhism in the region. It originated from a winter ceremony during the Bon period, in which people would burn incense to appease deities and local spirits. Today, Losar is celebrated as a Buddhist festival and takes place during the first lunar month of the Tibetan calendar, usually in the month of February.
Spanning 15 days, this festival covers an impressive spectrum of activities and traditions you won’t want to miss.
1. Traditional Tibetan Fashion
As an important custom of Losar, Tibetans put on new clothes for the New Year. On the streets, in their homes and at temples, Tibetans everywhere will be donning their finest traditional clothes. Each region of Tibet has their own unique style of dress, so in Lhasa you’ll get a real sense of just how diverse the people are.
2. Try a Guthuk
On Tibetan New Year’s Eve, families gather around the table and eat Guthuk, a small dumpling stuffed with different items. Each item represents something different about the recipient’s personality or future. For example, guthuks may be stuffed with coins to symbolize good fortune. If your guthuk is stuffed with chili, it means you have a tendency for speaking harsh words.
3. Attend a Buddhist ceremony
In the past, the second day of the Tibetan New Year, Gyalpo Losar, is day to pay tribute to kings or leaders of society. Today, pilgrims from all over Tibet flock to Lhasa to offer gifts to the monks and take part in purification ceremonies.
4. Butter Sculptures
Toward the end of the Losar celebrations, huge butter sculptures are unveiled at local temples to mark the Lord Buddha’s victory over his six non-Buddhist teachers in a contest of performing miracles. It takes a team of monks several months, in freezing conditions, to complete a single butter sculpture. Head to Bakhor street at night for the best display of butter sculptures.
5. Drink Chang
Chang is a traditional Tibetan beer brewed from barley and is served hot during Losar Festival. The alcohol content is quite low but it gives the drinker a balanced warm feeling and is excellent at helping ward off the cold.
6. Watch a Tibetan Dance
Besides the title of “The Roof of the World,” Tibet is also known as “The Ocean of Songs and Dances.” During festival time, Tibetans are known to dance from sunrise to sunset in their traditional dress. Imagine how many dances there will be during Tibet’s most important festival!
7. Witness the Changing of the Prayer Flags
In Tibetan culture, prayer flags were originally used as talismans to protect warriors in battle. Today they are regarded as a symbol of peace. Tibetans like to hang them in clean windy places like rooftops and hills and every Losar the flags are changed to signify a new beginning. The most elaborate flag changing ceremony takes place outside Jokhang temple, where dozens of people are required to change the five lines of prayer flags together all at once.