In Tibetan, lo means “year” and sar means “new,” so the late-winter festival of Losar marks the Tibetan new year, a very significant time for Buddhists. During this colorful event, a crowd gathers at Kathmandu’s ancient Boudhanath Stupa to sing, dance, and joyfully throw barley flour (tsampa) to ring in the new year.
Over the course of the celebration, the Dalai Lama gives a speech and leads other high monks in prayers, rituals, ceremonies, and processions around Boudhanath Stupa. Monks perform a masked dance which plays out the battle between good and evil—good always triumphs, of course. (Though this festival is ridiculously photogenic, be sure to ask permission if you’re planning to take pictures of the many nuns and monks who are worshipping—using the flash can be considered rude and imposing, especially during prayer.)
Religious Into Secular
After the holiday’s religious obligations are met, the festivities begin. Locals and pilgrims don their finest clothing, and the area around the stupa transforms into a veritable parade of satin and woven garb. In addition to attiring themselves in traditional dress, the townspeople decorate the temple—and the rest of the city too—with colorful things, including many strings of prayer flags. Just before Losar, locals spend lots of time cleaning their homes to a fine sparkle in preparation for the new year and its attendant festivities.
This is also a time for much socializing. Except that on the first day of Losar, locals stay indoors with their immediate families, since heading out to hang out with friends is forbidden. On the second day, however, Buddhists are required to go outside to spend time with others in their community. You’ll hear lots of people yelling, “Tashi delek!” to each other. As you might guess, that phrase means “Happy new year.”
The gregarious revelry includes exchanging gifts (giving sweet rice with dry fruits is popular, and people also give out fabrics that drape around the neck) and passing around changkol, a type of rice wine. Drinking alcohol during this time symbolizes the desire and intention to be bolder in the new year. Friends also give each other dough balls that hide little items inside, like coal or wool, that supposedly indicate the recipient’s fortune in the coming year. (If you get one with something white, get ready for a lucky 12 months ahead. If you get something black, however, consider buying more insurance.)
Though Losar is associated only with Buddhism these days, it actually predates that religion, having started during Tibet’s Bon Period, which lasted roughly until the year 600. During that time, Losar was strictly a spiritual undertaking which involved burning lots of incense, symbolizing purification, to make the local gods happy, which is why today’s version of the holiday still involves lots of the aromatic sticks.
Discovering the Ancient
As for Boudhanath Stupa, it didn’t become a place well known to travelers until the mid-1980s, when infrastructure and tourism amenities developed around it. The monumental temple was built in the 14th century, before even the Mughals got to this area. The domed structure, which gets beautifully illuminated at night during Losar, resembles a giant mandala (a diagram of the Buddhist cosmos) when viewed from above.
Like the Chinese years, each Tibetan new year is named for a creature, including the dragon, snake, mouse, bull, among others. However, Tibetans also add a second identifier based on a natural element, such as water, fire, or wood. The year’s gender alternates too. The result of all this is that each year ends up having a name like Female Wood Bird or Male Fire Dog—and each particular name won’t repeat again for another 60 years.
Likewise, each iteration of Losar has its uniquenesses, so even if you’ve attended once, attend again and the experience is likely to be memorable in whole new ways.