Losar la tashi deleg! This is the traditional greeting for Tibetan new year. This past Sunday was the first day of the Fire Pig year for Tibetans, and also the first day of the Pig year for Chinese.
For Tibetans, however, this day is not the only day of celebration for the new year. Two weeks before the actual first day of Losar, people begin cleaning their homes and businesses. They clean everything from the outside of their homes to the rugs on the floor. It is also the time to buy new clothing. Many Tibetans only buy new clothes one time of the year, at Losar. As I mentioned before, I also bought a new piece of clothing for the new year, a traditional Tibetan dress, which I did indeed wear for the new year, and pictures will be posted shortly.
So, two weeks before the new year, Tibetans begin preparing. In addition to cleaning, they spend a little more time in devotional activities, visiting temples, making offerings, and of course, circumambulating the Jokhang. Many people come into the city to buy gifts. One of the most popular gifts is sha gampo, or dry meat. It is simply raw yak meat that is dried. A half kilo (a little over a pound) of this meat runs somewhere around $8-$10, quite pricey. Of course, it is possible for people to buy the raw meat and dry it themselves, but many people don't take the time.
As the new year approached, the city began to empty. Many people went back to their home villages to be with their extended families, and perhaps three or four days before the new year, the city streets were nearly free of people.
The 29th day of the 12th month, or in Western terms, February 16th this year, is a holiday for Tibetans. On this day, Tibetans free their homes of evil spirits, ghosts, and bad influences. The evening is when all of the action takes place. I had the good fortune, along with two of my friends here, to spend it with a Tibetan family.
We arrived at their home at perhaps 8:30pm. We were invited to drink butter tea and to eat homemade kapse, a deep fried butter cookie, and which taste the same here as they do when I make them in the States, much to my delight.
After a bit of socializing and watching the special Losar programming, which I will address later, we were each given a ball of tsampa (barley flour). We were told to squeeze it in our hands, blow on it, and touch it to shoulders, stomach, legs, etc. This, they said, would keep us healthy during the next year. Then, we ate guthuk, a particular type of thukpa (noodle soup) made especially for this day. Instead of the normal thukpa which is made with just a clear broth, noodles, and beef, this thukpa includes two kinds of noodles, cheese, a few beans, and sometimes small momos (dumplings) which contain small items which Tibetans use to fortell what the coming year will bring for them or identify a personality trait. For example, if one receives salt in his momo, that means he talks too much. If one received peach, this means that he will have good health in the coming year and drolma (wild ginseng root) means that one will be lucky in the new year. The family I ate with declined this part of the tradition, perhaps because the family was small.
When eating the thukpa, one must remember not to consume the entire portion. You must leave a bit in the bottom of the bowl. This gets poured, in three parts, into a larger bowl which contains all of the negative things from the house, collected in small bundles of twigs. This bowl also contained our tsampa balls from earlier. The thukpa, they told us, was to feed the hungry ghosts.
Once everyone had finished the first bowl and the remainder poured into the large bowl, the father put on a hat, which they called a long life hat, and he took the bowl outside to the intersection near their home, and the entire thing was tossed into a bonfire, which had been started by others doing the same thing. The bonfire is at crossroads to keep the ghosts and evil spirits from finding their way back to the houses.
Then, everyone ate more thukpa, and went outside to set off fireworks. Now, fireworks are nice, and it is not always so convenient in the States to have them restricted on type and time one can use fireworks, but it is my sincere hope that those restrictions stay in place. No one pays one bit of attention to safety with fireworks here. Children are allowed to set off any firework, and there are several fireworks here that one actually holds while things explode out of the end. Admittedly, we have sparklers in the States that we hold while they burn, but we do not allow children to light a string of small fireworks that spark like mad, while the child swings the string in a circle, all the while being covered in sparks. Nor do we allow children to hold a long stick, lit at one end, which, as it burns, shoots flame as a small exploding projectile bursts from the end, with no attention give to aim. I do not have statistics on how many firework-related injuries there are at this time of year, but given the examples of firework shooting I saw, I imagine there are quite a few. Admittedly, however, many of the fireworks were nice.
After this, we all went back inside to drink more tea and watch more of the television programming. It consisted of a combination of traditional Tibetan songs, modern Tibetan songs, and Chinese songs. It appeared that the performances, the applause and the bits by the MC's were all taped separately and then spliced together. The audience and the performance were never shown together. One of the most interesting pieces was, to say the least, strange. It consisted of all Chinese performers, one man in a white military uniform, and maybe twenty male, Chinese ballet dancers, all clad in camouflage military uniform leotards. It was one of the strangest sites I have seen here. It was a very serious performance, but my friends and I could not help but laugh constantly, both at the costumes, and at the fact that they could dance with straight faces while wearing them.
Anyway, the next day, many people stay in their homes, finishing any cleaning that has to be done. Losar starts on the first day of the first month, which this year was the 18th of February. Families stay together, playing games, eating, talking, and enjoying each other's company. For three days, including the first, there are visits made to relatives and friends, lots of eating, and lots of chang.
On the first day of Losar, I went out with Ingri, from Norway. We walked around the Barkhor, and were invited to someone's home. Once there, we were given butter tea, chang (which was quite nice), sha gampo (dried yak) and kapse. Then, we chatted, ate and drank for almost three hours before we could politely leave.
On the second day of Losar (this sounds almost like a song...) I went out with two friends, all of us in chubas, to take pictures in front of the Jokhang and Potala. We attracted quite a lot of attention. I was wearing a traditional Lhasa chuba, while Doris was wearing an Amdo chuba. Random people were only too happy to take pictures with us or of us.
Losar is a big holiday here. It lasts until the full moon of the first month, so fifteen days. During this time, nothing is open. And, this year, Chinese new year fell on the same day, so Chinese and Tibetan shops were all closed. There was almost nothing open, including restaurants. There was very little produce and meat available. It was a bit tough for a few days. We wandered around looking for places to eat or hang out, but with very few options.
A week after the start of Losar, I visited the English Corner, a group of Tibetans and some Chinese who like to practice their English with foreigners. The Saturday I went, was the Losar party. There is a new Lhasa Drama Club and they had prepared a short, funny play for the party, and I was asked to tape it. There was also a lot of singing, from various places around Tibet, and general merry-making. Tibetans do like to celebrate things together, many times in a non-alcoholic, and very amiable atmosphere.
I will be happy to celebrate Losar here again in the future, perhaps with more Tibetans next time.