Guest Author: Carl Zainaldin
Losar, the Tibetan New Year which usually falls sometime in February, is celebrated by Tibetans all around the world. Lo means year, and sar means new. The Tibetans use a lunar calendar, and Losar falls on the first day of the new month, marked by the first new moon of the year.
Losar lasts for fifteen days, with the celebrations occurring on the first three days. To bring in the New Year, Tibetans dance, sing, drink chaang (a Tibetan beer that is served warm), and bake special goods such as khapsays (dough fried into butter and made into special shapes and various flavors).
Losar is a time for people make pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist temples and monasteries. Monasteries perform Losar pujas (rituals) which are popular events for Tibetans to attend. These pujas include ritual dancing, reciting Buddhist scripture, and performing offerings to certain deities, all of which are supposed to be auspicious activities to bring in the New Year.
This year during Losar, as part of my current studies of Tibetan Buddhism and Culture in Dharamsala, India, I had the opportunity to visit a few sacred Buddhist sights across the state of Himachal Pradesh, including Sherabling Monastery, and the town Tso Pema (in Hindi, Rewalsar).
Sherbaling monastery is home to the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche, an incarnate Tibetan lama and a leader of one of the schools of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism (Rinpoche, a Tibetan word, literally means “precious one” and is an honorific title for high lamas and incarnates). The monastery is also home to roughly 400 monks, and is situated on a large amount of land in the foothills of the Dualdahar Mountain Range.
This photo shows the monks dressed in traditional Tibetan Cham dancing clothing. Cham dancing is done at Monasteries during Losar, and is said to ward off wrathful spirits. The monks perform a dance to the beat of a Tibetan drum, and scripture is also recited at times.
Tibetans gather for the “Red Hat” puja (ritual) in the center of the temple, in which the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche, recites scripture.
The city of Tso Pema is a very sacred site to Tibetan Buddhists, as it is a location where Padmasambhava, or as the Tibetans know him, Guru Rinpoche, spent part of his life in the 8th century. This small town, located in northern India, is sprawled out around a lake, and surrounded on all sides by beautiful hills. According to Tibetan tradition, visiting this lake at least once in one’s lifetime is a very auspicious act.
In the photo above, you can see the newly built statue of Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. This statue is roughly 150 feet tall, and overlooks the lake and town of Tso Pema.
Padmasambhava, as a wandering ascetic, was said to have come to Tso Pema in the 8th century, and began teaching the King’s daughter, Mandhrava, about Buddhism and dharma. The king was enraged by this, and planned to burn Padmasambhavah alive. However, when Padmasambhavah was lit on fire, he was said to have converted the flame into a lake, and he then appeared sitting with the princess Mandhrava at the center of this lake on a lotus flower.
Because of this miraculous event, the King and all of his subjects converted to Buddhism and became followers of Guru Rinpoche.
Another tradition during Losar is to hang Tibetan prayer flags; these flags are hung around a city, one’s home, and in nature. This picture is taken atop a hill surrounding Tso Pema, located near the cave in which Guru Rinpoche meditated in the 8th century.
This is a view of the expanse of caves located atop Tso Pema. The cave in which the Guru Rinpoche statue is located is next to the red house on the right side of the rock expanse.
There are still people inhabiting the caves around this area. The woman pictured below lives in a man-made cave (built into the side of a rock) with her sister, who is a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
A photo of the town from the top the hill where the caves are located. It is about an hour hike down from the caves to the Tso Pema lake, and about a 2 hour hike up.
Visiting Buddhist pilgrimage sights during Losar was certainly special. Seeing Tibetan Buddhist temples was amazing; the temples are meant to depict the magnificence and power of the Buddha and his Dharma (teachings). Walking into one you are met with an array of sensory experiences: colors from the hanging paintings and mandalas, the smell of burning incense, and the sight of stunning statues and carvings of various Buddhas and other deities.
Seeing such spectacular sights was definitely a highlight of Losar. But perhaps the best and most meaningful part of this trip was interacting with the people I met along the way. Being at these sacred sights with Buddhist pilgrims, some of whom had traveled from as far as South India, was a special experience; as was having tea in a nun’s cave (who had lived there for 20 years), who was the aunt of a Tibetan we met in Tso Pema. Also, hanging prayer flags with Tibetans, and taking part in a candlelight vigil in which we marched around the lake and chanted the Bodhisattva prayer, were the types of experiences on this trip that were so special. While the sights were amazing, it was the people we met and interacted with along the way that made this pilgrimage something I will never forget.
About the author: I am a third year student at Emory University, currently studying Tibetan Buddhism and Culture in Dharamsala, India. This is my first time in India, and I look forward to sharing some of my experiences here with all of you!