The year of the Water Horse begins on February 13, 2002. The Tibetan calendar is based on a lunar cycle of 60 years, which was initiated in 1027 A.D. The cycle consists of 12 animals (Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Donkey, Bird, Dog and Hog), which are then paired with one of the five elements (water, wood, fire, earth and iron).
In the Tibetan calendar, there are 12 months of 30 days each, but as the lunar year has only 354 days, an extra month is added every third year and certain days are then cut out of the calendar, as determined by an astrologer. For this reason, it is very difficult for Tibetans to know their exact Western birthday.
Prior to Losar, the accumulated sins of the past year have to be driven out. So on the 29th day of the last month, various ritual ceremonies take place. The 30th (like the 15th) is considered a sacred day in Tibet, so no ceremonies take place on this day. Instead, it is a time for quiet reflection. In monasteries throughout the land monks perform ritual cham dances in order to eliminate the negativity of the old year and to ensure a positive start for the year ahead.
These dances have a mystical significance and are performed with deep meditative concentration to the rhythms of the temple orchestra. In many places, special New Year zor torma are created, vast pyramid constructions made of butter, often incorporating a human effigy and embodying the evils of the last year, which are then symbolically burnt on a pyre.
<>Meanwhile, Tibetans purge their own homes of the accumulated negativity of the old year. Houses are given a thorough spring-cleaning and are often newly whitewashed, while prayer flags and door and window hangings are replaced. Special pastries called khapse are placed on the family altars and khapse together with a khata (a ceremonial silk scarf) are given to visiting friends and relatives.<>
Some examples of these fillings are: salt--a very good sign of a virtuous year ahead; wool--a lazy slothful year; coal--a black, malicious year; chili--an angry, argumentative year; white stone--a blessed year of good health; sheep pellets--a good and wise year; and butter--an easy-going year.
Each person leaves a spoonful of soup, which is then placed in a cauldron, to which is added a piece of hair, a fingernail cutting and a piece of cloth belonging to everyone present. The chimney is swept and the soot added and finally a human dough effigy (called lu) is placed on the top. This is a ransom offering symbolising the evil of the last year, which is then carried away from the house and placed at a crossroads, where it is burnt to destroy all negativity.
New Year's Day is a time for much celebration. One's best or new clothes are worn to signify a new beginning. A special puja or prayer ceremony takes place in the family shrine room, when each person throws a pinch of tsampa (barley meal) in the air while praying to ensure a good summer harvest.
Various food treats are passed around and thick butter tea is offered. After the home celebrations, everyone goes to the monasteries and temples to offer katah and to make donations of food and other gifts to the monks and nuns. Juniper incense fills the air of the monastic courtyard, while the monks chant and everyone circumambulates clockwise around the burning incense, throwing tsampa into the air, before returning home.
Friends and relatives then visit each other, much well-fermented chang (barley beer) is drunk, the women dance and sing while the men indulge in a game of sho or mah-jong. The festivities of Losar continue for another week, with more ritual ceremonies, more rejoicing, and all make resolutions for the forthcoming year. The past year's negativity has been dealt with to ensure that the new year will be auspicious. The Losar traditions historically practiced in Tibet flourish in exile today, although some of the formality and protocol have been dispensed with.