Time to celebrate the traditional Losar

Many people in Bhutan will be observing losar (ལོ་གསར་) or New Year’s Day today, 25 January 2020, and it is appropriate that we celebrate this day as a traditional New Year’s Day in the Bhutanese calendar. Like Lomba, Karm Nyaru and Nyilo, this is an ancient calendar event observed in many parts of Bhutan, although today it has got the misnomer Sharchokpi Losar as it is currently popular in eastern Bhutan, and Chunyipi Losar for falling on the first day of the twelfth Mongolian and Tibetan month. It is an old tradition of New Year’s Day based on both the movement of heavenly bodies in the sky and agricultural cycle on the ground.

This ancient tradition of New Year’s Day, falling on the first new moon day after nyilo or winter solstice and in the month when the full moon meets with the constellation Gyal (རྒྱལ་), Pushya Nakshatra or Cancri, was widely celebrated in Bhutan and other parts of the Himalayas, and was also recorded in texts such as the Gongdue (དགོངས་འདུས་) teachings of Sangay Lingpa (1340-96). Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan, was a staunch follower of Sangay Lingpa’s teachings. He invited Sangay Lingpa’s descendant Rigzin Nyingpo to bestow him the entire teachings of Sangay Lingpa and incorporated rituals such as the Lama Gongdue into the ritual curriculum of the State Monk Body. In this way, the Gongdue calendar is also significant in Bhutan’s religious institutions.

However, it was perhaps not only due to Sangay Lingpa that Zhabdrung followed this New Year’s Day. When he came to Bhutan, this losar was probably the most popular New Year’s Day among his new subjects and they most likely considered this as the beginning of a year. Probably for these reasons, Zhabdrung chose this losar as the time to change the officials of his new government and monastic body in Punakha, and perhaps, it was also on this New Year’s Day that his subjects paid tributes and felicitations to him, which may have led to the traditional day of offering. Thus, the tradition of observing this losar or New Year’s Day and this lunar month of Gyal or Tiger month (སྟག་ཟླ་) as the first month of the year was probably important to Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal for both religious and worldly reasons.

Given this, it is odd that Bhutan did not adopt this losar as the main losar or New Year’s Day but followed the Tibetan New Year which was a legacy of Mongol rule over Tibet. The losar, which we now call Dangpi Losar and have two days of public holiday, is based on a calendrical system started by the Mongolians. When Ghengis Khan invaded the ancient Tangut kingdom and successfully took control over it in 1227, he held celebrations of victory. The month of victory celebrations was marked as the first month of the year, and the day came to be annually observed as New Year’s Day. This tradition later reached Tibet through the descendants of Genghis Khan as they took control of the Tibetan plateau. The months came to be known as Horda (ཧོར་ཟླ་) or Mongolian months and the New Year was observed as Royal or King’s New Year (རྒྱལ་པོའི་ལོ་གསར་) perhaps referring to the Mongolian Rulers. In subsequent centuries, the practice reached Bhutan and the term Horda was used in Bhutan as late as 1980s when it was changed to Drukda (འབྲུག་ཟླ་) or Bhutanese month by our astrologers. Thus, the day we call Dangpi Losar has no auspicious reason or significance for the Bhutanese and Himalayan communities as a part of seasonal cycle although it is considered the beginning of a holy Chotrul month.

The origin story of Dangpi Losar shows how calendar systems can change with political and religious changes. So, it is about time we also stop celebrating a losar which commemorates somebody else’s victory in a land most Bhutanese have not even heard of. In contrast, this losar has much antiquity and significance for its astral, agricultural and political significance. This ancient losar truly marks a new season as it falls around winter solstice and the midpoint between old and new agricultural seasons.

This losar is an old Bhutanese New Year’s Day and a real beginning, when one can wish everyone a happy, joyous and successful New Year.

A great year of Male Iron Rat to everyone!

Contributed by 

Karma Phuntsho (Phd)

President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including  The History of Bhutan.

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