Due to its cultural diversity engendered by geographic isolation, Bhutan has many different losar (ལོ་གསར་) or New Year celebrations. The celebrations mostly mark seasonal change and cycle of agricultural life. They consist of festivities to celebrate the autumnal harvest and occur in winter when the farmers have a break from the agricultural work. The western parts of Bhutan including valleys of Haa and Paro celebrate the New Year in the form of loba (ལོ་འབག་), literally carrying a year. Some parts of Paro and Wang valleys observe karm nyaru as New Year. This is on the day, when the full moon (ཉ་) and the star min drug (སྨིན་དྲུག་) or Pleiades are seen together.
Many communities in Bhutan also celebrate New Year in the form of nyilö (ཉི་ལོག་) or winter solstice. The winter solstice marks a solar event when the sun, having reached the southernmost point, turns around to travel northward. Being in the northern hemisphere, this event starts for Bhutan the new season with days beginning to get longer and warmer and the earth ready for another agricultural year. Nyi log is observed in most parts of Bhutan but mostly in the eastern districts.
Chunyipai tshetheg is another New Year widely celebrated in central and eastern parts of Bhutan. It is called so because it coincides with the first day of the twelfth month in the common Bhutanese calendar. This New Year is based on the calculations in the Vajraḍakamahātantra and Gongdu teachings. According to the calculations in these texts, the New Year begins in the month of tiger, which coincides with the twelfth month of the current Bhutanese calendar. It seems this event was the most popular New Year in Bhutan before the celebration of Dangpai Losar (དང་པའི་ལོ་གསར་) has spread. The dangpai losar, the most popular New Year today, is observed at the beginning of the first Bhutanese month. It was initially introduced by the Mongols in order to celebrate their victory in Tibet. Thus, the months in this system used to be called Horda (ཧོར་ཟླ་) or Mongolian month although we have now replaced Horda with Drukda (འབྲུག་ཟླ་) or Bhutanese month.
Chunyipai tshetheg represents the most popular traditional Bhutanese New Year celebrations. As early as the days of Pema Lingpa in the 15th century, Bhutanese seems to have also observed this as the New Year. As it is based on calculations in Gongdü teachings this may be more appropriately termed as Gongdü Losar and it is mainly a celebration of agricultural season, it is sometimes known as Sonam Losar. As it marked the beginning of a year, the regional rulers such as the pönlops and dzongpöns made their annual offerings to the central government in Punakha after Bhutan was unified in the 17th century. Thus, it is also now known as day of offering. The government and the central monastic body also made new appointments during this New Year.
Days before the losar, people conduct rituals to exorcise the obstacles and misfortunes of the coming year, clean their houses and wash themselves and their clothes. The New Year is thus greeted with purity of both mind and body. It is important to start a New Year with positive and noble intention and auspicious conditions and circumstances, which generate joy and happiness.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why we do what we do.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas