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Four great seasonal festivals celebrated by all Tibetan Buddhists are:   Losar, Saga Dawa, Chokor Duchen and Lhabab Duchen.  During those times, it is believed that the effects of positive or negative actions are multiplied ten million times.

Tibetan Calendars

The Tibetan type of calendar is similar to other ancient ones in that it requires periodic adjusting.  This type of system produces some doubled months and occasional missed days.  Therefore it can happen that the first month is doubled as was the case in 2003. Then the New Year celebration may be held in the second First Month. 

When does a day begin?

We need to know, so we can observe anniversaries and holidays on the appropriate day. Consider Western observances.  Sometimes we say the day starts right after midnight, but sometimes it is when the light of morning appears. For some, an observance begins at dusk when a dark and a light thread can no longer be distinguished.  For others, when the first star appears.

Tibetans consider that the day begins at first light.  The moment is determined by the ability to see the lines on the palm of your hand.  Of course this tradition is only useful in places that have not been polluted by ambient light from artificial sources.

Two Tibetan Calendar Systems

The introduction of the traditional calendar system dates to the enthronement (127 BCE) of legendary ruler, Nyatri Tsenpo, the first of the Chogyals (Dharma Kings.)

The Tibetan way of tracking the years is similar but not identical to that of the Chinese system of 12-year cycles.  Five elements:  wood, metal [or iron], air, fire, and water rotate among 12 animal signs to produce 60-year units.  The animals are of the two sexes, so that makes each distinctive era consist of one full round of 120 years.  A round is called in Tibetan, rabjung; we are in the 17th rabjung, according to the predominant tradition.

The most prevalent Tibetan calendar is based on an astrological treatise called The Oral Teachings of Pundarika (Tib. pad- dkar zhal-lung) by Phukpa Lhundrub Gyatso (fl. 1447.)  This is the basis for the Phukluk astrological tradition used by the majority of Tibetans and currently regarded as the official Tibetan calendar.   

Another tradition known as the Tsurluk derives from the revised astrology of the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) as found in his Compendium of Astrology (Tib. rtsis-kun bsdus-pa.)  The Tsurluk tradition is used by Dr. Tendhar at Nitartha. 

In 2006, some Kagyupas (such as KTD) celebrated Losar at the end of January but others, such as the Jamgon Kongtrul labrang in Pullahari, Nepal, and members of Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland observed it with the Gelugpas and the majority of the Tibetan exile community, in the second of a double first month which was at the end of February. 


Losar is the Tibetan New Year.  It is determined by the conjunction of the lunar calendar with the solar cycle.  It falls at New Moon preceding the spring equinox, usually in  February.  In Ladakh, the New Year is earlier, celebrated on the first day of the eleventh month.

There are three types of Losar observance: Religious ceremonies, such as the one performed by the Kagyu denomination that follows the calendrical revision established by the 3rd Karmapa (see Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche's nithartha.org )  However since the events of 1959, most Tibetans no longer celebrate "religious" losar but only the "Royal" or King's Losar.  In 2014 it corresponded with Chinese New Year at beginning of March. There are also regional Farmers' Losar that depend upon agricultural events such as the blooming of a local fruit tree, etc.  

Losar is said, by sources in Dharamsala, to have originated as a farmers' festival in the pre-Buddhist period when, in the Lhokha Yarla Shampo region, the first signs of blossom appeared on the apricot trees. 

Preparation begins a month in advance with general housecleaning.  Auspicious signs are drawn with white powder in courtyards and on kitchen walls.  Surfaces are decorated with the eight auspicious symbols, and thresholds with swastika symbols.

Families sprout barley seeds and place them before the family shrine on New Year's Day as a prayer for an abundant harvest.  A p'ye-mar, or bucket is vertically divided in halves by a wooden slat, and filled with tsampa (roasted barley flour with butter) and barley seeds or the auspicious five grains, and decorated with stalks of barley and coloured butter. 

On the preceding evening, stacks of special bread, such as kyapse, and other festive food and is placed on the household shrine. Delicacies like khu-khu, gachen, nayashok, mokdung, nagarlen, pin-pin and chang (Tibetan beer) are some of the holiday fare. 

Losar is officially celebrated for three days.  The first day of the new year is called Lama Losar (the day of the Guru) and is often dedicated to the head of one's lineage, for example, the Dalai Lama.  The second welcomes guests and the third day is devoted to religious observation. 

In some cases, the celebration can last for 8 or even 15 days, since Losar also commemorates the period during which Lord Buddha publicly performed miracles for the benefit of all beings.  From the 1st to the 15th of the 1st month he bested all challengers in an 8-day contest of miracles, and then continued to manifest various siddhis [miraculous accomplishments] for another 8 days.  

The final day of this 15-day period is known as Chötrul Düchen.  On that day, it is said that the consequences of one's positive and/or negative actions increase 100,000,000 times.  Therefore many people devote that day to prayer.

Losar Emotion

According to Khenpo Lobsang Jamyang of Sera May, in the Mongolian tradition people cry tears mourning the end of a year of life, but Tibetans are joyful in anticipation of new life.  They greet each other with "Losar Tashi Delek" and observe the offering ritual of sangsol in which barley flour is thrown into the air to symbolize prosperity.

Some say that "sheep's head" and "the beginning of a year" sound the same, and the sheep has traditionally been regarded as an auspicious animal in Tibet.  In a herder's home, a real (boiled, then roasted) sheep's head is on display.  Others make a representation of one out of colored butter or use a replica made of ceramic or wood (more about this below.)

The first day of the celebration is given to religious and family observances, and offerings are made at the family shrine and the temple.  The second is the King's New Year -- in the past, largesse was distributed at public festivities -- and on the third day, offerings are made to local deities and other beings, and general partying may continue.  

Nowadays, since people have to work the festivities may be postponed until the closest weekend after the 'official' date.

Regional Festivities

Extracts from Jan. 30, 2004, China Daily: "Tibetans Warm Up for Celebrations"

The start of the Tibetan New Year is usually close to, but not necessarily, the same day as Chinese (or, Han) Lunar New Year.

Also different from Han practice is the fact that Tibetans living in different regions celebrate New Year in different ways and at different times.   In 2011, Kagyu Samye Ling (Karmapa's seat in Scotland) opted for March 5th, while Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD,) Karmapa's seat in America, as well as his seat at Rumtek in Sikkim, India, opted for Feb. 3rd.  In 2014, Losar began either January 30/31st or on March 2nd, depending upon lineage affiliation and local factors. 

In the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, the holiday begins on the 29th day of the 12th Tibetan month.
During the holiday which usually lasts one week in urban areas of Lhasa and two weeks in the countryside, new clothes are made, houses and monasteries alike are cleaned from top to bottom, various shapes of ka.se (fried wheat twists) are made, and walls are painted.
The family's best carpets and finest silver are brought out.
The Eight Auspicious Symbols, which appear as protective motifs throughout Tibetan-populated areas, are painted in strategic locations.
Butter lamps are lit. Flowers are placed on altars. Piles of juniper, cedar, rhododendron, and other fragrant branches are prepared for burning as incense.
On Tibetan New Year's Eve, the family gather around a steaming hot pot of dumpling soup called gortu. [or, guthuk]

Some of the dumplings have surprises wrapped in them. As the meal begins, each person opens one of these special dumplings. The object one finds will indicate, much like a fortune cookie, that person's personality.
If one finds salt, that is a good sign and means that one is all right; the one who finds wool is very lazy; coal indicates maliciousness; a white stone foretells a long life; pepper means that one has a glib tongue.
Everyone takes what is left in their bowl and dumps it back into the pot, as well as a piece of hair, a fingernail, and an old piece of clothing at the end of the meal.
A dough effigy representing collective evil and ill will of the past 12 months is made and put in on top of everything else.
A woman carries the pot out of the house. A man follows her with a burning torch made of wheat stalks shouting: "Get out! Get out!"
Then, the whole family moves to the middle of an intersection of roads or paths, where they throw away the remains of the gortu and the burning torch while the children set off firecrackers. So the city of Lhasa is illuminated by torches and resonant with the sound of firecrackers.
This ceremony is conducted to get rid of all the negative forces at the end of the year so that the New Year will begin unencumbered.

In the morning of New Year's Day, the family rise early, put on their new clothes and finest jewellery, make offerings of barley flour mixed with butter and sugar at the family shrine, and then go to monasteries after breakfast.
On that morning, tens of thousands of Tibetans swarm into the Jokhang, Zhaibung and Sera monasteries, and the Potala Palace, all in Lhasa, to worship Buddha.
People add roasted highland barley, wheat, and juniper and cedar branches into the burning incense burners on Barkhor Square. Smoke fills the area.

On the second day of the Tibetan New Year, people begin visiting their relatives and friends. They feast on rich holiday foods, drink highland barley liquor, play mahjong, dice and card games, and sing and dance around huge bonfires at night. The revelry continues from three to five days.

Xigaze Prefecture
On that afternoon, local Tibetan men wash their hair after cleaning their houses and painting the Eight Auspicious Symbols on the walls. It is said that this will help the men have black and shiny hair and bring good luck to the family. Women cannot wash their hair that afternoon because it would have the opposite effect.

On New Year's Eve, the same ceremony to drive out evil spirits is carried out in every family. Instead of throwing away the remains of the gortu and the burning torch, the men of the family climb onto a hill far from the house and burn a boiled sheep head (lung-po) until black, which will be offered at the family shrine as a sacrifice. As a result, the day has become known as "the smelly last day."

The young men and women get up around dawn on New Year's Day. Dressed in their festive best, some of them climb onto hills to erect new prayer flags for the village.  ... .  The others go to streams or wells for "new water."

Then the family will have a lunch at which they share a sheep's head, sausages and wheat porridge, and drink highland barley liquor on the first day of the first Tibetan month.

In the second day of the New Year, all families gather in their neighborhood squares to burn juniper branches and offer highly alcoholic barley liquor and snacks as sacrifice to the area's deity of the land and protector deities.

Starting on the third day of the New Year, banquets for friends and relatives are held one after another.

Amdo Region
The Amdo region refers to Tibetan areas in Qinghai Province, southwestern Gansu Province and northwestern Sichuan Province.  Most of the region is covered with vast grasslands. Tibetans living there are mainly nomads.

For the Amdo Tibetan nomads, the first thing to be done on the morning of the Tibetan Lunar New Year is always to climb to the top of a hill near their settlement and try to be the first person to burn juniper branches to worship the local protector deities.

It is a great honor to be the first to burn juniper branches, for he or she has the right to sound the white conch to inform the others living around the hill and the first smoke can be seen for a great distance.

Other people at the top of the hill will then add more juniper and cedar branches to the fire and offer liquor and highland barley flour to the local protector deities.

Different from Lhasa and Xigaze, house cleaning and water drawing are prohibited on New Year's Day in many areas of the Amdo region.

In some Amdo areas, men get up early in the morning of New Year's Day and run toward the cow or sheep sheds to see in which direction the animals are pointing while they sleep.

Wherever their heads point, whether east, south, west or north, that direction will have auspicious conditions for the New Year. Cows and sheep will be painted three colors or tied with five-color cloth stripes, and made to move in that direction for some distance to ensure good luck.

Nyingchi Prefecture
In this Eastern Tibet prefecture, the holidays for the 2004 Tibetan Lunar New Year will at this time actually be over, because the residents of the prefecture in Eastern Tibet celebrate the Tibetan Lunar New Year on the first day of the 10th Tibetan lunar month.  The special local custom began in 1904.  That year, news came to Nyingchi that invading British troops were arriving. Local Tibetan men in Nyingchi Prefecture began preparing to join the fight against invasion to defend their home villages.

In order not to miss the New Year celebrations, the local people decided to hold the festival events before the men left for the battle field.

The locals are fond of dogs, as the region boasts dense forests and dogs that not only guard houses, but also [act as] hunting helpers.  During New Year's Eve, dogs are invited to share food with their masters. Traditionally, the food the dogs choose to eat will be abundant in the coming year.

Saga Dawa 

The Buddhist anniversary and spring festival usually coincides with Vesak (Vaisakha) or Wesak as it is called in Indian languages.  In Tibetan it is called Saga Dawa [Buddha's Moon].  It combines Buddha Shakyamuni's birth [Skt.: purnima] on the 7th day of the 4th month with three other events:  On the 15th day of the same month he is believed to have entered his mother's womb, and on that day decades later, he attained complete enlightenment at dawn.  Then, a lifetime later, he passed into parinirvana at dusk on that same day of the year.

In some communities, the image of the Buddha is bathed and special offerings are made, and often there is a procession of Buddhist scriptures.

In India, monastics may make a pilgrimage to Lumbini or another holy spot.

Chokor Deuchen 

This is a summer celebration on the 4th day of the 6th month.  It commemorates the Buddha's First Turning of the Wheel, that first sermon concerning the Four Truths.

Tradition has it that Buddha was not convinced by his own reflection that teaching what he had discovered during his own meditation -- that is,  the Truth of Suffering and the 3 other Noble Truths --  would be of any benefit to others.  It took the intercession of the great gods, Brahma and Indra, to persuade him to do so for the benefit of all sentient beings.   The Buddha then addressed the five people who had been his companions during the time he had spent with the forest yogins. 

The benefit of any virtuous action, including the recitation of mantras, is believed to increase 10 million times when performed on this anniversary.

Lha-bab Deuchen

Lha-bab Deuchen [Tib.] is the autumn festival that commemorates the descent from the Trayastrimsha Heaven of Buddha Shakyamuni.  He had agreed to descend on the 15th of the 9th month, but actually descended on the 22nd.

He had vowed to repay his mother in gratitude for all that she had done for him, and so he spent three months in Tushita teaching her and other gods and goddesses in order that they, too, might be released from the pitiable state of samsara -- the otherwise eternal round of birth, life, and death. 

The Circumstances 

When he was in his 41st year, the Buddha participated in a great debate at Shravasti, and defeated all opponents by manifesting miracles.  Immediately  -- some say to avoid being offered gifts and being treated as a god -- he vanished. 

 He reappeared in the realm of the 33 gods, where he gave teachings to a company of celestial beings that included his mother.  One of his Great Disciples, Anuruddha, could see him there and reassured the others. After three months, Maudgalyayana, another of the Great Disciples, begged the Buddha to return to earth.  

He agreed he would return in a week's time, so on the 7th day, Indra and Brahma constructed 3 ladders of lapis lazuli (or "beryl"/sapphire,) gold and crystal.  The triple staircase reached from the summit of Mount Meru to Samkashya.  At the appointed time, He descended the central flight of steps with Indra and Brahma on either side to be received by crowds gathered at its base. 

Legend has it that the triple staircase used by Buddha, Brahma and Indra slowly faded away, until only the part enclosed by Emperor Ashoka's temple remained.  As time passed, even that disappeared so that only the subterranean structure was left.   Now it, too, has vanished. 


This is a two-week prayer festival beginning at Lhosar that was initiated by the founder of the Gelugpas, Tsongkhapa, in 1409 CE in Lhasa, Tibet.  

The different denominations may have a Monlam at different times (in 2003, the Kagyu Monlam began at the end of December.) Nowadays people of all denominations often gather to celebrate and practice together.  Since 1959, these gatherings have taken place in various Buddhist centers including Lumbini but Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha's enlightenment, is the most important. 


The Yearly Round of Tibetan Holidays

Lunar month # Lunar day # Holiday
First 02nd Losar
First 04th Monlam, 3 weeks
First 10th - 15th Cho Nga Chopa 
First 15th Buddha incarnates
Second 29th scapegoat expulsion  
Third 01st Kalachakra New Yr.
Third 15th Kalachakra revealed 
Fourth 07th Birth of Buddha
Fourth 15th Saga Dawa
Fifth 05th Medicine Buddhas
Fifth 15th Local Deities
Fifth 17th Lam Rim, 1 mo.
Sixth 04th  Chokor Duchen
Eighth 08th Water Festival
Ninth 08th  Jigche Choto begins
Ninth  22nd Lhabab Duchen
Ninth 22nd Tor Dok exorcism
Tenth 25th Ganden Ngamcho (Tsongkhapa)
Eleventh 01st ancient Tib. New Year
Eleventh 06th Ngenpa Gu Dzom (9 bad omens)
Eleventh  17th Winter mo. of doctrine
Eleventh  30th Dead in New Yr. revealed 
Twelfth 02nd Making new tormas
Twelfth 03rd - 09th Protectors
Twelfth 05th Demchok Choto beg.
Twelfth 16th P'hurba cycle beg.
Twelfth 21st  - 22nd P'hurba ritual, upper
Twelfth 23rd - 25th P'hurba cont.
Twelfth 28th P'hurba ritual, lower
Twelfth 29th Gutor (exorcism)
Twelfth 29th P'hurba ritual, lower
Twelfth 30th Good Omens Fest. beg.

~ Michael Erlewine's complete, comprehensive calendar by Heart Center Publications is available at Namse Bangdzo. It includes a teaching by Khenpo Karthar and has tide tables, too.


Xigaze Prefecture:  The political reality since the 1950's is that, besides the Tibet Autonomous Region (which can hardly be considered "autonomous,") large portions of Tibet have been absorbed by China.

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