This is a guest post about Tibetan Losar celebrations at two Buddhist nunneries in India by Dominique Butet and with photos by Olivier Adam.
Last month, on 19 February 2015, my partner Olivier Adam and I participated in the ceremonies for Tibetan New Year or Losar at Geden Choeling Nunnery in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala in northern India.
In the very early morning, at 3:30 a.m., the 135 nuns of the nunnery were already sitting in the temple, beginning their Losar puja or prayers with great dedication.
We shared cups of traditional Tibetan salty butter tea with the nuns. Then two nuns brought the offering of tsampa (roasted barley flour) around to everyone so that we could celebrate the start of the new year by throwing tsampa into the air and wishing everyone “Losar Tashi Delek” (Happy New Year) with pure, joyful smiles.
Inside the temple, the sound of the prayers grew to fill the entire space and the nuns’ voices were accompanied by bells and Tibetan hand drums (damaru). We were each served sweet rice with dry fruits, followed by a delicious tsampa soup served with all sorts of nuts and dates. Just as sweet tea was brought to the temple, we were also each given the authentic khapse, the deep-fried pastries served at Losar. They come in all sizes, but the ones we were given looked like two big open ears! (You can learn more about khapse by reading this Tibetan Nuns Project blog about these New Year’s cookies.)
Then the sound of cymbals and drums joined with the nuns’ prayers to form a strong, inspiring music. For more than an hour, the nuns’ chants resonated in all directions, sometimes replying to bells and the drums (damaru) and sometimes led by the cymbals and drums, but in every moment linked together in a subtle harmony.
Here’s an audio recording of the nuns’ prayers.
From outside, we suddenly heard the roll of thunder over the McLeod sky as if it was playing with the nearest mountains. At the same time, tormas, figures made of flour and butter used in tantric rituals or as offerings, were offered and blessed for Tsetor ceremony.
A very slow and deep chanting prayer rose and filled the temple, its beauty stirring deep emotions in our hearts. The bells sounded as a punctuation for the prayers, then the chanting began again in a smooth wave of spirituality until all the instruments suddenly played together. Then came another wave of chants and it seemed that this offering to the New Year would never end! We were totally moved by this spiritual atmosphere.
When it was time for tsok, the part of the ceremony where offerings are blessed and shared, three nuns consecrated it in front of the altar and then it was distributed to all the others. In a big wave of joy and generosity, all the nuns received biscuits, fruits, chocolates, chips and juice. These blessed gifts made the light appear in this early morning, giving the new day a chance to be born.
At the end of this long ceremony, all the nuns stood and lined up to pay hommage at the throne of to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and also to the Abbesse of the nunnery, to the chanting master (the Umtse), the discipline master and all the deities of the nunnery’s temple. With deep respect the nuns offered each of them white kataks (ceremonial Tibetan prayers scarves) and greeting cards.
During this time, the youngest nuns, who had only been at the nunnery for a few months, were briefed by some older ones on how to pay their respects in Geden Choeling. With all the attention and the kindness that you can find everyday in a nunnery, the day announced a very auspicious Wood Sheep New Year !
Incense Offering Ceremony at Dolma Ling Nunnery
Two days later, on the third day of Tibetan New Year (Losar), we travelled to Dolma Ling Nunnery in the valley near Dharamsala. There we were very lucky to attend a special incense burning offering called sang-sol in Tibetan.
Many of the 240 nuns who live at the nunnery were on holidays for Losar, but around 80 nuns were there.
While most of the nuns were saying morning prayers in the temple, a small group of nuns was already outside, taking down the old prayer flags from the previous year and burning them with branches of fragrant pine and juniper. They were also hanging new Windhorse prayer flags (lungta) with joyful energy.
When the puja (prayers) was finished all the nuns emerged from the temple. After days of rain, the sun began to appear like a miraculous rebirth! A smooth perfect light reflected off the snowy mountains just above us and lit the green grass of Dolma Ling.
In order to celebrate Losar once more, the nuns made a big circle. Each nun took some tsampa (roasted barley flour) in her right hand as a precious gift. Then, twice, they raised their arms simultaneously and on the third time the nuns threw the tsampa high into the air shouting “Losar Tashi Delek” and laughing again and again like children amazed by life. The tsampa was flying through the air and on their heads and on their red robes, blessing this special day.
Afterwards, the nuns spent a long time outdoors enjoying the morning sun, joking together, taking pictures together, breathing in the fragrant juniper smoke from the incense offering. In this way, they were totally enjoying the beginning of this new year that they were already so happy to share.