Ransom effigy. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood
The Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, falls upon the 1st lunar day of the 1st lunar month each year. In 2021, this day coincides with February 12, 2021 on the Western calendar. In the weeks leading up to Losar both the monasteries and households are busy with preparations. It is customary to make many fried Tibetan cookies known as khapsé. These khapsé are offered to the shrine and also to guests during and after the Losar celebration. Wheat grass seeds are planted in small pots and the young green shoots are placed with the other offerings as a symbol of a good harvest in the coming year. Monasteries and nunneries prepare for the traditional sacred dances as well as the end-of-year prayers and rituals.
Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche with New Year khapsé. Photo credit: Unknown
In the monasteries, the extensive ritual of the wrathful yidam Phurba known as the Tro Phur gutor chenmo begins the ceremonial conclusion of the previous year. This ritual lasts for three days and includes many sacred dances called cham as well as elaborate rituals for removing any obstacles or negativity from the previous year. This important gutor ritual begins on the 27th lunar day and concludes on the 29th lunar day of the 12th month. The monastic gutor ritual concludes on the evening of the 29th with the removal of the main prayer flag from the courtyard. In 2021, these days coincide with February 8th-10th.
On the 29th lunar day, which is called nyi shu gu, all Tibetans clean their homes and clear their debts from the previous year. In 2021, this day coincides with February 10th. That evening, a dokpa ritual of turning back negativity is performed in each household. The family shares a special stew of nine ingredients called gu thuk. Although there can be regional variations, according to HE Menri Pönlop Rinpoche, these nine ingredients are meat, wheat, barley, rice, cheese, corn, troma (a himalayan root vegetable), salt, and water. Cooked with the stew are balls of dough which contain items that are meant as a playful divination that reveals the character of the family members who receive them in their bowl of stew. Rather than the actual items, the name of the symbols can also be written on a small piece of paper and placed inside the balls of dough. There is some variation of the items used but for example, whoever receives cotton in their ball of dough will have good health all year. Whoever receives chili is said to be sharp-tongued, and whoever receives the white stone is said to be a good-hearted person, but the recipient of charcoal is a black-hearted person, etc.
Everyone saves a small amount of the last of their stew to be used as a ransom offering for the negative spirits of the previous year. This ritual payment settles any remaining karmic debts with negative spirits so that they become satisfied and go away happy. An effigy is made which must include representations of each of the five senses. Along with the leftover stew, each person also makes a karmic debt torma. This is a small ball of dough that has been rubbed over the body from head to toe in order to absorb any illness or negativity. Then, the ball of dough is squeezed inside the hand so that each of the fingers make an impression. This karmic debt torma is placed on the offering plate with the effigy along with a piece of hair and a string from the clothing of each family member. A small candle is placed on the plate in front of the effigy and it is lit before the ransom is carried out by one of the family members. Once it has been left in an appropriate place, the person leaving it must not look back as they rush back home.
After the offerings have been collected and before the effigy is carried out, a prayer is recited to formally present the offerings to the spirits and request that in exchange for the ransom, they not create any trouble. The following prayer is from the dokpa ritual of the enlightened fierce deity Nampar Jompa.
The fierce enlightened deity Nampar Jompa.
Come here, all you spirits who have a commitment to the teachings of the Buddha!
Come all gods, humans, and demi-gods, all spirits that cause harm or disease, all male and female demons. Without excluding anyone, all you spirits, come!
Accept this ransom torma which repays my karmic debts. Do not cause harm to this family or community and don’t create any obstacles to our spiritual practice!
Now, each of you happily return to your homes and listen to the noble teachings of the Buddha.
SO OM BA DZRA TRO TA SUM TRI GHA TSA YA GHA TSA YA
NÖ JÉ JUNG PO A MU KHA RA YA HUNG PÉ
On the 30th, New Year’s Eve, the houses are decorated, the shrines are cleaned, and fresh offerings are placed on them. It is common for people to be up most of the night preparing for the next day. Even so, they get up early the next morning to perform a ritual fumigation offering and to make aspirations for the new year. The first spring water of the new year is considered very auspicious and it is common for people to go directly to the community well after midnight and try to be the first to collect water to offer on their shrine. Generally, on New Year’s Day everyone stays at home or only leaves home to go to the monastery in order to pray and make offerings. However, on the 2nd and 3rd days of the new year, it is customary to spend the day visiting friends and extended family in order to strengthen the positive energy and harmonious bonds for the coming year.
All translations and content by Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved.
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