Year of the Earth Female Pig: Celebrating the Himalayan New Year

A wild night of partying may be the the hallmark of a traditional western new year but Losar, the Himalayan new year celebration, is a mostly daytime affair.

In traditional Bhutanese homes, the day will begin with thrue, a purifying bath or shower to rinse off the negative karma of the previous year, followed by thuen or moenlam, a short prayer dedication to welcome the prosperous new year.

A Bhutanese girl in traditional finery enjoying a celebratory new year meal. ©Bhutan Himalaya Archives

This will be followed by delicious aromas emanating from the kitchen of thuep

— rice porridge with chunks of soft cheese spiced with flecks of roasted sichuan peppers — or, depending on the family's inclinations, suja dresi, salted butter tea and honey saffron rice to make the new year sweet (saffron is often associated with wealth and prosperity in the Himalayas).

Next, Zhang Go, literally, "dignity clothes," reserved for ceremonial occasions will be dusted off and worn, beginning a full day of feasting and festivities that include archery and khuru or throwing darts.

Bhutanese men celebrate the new year playing archery and throwing darts while their families act as audience and cheering squad. © Bhutan Himalaya Archives

If, in other countries, new year parties are a time to go out into the world, in the Himalayas, the holiday is more akin to an American thanksgiving, when families come together to stay home and eat delicious quantities of food. It is a time to strengthen our bonds and catch up on each other's lives. In the more religiously observant families, a gathering of monks will usually perform ceremonies for Barchey Lamdoey or the "purification of diseases, obstacles and misfortunes" for the family in a back room choesham or family shrine. The monks will take breaks several times during the day to join the family in the feasting, pausing to eat and drink the delicious food, and resuming their chants, blowing long ceremonial horns and beating the drums and cymbals with renewed energy when they're done.

Devout Bhutanese Buddhists believe they gain merit by inviting monks to their homes and sharing the new year festivities, which include the lighting of auspicious butter lamps. © Bhutan Himalaya Archives

Lunch usually arrives with a great deal of fanfare, featuring the season's best cereals, depending on the elevation, rice, wheat, roasted barley dough or buckwheat. It may surprise many to know that although the major religion of the Himalayas is Buddhism, meals will also commonly feature a number of meat dishes such as yak, beef, pork or chicken. Although there is a growing move recently toward vegetarianism in Bhutan, meat consumption in a faith that generally abhors the taking of life is sometimes rationalised as a necessity for survival dictated by the climate, or simply condoned because one has not participated directly in the killing. A more esoteric religious explanation is that the illusory nature of existence means the negative karma of eating meat can be transmuted with the right understanding. Needless to say there is no empirical evidence has yet been found for this view!

Despite what people may believe about Himalayan Buddhists, the new year's spread will almost certainly have some meat dishes including dried yak, beef or chicken garnished with dried red (hot) chili peppers. © Bhutan Himalaya Archives

Dinner usually arrives with Ara or traditional rice wine or Singchang, fermented barley beer. By this time everyone will have grown considerably more convivial and a traditional game of cards, or sho (a game similar to mahjong played with dice) might ensue. Even the monks, if they're still around and well-known to the family, may join in the general rounds of speculation over the most strategic placements of the (sho) pieces in the game!

More food is served at dinner, more drinks consumed by all (with the exception of the monks) until the day's festivities come to an end when the beaming faces of everyone present takes on a rosy tint matching their hopes for a happy and healthy year ahead of them.

A selection of traditional and modern Bhutanese eats, including momos or steamed dumplings, bone broth, fried eggs and wild shiitake. © Bhutan Himalaya Archives

In the Lunar Calendar of the Himalayas, which largely corresponds with the Chinese one with some differences, 2019 is the Year of the Female Earth Pig. According to traditional astrology, the foundational characteristics of the female earth pig are said to be abundance, playfulness and optimism, which averages out to some generally favorable predictions for 2019.

Some people believe that Losar celebrations predated Buddhism in the Himalayas. The traditional practice of burning incense and juniper as a new year's offering to the spirits and protective deities is, in fact, believed to be an artifact of the animistic Bon religion that existed before the arrival of Buddhism. In Tibet, the celebrations are sometimes called Boed Gyalpoi Lo which, translated, means the Year of the King, a reference to the belief that that Losar was first celebrated following the coronation of Tibet's first king. In another story, Losar was first celebrated after a woman named Boed Ma (Tibet Mother) invented the Himalayan lunar calendar. It is subsequently believed to have been celebrated in some parts of the Himalayas as an autumnal festival at the time of "the flowering of the apricot trees."

A traditional dinner with our guests at the famous Folk Heritage Restaurant, run by the well-known food curator Kesang Choeden. © Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions

In ancient China, people believed that the Chinese Zodiac was created by the holy Jade Emperor. He chose 12 auspicious animals to represent each year on the calendar and invited the animals to a party at the palace. The 12 animals held a great race to go to the party and agreed that they would be placed on the calendar in the order that they arrived. Each animal used their native skills and talents to get there first and the rat who used his wits and his speed was the first to win and took first place on the calendar. The sweet-natured pig became so distracted by all the treats along the way that she was the last to arrive and was, therefore, the last one placed on the calendar!

In Bhutan, where archery is like baseball, even rice paddies can quickly be used as the field for an impromptu game when the Himalayan new year comes around. © Bhutan Himalaya Archives

As we close what was at times a tumultuous 12-year cycle on the Himalayan calendar, we wish everyone a year as sweet as the wandering pig. In these times it may be urgent to refocus our energies and consider taking the byroads of life, collecting experiences like the happy pig, instead of endlessly striving for a certain form of success that may be ultimately meaningless.

May the sweet and guileless female earth pig be our guide to a happy and prosperous 2019 for everyone!

As we say in the Himalayas at the start of each promising new year, Tashi Delek! May good fortune shine on you and all your endeavors!

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