Local Tibetans mark New Year with celebration and a protest march

The audience at the Losar celebration in Watertown. Photo by Keren He.

By Keren He

Tibetans in the Boston area celebrated Losar, the Tibetan new year, with cultural food, dance, and conversation. Celebrations were later followed by a protest on March 10, as Tibetan community members rallied in Boston outside the Massachusetts State House against the brutal treatment of Tibetans under Chinese rule.

March 3, 2022, marked the first day of the new year on the Tibetan lunisolar calendar, called “Losar,” which means “new year” in Tibetan. Tibetans living in the greater Boston area preserved this tradition by holding an annual ceremony for the most important holiday in their culture.

Roughly 150 Tibetans gathered in a community center at Chelsea for morning prayers and later held an evening celebration in Watertown.

Although no official census data exists, members of the Tibetan community say that there are approximately 800 – 1000 Tibetans living in the greater Boston area with the highest concentration in Malden and Medford.

The Tibetan new year has been celebrated since the enthronement of the first emperor of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo, in 127 BC. This year is the year 2149 and the year of the water tiger. Although Losar takes place over a total of 15 days, celebrations primarily occur on the first three days.  

This year, many local officials, including Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, sent their warm wishes to the Tibetan community for Losar. On the federal level, the U.S. Department of State released a statement promised that “We are unwavering in our commitment to helping Tibetans preserve their cultural, linguistic, and religious heritage, which we honor today.”

The audience in traditional Tibetan clothing at the celebration in Watertown. Photo by Keren He.

Before the pandemic, Tibetans celebrates Losar in the Kurukulla center, a Tibetan Buddhist temple founded in 1989 in Medford. The pandemic hindered people from gathering in this space last year, and this year, the Tibetan Association of Boston managed to obtain a bigger space in Chelsea as their community center for events and other purposes.

The first day of Losar is called Lama-Losar, when people pay visits to local monasteries and receive their blessings for the new year. Upon arriving at the Chelsea community center, local Tibetans paid their respect to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama by draping a “Khata,” a long white scarf made from silk used as a sign of respect in the Tibetan culture on his portrait. Those gathered started their new year with a morning prayer led by two lamas from the Kurukulla center.

Amdo dance, performed by young Tibetan girls in colorful dresses. Photo by Keren He.

After the prayer, those celebrating walked out of the building. Immersed in the aromatic smoke of the burning incense, everyone collected a handful of flour and circled around the incense. With the blessings given by the lamas, they threw the flour into the air with great joy. This ritual is called “Sang-sol,” meaning “incense offering” in Tibetan, it’s an offering ceremony for the gods and deities, and the falling white flour indicates blessings from above. After their new year rituals, people danced together to the music in the community center, catching up with old friends while enjoying the traditional Tibetan tea and food.

The Tibetan tea “Bhodjia” is a kind of black tea that’s blended with butter (ideally from a yak) and salt, creating a savory and creamy flavor. Among the thin and cold air in Tibet, a cup of hot Tibetan butter tea can offer great comfort and the salt and butter can help people living in the lofty mountains remain hydrated. Also served were “Khapse,” crunchy Tibetan cookies made with dough that’s twisted and braided to all kinds of shapes and deep fried to a golden-brown. Dreysil, a sweet dish made with chewy rice, butter, nuts, and raisins, was offered as a flavorful treat.

Tashi Sholpa dance, a masked and costumed dance for good luck in Tibetan culture. Photo by Keren He.

During the festive days of Losar, Tibetans like to dress in traditional attire called Chuba. Tenzin Ngawang, a Malden resident who has participated in the ceremony since she was a small child, just received her new Chuba two weeks prior to the Losar, which was handmade and shipped from India. Two months earlier, for her new year outfit, Ngawang traveled from Malden to New York City to get her measurements and picked her favorite colors, patterns, and style.

Every family also decorates their house for the holiday, usually with a holy altar with a portrait of His Holiness Dalai Lama, which is decorated with bountiful food and auspicious items, showing their gratitude for nature and the local gods. Friends and families visit each other and pay respects to each other’s altar, and some will take photos in front of their altar with their favorite pieces of jewelry, recording the jubilation during Losar.

The Holy Altar of one of the Tibetan homes. Photo by Keren He.

In the evening of the third day of Losar, around 350 to 400 people joined a social gathering in Watertown, where they enjoyed the performances of traditional Tibetan music and dances and had dinner with friends and family.

The president of the Tibetan Association of Boston, Kalsang Phuntsok, said that it took weeks to prepare for the ceremony, and it cost $8,000 to $10,000 for the food and venue. 

This year is very special for Tibetans in Massachusetts, as the Somerville City Council just passed the Tibetan Losar Resolution on Feb. 28 to recognize Losar and the hardships Tibetans have faced under the Chinese Communist government. Moreover, on March 8, Gov. Charlie Baker’s office released a proclamation, marking March 10 as Tibet Day in Massachusetts. This date commemorates the uprising against the Chinese government’s oppression in 1959. Tibetans went to the streets of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to protect the Dalai Lama from the apprehension by Chinese authorities. The protest was brutally cracked down and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama escaped and a Tibetan government in exile was set up.

The proclamation of Tibet Day as released by the Governor’s office.

On March 10, the Tibetan community rallied in front of the State House and marched across the Boston Common, an annual rally that they have carried out for decades. Many protestors also held a poster of a portrait of Tsewang Norbu, a 25-year-old Tibetan pop singer who set himself on fire in front of the Potala Palace, which used to be the historic Dalai Lamas’ home from 1649 to 1959. Self-immolation is an extreme form of protest against Chinese rule, and Norbu is the 158th protestor who adopted this method since 2009.

“I asked my father-in-law about his experience on March 10, 1959, he was 34 years old and now he’s 97,” said Lhadon Tethong, a Tibetan activist at the rally. “With emotion in his voice, he said, ‘We were not going to let His Holiness (referring to the 14th Dalai Lama) be taken to the Chinese military camp, we were ready to die.’ … It was not a failed uprising or a failed revolt, it wasn’t a success, but they secured our future, and they secured our history, they told the world that Tibet belongs to Tibetans… We have not lost, we are still fighting, that’s what March 10 is about.”

A protestor in Boston holding up a picture of Tsewang Norbu. Photo by Keren He.

Sen. Ed Markey also sent a delegate, Innocent Wofuzia, to attend the rally, who read Markey’s statement that addresses China’s repression on Tibet’s culture, religion, and freedom of speech. Wofuzi read, “I’ll continue to steadfastly support the rights of Tibetan people.” Markey also said that he has and will continue to advocate bipartisan support for policies that protect “the rights, autonomy, and dignity of Tibetan people.”

After the speech, the president of Tibetan Association of Boston, Kalsang Phuntsok hung a Khata around Wofuzia’s neck, to show gratitude for Markey’s support.

“I believe our Losar event was very successful,” said Phuntsok. “This is the first large gathering we have had since the start of the pandemic about two years ago. Yet, it was as if nothing had really changed. We all enjoyed each other’s company and caught up with one another. It was also great seeing so many new faces in the community. Losar is a special tradition, and I am so glad we are able to continue this tradition together again.”

The short video below captures the morning prayers and New Year rituals by the Tibetan community at the Chelsea community center on March 3, 2022. (Produced by Keren He.)

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