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Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 11:47 GMT
Tibetans celebrate Year of Iron Snake
The Tibetan capital Lhasa
Tibetans begin a week of New Year festivities and rituals
Tibetans around the world are celebrating the first day of the lunar New Year in the Tibetan calendar, marking the Year of the Iron Snake.

The start of the New Year, known as Losar, began at sunrise on Saturday, heralding a week of rituals to drive out the sins of the past year.

In monasteries across Tibet, monks perform mystical "cham" dances to the rhythms of the temple orchestra to drive out the ghosts of the old year.

Tibetan traditions
Lunar cycle: 60 years
Eat: Dumpling soup
Drink: Barley wine
Human effigies represent past sins

The last two days of the old year are known as "Gutor" when families also purge their houses of the past year, cleaning their houses from top to bottom and drawing auspicious signs on walls and courtyards.

Symbolic butter sculptures

Also part of the preparation is the fashioning of butter sculptures, an ancient Tibetan art, symbolising the impermanence of life, a main tenet of Buddhism.

Butter sculptures of traditional symbols such as flowers, animal deities or even monasteries are displayed on altars and shrines and inside family homes.

Tibetan monks celebrate New Year with traditional instruments
The monks play traditional instruments during the processions
In the days preceding the New Year, the monks carry the more elaborate sculptures on wooden frames in processions through towns and villages.

At the end of Losar the sculptures, some of which are huge, intricately carved works of art taking weeks or months to prepare, are left slowly to melt in the sun - a symbol of the transience of life.

Human effigies

In many places special pyramids, known as Torma, are created, often incorporating a human effigy, embodying the evils of the past year which are then symbolically burnt on a pyre.

On New Year's Eve, across Tibet and among the Tibetan community in exile, families celebrate with a special dumpling soup called "Gutuk".

The dumplings are made in various shapes. Round dumplings could symbolise the sun and suggest a bright future.

Prayers

Buddhist monks at prayer in Jokhang Temple
Monks pray to "drive out the ghosts"
On New Year's day, many Tibetans visit their local monasteries to offer gifts to the monks and pray to Buddha for good fortune in the year ahead.

Over the next week, friends and relatives visit each other across Tibet holding parties, making resolutions, singing, dancing and drinking barley wine.

The Tibetan New Year is based on a lunar cycle of 60 years. It consists of 12 animals - Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Bird, Dog and Hog.

The Losar celebrations have been adapted by the Tibetan community in exile and are usually shorter and less formal.

But the tradition still flourishes in India, and elsewhere and even in England, where the small Tibetan community was to hold a party in London.

Thanks to the Tibet Information Network and the Tibet Foundation for permission to reproduce the images.

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