January 17, 2018 – Today is celebrated as another local new year although as per the lunar calendar it is the 12th month of Year of Rooster. Some may wonder why we have so many new years in Bhutan.
Since ancient times, different communities around the world, ethnic groups, religions and nations have different times to celebrate a new cycle in life – a new beginning. Some followed the Sun (like the Egyptians) and some the Moon (Chinese), while others followed both (Indians). They also had different days to observe as holidays (derived from the words, holy days) to attend to religious activities. There were also rest days. In Sharchop communities, for example, there used to be a day for rest known as saa nyan (earth rest) – when the farmers give the soil some rest. (By the way, isn’t this beautiful? Earth rest day)
As communities came together as nations and states, the calendar system was introduced to bring everyone to synchronise their lives so that they can all work together. Therefore, the calendar system is more political and administrative in nature. However, it included the religious holy days and rest days to allow people to take some time off for themselves. While the calendar systems have changed with political changes, the religious holidays have remained constant. Even today while we follow the western Gregorian calendar, our local tshechus have to follow the local lunar calendar known as dathog. Religion and culture runs deeper than politics.
This is the reason you will find different communities in Bhutan celebrating the start of a new cycle (new year) at different times of the year. These cultural practices predate the formation of Bhutan as a nation-state in the 17th century. This is what makes Bhutan diverse and beautiful. And when we say that we have been successful in maintaining our culture and traditions, we are talking of retaining such practices.
Furthermore, since Losar means new year or new cycle, the term, Chunipa Losar, is technically and linguistically wrong. It is more appropriate to say Sharchop Losar as in Parop or Haap Lomba. Chuni is 12. No new cycle begins at 12. It begins at 1. This day also coincides with the first day of the new moon according the older Gongdu calendar. So it is not a random or modern invention. The Tibetan tradition of celebrating the new year on the second Moon was introduced after the Mongols overrun them and imposed the Hor calendar. I would guess that they followed this day as the losar before that event.
Of greater historical importance for Bhutan is that as Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel brought together the nation of Pelden Drukpa, in around 1637, this day became the day when regional governors and noble families from around Bhutan made the buelwa phuelwa (offerings of tributes). The day was marked with great festivity in Punakha where goods and foods from different regions of Bhutan were shared and celebrated. Some might argue that the “offering” was actually the annual tax – which is right. However, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel didn’t believe in taxing his subjects – and rather declared that the state should be so good that the people would offer taxes as offerings to maintain the central administration, which they did. (Can we learn something from him?)
Everything evolves. So do holidays too. Bhutan, as the nation founded on the ideals of the Zhabdrung and on the selfless sacrifices of the Wangchuck dynasty, could view this day beyond its traditional significance of a local new year – and as a day of national thanksgiving, where we come together to celebrate our elders, our ancestors and monarchs. It could also evolve like the Thanksgiving in the US.
After all, more than the medieval times, it was in the modern era – during our time that we have faced the greatest threats to our survival. And our Kings kept us, and continue to keep us, as a sovereign nation – and as proud sons and daughters of Pelden Drukpa.