The New Year always evokes a sense of renewal, a chance to purge the old, forgive and forget. I had the opportunity to celebrate a fresh start at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka— the seat of India’s largest Tibetan community after Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh—this time last year.
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While the celebrations to usher in the New Year can be an elaborate 15- day affair, this year the Tibetan community in India celebrates Losar,?literally translating to “year fresh”, today.
The celebrations bring together the monastic and surrounding communities, both Tibetan and non-Tibetan. The prayers and dances that are conducted are considered a rite of passage to maintain harmony, increase prosperity and remove obstacles. One hears greetings of “Tashi delek (blessings and good luck)”, new clothes and toys are bought along with candies, breads, fruits and fresh Chang beer.
The most awaited part of the festivities is the Losar Cham, the ceremonial masked dance, which brings together families under the guidance of their spiritual masters. It’s a chance for devotees to express their faith, receive blessings and, in return, support the monastery with donations in cash and kind.
Though small, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery which falls under the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader, holds great importance for the exiled community. When I attended the Cham last year, celebrations were muted—ongoing protests by Tibetans in China had resulted in the Dalai Lama urging the Tibetan community in India not to celebrate, in solidarity with their brothers in Tibet.
But despite the uncertainty in the air, it was a deeply moving experience. The dances are essentially poetic renditions of the colourful mandalas created by the community—abstract and geometric pictorial representations of the deity.
While the dances may seem theatrical, they hold great spiritual significance. They are considered above all rituals, their main purpose being to ward off evil by invoking the powerful deities. The dancers are not merely theatre or dance performers, but monks who have undertaken the most sacred of tasks. They acquire the persona of the deity to purify not only themselves, but also those who’re watching. Apart from mastering choreography under the tutelage of masters, the dancers must prepare their minds through meditation, which takes even longer.
If “muted” celebrations could be so powerful, I can only imagine the splendour of the Cham at Tashi Lhunpo and other monasteries in the country today.
Madhu Reddy is an independent photographer based in Hyderabad. She has been documenting the Tibetan community in India for a personal project for 10 years.