ANI, the Indian news agency, reported last week that the annual Losar festival, the Ladakhi New Year celebrations, had begun. Fernanda Pirie, whose recent book analyzed the peacefulness in Photoksar, has published a detailed description of the Losar celebrations that were held in the remote village a few years ago. It appears in a new anthology about Ladakh.
The annual Losar rituals in Ladakh chase away the bad from the old year—sicknesses and deaths—and welcome in the good for the new year—babies to be born, snow to fall. As a rite of passage, Losar exorcises evil spirits and symbolically denies aging and death through the dancing, pantomime, and music that celebrate youth and fertility.
In the last days of the old year, the Photoksar villagers begin celebrating by placing butter lamps on the outsides of their houses. Boys of the village visit homes and are given flat bread to eat as they gather around fires and sing songs. Then they fling burning branches from the fires down the slopes and make loud cries in order to frighten evil spirits away from the village.
A party atmosphere prevails around the bonfires—the boys tell lewd jokes and dance, and any girls or women watching flee in embarrassment. These activities, Pirie argues, show that the boys are denying the powers of the evil spirits, asserting their supposed dominance over the females, and foreshadowing the celebrations of youth during the festival.
On the last day of the year, households affirm their social ties by hosting dinners for other members of their phaspuns, social groupings of families in Ladakhi villages that cut across kinship lines. The oldest man at each meal gives an offering of food to the spirits of the house and of the earth and tosses food to unwelcome ghosts. When the meal is over, children will make balls of dough and throw them around, boys versus girls—one of the few times that Ladakhis ever waste food or that children are allowed to act up.
Later in the day, people take plates of food up a hill as offerings to deceased ancestors—attempts to appease any ghosts that may become troublesome. Remaining food is fried up and distributed to the people present. During each phase of the Losar rituals, sharing food is critical.
On the first day of the new year, people venerate the Buddhist deities and celebrate family relations. Groups of men take offerings up to the temples on the hill above the village and raise new prayer flags on the poles outside. Other men change the prayer flags that fly on branches above each house in the village. Later, the women prepare more plates of food for the deities of the house, and they take more plates of meat and bread, plus censers of burning juniper, up to the temples.
When they return, everyone in each house lines up around the stove so the mother can pour out for each a small amount of chang, Ladakhi barley beer which is decorated with butter. She greets the family members in turn, and they return her greetings. Then the grandmother in the house performs the same ritual. Finally a man takes a jug of chang and visits the headman and the astrologer of the village to give them offerings from the family. The new year is thus welcomed by propitiating evil forces and affirming social relationships.
That evening, the forces of evil—two Babar—make their appearance at the main village flag pole, the symbolic center of town. The men playing the Babar roles have partially blackened faces and are dressed in dirty, yak’s-hair carpets; one holds a drum and the other a couple horns. They symbolize decay and evil—the harm that the spirits can bring to people.
The next day, three other dressed up characters—an Api (elderly grandmother) and two Meme (elderly grandfathers)—appear. They represent to the villagers the natural processes of aging and decay. These three characters, plus the two Babar, become the central figures for the remaining Losar festivities. The Babar act as masters of ceremonies at celebrations, while the Api-Meme act as his assistants.
The characters visit all the households in turn and participate in the partying, feasting, singing and dancing. The women of the households join in the festivities as well as the men. The Api-Meme typically act as hosts at the parties, while the Babar take their places at the head of the food lines. The Babar symbolically steal food in each home.
On the days that follow, dances include all the villagers. The socially prominent men of the village—the headman and the amchi—are honored. The honorees reciprocate by giving money to the Babar and the Api-Meme. After all the household rounds each day, the Babar and Api-Meme return to the village center at dusk to signal the beginning of the evening celebrations.
The night time dances may be more wild than the ones in the afternoon. The Babar stand near the center of things, one rattling his drum, the other blowing his horn. Meanwhile, the Api-Meme move about with large ladles of chang for the participants. The celebrations that welcome in the new year are thus hosted by figures that symbolize the aging and evils of the past year, forces that Losar exorcises. The degenerate nature of the celebrations boosts the spirits of fertility and youth.
The traditional Losar festival that the author witnessed in Photoksar challenged the structure of society. But as the Api-Meme stole food and young people transgressed normal proprieties, their activities renewed the social order and provided needed youth and vitality for the new year. However, the forces of modernity seem to be prevailing in Photoksar. The author visited again more recently and learned that many of the traditional aspects of the Losar celebrations in the village have been dropped at the insistence of the village lama.
Pirie, Fernanda. 2008. “Dancing in the Face of Death: Losar Celebrations in Photoskar.” In Modern Ladakh: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuity and Change, edited by Martijn van Beek and Fernanda Pirie, p.175-193. Leiden and Boston: Brill. This is part one of a three-part series of reviews of important articles in this new book.