A while ago, a reader posted on our YoWangdu Experience Tibet Facebook page that she’d love to learn how to set up a proper altar for Losar. The reader, Tenzin, asked if we would consider writing some blog posts about how to prepare for Losar. (For a full how-to guide for celebrating Losar, see our post Losar – Tibetan New Year.)[Note: The date of Losar changes every year. You can always view the dates for the current year at our Tibetan holidays post.]
We’re always happy to answer your questions when we can, so here’s your answer, Tenzin…
Losar Altar: An Introduction
In Tibetan homes, the Losar altar serves as a prominent, central symbol of a wish to cultivate a generous heart, and to invoke beautiful blessings into the lives of our family, friends and community for the New Year.
One thing that is important for you to know is that there are no set rules or instructions on how to set up the Losar shrine, and that you do not need any special objects to do it “right.”
If you look at the pictures, you will see a large difference in styles and objects on the altars. The more elaborate ones tend to be created at dharma centers or monasteries.
All you really need is a sincere motivation to cultivate generosity.
The Elements of a Basic Tibetan Buddhist Altar
Generally speaking, a Losar shrine is a basic Tibetan Buddhist shrine, with additional items for invoking auspiciousness and abundance for the New Year.
Let’s look first then at the basic elements of a Tibetan Buddhist altar:
- Statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni to represent the Buddha. You may also have other important Buddhist figures, like Tara, Manjushri, or Avalokiteshvara. If you don’t have a statue, it is fine to have a photo or a thangkha with an image of the Buddha.
- Buddhist scripture, to represent the speech of the Buddha. This can be Tibetan or Sanskrit or a scripture in your own language.
- A stupha, to represent the Buddha’s mind. (A photo is fine.)
The first three elements — the statue of Buddha, scripture and the stupha — form the spiritual heart of your altar and need to be located centrally and prominently.
Besides these, you will often find:
- A photo of your spiritual teacher(s). For Tibetans this almost always will be an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
- A thangka, which is a Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually portraying the Buddha Shakaymuni, or other Buddhist deities or scenes.
- Seven offering bowls filled with water. Some people may have multiple sets of these seven offering bowls and fill the other sets with rice or attractive foods, but the basic offering is seven bowls of water. Of course these can be simple bowls.
- Butter lamps or candles (Collectively known as chomay — which means, roughly, dharma fire or light). You might have only one or as many as you want.
You can learn more about the arrangement and significance of these altar objects at the Snow Lion Publications website.
With the spiritual core in place, you can now add some objects to help create the conditions of abundance and auspiciousness for the New Year while further practicing the heart of generosity that is critical to your own karma and well being.
Objects Tibetans Commonly Add to a Losar Altar
- A chemar bo is an open, decorated box divided down the middle. (See the carved wooden box near the bottom left of the image above, or the red painted one at the top of this blog post.) Half is traditionally filled with chemar, which is made of roasted barley flour (tsampa), sugar and butter. The other half is filled with roasted barley seeds or roasted wheat. The wheat should be first, on the left side, and the chemar on the right side, as indicated by the Tibetan way of saying this: droso chemar. Guests, on entering your home at Losar, are invited to take a pinch of the chemar, after which they offer a blessing and good luck wish while throwing the chemar in the air with three waves of their hands and then taking a tiny nibble. If you don’t have a chemar bo, a bowl is just fine.
- Butter sculptures are sometimes placed in the chemar bo or on the altar. These are usually beautifully colored, intricate designs and representations of spiritual elements made from butter, usually made by monks or nuns. Sometimes, what looks like butter sculptures, like the colorful objects rising out of the chemar bo above, can be decorated carvings or painting on wood.
- Sheep’s head (luggo): Most likely related to invoking health and abundance for nomadic herds, the sheep’s head can be a butter sculpture, or could be clay, or porcelain, or ceramic. It often has the traditional Tibetan sun and moon symbols called nyimadawa.
- Food and drink offerings
The quintessential food offering of Losar is the popular New Year deep-fried cookies called khapse. On the shrine, you will often find stacks or piles of the various styles of khapse decorated with strings of dried dri (female yak) cheese (chu gong) and/or with colorfully wrapped candies. (See the very tall stack of khapse in the image below. See Lobsang’s recipe of a simple form of khapse, or our recipe post on the more fancy, circular bulug style of khapse.)
Tibetans tend to add lots of cookies, candies, fresh fruit, and dried fruit, the more visually pleasing and fresh the better.
Wine or chang, a very popular barley or rice beer often brewed at home for Losar.
In Tibet, families will commonly offer butter (from the female yak, the dri), salt and a brick of tea. In Tibet, tea traditionally comes in brick form.
Check out Your Insider’s Guide to Losar Eating for much more about Tibetan New Year food traditions :-)
- In Tibet, it is very popular to put a brick of thue (pronounced somewhat like “too” in English) on the shrine. Made of butter, dried cheese and sugar, and related to the expression kharsum ngarsum (dairy and sweetness), the thue is most likely intended to both represent and invoke abundance for the yak herds that produce the food staples of butter and cheese. You can see the thue in the image below near the bottom left. The sign that looks like a swastika on the tho is actually an ancient Buddhist symbol.(The word swastika derives from the Sanskrit word svastika, which connotes auspiciousness.)
- Droma dresil — a sweetened rice dish eaten first thing in the morning on the first day of Losar. Before eating, the family will offer a bowl on the shrine. (Recipe for this in Tibetan Home Cooking.)
- Tea — either Tibetan butter tea (po cha) or Indian-style sweet tea (chai). A cup of tea is offered at the shrine before your first drink on Losar morning. See recipe here >>
- Dried stalks of buckwheat (chi dro). A symbol of abundance for a staple Tibetan crop. Can also be winter wheat. (See the chi dro in the chemar bo of the Gyuto Dharma Center shrine two images above.)
- Lo phu — sprouted wheat grass from winter wheat, or whatever grassy sprouts you like. “Lo phu” has a connotation of the “first thing,” symbolizing freshness and newness. (See in images just above and in the Gyuto Dharma Center image.)
- Incense — normally on Losar morning, Tibetans will burn some incense at the altar.
- Khata — white blessing scarfs. In Tibetan communities in exile, these blessing scarves have become a common part of Losar shrines, draped over parts of the shrine, or wrapped around any of the objects above. Interestingly, in Tibet itself khatas are only traditionally used on the spiritually related parts of the shrine, not draped on the khapsay, or tied around a bottle of wine. This seems to be a new tradition in exile.
Offerings and the Practice of Generosity
Note that you might only have a few of these objects to offer at your shrine and virtually no family will have all of these, or even most of these.
The most important aspect of your offerings is the practice of generosity and sharing, and not how nice or expensive the objects are, or how beautiful or impressive your altar is.
What the Tibetans call jembay tsultrim encourages us to give in a way that is unmotivated in wanting anything in return.
Venerable Tenzin Yignyen of Namgyal Monastery offers a very nice description of the motivation for offering on the Snow Lion site :
It is best to offer things that you already have or can obtain without difficulty…
As you make offerings, think that what your are offering is in nature you own good qualities and your practice, although it appears in the form of external offering objects.
These external offerings should not be imagined as limited to the actual objects on the altar, but should be seen as vast in number, as extensive as space.
Offer food with the wish that all beings relieved of hunger, and offer water with the wish that all beings be relieved of thirst.
It is important to think that the deities accept the offerings, enjoy them, and are pleased.
Think that by making these offerings all beings are purified of their negative edge of the ultimate nature of reality is satisfied.
The purpose of making offerings is to accumulate merit and in particular to develop and increase the mind of generosity and to reduce stinginess and miserliness.
By making offerings you also create the causes for the future results of becoming naturally and spontaneously generous.
We hope that you have fun making your generous-hearted Losar shrine and that you accumulate a heap of merit for the New Year as you do so :-)