We continue our series of posts on traditions related to Losar, Tibetan New Year, with a deeper look at the rituals that take place in the closing days of the outgoing year. Two weeks ago we offered a vegetarian recipe for guthuk, the special noodle soup that is the highlight of nyi-shu-gu, the eve of Losar eve. Now we will explore the fascinating, haunting rituals that accompany eating the guthuk.
You will sometimes see a reference to “Losar Guthuk,” but this is actually a little bit of an odd thing to say. Tibetan New Year traditions have two related, but quite different, components. First we close out the old year and bid good riddance to its bad aspects. Only then can we usher in a fresh, new, abundant year.
The word Losar refers to the “new year” part of the tradition – literally lo (year) and sar (new). On the other hand, nyi-shu-gu (29) refers to the next to the last day of the old year, which is the 29th day of the last month of the year, according to the Tibetan calendar. So the rituals of nyi-shu-gu and guthuk belong to the old year.
Nyi-Shu-Gu: The Twenty-Ninth Day
Basically, everything we do on nyi-shu-gu is about purifying our homes and bodies of existing negativities, obstacles, uncleanliness and sickness. This is the day of the year when we clean like crazy. In western cultures, this would be spring cleaning, but Tibetans do it just before New Year.
In the countryside in Central Tibet, the villagers traditionally deep clean their houses, and then build a fire in the yard to heat water for everyone to bathe and wash their hair. Normally, people don’t bathe everyday, but everyone takes care to be thoroughly clean in preparation for Losar.
After all the cleaning and bathing is done comes the fun of eating guthuk and the ritual banishment of evil spirits and ill health from the home.
First, let’s look briefly again at guthuk, and then turn to the fascinating rituals performed to get rid of negative forces in our lives.
Guthuk: The Eve of Losar Eve’s Soup
Guthuk is basically a common style of noodle soup – thukpa bhatuk – which we call guthuk only when it is eaten along with some special ingredients and elements on nyi-shu-gu night. (There is some discussion among Tibetans about whether the noodle shape we use here is called gutsi rithuk or bhathuk, but for my family, bhathuk is a generic terms for a type of noodle that includes gutsi rithuk :-) So for my family, these little curved shells are both bhathuk, and more specifically, gutsi rithuk. If you want more of discussion of that, see my thukpa bhathuk recipe.)
The soup commonly has smallish, shell-shaped, hand-made noodles. (See Lobsang’s thukpa bathuk recipe for a meat version and a vegetarian version in the guthuk recipe post.) When we eat thukpa bhathuk on nyi-shu-gu, we make it a little special, including at least nine ingredients, like labu (Asian radish), dried cheese, chillies or green peas.
The soup truly becomes a guthuk when we add one specific special twist. Into each bowl of soup will be added one extra-large dough ball that contains inside it either a small piece of various objects — like coal or wool — or a paper with the name of the objects written or drawn on it. The dough ball is round and extra large to distinguish it from the normal “bhatsa” noodles in the soup, so you won’t eat them by mistake!
These objects are jokingly meant to relate to the character of the person who gets it – some are positive and some are decidedly negative. We might think of them, lightly, as comments about our nature, or as predictions or fortunes about the year ahead.
So if you get wool it means you are kind, while if you have the bad luck to open a dough ball with coal, it means you are “black hearted.”
There are a multitude of objects that can be included or symbolized in the guthuk dough balls, and the items can change from house to house, region to region and even be different in the same home from year to year.
The Special Guthuk Dough Ball “Predictions”
In our family tradition, the more positive objects are:
- wool — bay —kind hearted
- a thread rolled inwards — kuba nandrim — a person who draws luck and money
- sun — nyima — the goodness related to light
- moon — dawa — also, the goodness related to light
The unhappy objects are:
- chili — sepen — sharp tongue
- salt — tsa — lazy
- glass — karyul — someone who is happy when there’s fun, but disappears when there is work to do, like a good time charlie
- coal — sola — black hearted
- a thread rolled outward — kuba chidrim — someone who spends or dissipates luck or money
- small prickly ball — semarango — prickly person
In a wonderful article on the nyi-shu-gu and guthuk traditions posted on the Simply Tibetan, Simply Delicious blog, Jampa Yangchen notes:
Of course we all take these predictions with great deal of fun and laughter, but if you really believe you possess that character, especially when it is negative, then it is an opportunity for you to reflect and leave that trait behind with the old year!
While eating the guthuk, and getting your “prediction” or “fortune” or “devination” is all fun and very light hearted, there is a a more serious underlying intention in the nyi-shu-gu rituals.
Rituals to Dispel Negativity: Lue and Drilue
The vehicles by which we banish evil and bad spirits and ill health from our homes and bodies on nyi-shu-gu night is the lue and the drilue.
The lue is a little man shape typically fashioned out of tsampa and water, or tsampa and tea, but that you can also make out of flour. You can see our extremely primitive version from last year’s guthuk in the image above :-) Over the course of the evening, this effigy comes to represent all that is undesired in the household. It is sometimes in English referred to as a scapegoat.
The drilue are pieces of dough (also made from flour or tsampa) that we will give to each guest at the guthuk table to help dispel sickness from the body.
While cooking the guthuk, or before if you prefer, someone makes the lue and trilue to set aside until the meal is done.
Making the Lue Effigy and the Drilue Dough
To make the lue and drilue dough from either flour or tsampa for 2-3 people mix:
- 1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
Tsampa works better, especially for the lue, as it holds its shape better.
Fashion a little man and then balls of dough (about ping pong size) for each person at your guthuk table and put them in an old, cracked or otherwise worthless plate or bowl, which will be thrown away at the end of the night. Set this aside until everyone has eaten the guthuk and opened his or her dough balls.
At the meal, be sure to save a little of your guthuk, and the remains of your dough balls.
Be gone, all you aches and pains and problems!
When everyone has finished eating all but a little of his or her guthuk, we pass out one of the drilue dough pieces to each person present. Everyone squeezes the drilue, so that your hand is imprinted on it, as you see in the image above. Then we wave the drilue over, or press it on, any parts of our bodies that may hurt, or are sick or injured or weak, with the wish of the ill health being expelled.
While doing this, some central Tibetans say the following:
Lo chik dawa chu-nyi
Gewang parchey thamchey dokpa sho!
This translates, roughly, as:
One year has twelve months
All you obstacles and negativities, go away!
There is usually a lot of laughter during this part of the evening, as there has been during the opening of the dough balls, but at the same time there is a quiet sincerity in the wish to be healthy and whole and pain free in our bodies that is touching.
When we are done, we all toss the drilue dough pieces onto the dish with the lue. Now we will also empty the remains of our soup bowls into the lue dish as well. In our family tradition, we light a candle on the lue dish at this time, though we are not sure of the meaning of this.
Come out, Evil Spirits!
At this point, Tibetans will traditionally light a small torch from a bundle of straw and go through each room in the house saying in a loud voice “Thonsho ma!,” meaning “Come out!” to all the evil spirits. In some homes, as in our family tradition, people pray instead as they go through the rooms with the torch.
Perhaps the older tradition is to say Thonsho ma, and the prayers are a newer addition to the ritual. Fascinatingly, Tibetan Buddhism, which is normally inseparable from Tibetan culture, is largely absent from the nyi-shu-gu and guthuk traditions for families.
A superb post on the High Peaks Pure Earth blog called The Tradition of ‘Gu-thug’ before Losar notes that:
This ritual symbolises the banishment of all evil and malevolent spirits that may be lurking in the house-hold. It appears to be a form of ancient folk rather than religious tradition of exorcising evil spirits because no monks and ‘tantric’ practitioners, whether Bon and Buddhist, are invited to participate in the ritual ceremony. The ritual involves neither prayers nor making offerings to deities for blessings or favours. The secular origins are evident from the fact that all members of the family, male and female, old and young, unite to share the ‘Gu-thug’ and then ritually drive out all evil spirits without help from holy men.
Don’t Look Back
After we have gone through the whole house, someone will carry the torch, plus the dish with the drilue and the lue outside to a nearby intersection.
Those who do this must be careful not to look back toward the house, as the idea is that we are carrying the bad spirits out to the intersection so that they will get confused and not know how to get back to our homes.
The family members also need to come back quickly, never looking back at the fire and the bad spirits. In Tibet, there will be bonfires at some intersections as different families leave the torches and dishes behind.
Honestly, we hesitated to take photos of the lue and drilue as it is really quite inauspicious to retain them in any way, but we decided that for the sake of documentation we should take the images and post them :-)
Turn to the New Year
Once the lue is out of your house and the bad spirits are lost outside, everyone can enjoy the healthy, whole, clean home and turn our attention now to creating the conditions for healthy and prosperous New Year.
On the next day, on Losar Eve, Tibetans traditionally will fill all the containers in the house in anticipation of an abundant year.
For more information on guthuk and ni-shu-gu, see these excellent blog posts: