A while ago, a 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
(See a photo gallery of a beautiful Losar shrine here >>)
- 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.
If you take a trip to Tibet, you will see that 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 has offered a very nice description of the motivation for offering :
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.
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Thupten Dolma says
Tashi delek! Thank you for these blog posts! I, too, am celebrating Losar away from my amala and pala and with my own family. My partner is not Tibetan, and our children are multiracial, so I am so thankful to find this invaluable information to help me pass along these traditions to my children.
Wangdu la and Yolanda, thank you so much for this helpful guide! This year, I’m celebrating losar on my own with my partner. I’ve been a passive observer all these years seeing my amala do the losar rituals. Your guidance on the items used and explanation of their significance really helped in addition to long-distance guidance from my amala on how to put together my simple losar choesham away from home. I’ve shared your website within a Bhoepa group. I’m sure the young ones in the group will find it especially helpful. One thing I’d like to ask as an update for next year is if you can mention the time of day for performing the rituals/putting things together. I was getting all sorts of input on when the choesham and derga are to be put together. I did it on the morning of Nanga, which my amala says is fine, but a friend says you do it the night of Nanga. But, as you noted, these kind of smaller details seem to differ from family to family.
Thank you again and Losar Tashi Delek to you both.
Lobsang and Yolanda says
Thanks so much Kunsang la for your kind words. We are honored and so pleased if we can help young Tibetans keep the traditions! We will look at putting some times of day for next year! Losar Tashi Delek!
thank you so much for all of this information. we look forward to celebrating out 1st Losar
May it be a wonderful one, Mandy!
Thank you so much to take the time to explain the altar! I learned a lot!
It’s great to hear this, Valerie! Thank you so much.
Lekshe Wangmo says
Hello Yowangdu Friends! Happy Losar. I used your page as a guide for how to contribute to the large Losar shrine we are making at Hotel Ngodup, the guest house of Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastery in Kathmandu. I am so happy to have had this guide. I could find most of the things easily and the Lama who is in charge of the guest house is also getting many things set up. Other guests are adding their offerings. It’s so wonderful. Thank you for the advice on how to “hold” these activities in our heat-mind also. I am so happy!
We are so happy to hear this, Lekshe Wangmo la 🙂 It does our hearts good. Blessings to you and your community 🙂
I WAS CONFUSED AND YOU MADE ME MORE CONFUSED. ON YOUR CHEMAR BOW, as per your pic: Losar Shrine from Nechung Monastery in El Cerrito, California. has champa on left and wheat on right and in your next pic: Losar Shrine of the Gyuto Dharma Center in San Jose, California. has just the opposite. It seems you haven’t noticed it.
PLS. COULD YOU LET ME KNOW WHICH ONE IS CORRECT.
Sorry about that. Honestly a lot of people don’t know the correct way. We believe the Gyuto chemar bo is correct, meaning that the troso (wheat, which we think in English are called wheat berries) on the left (when you are facing the chemar bo) and the chemar on the right. We’re going to research more just to double check that we are correct, and write a post about this one day, but meantime, we are like 95% that is correct! Hope this helps 🙂
You never mentioned how to cook other part is khapse which in derkha
Hi Wangdue la, We will try to put a post about making derkha next time. Thanks for the idea!
Thank you for the work that went into this. I know nothing of Tibet, have no connection to Tibetan culture at all, except that I admire Tibetan people. This was interesting and informative.
Thank you Sean! We hope you enjoy learning more about Tibetan culture!
Tsewangl lhadon says
Wangdu la. First of all thukje chey for creating a wonderful website which inspire a young generations a lot. I would like to request you to do video on on to make losar cherma.. Main losar offering . I can never make it perfectly. So if you can show it in a video about losar tsema/ chema it would be great. Thank you .
Thank you Tsewang Lhadon la! It’s a great idea to make a video about making chemar. We will do this, but unfortunately there’s not enough time this year, so next year!
Best to you!
Tsewangl lhadon says
Ok wangdula. Thank u for ya consideration.losar Tashi delek in advance
Just curious if the recipe for the simple khapse is the same recipe used for the bhonku amchoe(donkey ears)? I doubt this since I’ve heard there not supposed to be sweet…?
Been curious about this, as all of the altar preps seem to show those being used, yet I can’t seem to find any recipes for them.
Any help would be appreciated.
Good question. No, the bhonku amchoe is not sweet. Just flour, water and a little bit of salt. They are mainly for decoration, not so much for eating, though we do eat them in tea sometimes after Losar is over.
Thank you for interesting article about Losar!
Just one question.
What should I do with offerings of food and tea after they were offered and put on the altar?
Should we put them away, outside in a clear place, or can we eat them?
I don’t mean Losar-only offerings, but everyday offerings of food and tea.
You are so welcome, and thanks for your question. We answered in a previous comment quite down in the list:
“Normally, we will leave the offerings on the shrine for the 15 days of Losar, then take them down, and eat anything that is still good. If something is not good, you can just throw it out in recycling or compost or wherever you normally throw things out. These days, some people probably don’t leave the shrine up so long, and maybe just a week or three days. Hope this helps. Thank you for writing, and Losar Tashi Delek!”
Raven Cypress Wood says
This was a detailed and informative description of the Losar shrine. Thank you for the clear and beautiful photos.
Thank you. We’re happy you found it useful 🙂
Karma Georges says
Tashi delek Mr Wangdu,
to my knowledge losar is on the 11th and not 22, and it’s female water snake, not male? AZm I right or did I miss something. But thanks for this enlightened losar and Tibetan tradition, page
Hi Karma la,
This post was written in 2012, so those were dates for last year. You are correct for 2013 🙂
linda ortolano says
I just came across your website yesterday and I received today your newsletter. Thank you very much.
When I was looking at some of your recipes, I was surprised to find meat included. I myself have just
become vegetarian for about a year and a half now only, and as well as another year where I was vegetarian. All the other years in my life, I was a meat eater. It has been about a year and a half ago
that I started Tibetan Buddhist practice, simply a daily sadhana, Guru Yoga/Gaden Lhagyama, offerings. In
short, I am a novice. I revere so much Tibetan spirituality. Why are there meat recipes?
Thanks so much for your message, Linda. It’s always great to hear from our viewers 🙂 Your question about meat is a great one, which is often asked about Tibetan food. We wrote about this in a post on our site called How Well Do You Know Your Tibetan Food? Please see the first item on that page at https://www.yowangdu.com/tibetan-food/tibetan-food.html
In exile, Tibetans tend to eat many more veggies than inside Tibet, and, at least in the United States, some Tibetans have become vegetarian, especially younger Tibetans. His Holiness the Dalai Lama became vegetarian at one point in exile, but his Tibetan doctors suggested that he needed to eat meat for his health after some time, and we think he does still eat meat these days, though we’re not 100% sure about that.
Hope this helps!
Karma Georges says
Tibet is high leveled aprox 4000 meter, so vegetables dont grow or very little, just barley grows, thats’ why Tsampa is the main food.
Yaks, sheep and goat are the animals living in Tibet, A large population of the Tibetan where Nomads. So Its understandable, tha in a harsh climate where nog vegetables grow, peple eat meat. There are a lot of prayers done while killing or eating meat. so that the energy you get from that animal is used to do good for others, so the animals karma becomes part for its next incarnation.
But usual Tibetan eat large “raloup” animals because only person collect karma for killing, and many can eat and do good from its energy. I hope this brings some light in the question many non tIbetan dont understand, about eating meat.
for instance fish is not being eaten in history, because of one kill for one person. needless to say that a shrimp cocktail is the worst you can give to a Tibetan, so many lsentient beings killed for one person
Thanks for the additional info Karma la!
As a child, I watched all the Hindi and Nepali channels and learned and knew more about their tradition and religion than my mine…. Tv and Internet plays vital role in educating a kids’ mind I believe…. So here I am… Trying to set up my first second new year shrine, perfectly without any mistakes… Better than the last one I did… Searching for help, I came across this website, and I am very thank ful for it… It encourages and helps youth like us to know more about culture and to tell us that its never too late …. Once again thank you very much…
Thank you Nangdon la! We are so happy to hear from young Tibetans and glad to hear that this helps you to set up a proper shrine. If you have anything in particular you would like to learn about, let us know. Our best wishes to you!
Sandra S. F. Erickson says
I appreciate all this these information about Tibetan culture which is so precious for the world. I am Tibetan in heart: praying for its freedom & for HH XIV Dalai lama long life. Can we make prayer flags at home? Happy Lakar, sandra.
Thank you for these kind thoughts, Sandra. We don’t know if you can make prayer flags at home, but will definitely look into it, and make a post if we can find any information.
Jinpa Rangdröl says
What do you do with your offerings after Losar? I’d throw them outside, but since there’s chocolate, I don’t want to make any dogs, etc. sick…
Hi Jinpa la,
Normally, we will leave the offerings on the shrine for the 15 days of Losar, then take them down, and eat anything that is still good. If something is not good, you can just throw it out in recycling or compost or wherever you normally throw things out. These days, some people probably don’t leave the shrine up so long, and maybe just a week or three days. Hope this helps. Thank you for writing, and Losar Tashi Delek!
Thank you so much for answering my question! You’ve shown me that I’m on the right track with my own family’s altar this year. Losar-la Tashi Delek!!
You’re so welcome!