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Thomas Fries

  • 20 Feb, 2023
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                                     By Jigme Yeshe Lama (Assistant Professor, University of Calcutta)


This year (2023), the Tibetan New Year or Losar will be celebrated on the 21st of February. As Tibetans follow the lunar calendar, the date for Losar changes every year. Along with the Tibetans, it is celebrated by several Himalayan communities such as the Yolmos and Sherpas.

Like in previous years, communities celebrating Losar will gather in the Observatory hill in Darjeeling, a popular hill station in West Bengal, India to perform sang-sol, a traditional ritual incense offering. The ritual is normally practiced on hill-tops or rooftops. In many cases the incense offering is done in earthern structures with a chimney, built outside Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries.  It is a popular act of ‘worship’ which entails the burning of juniper and other fragrant substances. According to the Okar Research blog, ‘Sangsol’ involves the burning of juniper branches along with substances consisting of a mixture of “the three whites” and “the three sweets” (flour, butter, yogurt, sugar, molasses and honey) as well as incense, 5 coloured cloth, medicine, alcohol and precious stones or jewels. I remember how my late Pala (father) used to add ‘tsampa’ (barley), rock sugar and dried fruits to be offered in the sangsol.

We used to offer sang-sol on auspicious days, especially the 15th of every month in the lunar calendar. The ceremony has been practiced over thousands of years by Tibetans across Tibet and is widely prevalent among the diverse Himalayan Buddhist communities. Often it is accompanied with the unfurling of the lung-ta or prayer flags, which are meant to bring auspiciousness in the lives of the individuals. According to Tsewang Gyalpo Arya, Lungta prayer flags are hoisted on auspicious days, especially during the Tibetan New Year, Losar. When things are not going well and smoothly, people often hoist Lungta flags and perform Sangsol [burning of juniper or herbs]. What is interesting is that both sang-sol and unfurling of lung-ta are pre-Buddhist practices. These rituals can be traced to the Bon period and are modes of propitiating the local deities of Tibet and the Himalayas. These deities reside in the natural surroundings and are the autochthonous beings of the land.

Known as the ‘yul-lhas’, ‘sa-dags’, ‘zhib-dags’, and ‘kyi-lhas’, they play an important role in the life of a Tibetan Buddhist. They are the local gods or birth deities, who were bound under oath by the semi-mythical tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 7th-8th centuries or by later Buddhist masters, to protect the Buddhist dharma. In most cases, the deities reside in local hills or mountains and are often regarded as the ancestor of the local population. These spirits as according to Samten Karmay, belong to the ‘nyan’ category in the pre-Buddhist Bonpo cosmology and iconographically they take the form of a warrior mounted usually on a horse, but also other animals. In a way, sang-sol can be linked to the creation of a ‘local’ identity for the Tibetans and the other Himalayan communities. Worshipping the autochthonous deities through sang-sol can be seen as a mode of space-making and territorialisation by the local populations. Karmay further writes how rituals meant to worship these deities create social cohesion and moral obligation among the members of the village community. It encourages communal organisation centering upon the cult of the local spirits connected with water, soil, rocks and mountains.

From a Buddhist perspective, sang-sol is purification or cleansing of spiritual pollution or blockages. The first instance of the ritual being performed was when the Buddha was welcomed by his devotees through burning incense on their roofs or holding incense burners in their hands. According to the Buddhist narrative, it was Guru Padmasambhava who introduced burning of sang in Tibet. He had prescribed the ritual to dispel the spiritual pollution of King Trisong Detsan (one of the dharma-kings) of Tibet. There are several liturgical scriptures in Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism dedicated to the practice of sang-sol. In a way, sang-sol can be understood as one of the rituals co-opted by Buddhism when it made its entry into Tibet. The Buddhism followed in Tibet and much of the Himalayas incorporated several features and practices of the Bon and local religious systems of the communities that it encountered in the region. Sang-sol as rituals can be understood as spectacles of the process of the interaction between Buddhism and local belief systems. Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas was established through a process of ‘binding’ the local gods and goddesses, who were transformed into guardians of Buddhism. This is reflected in the famous ‘Riwo-Sang-Choe’ or The Mountain Incense – Smoke Offering composed by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), an important and powerful tulku, terton (treasure revealer) of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingmas trace their lineage directly to Guru Padmasambhava and they have a significant presence in the Himalayas. The ‘Riwo-Sang-Choe’ was a secret instruction from Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, a 16th century Tibetan saint who was instrumental in the creation of the Chogyal dynasty of Sikkim.

Towards the end of the ‘Riwo – Sang – Choe’ prayer, the dedication specifically mentions how the solemn promise of the protectors be fulfilled - དམ་ཅན་ཐུགས་དམ་སྐོང་གྱུར་ཅིག །  which alludes to the local pre – Buddhist deities who were bound and converted into guardians of Tibetan Buddhism. Martin Mills writes how sang-sol by monks represented a hierarchy, with the local protectors turned into helpers. In present times, the ritual of sang-sol has transformed into an expression of dissent by the Tibetans inside as well as outside Tibet against the Chinese state. Tibet was occupied by the People’s Republic of China in 1949-50 and after a failed uprising against the Chinese in 1959, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama came into exile in India. He was followed by tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees, who are based in South Asia as well as in other countries. Tibetans have always resisted and revolted against Chinese rule, with the resistance and protests taking several forms. In 2007, China arrested a person when several hundred Tibetans in Lhasa took part in an outlawed incense burning at Kuru bridge in Lhasa as a part of the offering rituals for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s long life. In 2019, in Kardze (eastern Tibet), Tibetans from two resettlement colonies burnt juniper (sang-sol) and recited prayers on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 84th birthday that led to the detaining of several Tibetans by the Chinese state. Even as recent as in 2020, China banned the practice of sang-sol outside the Jokhang temple in Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa, with authorities citing concerns over air pollution as reason for the ban. On an annual basis, Tibetans inside Tibet have conducted elaborate sang-sol rituals among others to commemorate the birthday of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Sang-sol is a common religious practice followed in Tibet and the Himalayas. It can be understood as a part of the ‘everyday religion’ that is performed by lay individuals and the clergy alike. While the ritual has its roots in the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, it has become an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. The ritual is also a propitiation of local deities in Tibet and the Himalayas, which can be interpreted as a mode of space-making and territorialization by the local communities. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Tibetans have utilized sang-sol as a form of resistance against the Chinese colonial state.