Bapu Pema Wange Sharchhokpa narrates stories of a past that seem both dear to him, but whose traces are soon disappearing. The resident of Arunachal Pradesh's Thembang village remembers a time when the festival of Losar would be celebrated with dancing and traditional sport. Bapu Pema Wange belongs to the Monpa community, an ancient ethnic group which resides in the state's Tawang and West Kameng areas.

The Monpas are Buddhists, and Losar is the Buddhist New Year. "Most residents left for other villages in the last few years, to pursue better livelihoods like farming, or moved to work in major cities. And many of them have not returned. Traditional Monpa songs have replaced by Hindi songs," he says, as he mourns that the festival is not as much fun anymore.

Pema invited me to celebrate the festival with his family in their village last year. Though the New Year is observed for different lengths of time in accordance with local traditions, the first three days of Losar are considered very auspicious across Tibetan Buddhist communities.

On Lama-Losar, the first day, people visit monasteries, pay regards to the Lamas and receive their blessings. This day is spent with family members only. The second day is termed Gyalpo-Losar, where 'Gyalpo' means king, signifying authority. Festive public observances are performed on this day.

The third day is known as Chokyong-Losar. 'Chokyong' refers to the guardian deities, and on this day, prayer flags are hoisted on the hills and around the houses. Guardian deities are appeased, and request prayers are read.

I remember waking up on the first day of the festival at 3 am because of the sound of crackers bursting outside. When I stepped into the kitchen of Pema's house at 7 am, his mother Tsering Pema said to me, "Your sleep must be broken at dawn on the first day. Early in the morning, one family member will go to fetch water from the stream or water tap. We then offer incense, biscuits and liquor to the source, and a scarf is tied around the tap."

She explains that family members compete for the first draw of water, since it is believed to be especially purifying and sanctifying as it has been cleansed by the starlight of the night before. "This water is added to the main water container, and is a sign of prosperity," she adds.

The Monpas are known for their skills in weaving and woodwork. They have also been credited with creating paper from the pulp of the local sukso tree. The Losar festival is extremely important to them, and Pema associates it with cold weather and snow — an aspect that is missing, owing to climate change.

Losar-01

Lobsang Gyasto Sharchokpa places wheat on the right shoulder of his brother's wife, Yangchen Tsomu, as part of a ritual known as chhemar temrey.

Losar-02

Tsering Pema prepares noodles for her entire family on the first day of the festival. Puta, the traditional Monpa version of noodles, are made from buckwheat flour. Preparing them is a time-intensive and complicated process. The Monpas use a noodle maker called the putatzirsheng. The dough is put through the noodle maker and then pressed. Puta is usually eaten with a stew made of vegetables, fermented cheese and chilies.

I spent the rest of the first day devouring the local cuisine, sipping tea and a local spirit called ara.

Losar-03

The traditional costume of the Monpa people is characterised by beautiful and vibrant colours and multiple patterns, which embody the tribe's culture. The costume is known for both its decorative and artistic value.

Losar-04

After the chhemar temrey ritual, the Wange family members gather to have a meal together. The Monpas' traditional dishes include momos, thukpa, khazi (rice blended with finely minced maanpatta — a local vegetable that resembles spring onion leaves), chamin (a side dish made using fermented cheese and chilies) and salt, and khapse. Khapse, rolls shaped like the figure eight and fried in soya bean oil, are made from flour (maida), exclusively for the occasion of Losar.

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Young Monpa women welcome the new year with dances and songs. One of the songs I heard was dedicated to the natural environment and the beauty of the sub-Himalayan landscape.

Losar-09

A group of villagers plays a Tibetan dice game known as paro-tsho which involves rolling dice and moving markers, such as old Tibetan coins, clockwise. The first person to reach the end of an arc of stones or beads is the winner. This game, which was once a favourite among the Monpas, has now been replaced by games that can be played on mobile phones.

Kolok-pa is another traditional game which involves throwing stones at a target.

Losar-11

A villager points towards an unused traditional wooden Tantric Buddhist dance mask. Previously, mask dances were an integral part of Losar celebrations. Today there are barely any performances and the community of mask manufacturers is nearly absent.

Losar-12

The Wange family of the Thembang village pose for a photograph in their courtyard. Though the Monpas generally wear woolen coats and trousers, the traditional dress of the community is based on the Tibetan chuba, a long sheepskin coat.

—All photographs © Ritayan Mukherjee