What is White Month?

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

The White Month holiday (Sagaalgan), emerged from nomadic culture on the steppes of Mongolia. Originally it was celebrated in autumn, when the production of so many milk-based foods which saw the nomads through the rigors of winter, drew to a close. White Month therefore features “White foods”, which are of course milk based. These foods include: Airag – fermented mares milk, YUM! Salamat – sour cream mixed with flour and fried. It is to die for! Sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese similar to Brinza, and Tarasoon, “milk vodka” all fall into the white food group. You must not forget Buuz, the crowning culinary treat in Buryat culture.

Glorious homemade buuz crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

Glorious homemade buuz waiting for the steam pot. Lovingly crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

With the influence of Buddhism waxing in the 1700’s among the peoples of the steppe, the holiday was moved to the first month of the Lunar Year. Sagaalgan starts on a different date every year depending on when the first new moon of the year falls, which makes it a “nomadic holiday” on the calendar. It can start anytime beginning in mid-January to roughly mid-March.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Because of the change, Sagaalgan is now the celebration of the lunar New Year. The ideas of a clean start, and cleansing oneself from the sins of the last year fit in nicely with the idea of White Month. White itself is a “color” that represents peace and good fortune in the family according to Buryat belief. So turning from sins to a clean start should bring peace and a better future to the family.

Casting dough full of last year's sin into the prepared bonfire.

Casting dough full of last year’s sin into the prepared bonfire.

The people's collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the "Cleansing Fire". (Дугжууба (Dugzhooba) The Cleansing Fire. What does this have to do with cold? It was -30 C out. Even in my fur and feathers (down) After being out for hours, I was COLD. This is a ritualistic fire into which Buddhists throw dough which they have rolled ov

The people’s collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the “Cleansing Fire”. (Dugzhooba)

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

Lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

Lit by flare of fireworks, lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

On the evening before Lunar New Year begins, people gather at their local temple for the ritual of Dugzhooba, (Дугжууба) or, the “Cleansing Fire”. This event will make quite an impression on any person who manages to wait out the cold to see all the sins of last year burn in a bonfire. Through out the day leading up to the lighting of the fire, people visit the temple to pray and throw bags of dough into the bonfire. The dough is mixed at home and rolled over the body to collect the sins of the last year. This year while watching people approach the fire, I noticed several take dough out of their purse or pocket, and dab off any uncleanliness or sin they may have collected on their feet on the way to the temple. They then cast it amongst the straw and wood to be burned later.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Visiting family is a vital part of White Month. Buryats value their family connections. Relatives that people in the west would consider distant, are close relatives to the Buryats. Much of White Month, which truly is a month long celebration, is spent visiting relatives. Gifts are exchanged and the prerequisite white foods are set upon tables across the Buryat homeland. Laughter abounds at the table as families catch-up, feast and admire any new babies who have made their appearance. Cup after cup of tea disappears in between toasts to the New Year and health of the family. And just when you think everyone has had their fill, another round of eating and toasting begins! (And then, yet another!)

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

Look for part B of this post coming soon to a blog near you. Here is a teaser:

Sagaalgan Adventures

The pocket into which I had (safely?) slid my passport was EMPTY! After triple confirmation, I quickly scanned the faces of the Buddhist supplicants crushing in from all sides…

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The Gates of Sagaalgaan

Entry gate to the Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude, all done up Buryat style. Another fine example of Steppe Bling.

Entry gate to the Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude, all done up Buryat style. Another fine example of Steppe Bling.

The gates of Sagaalgaan (White Month) are about to open! White Month is celebrated across the Southern Siberian steppe, Mongolia and parts of China where ever the remnant people of Genghis Khan’s great empire reside. Known as Shagaa in Tuva, Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia and Chagan Sar in Kalmykia, and Sagaalgaan in Buryatia, White Month hastens in the first month of the Lunar New Year. I am not sure what the Lunar New Year is called across the rest of Asia, but it is celebrated throughout Asia. If you know what the Lunar New Year is called in Korea, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, India, China, or any other Asian country, please leave me a comment below!

Serpant Khan; lord of the Lunar New Year.

Serpant Khan; lord of the Lunar New Year.

This is the year of the snake, which explains this giant ice serpent lording itself over Soviet Square in the center of Ulan-Ude. As the New Year approaches, you always know what next years Wild Kingdom representative (shout out to Marlin Perkins!) will be, as images of it materialize everywhere in plastic, plush, poster, and confection. I was severely tempted to purchase snake embellished porcelain tea cups several days back. I bet your grandmother does not have porcelain ware with snakes in her hutch.

White Month is sure to be a grand month-long celebration. There will be family to visit and feast with, concerts to attend, ceremonies at local Buddhist temples, Shamanistic rituals, and white foods (any milk product, and mutton counts as a white meat) consumed by the stomach-full. White Month also serves to welcome the spring sun to the steppe. (We are in the fit of a cold spell with lows in the -40’s.) After February, it’s all downhill to summer, only March, April and May remain between hardy Siberians and the God blessed month of June!

Stay tuned to this White channel, where I will endeavor to introduce to you the joys, foods and spiritual perspectives of the Buryat during White Month. (Previous years White Month posts: 1. Melody of the Western Buryats, 2. White Month, and 3. Buryat Dance Troupe Ulaalzai.) And, for your enjoyment, images from White Month across the Mongolian World!

Tuva

Shamans lead a ritual during Shagaa in Kyzyl, Tuva. (Alexander Kryazhev RIA Novosti)

Shamans lead a ritual during Shagaa in Kyzyl, Tuva. (Alexander Kryazhev RIA Novosti)

Buddhist Ritual Dance for Shagaa in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. (found on Sib-infor.ru)

Buddhist Ritual Dance for Shagaa in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. (found on Sib-infor.ru)

Kalmykia

Traditional steppe greeting with white silk for an honored guest. Kalmykia. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Traditional steppe greeting with white silk for an honored guest. Kalmykia. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Dancers celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the capital city of Kalmykia, Elista. (Nikolai Boshev Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Dancers celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the capital city of Kalmykia, Elista. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Worshipers gather in the main Temple in Elista. (SaveTibet.ru)

Worshipers gather in the main Temple in Elista. (SaveTibet.ru)

Mongolia

State ceremony in honor of Tsagaan Sar. I believe the man in the center is the former President of Mongolia. (my.englishclub.com)

State ceremony in honor of Tsagaan Sar. I believe the man in the center is the former President of Mongolia. (my.englishclub.com)

Trading snuff bottles, an old tradition with Mongolian peoples. (my.englishclub.com)

Trading snuff bottles, an old tradition with Mongolian peoples. (my.englishclub.com)

Ice Garden

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A garden of ice has been cold forged in Ulan-Ude to celebrate the New Year. Several themes that figure brightly in the history of the Buryat people are represented in the shaved sculptures standing in the city center, Soviet Square. Walking toward the arched entry way you will notice two ice-women welcoming you (coldly, he, he!) onto the square. One is Buryat, the other Russian, dressed in their respective ethnic outfits. In 2011, Buryatia will celebrate becoming part of the Russian Federation 350 years ago, which explains our ice-ladies, who echo the official emblem of the upcoming year of celebration. (See emblem below.)

350 years: "Together through time!"

Stealing through crystal arches, you blunder right into the middle of Wild Kingdom! (Shout out to Marlin Perkins, who showed me the world from my television window.) The animals of the lunar calendar, stand paw to paw in ice.  Rabbit is standing in the center, for it is his year to reign the cycle. I first came to Siberia in 1998, and in December of that year rabbits showed up everywhere in the city!  On plastic shopping bags, little figurines for sale, framed pictures, on notebook covers, and stuffed animals. I remember asking someone, “Why are there rabbits everywhere?” Answer: Chinese lunar calendar.

After animal kingdom, two stories of ice samovar, crowned with a teapot, and accompanied by four faithful courtier tea cups sparkle in the sun. No matter what people say about vodka, tea is Czar in Russia. You can easily go a day without vodka, but a day without tea is like forgetting how to breathe, it just doesn’t happen.

The tea road originated in China, passed through Mongolia and on through Buryatia, the Irkutsk Oblast (territory), and west toward to Moscow. Fortunes were made, cities built, intrigues played and perils risked on dried bales of tea leaves.

Tomorrow the square will be filled with fur garbed New Year’s revelers, sliding on the ice-slides, merrily strolling together with family, greeting friends, and at midnight setting the sky ablaze with a veritable arsenal of Chinese fireworks. Happy New Year! С новым годом!

Leaving the year of the Tiger for . . .

the year of the Rabbit.