If not the Philippines or India, Russia would beat all other countries in the number of festivals it holds each year. Home to numerous ethnic groups, this country can easily highlight an entire twelve-month calendar. Thus, as February approaches, the Republic of Buryatia gets ready to celebrate Sagaalgan, the New Year as of the Lunar calendar. This fest manifests the rich tradition and cultural heritage of the Buryat people. Get your complete guide to one of Russia’s most authentic celebration.
Following a good old tradition, during the fest of the White Month people should come together so as the life gets brighter and misfortunes are gone, so as the sheep fatten quicker and the sky over the head stays blue. Only good is appreciated, only better tomorrow is known (Bair Dugarov, Russian Soviet writer).
In the Buddhist tradition, the New Year is celebrated with the first new moon of spring. As the date is not fixed, the celebration can take place somewhen between the end of January and mid-March. This bright holiday of paying homage to elders and traditions symbolizes the renewal of man and nature, the purity of thoughts and good deeds. Back in times, people prepared for the celebrations in advance hence slaughtered the cattle and cleaned the house. During the festive days, they only wore the most expensive and well-kept attire.
Sagaalgan can be divided into three main phases: the Eve, the first day of the New Year, and the rest of the month. Prior to the Eve, the religious people attend the datsan, a Buddhist temple, that is mainly known throughout Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet.
Similarly to big Christian holidays, there is an evening- and night-long service. Apart from visiting a massive worship ceremony, you can also make a personal request. Thus, in a tête-à-tête session, you write down your name, and of the ones you love and ask for prayer from a local lama. Usually, this ritual aims to protect you against ailment and instead bring luck and happiness in the coming year. A special prayer should be ordered for those whose animal will run this coming year. According to the Lunar Calendar, time cycles are split into 12 different parts, which bear the attributes of 12 specific animals. Thus, once the next life cycle ends up and the new one arrives, it’s important to be particularly cautious. Hence, if you happen to be born in the year of a Pig and travel to either Ulan-Ude or Irkutsk, make sure to ask for a blessing.
Another illustrative ritual is Dugzhuuba or a purification rite. The believers gather outside of the datsan, around a cone-shaped structure also known as Dugzhuuba. Made of wooden boards and covered with fabric, in the way that it resembles the tongues of fire, it symbolizes all human sins done in the outgoing year. Usually, people also bring the little pieces of clothes or unfermented dough, that they used to wipe off their bodies. It’s believed that by doing that, you remove all the bad energy away. By burning these pieces in the fire of Dugzhuuba, you so to say ‘clean’ yourself and get ready to roll into a new year.
Keeping in mind the designation of this celebration as a White Month, it’s not hard to guess that the white colour is of importance. Traditionally, it’s a colour of wisdom and purity. Also, during Sagaalgan, you’re expected to try ‘white’ meals, like fried milk scums or cottage cheese (tvorog in Russian). However, all the attention generally goes to the dishes cooked from a fresh lamb. There are dozens of lamb delicacies known in the Buryat culture. The consumption of alcohol during the festivities is not desirable.
Now, when you have your complete guide to Sagaalgan, the Buryat New Year, in front of your eyes and know the general procedure, only the last thing is missing. As a tourist just arrived in Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude, you most probably won’t end up with a traditional Buryat family sharing a festive table. However, you can still feel the spirit of Sagaalgan, if you head to the Datsan of Rinpoche Bagsha, a Buddhist temple in Ulan-Ude. Located not far from the city center, this datsan is easy to reach by public transportation. It offers a panoramic view over the entire Ulan-Ude, as it was built on the high hill. Lush forests and a circular wooden boardwalk surround the datsan itself. There are several cafes with traditional cuisine opened and a massive souvenir shop nearby. During the festive days, there are big everyday services opened to attend for everyone. Now that you know of Dugzhuuba don’t forget your piece of dough. Happy 2019!
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.