Tsagan Sar

The celebration of Tsagan Sar, or White Month, takes place two months after Zul on the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar. It is a celebration of the coming of spring when nature wakes up from its winter sleep. Because white symbolizes purity and the beginning of life, the celebration is called White Month.

The preparation for the celebration begins with cleaning the house. All valuables kept in chests and drawers are taken out, cleaned and aired. People prepare their best clothes for the celebration. Both the house and the cattle yard are purified with incense.

On the eve of Tsagan Sar all families cook traditional biscuits called bortsg, of various shapes, each of which has its own name and symbolic meaning. For example, tselvg or khavtkha symbolizes the Sun; togsh – a fence for enclosing sheep; jola – long life; khutsyn tolga – animal offspring; khorkha – fertility, etc. After the baking is done, Kalmyks light candles and place some biscuits on the family altar. The oldest members of the family perform a ritual called tsagana bortsg yoryallgn in which they utter well-wishes for the bortsg biscuits. Afterwards the biscuits are tied together with a thread pushed through them to form gift bundles. Each gift bundle must have a specific number of each kind of bortsg, that is one khavtha, six togsh, one khutsyn tolga, one jola, one moshkmr, three shor and one kit.

On the first day of Tsagan Sar, early in the morning the head of the family offers tea to the goddess of the hearth, Okn Tengr. He then pulls the door of the house wide open, steps out with his right leg, while his left leg is still inside the house, and sprinkles the tea upwards as an offering. During the holiday houses should have their doors open and have a table laid with food for guests. A traditional greeting on this day is ‘Did you spend the winter well?’ (Uvles mend garvt?). Hand shaking or tsagallgn is done as follows. The two touch each other’s elbows with the palm of their hands, which are covered by the edge of their sleeves. The one who first offers a greeting has to touch the left collarbone of the other person with his/her right collarbone.

During Tsagan Sar children visit their maternal relatives, taking with them presents. In return, they receive a present in the form of a sheep’s leg. This ritual is called ze berkh.

Tsagan Sar lasts for a month and the ritualized hand shaking of tsagallgn may be performed until the beginning of Ur(s) Sar. In the first fifteen days of Tsagan Sar, monasteries perform special rituals to commemorate the victory of the Buddha over falsehood. According to yet another legend, Tsagan Sar is also celebrated to commemorate the victory of the goddess Okn Tengr over a demon that wished to destroy the entire humanity.

A Discussion: Tsagan Sar in the Context of Kalmyk Culture

This discussion was organized by two organizations, namely In’glyan (the Association of Women of Kalmykia) and Bilgin Dala.

The discussion starts with a well-wish uttered by Viktor Mandzhiev. Then Arvan Karmanov, chair of the discussion, reads out a text about how Tsagan Sar was celebrated in the Mongolian empire.

Viktor Mandzhiev: Before Khubilai Khan (a Mongolian emperor), Tsagan Sar was celebrated in October on the first day of the month of the mouse. During the reign of Khubilai Khan, however, Mongols started to celebrate this holiday in the first month of spring, which was a Chinese influence. Traditionally, before Tsagan Sar the Kalmyks made bortsg biscuits, repaid their loans and put on new clothes. On the day of the celebration itself people read prayers to the goddess Okn Tengr (Palden Lhamo) and lit candles.

Ochir Terbataev: During Tsagan Sar the Kalmyks moved from their winter camps to their summer ones.

Gennady Korneev: Tsagan Sar is important because it is associated with the Clear script (Tod bichg). In the biography of Zaya Pandita it is mentioned that he compiled the Clear script while celebrating Tsagan Sar in 1648 with Ablai Khan at the royal winter camp on the banks of the Chui river. There is another interesting historical fact related to this holiday. The Russian ambassador to Dzungaria, Unkovsky, witnessed the celebration of Tsagan Sar by Khuntaidzhi Khan who held a Buddhist dance of Tsam. Unkovsky described the dance in his diary.

The first law about universal education was adopted during the reign of Donduk Dashi Khan of Kalmykia. According to this law, all men were supposed to learn how to read and write. In Europe a similar law was adopted only 11 years later.

Viktor Mandzhiev: Tsagan Sar is related to the goddess Palden Lhamo, a protector of the Kalmyks, Tibet and the Dalai Lama himself.

Gennady Korneev: Tsagan Sar is called different names by various related peoples as follows. Among the Tuvinians it is called Shaga Bairam, the Altaians call it Chaga Bairam, the Buryats know it as Sagalgan, and both the Kalmyks and the Mongols call it Tsagan Sar. During Tsagan Sar cows give more milk than usual, and people therefore consume more milk products. Perhaps, Tsagan Sar (lit. white month) is called so because of this.

Basan Zakharov: Tsagan Sar has a shamanic origin. Before Khubilai Khan, it was celebrated in the autumn in the month of the mouse. Khubilai Khan moved the date to spring in accordance with the Chinese calendar.

A legend about the origin of Tsagan Sar is connected with the goddess Okn Tengr (Palden Lhamo) who was abducted by a monster. Okn Tengr married the monster and soon gave birth to a son. One night she had a dream that her son would destroy the entire human race. When she killed her son, Okn Tengr turned from a beautiful woman into a fierce goddess. Hence she is regarded as a protector of the Oirats and the whole of humanity.

The celebration of Tsagan Sar begins in the morning when people open their windows and doors. It is believed that Okn Tengr (Palden Lhamo) circumvents Earth three times on this day. It is customary to make traditional biscuits on this day, especially a round-shaped one called tselvg which symbolizes the sun. The Oirats are the children of the sun. That is why the Kalmyk hat has a red thread which symbolizes the sun’s ray.

Gennady Korneev: The legend about Okn Tengr (Palden Lhamo) is also known in Tibetan tradition. In the past this holiday was most likely connected with the cult of Tsagan Aav (Old White Man). Tselvg biscuits are also known among peoples such as the Kazakhs (they call it shelpek), the Kyrgyzs (chelpek), and Russians (blin). A solar element exists in the cultures of many other peoples as well.

Basan Zakharov: It is possible that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs borrowed tselvg biscuits from the Kalmyks. People can compare different cultures, but they should first of all study their own culture and traditions.

Gennady Korneev: No culture develops in isolation on its own. All cultures develop under the influence of others.

Historically speaking, the date of Tsagan Sar changed several times. Today it is Buddhist astrologists who determine the date. In Kalmykia, astrologists from the Central Temple in Elista do this job.

Basan Zakharov: Given there is only one moon, there should be only one lunar calendar. Religion is an ideology, so are calendars. The Kalmyks, who are a Mongolian group, should follow the Mongolian calendar rather than the Tibetan one.

Arvan Karmanov: Arvan reads an extract from a book by Pozdneev about how the Mongols celebrated Tsagan Sar in the past. Then he tells the audience about the 1771 exodus of the Kalmyks back to Dzungaria.

A question from the audience: What to offer to (gods) during Tsagan Sar?

Anton Gil’dzhirov (monk): In the Theravada tradition offerings should be made to the Buddha in the form of light food, including fruits and flowers.

Basan Zakharov: The Kalmyks offer milk products. People should welcome Tsagan Sar in a clean house wearing new clothes and without outstanding loans.

A question from the audience: What about compiling a set of laws as to how to celebrate Tsagan Sar?

Gennady Korneev: Anton Gil’dzhirov and I are compiling a list of all books and works about Kalmyk culture printed before 1917. Based on this we can write a book about how Tsagan Sar was celebrated in the past and how to celebrate it today.


A Discussion: Tsagan Sar in the Context of Kalmyk Culture


Alexandra Nastaeva, Antonina Boskhandjieva, About Tsagan Sar


Galina Goryaeva, Tsagan Sar


Larisa Shoglyaeva, About Tsagan Sar


Maria Kamandzhaeva, About Tsagan Sar


Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Tsagan Sar


Vera Doldaeva, About Tsagan Sar