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China tightens grip on Tibet’s biggest festival
Lhasa, Aug 23 (IANS):
Published on 24 Aug. 2009 12:15 AM IST
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Nearly 18 months after the eruption of protests led by Tibetan monks in Lhasa that turned into widespread riots, China this month tightened its grip on the former Buddhist kingdom’s grandest religious festival to show who’s in control. With the week-long Buddhist festival, the Shoton festival, kicking off Friday, Beijing is using the period of feasting combined with spectacular open-air operas and horse and yak racing - to demonstrate to the outside world that peace has returned Lhasa that had been out of bounds last year after at least 18 people died during protests, an official figure that is rejected by rights organisations. The Shoton Festival is an 11th century ritual begun as a reprieve for fasting monks who during this time of the year were allowed to leave their monasteries after a long period of confinement. Down the years it developed into an elaborate festival with banquets and performances by the Tibetan Opera as well as racing. Since 1994, after four decades of annexing Tibet and reconstituting it, China put its stamp on the Shoton Festival as well. Now, it is officially celebrated as the China Lhasa Yoghurt Festival with the official version inaugurated in the great square right opposite the Potala, the palace of the former rulers of independent Tibet, which is now part museum and part administrative offices. While tourists and the foreign media were banned in Tibet last year, China courted both this month to showcase the festival as an example of its religious tolerance, the `peace’ reigning in Lhasa as well as the `addition depth’ added to the Tibetan festival under the Chinese government. “The context of the festival has become much richer,” the vice-mayor of Lhasa Chen Zhi Chan told IANS as dancers in ethnic costumes and colourful masks whirled energetically in the sun-dappled Potala Square and tutored schoolchildren applauded lustily. “It is not just a Buddhist festival, modern elements have been added to it.” One of the add-ons is a beer-drinking festival. Shoton, meaning yoghurt in Tibetan, was originally a festival where the devout offered the yak milk drink to fasting monks to earn merit. “Drinking represents the nature of the Tibetan people,” the Chinese official adds. “It is a kind of local culture. The Tibetan beer is different, being made of highland barley. It is meant to boost local economy.” There are also trade fairs and cultural shows. However, the real crowds head for the Zhaihung Monastery away from the official celebration where the ritual remains true to the old tradition. On one face of the steep rocks there, monks lovingly unveil the Buddha Thanka - a 20-metre long scroll painting of the Buddha - as incantations are sung and the faithful throw silk scarves and little printed squares of paper in homage. Hundreds of the Tibetan worshippers started out from their homes around midnight, patiently trudging up the steep path beaten through rocks. Old men and women and mothers with young children tied to their backs undertake the arduous climb for the sake of a glimpse of the Buddha, who will be veiled again at the end of the day and taken inside the monastery where it will remain folded till the next Shoton Festival. However, though opening up slightly for the festival, Beijing remains wary still. The visas issued are mostly for a single entry, which will allow a foreigner to stay in Lhasa for just five days.The exercise in controlled freedom is heightened by the absence of any bargain offers for tourists, which marks tourist-drawing festivals in other countries. Most air passengers have to catch the flight to Lhasa from Nepal’s Kathmandu. China’s China Airlines charges a whopping $379 for a one-way flight though it takes only about 50 minutes. In sharp contrast, the journey to Delhi from Kathmandu and back costs about $200. There are no special hotel promotion packages or discounts on admission fees to special places. The entry fee to the Potala Palace, for example, is 100 yuan - nearly Rs.800; Admission to the Jhokhang temple, one of the most sacred shrines in Lhasa, is 80 yuan. Also, unlike the practice followed in many South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, there are also no concessions for tourists from regional bloc though China is now an observer there.

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