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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China tightens grip on Tibet's biggest festival

August 25, 2009

By Sudeshna Sarkar
IANS
August 23, 2009

Lhasa, Aug 23 (IANS) -- 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.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in  )
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