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Monks, sweets, politics at Tibetans' main festival

February 27, 2008

NGAWA, CHINA Feb 26, (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of Tibetan monks and
onlookers celebrated their largest annual religious festival at
Gerdeng Monastery in Ngawa, high up in the mountains of southwestern
China's Sichuan province.

Monlam, or the Great Prayer Festival, has a history of nearly 600
years and remains a controversial festival in the politically
sensitive ethnic Tibetan areas. It was started by the founder of the
Gelugpa sect, the sect of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader
of Tibetan Buddhism.

Monks blessed sacks of sweets, then tossed the sweets to the thousands
of worshippers, who scrambled to collect them.

One of the highlights of the festival is the unveiling of a giant
Buddha scroll on the side of the monastery, known as a "thang-ga" or
"thongdrol". The sight of the Buddha is believed to be a blessing for
followers. Monks also chant prayers and perform ritual dances as part
of the festivities.

Monlam usually lasts from the fourth to eleventh day of the first
month on the Tibetan calendar, depending on the customs of individual
Tibetan communities.

Located in a mountainous area some 3,000 meters above sea level, Ngawa
town, or "Aba" in Mandarin, is the religious centre of the Ngawa
Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Over 50 percent of the
population in the region is Tibetan.

Gerdeng Monastery is the largest Gelugpa Tibetan monastery there,
housing over 2,000 monks who preserve the festival traditions.

The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against
Chinese Communist rule in Tibet, where critics say Beijing curbs
religious and political freedoms.

Last weekend, a dispute over the price of balloons in an ethnically
Tibetan town in Qinghai province sparked a clash between thousands of
residents and police, a source with knowledge of the situation told
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