Tibetan Crowds at Lhasa Festival Smaller This Year, With Officials Citing ‘COVID’ Fears

From: RFA | 2020-08-20

A major religious festival is being held this week in Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa  under heavy security, with fewer numbers of Tibetans allowed to attend this year because of official concerns over the possible spread of coronavirus, according to Tibetan sources.

The Shoton, or Yogurt Festival, runs this year from Aug. 19 to 24 and features the unveiling of a large embroidered thangka portrait of the Buddha on a hillside outside Lhasa’s Drepung monastery, with Tibetan devotees flocking to see the precious relic.

Usually numbering in the thousands, this year’s crowds are smaller, though, owing to government restrictions on the numbers of people allowed to take part, Tashi Namygyal—a Tibetan researcher based in India—told RFA’s Tibetan Service, citing sources in the Lhasa area.

“The Chinese strategy of preventing Tibetans from performing their religious rights in the name of controlling COVID-19 is very cynical,” Namgyal said. “Meanwhile, Chinese tourists and laborers have been pouring into Lhasa in large numbers, raising huge concerns among Tibetans.”

Established in the 17th century, the Shoton festival began as an observance in which Tibetans offered yogurt to Buddhist monks who had completed their annual religious retreats, and is based on a tradition dating back centuries earlier to the time of the Buddha, in India. Yogurt made of yak milk remains a Tibetan staple.

Along with religious observances, the festival has traditionally featured performances of traditional Tibetan opera and other cultural exhibitions at the Norbulingka, the summer home in Lhasa of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

This year, though, many of the traditional cultural performances have been canceled without explanation and replaced by displays of Chinese state propaganda, Namgyal said.

“For example, the performance of opera at the Norbulingka will not be held, and an exhibition of Chinese propaganda photos is being put up in its place,” Namgyal said.

Crowds closely watched by police

Tibetan sources in Lhasa and in exile meanwhile said that many Tibetans have not been allowed access to the large thangka portrait of the Buddha traditionally unveiled on the hillside outside Drepung, and that large numbers of police both in uniform and in plain clothes had been deployed to monitor the crowds.

“We couldn’t even go near the precious relic of the Buddha because there were so many Chinese tourists there,” one source in Lhasa said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We Tibetans were constantly being watched under heavy security,”

It is unreasonable to cite concerns over coronavirus to limit the numbers of Tibetans taking part in religious festivals when large numbers of Chinese are freely allowed to enter Lhasa as tourists, another local source said.

“Arrivals from China have quadrupled since fears have eased over the spread of COVID-19,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named and adding that around 4,000 Chinese tourists visit Lhasa’s Potala Palace, the winter home of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, every day.

“Tibetans living in Tibet are complaining that their culture is becoming a showpiece for Chinese tourists, while the Tibetans themselves are denied the opportunity to preserve and cherish their traditions,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.