Tibetan Monks in Protest Over Opera Ban

2007-08-30
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Video of the unveiling of the thangka taken by a visitor and posted on YouTube

WASHINGTON—Dozens of Tibetan monks at one of Lhasa’s most prestigious monasteries staged a protest in recent days, refusing to take part in a traditional Buddhist ceremony at which a huge devotional painting is unveiled.

The painting, known as a thangka, is usually unrolled amid continuous prayer and with great ceremony on the bare rocky hillside outside the monastery, as the sun rises.

But this year, according to sources in Tibet, things proceeded differently.

Opera plans vetoed

“The monks at Drepung monastery refused to carry and display the giant cloth thangka. Therefore a few monks who are staff were told by the authorities to carry and display it,” a caller to RFA’s Tibetan service said.

The caller said the dispute stemmed from a plan to revive the traditional Tashi Sholpa opera performance, which was once the main highlight of the annual Yogurt Festival, lasting several days in pre-1959 Tibet.

The monks at Drepung monastery refused to carry and display the giant cloth thangka...The thangka was displayed by visitors, by members of the public.

But Chinese officials quashed the idea, and the monks refused to participate at the thangka ceremony in protest, the caller said.

“Normally, the monks of Drepung go to the site and conduct prayers until the arrival of the giant thangka. It depends on the weather. If the weather is good, the thangka is carried over the mountain and displayed on the side of the hill when the sun shines over the hilltop. This year, the monks refused to come, so it was delayed until quite late, and when it was displayed, it was already 10 a.m.,” the caller added.

The unveiling of the heavy cloth painting, which measures about 100 feet (30 m) across, was done by a handful of monks whose official status under Chinese rule made it impossible to refuse. They were helped by onlookers.

Tourist video of the unveiling ceremony showed a large crowd present to witness the thangka ceremony.

Crowds larger than usual

“This year there were no special prayers, a simple recitation was done and then it was over,” the caller said.

“Usually, several monks say prayers for many hours until the giant thangka is displayed on the side of the hill in Drepung. Every year, we invite a statue of Lord Buddha. We couldn’t do that either."

“The giant thangka was displayed by visitors, by members of the public. This year there was no line of monks, nor any carrying of victory banners or ceremonial umbrellas. The crowds were larger than last year. There was a huge crowd of foreign and Chinese tourists,” the caller said.

An official who answered the phone at Drepung Monastery's Democratic Management Committee confirmed that the incident had taken place. But he declined to give further details.

Sources said that members of a supervisory government work team were present in the monastery.

“There are eight of them permanently stationed there, and 30 new members have joined them. In total, there are about 38 who keep an eye on Drepung monastery,” the caller said, adding that he didn’t foresee further repercussions at Drepung.

Original reporting in Tibetan by Dolkar. RFA Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Karma Dorjee and Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Tibetan

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