Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mysterious destructions of ancient Tibetan heritage sites

Several fires have broken out on the last weeks throughout the whole Tibetan territory, devastating some of the most important buildings and heritage centres in Tibet. The last one took place on 11 January in Gyalthang town, situated in Kham region in Southern Tibet (Ch.: Dukezong, Shangri-La County, Deqen Prefecture, Yunnan province). It gutted the historical centre of the city and destroyed nearly 300 houses, mainly made of wood. However, the conflagration made no casualties although 2,600 people were displaced or left homeless, and it took Chinese firefighters more than 10 hours to extinguish the flames.


Gyalthang is situated in Shangri-La county, the name of which was changed by the Chinese Communist Party from Zhongdian, which was given to it when the Chinese army occupied Tibet in the 1950s. It was renamed by Chinese authorities in 2001, in order to turn the county into a touristic area as it shares the name with the fictional land James Hilton wrote about on his novel Lost Horizon, written in 1933. Nevertheless, the renaming drew criticism by Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser as well as several Tibetan and non-Tibetan advocacy groups. For instance, the American newspaper Global Post wrote a series of articles criticizing the move by the Chinese Government as an attempt to transform the area in a sort of Tibetan Disneyland regardless of the people who are living there. In fact, the area has seen an increase flooding of Han migrants who are building plenty of tourist establishments in the city centre, just at the place where most local Tibetan population live. Furthermore, the authorities are encouraging the move of people from all around China in an attempt to "economically develop" the county and "improve the living standards of the local population. On the other side, Tibetans are often underemployed due to the flooding of Chinese skilled workers who get the best paid jobs, so the local population is facing an increasing poverty and marginalization. Moreover, some tourists who had been there complaint about the fact that many of the traditional buildings in Gyalthang (or Dukezong, in Chinese) have been demolished and replaced with brand-new ones which pretend to respect the traditional architecture.
In addition, the circumstances of the fire still remain unclear. The official China Daily newspaper blamed it on an electrical fault that took place inside an inn on the town centre, quoting local authorities. However, it seems quite implausible that a curtain on fire could damage nearly 300 houses and other symbols of ancient Tibetan heritage like thangka and culture relics in spite of the obstacles that firemen could face while putting an end to flames. Moreover, it seems that a fire prevention system which costed approximatelly a million dollars failed due to the freezing cold that disabled the pipes and the fire engines were unable to get close to the fire in the narrow streets of the town. Furthermore, local authorities have triggered the population's criticism because of the way in which they are facing the consequences of such catastrophe. In fact, most of the people who were left homeless, mostly Tibetans and Naxi, have stated that they were left outside with no clothes or bedding after having lost everything despite the freezing cold and two heavy snowfalls that had taken place on the days after the fire. Nevertheless, authorities have stated that they were sending emergency kits to the area and they had accommodated the victims at several hotels.
Leaving the possible causes aside, it seems hard to believe that it had been an accident considering that it had been the second burning incident in less than a week. On 9 January, another blaze destroyed about 100 houses belonging to Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Serthar, a town also situated in Kham region (Ch: Seda County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province). Ironically, one of the possible causes of the fire was an electric fault, as in the fire that destroyed nearly two thirds of Gyalthang city only three days later. However, other sources state that it might have been caused by a butter lamp at one of the nuns' rooms.
As the picture below shows, the flames turned the buddhist academy in something like a hell on earth. In fact, some witnesses stated that the flames could be seen from all around the area and had lit up the night. According to official Chinese sources, as many as 450 firemen, policemen and rescuers tried to put out the fire during hours but could not prevent some of the nuns' residences from burning. Nevertheless, it luckily did not cause any casualties or damages to the ancient heritage of the monastery although it left about 100 nuns homeless so far.



As if this was not enough, these two blazes have not been the single ones taking place in Tibet in the last year. Eventually, another one hit Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling monastery in Lithang county of Kham region (Ch: Litang County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province) on 16 November 2013, destroying the main prayer hall built in the 16th Century. In fact, the monastery was built by Sonam Gyatso, the third Dalai Lama, in 1580 and was one of the few ancient Tibetan monasteries which survived to the Cultural Revolution that shook Tibet and China between 1966 and 1976. It did not cause any casualties and its effects were limited to the multi-story main prayer hall withouth affecting any buildings of the monastic complex. Furthermore, the fire which destroyed Lithang monastery was also due to an electric fault originated in one of the visitors' halls of the religious building and erupted at night as well. In addition, it was also difficult to put out the flames as nearly 2,500 people were needed to extinguish them, whereas several monks had to be rescued from the raging inferno the prayer hall had become in. However, it seems that some of the most sacred objects inside the room could be saved. 
In conclusion, it seems unbelievable that three different fires could erupt in less than a year at the same region and in the same way, charring some of the most important Tibetan heritage sites across Kham. Furthermore, they are more unlikely to be accidental considering that Chinese authorities are developing plans to turn some of the most important Tibetan cities into touristic attractions despite the damages those policies could inflict to the local population. The most highlighted case is the series of reforms that the CCP is implementing in Lhasa, where authorities are building a shopping area with underground parking facilities right in the Barkhor, the sacred circumvalation road aroud the Jokhang temple which is the main way for Buddhist pilgrims into the city. Furthermore, most of the local Tibetans living in the area have been forced to move into newly built suburbs outside the city centre. So it seems that the Chinese Communist Party is really committed to destroy ancient Tibetan symbols just for tourism and propaganda purposes.
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