A major religious festival was held in Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa this week under heavy security, with large numbers of Chinese police both in uniform and plain clothes deployed to monitor the crowds, Tibetan sources said.
This year’s Shoton, or Yogurt Festival, was held from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, and featured picnicking and the unveiling of a large embroidered thangka portrait of the Buddha on a hillside outside Lhasa’s Drepung monastery, with thousands of devotees flocking to see the precious relic.
“But though the outward appearance of the crowds is lively, there has been little sense of joy among the festival-goers,” a source in Lhasa told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“They are watching their traditional way of celebrating Shoton gradually erode under an atmosphere of heavy security and surveillance,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“In the name of security, the government has arranged a heavy presence of police,” another source in Lhasa said, adding, “This is probably due to a fear of unrest taking place.”
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.
Along with religious observances, the festival features 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.
Restrictions on religion
This year, government employees in Lhasa have been granted a week’s leave for the festival, which has drawn large crowds from Lhasa and nearby areas and even from other parts of Tibet, making it difficult to navigate in the streets, one source said.
“At the same time, government workers and retirees are barred from engaging in religious activities, and government workers and students in Tibetan schools are forbidden from visiting local monasteries.”
With surveillance cameras mounted on street corners and at police checkpoints, Tibetans now feel like they are living in a giant prison, a third source said, adding, “Your every movement is watched from the time you leave your house until you return.”
Meanwhile, Chinese officials have delivered speeches at the festival denouncing the Dalai Lama and urging Tibetans to be loyal to the ruling Chinese Communist Party and government, said an instructor named Samten at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, citing contacts in Tibet.
“This traditional Tibetan festival has been turned into a platform for propaganda and political theater,” Samten said.