Major fires over past year devastate important Tibetan towns, monasteries

  • A fire that gutted more than two-thirds of an old Tibetan town in Gyalthang, renamed by China as ‘Shangri-La’, in Yunnan on January 11 was the seventh major blaze in eastern Tibet in just over a year.
  • A forest fire that broke out in a hilly area of Nyagchukha (Chinese: Yajiang) in Kardze, Sichuan, on January 25 is still not under control, according to a report today by Radio Free Asia (RFA, Wildfire threatens Tibetan monastery town). Radio Free Asia reported that the cause of the fire was unknown, citing a source saying that the fire was still burning on January 26, and that there was a risk that it might spread to the Nyagchukha county seat and a small monastery.
  • This report features images of a number of fires in Tibetan sites, including three ancient and important monasteries, all but one in the Tibetan area of Kham in Sichuan since December 2012.
  • The blaze in the Tibetan town in Gyalthang (Chinese: Zhongdian) followed a fire that destroyed around 100 wooden homes of nuns in one of the largest centers of Buddhist study in the world, Serthar institute in the Larung valley, two days earlier on January 9 (ICT report, Fire at important Tibetan Buddhist institute).
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Fire in ‘Shangri La’ devastates town

On January 11, fire-fighters, soldiers and police fought a blaze that spread rapidly among traditional wooden buildings in a Dhokhar Dzong (Chinese: Dukezong) in Gyalthang county in Yunnan.

The fire destroyed more than 240 houses, and more than 2,600 people were evacuated from three neighborhoods of the town, according to official media reports. No casualties have been reported. Xinhua stated: “Apart from the houses, shops and infrastructure facilities, the fire also burned some cultural relics, precious Tibetan thangka and other Tibetan art pieces.” (Xinhuanet, Fire in China’s Shangri-la damages 240 houses).

A local Chinese official acknowledged that excessive tourism had contributed to the spread of the blaze. Visitor numbers to the town had soared after Zhongdian area in Dechen (Chinese: Diqing) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was renamed by the Chinese authorities as ‘Shangri-La’ in 2001. Li Gang, director of cultural relics protection department of Dechen, was quoted by Xinhua on January 13 as saying that historically, the town had been designed ‘wisely’ for fire prevention, with, for example, enough space preserved between buildings to prevent the fire from spreading. But Li Gang said: “However, a lot of such space have been consumed in order to accommodate more restaurants, shops and inns as tourism booms,” Li said. “We have to reconsider the traditional principle of architecture while enhancing fire extinguishing facilities.” (Xinhua, Shangri-la blaze renews concerns over ancient town “abuse” – January 13).

The fire is said to have started with an electrical fault that ignited a curtain at an inn, and efforts to fight them were slowed by a non-functioning fire control system that had been installed at a cost of $1.45 million (China Digital Times, Tibetan town’s fire-fighting system was inactive).

There are fears that the fires in Gyalthang and other areas may support officials and contractors in replacing old towns with new, concrete buildings. For example, following the earthquake that devastated Kyegudo (Yushu) in Qinghai on April 14, 2010, the Chinese authorities have been implementing ambitious reconstruction plans rebuilding the town as an “eco-friendly tourist city”. Local Tibetans have been excluded from the process in an area which is a centuries-old Tibetan center of Tibetan culture and religion where Tibetans comprised 97% of the population (ICT report, Reconstruction of earthquake-hit area excludes Tibetan participation, ignores local concerns: one year on from earthquake).

Forest fire in Shangri-La county

Chinese media also reported a forest fire in Jinjiang town in Shangri-La county on January 9 (Ecns.cn, SW China forest fire caused by short circuit). The fire was caused by a short circuit at a high-voltage power line, local authorities said, and no casualties were reported. The same official media reported that 1200 locals and fire-fighters were involved in attempting to extinguish the blaze, indicating that the blaze was widespread.

Fire at important Lithang monastery

A fire at the important 16th century Ganden Thubten Choekhorling monastery (known popularly as Lithang monastery) in Lithang, Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture caused massive damage to the main prayer hall and injured two monks on November 16 (2013). Local Tibetans and Chinese tried to extinguish the blaze but the main prayer hall of the monastery was still burnt to the ground.

The cause of the blaze was unknown although some Tibetans speculated it was due to a butter-lamp or short circuit. (RFA, Tibetan monastery suffers ‘massive damage’ in blaze).

The Tibetan Cabinet in exile, the Kashag, said in a statement: “We pray for the quick restoration of the monastery and for the continuation of its four hundred year old tradition of spreading the dharma. […] The monastery was founded in 1580 by the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso. The monastery holds a significant place in the history of Tibetan struggle as it became a major target of bombardment by the Chinese communist forces in 1956.” (CTA, Kashag saddened by fire at Lithang monastery).

Historic Kathok monastery devastated by fire

One of the principal monasteries of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Kathok in Kardze Prefecture, Sichuan, was considerably damaged after a major fire broke out on May 4, 2013. Kathok monastery was established more than 800 years ago (its significance in Tibetan Buddhism is assessed by writer and thangka painter Mikel Dunham in this blog). Images of the monastery before the fire were posted online by a Chinese tourist. The cause of the fire is not known.

Fire in important monastery in Nyarong, December 2012

Tsari (Chinese: ZeRe) monastery in Nyarong (Chinese: Xinlong), Kardze, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) suffered a major fire in December, 2012, more than a year ago (pictured). The retreat center of the monastery and more than 100 monks’ residences were destroyed at the monastery in Rulong township.

The fire was attributed to faulty or old wiring, and damage estimated at several million yuan, according to Chinese official reports online and details posted by a Chinese Buddhist blogger. (http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4a0d08280101f8mv.html, http://bbs.tianya.cn/post-free-2998659-1.shtml and http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_9d28193201016fsu.html)

Lithang monastery

The main prayer hall of Lithang monastery ablaze in November 2013.


Ganden Thubten Choekhorling monastery

The Ganden Thubten Choekhorling monastery in Lithang the day after the fire.


Ganden Thubten Choekhorling

Before the fire at Ganden Thubten Choekhorling, Lithang (image from 2009).


Ganden Thubten Choekhorling monastery

The main prayer hall at Ganden Thubten Choekhorling monastery, Lithang, before it was burnt down.


Tharmal monastery

Tharmal monastery in Rulong Township, Nyarong County (Chinese: Xinlong Xian) Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, ablaze on December 29, 2012.


Tharmal monastery

Tharmal monastery in Rulong Township, Nyarong County (Chinese: Xinlong Xian) Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, ablaze on December 29, 2012.


Tharmal monastery in Kardze

The monks’ homes and retreat center at Tharmal monastery in Kardze before the fire (photo taken in 2009).


Tharmal monastery in Kardze

Tharmal monastery in Kardze before the fire (photo taken in 2009).

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