There was a strong paramilitary presence at a ceremony unveiling a vast thangka (religious picture) of the Buddha at Drepung monastery, Lhasa, on August 6, 2013 to herald the beginning of the annual Shoton (‘Yogurt’) Festival. These images from Tibet reveal lines of troops standing in front of the Sakyamuni Buddha thangka and around the crowds of Tibetans gathered for the ceremony, which took place during the Shoton (‘Yogurt’) festival from August 6.
The images, circulating among Tibetans on social media, give a glimpse of the strength of the military presence in Lhasa today. Scanners were set up by the authorities at either side of the entrance to Drepung monastery (see the image of barriers near the entrance below) that all devotees had to pass through in order to participate in the thangka unveiling ceremony. Some of the troops among the crowds could be viewed on images in the Chinese state media, but most of these official pictures showed only the crowds and the thangka.
Scanning equipment was also used at Kumbum monastery in early July for the visit of the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, during his visit to the monastery in Qinghai. Monks were required to pass through scanners manned by police, indicating a level of uncertainty among the authorities about the possible response to the young man. The whereabouts of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedun Choekyi Nyima, recognized in 1995 by the Dalai Lama, is still unknown.
The numbers of Tibetans present at Drepung monastery this week, depicted in the images, are indicative of Tibetans’ determination to express their religious identity even in the face of an intimidating security presence. The Shoton festival was named after the Buddhist tradition of giving yoghurt to monks after the summer retreat. Traditionally, the festival involves folk operas and other cultural performances, but Tibetan sources say the focus is now more on using the Shoton festival as a propaganda exercise by the authorities.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, some Tibetans chose the occasion of the Shoton festival to express their dissent. In 1993, four monks carrying Tibetan flags and shouting ‘Long live the Dalai Lama’ became the third group in five years to hold a peaceful protest at the Shoton festival. In 1990, 12 Tibetan nuns from Mechungri and Garu nunneries served long sentences in Drapchi prison (located in Lhasa) after taking part in a peaceful protest at the Norbulingka (Dalai Lama’s summer palace) during the Shoton festival. Also see: ICT report and images, Thousands of Tibetan pilgrims face troops at religious ceremonies in eastern Tibet.