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Pics: Gedong festival, your window to Tibet and its beautiful people

Thousands of metres above sea level, high on the Tibetan plateau, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist devotees in brilliant hues of pink and blue gathered for the Gedong festival.

travel Updated: Jan 12, 2016 18:18 IST
Children in traditional Tibetan clothes follow the Cham dance during the Gedong festival at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan Province.
Children in traditional Tibetan clothes follow the Cham dance during the Gedong festival at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan Province.(AFP)

Thousands of metres above sea level, high on the Tibetan plateau, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist devotees in brilliant hues of pink and blue gathered for the Gedong festival.

Lamas young and old mixed with festival-goers wearing traditional garb to watch the religious Cham dances at the Ganden Sumtseling monastery in Shangri-La.

Prayer flags are seen in front of the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La. (AFP)

Masked, costumed monks portrayed a host of ghosts and deities from the pantheon of Tibetan Buddhist mythology, to the sounds of lamas playing traditional instruments -- crashing cymbals, drums and deep, vibrating ceremonial horns.

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The Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery is reflected in a lake in Shangri-La. The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery also known as Songzanlin and Guihuasi, is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. (AFP)

Tsering Choetso, a 52-year-old farmer, said the true meaning of the festival was hard to explain in a language other than Tibetan, but described it as a chance to “pay our respects to our deities as well as our departed ancestors”.

Lamas watch the Cham dance during the Gedong festival at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan Province. (AFP)

“A ghost is a lesser deity in a world that resembles hell,” he said. “We believe that if we come here and watch and dance, we won’t be afraid of them if we encounter them in our afterlife.”

A lama stands on the roof of the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La. The Gedong Festival is the most important festival in the region and is held at the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also known as Songzanlin, and Guihuasi monastery in late November of each year of the Tibetan calendar. The Cham Dance is the climax, as performers put on masks and clothes that portray deities and ghosts. (AFP)

Though Buddhism is one of China’s five officially sanctioned religions, the country’s ruling Communist Party accuses the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama of trying to split the country, calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

This picture taken at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan Province, shows lamas playing traditional instruments during the Gedong festival. Thousands of metres above sea level, high on the Tibetan plateau, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist devotees in brilliant hues of pink and blue gathered for the Gedong festival. Lamas young and old mixed with festival-goers wearing traditional garb to watch the religious Cham dance at the Ganden Sumstseling monastery in Shangri-La. Masked, costumed monks portrayed a host of ghosts and deities from the pantheon of Tibetan Buddhist mythology, to the sounds of lamas playing traditional instruments -- crashing cymbals, drums and deep, vibrating ceremonial horns. (AFP)

China, which has ruled Tibet since the 1950s, has been accused of trying to eradicate the region’s Buddhist-based culture through political and religious repression and large-scale immigration by Han Chinese.

Lamas chat in the sun at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La. (AFP)

But Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and that it has brought economic growth to the region.

During the Cultural Revolution expressions of ethnic identity, such as religious activity or local festivals, were brutally suppressed.

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Lamas watch the Cham dance during the Gedong festival at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La. The Gedong Festival is the most important festival in the region and is held at the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also known as Songzanlin, and Guihuasi monastery in late November of each year of the Tibetan calendar. (AFP)

The 17th century Ganden Sumtseling monastery -- often called “Little Potala” for its resemblance to Lhasa’s iconic palace -- was itself heavily damaged.

Now it has been extensively renovated, rebuilt and developed into a commercial tourist attraction, complete with hefty entrance fees, with the festival promoted as a key opportunity to visit.

A young girl in traditional Tibetan clothes watches the Cham dance during the Gedong festival. (AFP)

The town in which it sits, in an ethnically Tibetan area of China’s Yunnan province, was previously known as Zhongdian. But it was renamed in 2001 as a tourism strategy seeking to capitalise on the fictional mountain paradise described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon”.

A young lamas turns a prayer wheel at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La. (AFP)

Chinese security forces, which have sometimes put on huge shows of strength at temple events, appeared to be entirely absent from the festival.

For one of the monastery’s lamas, who gave his Chinese name as Lurongzhuxi, the event was a way of bringing the cosmology of his religion to life.

This picture taken at the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery in Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan Province, shows old and young lamas watching the Cham dance during the Gedong festival. (AFP)

“In our daily lives, few have the experience of witnessing deities,” he said.

“Nevertheless, we strongly believe they exist and are everywhere. Today’s Cham dance could be interpreted as a reminder of their existence.”

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