Zang Gyi, our smiling guide at Lhasa’s crowning glory Potala Palace, the primary residence of a succession of Dalai Lamas and a world heritage site, did not speak a word of English.
The stunning, 13-storey palace, a repository of Tibetan history and culture and visited by 500 foreign tourists daily, does not have a single English-speaking guide by government decree as if to deliberately add to its enduring mystery and exotic quotient – or maybe to control communication between locals and foreigners.
Inside, the smell of incense and yak butter lamps hung heavy all along the labyrinthine corridors and steep wooden stairs.
Adding to the atmosphere was the incessant chanting of Tibetan mantras by the devout and the scores of monks in their maroon robes sitting in dark corners, hunched over sacred texts
Keeping them company were fire-fighters from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
They were present at every turn and corner, keeping a close watch on the tourists, guiding them and sternly stopping them from taking a turn to the parts that are out of bounds.
“They are deployed to prevent fires from the butter-lamps,” an official from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) said blankly.
Were the young fire-fighters – also – deployed to prevent any protest suicides by Tibetans?
The official determinedly brushed aside any reference to the nearly 140 cases of self-immolations that ethnic Tibetans have carried out in recent years against what they say are discriminatory government policy and demanding the return of the 14th Dalai Lama, based in Dharamshala in India.
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. (HT Photo)
Zang and my other official handlers were efficient at their jobs: they relished narrating stories about Potala Palace intrigues, how many Dalai Lamas died young and mysteriously and – parroting government handouts – how benign Beijing was in developing TAR because the Tibetans needed development.
Elsewhere in Lhasa signs of rampant development were visible. New buildings were coming up everywhere; at the junction, where the wide expressway from the airport enters the city, rows of new blocks of buildings stood out. Signs in Chinese on shops drowned the Tibetan script; on any given sign board, the Chinese signs were bigger and bolder.
“We welcome development. We are not in favour of isolation or seclusion. Development means exchanges between people. Not a cordoned off area like it is now. Whatever the projects are, consent of the local people has to be taken and – any decision – should not go against the culture and values. More importantly, inclusion of the poor Tibetans is required– at present there is segregation of business between the Han Chinese (the majority in China) and Tibetans,” Tsering Wangchuk, press officer for the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala, told HT.
The Chinese government dismissed the allegation that development and construction projects in TAR, and especially Lhasa, were planned without the local community in mind.
“The construction projects in Lhasa are reviewed by experts after a rigorous feasibility studies. We also checked the local people’s opinion. Strict protection of the cultural relics is taken with no local characteristics and cultural characteristics destroyed,” the ministry of foreign affairs in China said in emailed statement.
On a recent Saturday evening, at the courtyard in front of the revered Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, hundreds of devotees were paying their obeisance, as temperatures dropped sharply from warm to chilly. Along the shop-lined street leading to the temple, uniformed personnel kept a watch. Foreigners talking to locals immediately attracted their attention.
During a brief taxi ride from the temple to the rather innovatively named Lhasa hotel, the driver said he knew the Dalai Lama was in India.
Will his 80th birthday on July 6 be celebrated in Lhasa and elsewhere in TAR? The driver looked away; the answer barely audible: “privately”.
Reports from international organisations focussed on Tibet say the Dalai Lama’s upcoming birthday was being celebrated surreptitiously across the region.
“Images and footage from Tibet showed Tibetans gathering to mark the birthday (July 6 in the West, and June 21 in the Tibetan calendar) with displays of butter sculptures, prayer ceremonies, offerings before large images of the Dalai Lama, and traditional scattering of prayer flags in the wind. The celebrations took place despite tightened security in many areas of Tibet, with officials in Tibetan areas warning against gatherings to mark the significant birthday,” the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said in a statement.
“Dalai Lama? No one here cares about the Dalai Lama. The younger generation (of Tibetans) do not know him. They are more interested in development and doing well in life,” a government official travelling with the group of Indian journalists repeatedly said.
What does the West know about Tibet? There are only separatists who create problem,” the official said.
To the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama is a separatist, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
“The 14th Dalai group’s action of at the expense of other lives for political intrigue is absolutely against human conscience and morality. Their evil actions will not only fail but also must be severely condemned and resisted,” the Chinese government told HT, adding the he has “incited” the incidents of self-immolations.But for Tibetans in China, in and outside TAR, Dalai Lama remains a beacon of hope and enlightenment in a world where, in Tsering Wangchuk’s words, they might soon become extinct or only be found as a "showpiece in a museum".