By Shyamal Sinha
Jokhang Monastery is a Buddhist temple in Barkhor Square in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Tibetans, in general, consider this temple as the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. The temple is currently maintained by the Gelug school, but they accept worshipers from all sects of Buddhism. The temple’s architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Tibetan and Nepalese design.
The Jokhang was founded during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. According to tradition, the temple was built for the king’s two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet, which were housed here, as part of their dowries.
Since a fire broke out at Lhasa’s Jokhang temple, holiest shrine in Tibetan Buddhism and also one of the most politically sensitive, China has imposed a strict suppression of information relating to the incident.
The fire reportedly broke out at 6:40 pm (Lhasa time) on February 17 this year, the second day of Tibetan New Year. As per our initial report published on February 18, the fire didn’t start from the Jokhang chapel but from the chapel adjacent to it.
Now, even after a fortnight since the fire, there is still no official clarification about the cause of the fire and the damage that it has caused. The deafening silence from the Chinese government has left not only Tibetans but the international community worried and searching for answers.
Some sources have indicated that the blaze have caused extensive damage to the 1,300 year-old temple and many of its precious architectural features, murals and relics.
According to the fresh sources that reached out to the Central Tibetan Administration , the damage caused by the fire is much more extensive than initially reported. Although the information about the Jowo statue is not clear, the back wall of the statue and murals in the chapel has to some extent suffered damage from the fire.
The fire has also caused extensive damage to four shrines within the Tsuglakhang premises including the Palden Lhamo Yum Drakmo chapel, Songtsen chapel, Mani Chapel (which houses numerous relics, scriptures and commentaries by many Tibetan Buddhist scholars) and the Namsey Chapel. These chapels have survived the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s but have suffered extensive damage in the fire.
Moreover, sources have also reported that fourteen ancient statues got burnt but the severity of the damage caused cannot be ascertained. However, it is confirmed that a canopy made of pure gold dating back to the fourteenth century was severely damaged. The golden canopy was reportedly offered to Je Tsongkhapa by devotees and was housed in the Tsuglakhang having survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
The source further explained that the fire raged on for close to four hours and required 31 fire trucks to completely extinguish the fire. Twelve persons were reportedly injured in the fire including several firemen and staff of the Tsuglakhang.
After the fire was doused, a committee from the Chinese Central government’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which looks after the protection of cultural relics of national importance, has visited the site to ascertain the damage.
The financial loss of the damage as estimated by the committee is reported to be somewhere around 30,000 – 50,000 million in Chinese Renminbi.
Monks and staff working at the Tsuglakhang were also given strict instructions not to speak about the fire to anyone. They were specifically given a directive consisting of two must-upholds and four unutterables, the details of which are not clear as of now.
Meanwhile, it is reported that the Jowo Chapel is still closed after it was briefly opened to the public and that has raised further doubts among the public. It is speculated that extensive renovation of the temple is underway for 24 hours a day behind closed doors.
Following the update of information on the fire, CTA President Dr Lobsang Sangay expressed his deep concern over the tragic incident. He called for a transparent verification of the fire and the damage caused to the Jokhang, a world heritage site recognised by UNESCO.
“The lack of clear information about the fire as a result of the blanket of censorship has left a gaping hole in the narrative of what actually happened. Therefore, I urge UNESCO to investigate into the matter and send journalists into Tibet for an independent investigation,” he said.
He also condemned China’s adoption of a strict censorship of information following the fire and said he shares the concerns expressed by Tibet watchers and Tibetologists on the matter.
Tibet, which came under Chinese occupation in 1959, remains one of the most highly repressed regions in the world. Reporters Without Borders, a global free speech advocacy group, has ranked Tibet below North Korea in terms of access for journalists and reporters.