Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institute, resembles a sliced melon, a year after Chinese authorities dismantled thousands of monastic residences and evicted Buddhist practitioners in Larung valley in Tibet’s Serthar (Ch: Seda) County in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. The famed institute which used to house thousands of Buddhist practitioners has been divided into several segments with new roads and staircases taking up the spaces where once stood the homes of monks and nuns.
Fresh information received from several undercover local sources by Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) in late July exposes the scale and extent of demolition carried out in the later part of 2016 and in early this year. The latest demolition that cleared space for so-called development projects follows a pattern that dates back to another large scale demolition in 2001. Clearly the growing popularity and influence of Larung Gar as a spiritual oasis for Buddhist practitioners from all over the world was the overriding reason for the demolition. The goal was to cut down the population to a more manageable number that will allow the Chinese government to more closely monitor the institute. The demolition has caused much anger and sadness among Tibetans and Chinese Buddhists in the region. It has contributed to their existing sense that the Chinese government is not trying to protect their interests. The demolition has further damaged the reputation of Chinese government among Tibetans and other Buddhists alike.
‘Monks and nuns kicked out to build roads for tourists’
Photographs and videos taken last month show more than 10 broad strips running vertically across the bowl of the valley. The cleared strips, estimated on average to be 100m in length, are now being used to build large staircases with railings that will be used by the growing number of tourists to reach the top of the hill. Some of the staircases have been completed and have yellow railings. The spaces cleared for each of the staircases are very wide with extra spaces on both sides. Local residents said that the authorities probably have an excuse that the gaps would help to stop fires from spreading but the pictures make it obvious that more has been demolished than is necessary for that purpose alone.
Horizontal paths are also being built further dividing the residential areas into segments. The road around the top of the valley is still mostly dirt but has started being tarmacked. A concrete wall is also being built next to this road, presumably to stop any possible landslides. Another road had been built at the top of the valley in the last couple years. This road was built so that tourists can drive up to stay at the hotel and take photos without having to walk like they had to in the past.
Many Chinese lay Buddhists share the opinion that the Chinese government is only being a destructive force by trying to limit the influence of the institute. A female Chinese lay Buddhist said, “The government is using the excuse of building roads and improving the infrastructure to demolish houses. They just want to reduce the number of people here.” A follower of a Tibetan lama at Yachen Gar, she said demolition also happened at Yachen Gar last year albeit on a much smaller scale. “They have built a very wide path all the way around the monastery at Yachen Gar. It is completely unnecessary to make it that wide but that gave them the pretext to destroy many homes.”
‘The red houses were destroyed’
Conversations with locals and construction workers confirm that demolitions took place along the cleared strips. Two Chinese workers from Sichuan that our sources spoke to had been at Larung Gar for three months. “When I arrived it was all red houses,” said one of them, pointing at some of the areas that had been cleared for staircases. Clearly, some demolition had happened recently. The other gave a nod when asked if there had been demolition and said,’Yes, houses were destroyed.’ But he claimed the government gave the evicted monks and nuns new homes in the bottom of the next door valley. Although there is indeed blocks of new houses built by the government at the location, it cannot be confirmed that the people living in these houses are indeed those who had been evicted. A local source was able to see from the top of the hill that some people living there were monks or nuns. Also the site did not seem to be remotely full because there was only a little human activity there. Still the new homes are not enough to hold more than a few hundred people at maximum, much fewer than the total number of people who have been evicted.
‘They hear everything’
Some evictees had received compensation of 30000 yuan per home but these are rare and inadequate. A nun whose home had been destroyed received the 30000 yuan in compensation but it had cost her and her family 150000 yuan to build her home. She was originally from Drango (Ch: Luhuo) County and her family members had come to Larung to help her build a two-storey home. She had been living at Larung for almost three decades. Although ordered to leave when her home was demolished she still lives in a borrowed house in the valley. If caught, she would either be returned to her hometown or arrested. She said she was angry and sad about the demolitions. Asked if some nuns had committed suicide last year, she nodded but refused to give any details. “I don’t dare answer that question,” she said. “I am very scared. They hear everything.”
It appears that only those whose household registration is in Sichuan were eligible for compensation although it cannot be confirmed if all evictees hailing from the province received compensation. No evictees belonging to other Tibetan areas located in Tsongon (Qinghai) or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) received any compensation. As reported earlier, they were summarily removed in groups and bussed out of Larung Gar.
A former abbot of Larung Gar who now lives in exile in India said the nuns faced more problems than monks after the demolition. “Most monks could always return to their home monasteries or join other monasteries but this is not possible for nuns,” said the former abbot who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his family members in Tibet. Several local sources confirmed that there were more nuns evicted than monks. Soon after the demolition in autumn and winter 2016, the evicted nuns faced enormous hardships in finding shelters. As of now, there are five large nunneries built in several places in Qinghai and Sichuan to house the evicted nuns. Several other smaller facilities have also been constructed in other Tibetan areas to accommodate more nuns. These new nunneries are directly managed by the abbots and instructors of Larung Gar Buddhist Institute. Some evicted monks have been staying in tents at the Bhelo Rithod hermitage in Minyak area in Kardze TAP because the government has put a ban on new construction.
A monk from Nyagrong (Ch: Xinlong) County who had lived in Larung Gar for eight years said that most of the demolitions happened last year, and this year there has mostly been construction. He said he was not sure how the government decided which homes to demolish, but that it was connected to where the government wanted to build roads and staircases. He also said more nuns than monks had been forced to leave. Other sources confirmed that greater number of demolitions took place in the nuns’ district.
‘More tourists than religious practitioners’
A Tibetan monastic instructor rued the shrinking space for spiritual practice at the institute due to the onslaught of mass tourism. “Most of the people who now come to Larung Gar are tourists rather than people who want to practise Buddhism.” He said many of the monks and nuns who were ordered to leave had nowhere to go because their parents were either nomads or had died. He explained that the pale orange houses located at the entrance of the valley belonged to Tibetan lay Buddhists and that none of them had been demolished. They used to be red but the government ordered them to paint them in new colour last year. The order was necessitated by the government’s wish to easily identify and monitor the lay practitioners who generally do not have to follow all the rules that are applicable to monks and nuns.
There is a lot of construction taking place at the moment. A large amount of heavy machinery is visible around the valley. Cranes, trucks, diggers, and jack hammers have made the place very noisy and dusty. Local residents say it is not a good environment for monastic study and contemplative practices. The Chengdu-based Sichuan Huashi Co. Ltd is undertaking all the construction works and has brought hundreds of Chinese workers from Chengdu and Chongqing. Many of these migrant workers had been in Larung Gar for between one and three months, which means that the major construction started around the beginning of May, once the weather was no longer too cold. A handful of Tibetan workers was seen at the top of the valley building roads.
A big accommodation facility for visitors, probably a hotel (‘jiudian’) or a pilgrims’ hostel (‘binansuo’), is being built at the end of the valley. A new building that has come up in the centre of the valley next to the main nuns’ temple is likely to be a bookshop or a library. New construction is also visible on the left as one enters the main valley and another on the top of the hill. A couple of large hotels can be seen around the main temple in the central area of the valley. One of the locals said these developments around the main temple had been completed last year. At least one of the hotels is clearly aimed at Chinese tourists with its high quality wifi with good 4G signal and fancy interiors.
‘Foreigners and people from Xinjiang not allowed’
During the Buddhist festival of Choekhor Duechen in late July, a large number of lay Chinese Buddhists visited the institute. Chinese visitors apparently took up the two whole floors of one of the temples during the festival. A couple of days after the festival, the vehicle parking area at the bottom of the valley brought more Chinese tourists in tour buses. A local Tibetan student at the institute said Chinese tourists face no problems travelling to Larung Gar. Only “foreigners and people from Xinjiang” are not allowed to visit. Even if few foreigners are able to visit, they are not allowed to stay overnight at Larung Gar and have to rent accommodation elsewhere. In Serthar County town, no hotels accept foreign guests for fear being fined.
Disneynification of sky burial site
One of the main attractions for Chinese tourists at Larung Gar was the ‘sky burial’ (Jador or ‘alms for the birds’) site. The Larung Gar sky burial site has become a famous tourist site and is visited by huge numbers of Chinese tourists every year. It is one of the major attractions on the itinerary of Chinese tour companies. Since 2013, to cater to the growing tourist business, the sky burial site has been built up in a low quality Disneyland style tourist site. Tacky monuments and structures adorn the entrance to the sky burial site lending the otherwise sacred and private space an almost carnival-like appearance. Although new fences now separate the tourists from the burial site and signs ask people not to take photos, the relentless presence of tourist gaze aided by the Chinese government’s promotion of Disneyland style tourism is turning this ancient Tibetan funerary practice into a tourist spectacle.
Since July last year, Chinese government-employed demolition squads have torn down thousands of monastic residences at Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in Serthar (Ch: Seda) County in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. A notice issued by the Serthar County government had spelled out a step-by-step guide to demolishing monastic quarters so as to reduce the number of monastic residents to government-set ceiling of 5000. The total number of monks and nuns, apart from lay and foreign practitioners, at the institute hovered around 10,000 before the demolition.
In March 2017, a statement by an abbot of the institute was found posted on Weibo that confirmed that the Chinese authorities had announced the demolition of 3225 monastic quarters by 30 April. By the end of February 2017, more than half of the targeted 4725 houses had been destroyed during the same period. The remaining houses which number about 2000 were set to be destroyed by the end of April. In early April, about 250 monks and nuns who were originally from Tsongon (Qinghai) were evicted. By the end of May, the Chinese authorities had evicted 4828 monks and nuns and destroyed 4725 houses.
In 2001, Chinese authorities implemented similar crackdown on Larung Gar by destroying thousands of monastic dwellings and expelling many monastic and lay practitioners, some of whom died of shock or resorted to suicide, while some were rendered mentally unsound. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, the founder of Larung Gar Buddhist Institute later died under mysterious circumstances at a Chinese government hospital in Chengdu.
Larung Gar is one of the few and earliest religious institutes in Tibet where nuns are provided equal opportunities to study as monks. The institute houses the first nunnery in Tibet that offered curricula leading to women getting the degree of khenmo, the feminine equivalent of the khenpo degree, similar to a doctorate degree, that is usually given after 13 years of rigorous study in five areas of Buddhist scriptures, particularly in the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1990, the institute awarded the first khenmo degrees and since then, no less than a hundred nuns have successfully acquired the degree. For many other nuns who are either disabled, widowed or divorced, the institute has provided a lifeline in terms of spiritual and secular sustenance.