Authorities in Tibetan areas of China have further tightened controls on public gatherings in Buddhist monasteries during the Lunar New Year season, restricting attendance at previously commonly attended religious ceremonies in one case to resident monks, Tibetan sources claim.
The first three days of the New Year, starting this year on Feb. 12 and called Losar in Tibetan, are normally filled with festivals and religious rituals, with most Tibetan Buddhists attending monasteries and temples for traditional festivities in the country.
Responsibility for traditional prayer festivals in the Labrang Tashi Kyil province of Gansu and the Rebgong Rongwo monastery of Qinghai has now been taken from the monasteries themselves and installed in the possession of local religious affairs committees, one local source told the Tibetan Service of the RFA.
“According to strict guidelines, the monasteries will not be allowed to independently arrange the routines of the Choetrul Monlam prayer festival,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Also called Monlam Chenmo, the annual prayer festival traditionally draws thousands of participants, but attendance at Labrang and Rebgong will be limited this year to monastery residents and a few selected locals “as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” the source said, quoting official notices.
“Monasteries in the Qinghai region have also been barred from hanging decorated tapestries related to the annual prayers and from performing the traditional Cham religious dances,” a source living in Rebgong said.
In Gansu, the Labrang Monastery will remain closed to tourists from Feb. 12 to Feb. 28, while in the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai, members of the public have been banned from taking part in a special flower rite normally held on the 15th day of Losar—this year on Feb. 26—with worries regarding the spread of COVID-19, cited by the authorities as the reason for the ban.
“Local Tibetans are also barred from taking part in Choetrul Monlam in Dargye monastery in [Sichuan’s] Kardze [Ganzi] prefecture, and in other monasteries nearby,” another source said. “According to notices sent out by local Chinese officials, the guidelines and restrictions must be obeyed in order to contain the spread of coronavirus.”
Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and the Tibetan-populated regions of western China have also been the focus of attempts to foster not only religious but also Tibetan cultural traditions, and people of some areas have expressed concerns about the official reasons for limiting attendance at traditional events.