In 2001 the Taliban drilled holes into ancient statues carved into an Afghan cliff-face known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Into those holes they placed sticks of dynamite and in the flick of a switch a millenia of history was gone. Forever. A site of great value in the history of Buddhism, Afghanistan and the Middle East destroyed because it did not fit with the political and religious ideology of those with power.
In early May 2013, I read the news the construction work has begun at another site of historical and cultural importance – the old Tibetan city of Lhasa, around the Jokhang temple. The plan: to replace the old city with a ‘tourist city’ and a giant mall. I cannot describe the rage and sadness I felt at reading this.
Lhasa was founded in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gampo as the capital of his Tibetan Empire that reached far into modern China. The Jokhang temple and the Barkhor around it are of unimaginable importance to Tibetans and Buddhists throughout the world. Many pilgrims walk from the far edges of Tibet to visit it.
Whilst the Jokhang temple itself is protected as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area around it is not.
This destruction will forever change the face of Lhasa, already it is a city divided into Chinese areas and Tibetan areas. With the destruction of the old city and its replacing with a giant shopping mall and ‘tourist city’ Tibetans are further isolated and marginalized in their own land.
In Beijing there is a park, the Ethnic Minorities Park*, where you can see the sterile, government-approved version of Tibetan culture that will replace the real thing in Lhasa. Chinese actors perform traditional Tibetan dances, where replica Tibetan buildings tell a fairy tale about Tibetan life and culture.
Of course there’s more to it. The old city has played host to numerous protests and demonstrations against Chinese occupation. It is a symbol of Tibetan resistance to the occupation.
And so under the cloak of ‘modernization,’ an area of incalculable historical and cultural importance will be lost forever.
It should be down to Tibetans to decide how to modernize Tibet, not to have it forced on them.
*The original signs for the Ethnic Minorities Park were mistranslated as ‘Racist Park’, a far more accurate description.