Traditionally the home of the Panchen Lamas – historically religious and political rivals to the Dalai Lamas – Tibet’s second city, SHIGATSE (日喀则, rìkāzé), is often only used by travellers as an overnight stop on the way to or from Lhasa. One day is long enough to see the two main sights, Tashilunpo Monastery and Shigatse Dzong, but if you’re not pressed for time it’s worth spending at least an extra night here simply to do everything at a more leisurely pace, take in the market, wander the attractive, tree-lined streets and absorb the atmosphere.
Although the city is fairly spread out, about 2km from end to end, most of the sights and the facilities that you’ll need are in or near the north–south corridor around Shanghai Lu and Shandong Lu, extending north along Xue Qiang Lu to the market and Dzong. The main exception is Tashilunpo Monastery, which is a bit of a hike west. Shigatse offers an adequate range of accommodation, a variety of shops and some pleasant restaurants, and the dramatic Drolma Ridge rising up on the northern side of town helps you get your bearings easily. The pace of life here is unhurried, but there’s a buzz provided by the huge numbers of Tibetan pilgrims and foreign visitors. Although most of the city is modern, you’ll find the traditional Tibetan houses concentrated in the old town west of the market, where you can explore the narrow alleyways running between high, whitewashed walls.Read More
The Panchen Lama controversy
The Panchen Lama controversy
The life of the Tenth Panchen Lama (1938–89) was a tragic one. Identified at 11 years of age by the Nationalists in 1949 in Xining, without approval from Lhasa, he fell into Communist hands and was for many years the highest-profile collaborator of the People’s Republic of China. His stance changed in 1959 when he openly referred to the Dalai Lama as the true ruler of Tibet. In 1961, in Beijing, the Panchen Lama informed Mao of the appalling conditions in Tibet and pleaded for aid, religious freedom and an end to the huge numbers of arrests. Mao assured the Panchen Lama these would be granted, but nothing changed. Instructed to give a speech condemning the Dalai Lama, he refused and was prevented from speaking in public until the 1964 Monlam Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa. With an audience of ten thousand people, he again ignored instructions and spoke in the Dalai Lama’s support, ending with the words, “Long live the Dalai Lama”. He was immediately placed under house arrest, and the Chinese instituted a campaign to “Thoroughly Smash the Panchen Reactionary Clique”. The Panchen Lama’s trial in August 1964 lasted seventeen days, following which he vanished into prison for fourteen years, where he was tortured and attempted suicide. He was released in 1978, two years after the death of Zhou Enlai, and the Chinese used him as evidence that there was a thawing of their hard-line attitude towards Tibet. He never again criticized the Chinese in public, and in private he argued that Tibetan culture must survive at all costs, even if it meant giving up claims for independence. Some Tibetans saw this as a sellout; others worshipped him as a hero when he returned on visits to Tibet. He died in 1989; the Chinese say from a heart attack, others say he was poisoned.
The search for the Eleventh Panchen Lama was always likely to be fraught. The central issue is whether the Dalai Lama or the Chinese government have the right to determine the identity of the next incarnation. Stuck in the middle was the abbot of Tashilunpo, Chadrel Rinpoche, who initially led the search according to the normal pattern, with reports of “unusual” children checked out by high-ranking monks. On January 25, 1995, the Dalai Lama decided that Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the son of a doctor, was the reincarnation, but – concerned for the child’s safety – he hesitated about a public announcement. The search committee headed by Chadrel Rinpoche supported the same child.
However, the Chinese decreed that the selection should take place by the drawing of lots from the Golden Urn, an eighteenth-century gold vase, one of a pair used by the Qing emperor Qianlong to resolve disputes in his lands. Chadrel Rinpoche argued against its use. In May, the Dalai Lama, concerned about the delay of an announcement from China, publicly recognized Gendun Choekyi Nyima, and the following day Chadrel Rinpoche was arrested while trying to return to Tibet from Beijing. Within days, Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his family were taken from their home by the authorities, put on a plane and disappeared. The Chinese will only admit they are holding them “for protection”. Fifty Communist Party officials then moved into Tashilunpo to identify monks still loyal to the Dalai Lama and his choice of Panchen Lama. In July, riot police quelled an open revolt by the monks. By the end of 1995, they had re-established enough control to hold the Golden Urn ceremony in the Jokhang in Lhasa, where an elderly monk drew out the name of a boy, Gyaincain Norbu. He was enthroned at Tashilunpo and taken to Beijing for publicity appearances. A decade and a half later, the whereabouts of Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his family are still unknown.