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Tibetans risk detention to attend Kalachakra ceremony in India

Chinese authorities impose severe restrictions on the biennial religious ceremony

Tibetans risk detention to attend Kalachakra ceremony in India

Thousands of pilgrims encamp in India's Ladakh region to attend the bienniel Kalachakra ceremony (Photo by Shawn Sebastian)

Shawn Sebastian, Leh

July 16, 2014

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In a small mountain village in the shadow of the Himalayas, a group of Buddhists from China’s Tibet Autonomous Region secluded themselves.

They had crossed into India as part of a congregation of Buddhists from around the world to attend the biennial 12-day Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, in Leh, the largest city in the Buddhist-majority Ladakh region.

The group kept carefully out of the media glare, and for good reason. The man they came to see – the Dalai Lama – is persona non grata in China, and their attendance could bring dire consequences.

Organizers of the Kalachakra refuse to estimate how many people participated in this year ceremony, which ended on Sunday. But close to 150 people from Tibet, and another 150,000 Buddhists from around the world, are thought to have traveled to Ladakh district, which adjoins the Tibetan region controlled by China since 1950.

Kalachakra aims to enlighten attendees on the spiritual path of Tibetan Buddhism, and includes sermons by the Dalai Lama.

Tashi Puntsok, an official in the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, told that Tibetan attendees have kept a low profile because the ceremony “is a very sensitive issue, and that’s why no one is willing to talk about it”.

The current Dalai Lama, also known as Tenzin Gyatso, fled Tibet and sought refuge in India after Chinese soldiers crushed an uprising in 1959. No government has yet recognized the Tibetan government in exile.

Tashi Puntsok, who also serves as director of the Tibetan Museum in Dharamsala, said some pilgrims from Tibet who attended the Kalachakra in 2012 were later sent to “re-education”, or forced labor, camps upon their return.

“When Kalachakra was held two years ago in Gaya [in Bihar state], there were over a thousand delegates from Tibet. This time only about 100 to 150 pilgrims have come, mostly elderly from eastern Tibet,” he said.

“Even we Tibetans living in India are not allowed to meet and mingle with them.”

One Tibetan monk who asked not to be identified said that attendees in the past faced scrutiny and monitoring by Chinese security forces upon their return.

The Tibet Post International, a news agency run out of Dharamsala that promotes democracy among Tibetan communities, has also reported that Chinese authorities have tried to prevent Tibetans from traveling to India.

In a sermon last week, the Dalai Lama acknowledged with blessings and prayers the many Tibetans who had wished to attend but were prevented from coming to the ceremony.

A Tibetan Buddhist studying in India told that travel to India for the Kalachakra was closely monitored and severely restricted.

“Those who have come must have cited some other reason for their travel to pass through the difficult Chinese visa system. Upon their return, their belongings are searched to find any trace of Kalachakra participation,” she said, also requesting that her name not be used.

She added that tight security and the difficulty in obtaining a proper visa forced many participants to seek “alternative ways” of traveling to India.

Greater access to social networking sites in Tibet has allowed many there to get more information about the Kalachakra and the Dalai Lama’s teachings, said another Tibetan from Himachal Pradesh state, whose parents still live in Tibet.

The event’s official website,, has links to daily webcasts of the Dalai Lama’s speeches in six languages including Tibetan and Chinese. A Facebook group launched earlier this year also provides updates on events, he said.

But such outlets are small consolation for those who could not make the dangerous journey to India.

“My parents would have wanted to attend Kalachakra and listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sermons. However, in the present scenario, it is impossible to do so.”

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