By Benjamin Kang Lim
Thousands of monks and villagers lit yak butter candles and chanted mantras as they packed monasteries in northwest China this weekend to commemorate the birthday of the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
The 10th Panchen Lama who died in 1989 was a giant in modern Tibet, the most senior religious figure after the Himalayan region's god-king, the 14th Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Communist rule.
The Panchen Lama stayed on and was initially seen as a collaborator, but it emerged decades later that he was purged for standing up to the Communists and speaking up for his people.
Nearly 20 years after his death, with Beijing and Tibetans at odds over his successor, the big show of public affection suggested he remains a potent symbol of Tibetan aspirations.
"The 10th Panchen Lama was the most skillful user of that little space that exists in China's Tibet policy for moderation, for real negotiation," Robbie Barnett, a Tibetologist at Columbia University in New York, said in a telephone interview.
"He was the ultimate achiever in finding ways to encourage the Chinese state to compromise with Tibetan collective interests, particularly about culture, religion and the economy."
Hundreds of monks prayed while villagers spun prayer wheels and prostrated at Kumbum monastery -- known in Chinese as Ta'er -- in Qinghai province on Sunday to commemorate the 70th birth anniversary of the 10th Panchen Lama.
On Saturday, thousands of villagers, many clutching plastic flowers, and monks lined the roads from the 10th Panchen Lama's birthplace to the local temple in Wendu village to catch a glimpse of his daughter, Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo.
LEGACY LIVES ON
"These prayers demonstrate that my father still lives in the people's hearts," Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, wearing a bright yellow traditional Tibetan dress, or chupa, told Reuters. "Time has not dimmed his legacy".
The 10th Panchen Lama launched the first Tibetan charity dedicated to helping his people and a company which served as an economic model to generate income via traditional arts.
After the Dalai Lama fled, the Panchen Lama spent more than a decade either in prison or under house arrest for attacking Beijing in a 1962 petition over mass jailings, starvation and efforts to wipe out Buddhism in his pious homeland.
It was revealed in the late 1990s that Chairman Mao Zedong dismissed the 70,000-word petition as a "poisoned arrow shot at the (Communist) Party by reactionary feudal overlords".
The Panchen Lama was freed in 1977, one year after Mao's death and politically rehabilitated the following year.
He was tasked with resurrecting Buddhism, which had been struck a devastating blow during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when monasteries were closed and monks defrocked.
Physically and psychologically worn down after years of solitary confinement during which time even his parents were not allowed to visit him, the Panchen Lama married a Han Chinese woman in 1979. Their daughter, now 24, was their only child.
The Dalai Lama and China's atheist Communist rulers chose rival reincarnations of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1995. The 6-year-old boy anointed by the Dalai Lama swiftly disappeared from public view, leading human rights groups to dub him the world's youngest political prisoner.
Tibetans widely disdain Beijing's choice for the 11th Panchen Lama, and in a sign of their continued affection for the 10th Panchen Lama, his daughter was received like royalty.
Residents greeted Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo as "princess", and more than 500 motorcycles measuring a km (mile) long escorted her to her father's home village.
Braving sub-zero temperatures, villagers queued up to present her with white silk scarves traditionally used to greet honoured guests. Police were mobilised to maintain order.
The government prefers to encourage loyalty to the 11th Panchen Lama to prop up his legitimacy, but it tolerates the memory of the 10th.
Khedroob Thondup, a member of Tibet's parliament-in-exile who took part in dialogue with Beijing from 1979 to 1994, remembers the 10th Panchen Lama as a "true patriot".
"The Panchen in our numerous conversations stressed repeatedly he was foremost a Tibetan with his responsibilities towards the Tibetan people and his commited support to the Dalai Lama in his efforts for a peaceful settlement with Beijing over Tibet," said Khedroob Thondup, a nephew of the Dalai Lama.