News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: In Tibet, Bollywood prevails over ‘Sarkari’ Panchen Lama

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Bollywood stars have more sway than the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama in Lhasa. (Photo-Vijay Kranti)
Bollywood stars have more sway than the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama in Lhasa. (Photo-Vijay Kranti)

By Vijay Kranti

(Part of the ‘My journey through the Tibetan mindscape’ series)

If you are a diehard tourist and want to enjoy your travel in ‘China’s Tibet’, just ensure before buying your expensive tour package that you are not a politically sensitive type person.  During my journeys I was amused at the sight of colourful posters of Indian Bollywood stars like Preity Zinta, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aishwarya Roy adoring the backdrops of shop counters. Even on pavement poster shops they occupied prominent space. Interestingly, most of this Bollywood poster and video business is dominated by the Han settlers in Tibet. At places these posters sell far more than those of Chairman Mao or even many Tibetan Gurus. But this story ends here for those who are just amused at seeing the influence of Bollywood reaching beyond the Himalayas and have no interest in going deeper into the socio-political significance of this all.

However, a political animal like me would find this poster politics of Tibet far more meaningful and interesting than some of the most interesting political statements from Beijing or other places. After travelling across most of Tibetan areas of all the five provinces of today’s ‘PRC’ I am deeply impressed by the Tibetan people’s art of speaking their heart out without speaking any word.  An interesting part of this communication game is that while you can find innumerable colourful posters of Indian Bollywood starts, many smaller Tibetan Rinpoches (incarnate Lamas), high ranking Chinese leaders including late Chairman Mao, you will be surprised by near total absence of photos of Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, the two highest ranking Tibetan Gurus.

You don’t have to be too much surprised if you don’t see the posters or photos of Dalai Lama at any public place across Tibet. Reason is simple. The price for possessing a photo of Dalai Lama is at least seven-year jail in a horrible Chinese prison like Drapchi and anything worse than that if one dares to hold it in a public demonstration. Beijing government hates Dalai Lama to every conceivable point. In the eyes of Chinese government Dalai Lama is a ‘splittist’ and a ‘Wolf in the Skin of a Sheep’.

Same is the case with that of Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the 11 incarnation of Panchen Lama who was discovered by an official China sponsored search team of monks under the leadership of a Communist Party officer. But he was rejected by Beijing just because Dalai Lama recognized him before the official announcement by the team. Just six years old at that time, Gedhun was arrested and remains untraceable along with his parents to this day. Beijing installed another boy Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama. Since then there is a constant rift between the Tibetan masses and Beijing on who is the real Panchen Lama.

This fight has taken very interesting shape and dimensions over past 25 years now.  While Beijing leaves no opportunity of presenting Gyaltsen as the ‘Supreme’ Tibetan Buddhist leader in international conferences as well as in the national Parliament and CCP events, ordinary Tibetans refuse to accept him as the ‘real’ Panchen Lama. You travel a thousand km on any circuit in ‘China’s Tibet’ and, I bet, you will not find a single public display of the picture of either of Gedhun or Gyaltsen. One due to fear of arrest and other due to people’s rejection.

I realized the depth of this contempt for the government sponsored Panchen Lama in a prominent monastery of Tibet. (I don’t want to name this monastery for obvious reasons.) In this monastery I ran into a young monk who spoke reasonably good English. I was feeling quite sick and badly needed some help. This young monk noticed me and took me to a nearby room belonging to one of his friend monks. His medicine and kindness worked fast to bring me back to good shape. As we started discussing the issue of Panchen Lama he took me to a corner of the room where his friend had a shelf reserved for his shoe polish, shoe brush as well as his tooth paste, tooth brush as well as soiled socks and underwear for washing. He pulled out a photo of Gyaltsen Norbu from the heap and smashed it back on the shelf saying, “We put this bloody photo on the altar just before the officers come to inspect our rooms.”

I was surprised to notice that at public places people have found an interesting and safe way of expressing themselves on this issue. Right from Labrang in extreme east in the Gansu province to the Dhingri town near the Everest in the Western Tibet you will see huge pictures of the 10th Panchen Lama adoring temples, houses, shops and private cars and taxis belonging to Tibetans. Interestingly, the 10th Panchen Lama who died in 1989, still remains popular among Tibetan masses and acceptable to the Chinese bosses of Tibet for their own reasons. Beijing masters liked him as a ‘patriotic Tibetan collaborator’ when they occupied Tibet in 1951. However Tibetan masses adore him for the courage with which he confronted Chairman Mao and later Comrade Hu Jintao when Hu was the local Governor of Tibet.

In 1960s Panchen Lama became hero of Tibetan masses when he confronted Chairman Mao with a 70 thousand characters long petition against the Chinese misdeeds in Tibet. That lead to his public humiliation, arrest and labour camp confinement for over a decade. Later in 1989 following his rehabilitation, the Panchen Lama publicly challenged Governor Hu Jintao when Hu claimed in a public meeting in Tibet that Tibetans had benefited under the Chinese rule. Within two days of this public sparring with Hu, the Panchen Lama died under strange circumstance.

All that explains why the 10th Panchen Lama has emerged as a win-win choice between the Tibetan masses and their Beijing masters. I noticed this popularity of the 10th Panchen Lama and public rejection of Gyaltsen first time in Lhasa’s most popular tourist spot near Barkhor. It was a pavement poster shop of a Han lady in Barkhor who sells pictures and posters of Bollywood actors, late Chairman Mao, many other local Tibetan lama teachers and the previous Panchen Lama. The picture of the Sarkari (government sponsored) Panchen Lama was too conspicuous by its absence.

A hawker in Lhasa sells posters of Bollywood stars (Photo-Vijay Kranti)

When I asked her why she was not selling pictures of the government sponsored Panchen Lama, the illiterate looking Chinese woman shopkeeper gave me a nasty look, “You are asking a foolish question. Why should I waste my money on posters which no one wants to buys?”, she retorted. 

Now I realized why Preity Zinta was a better choice over the Beijing sponsored Panchen Lama.

(Views expressed are his own)

The author is a senior Indian journalist, photographer and a keen Tibet watcher for over four decades. He visited Tibet many times on his self assigned learning and photo-expeditions. He was one of the first ever Indian journalist who could visit Tibet without Chinese patronization or control. This piece is part of a series of his memoirs with Tibet and Tibetan people.

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