A large fire has damaged one of the holiest and most politically sensitive sites in Tibet, the Jokhang temple, stirring an outpouring of grief and concern among Tibetans.
China’s Communist party-controlled news agency, Xinhua, said the blaze started early on Saturday evening “and was soon put out”.
However, Robert Barnett, a London-based expert on contemporary Tibet, said Beijing’s “almost total suppression of information” about the incident meant many Tibetans feared “the heart of Tibetan Buddhism” had suffered significant damage.
For almost four hours after the fire began, he said, it was not even acknowledged by China’s heavily controlled media, “even though you could see it from miles away across the whole city”.
“This has increased the fear of people that something really serious has happened,” said Barnett, the author of a book about Tibet’s ancient capital called Lhasa: Streets with Memories. “People are hugely concerned, rightly or wrongly, that the damage might be much more severe than the media is letting on.”
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer, told the New York Times: “I pray that the fire isn’t serious and that the old buildings haven’t suffered too much damage. For Tibetans, the Jokhang is the holiest of holy sites.”
Barnett said the limited information emerging from the region – from which foreign journalists are barred – meant it was difficult to assess the extent of the damage. But as images of the conflagration spread on Saturday the academic recalled receiving calls from distraught Tibetans mourning the apparent destruction of one of their most sacred sites.
“It’s devastating for people seeing this … [At first] it looked like it was impossible anything would survive … Now there is this uncertainty,” Barnett said. “Nobody knows quite what to believe … It could be less dramatic than people feared, but there is a big information vacuum about what has happened.”
China’s efforts to control the narrative surrounding the fire underscores the Jokhang temple’s huge political as well as religious significance. In recent decades the 2.5-hectare (6.2-acre) complex has been the site of repeated protests against Chinese rule, including one “astonishing act of defiance” witnessed by foreign journalists during a rare 2008 propaganda tour.
Barnett predicted China’s bid to suppress news of the blaze – by censoring online posts and forbidding locals to broadcast images of the fire or gather near the temple – would further hurt relations with Tibetans. “It has restimulated the dominant tone in Tibet … which is intimidation really.”