08/16/2004, 00.00
china - tibet
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China's Panchen Lama visits Lhasa during Tibetan festival

Lhasa (AsiaNews /Agencies) - Around 150,000 pilgrims gathered yesterday for the annual Shoton, or Yoghurt festival, joining in the unfurling a giant cloth painting of the Buddha over a mountainside beside the great Drepung monastery

In a display of devotion, tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered by dawn to watch the unfurling of the cloth picture of the Buddha, or thangka, many clinging to rocks to gain a vantage point, others squatting on the hillside in the hope the sacred cloth would be unfurled over their bodies.

The festival originally marked the time when monks and nuns finished their annual summer retreat and were given yoghurt to break their fast. The pageant culminates in the display of the 200-square-metre thangka, embroidered by the monks of Drepung monastery using gold silk thread on a cotton background.

More than 100 monks from the monastery carried out the rolled-up thangka and set it down at a nearby hill. Drepung monastery, which at its height was home to as many as 10,000 monks, is now permitted to host no more than 700 monks. In this way Chinese officials try to reduce the influence of the Dalai Lama.

In the meantime, Gyaltsen Norbu who rates second after the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism was shown yesterday on Chinese state television being eagerly greeted by monks. The boy was  picked by the Chinese authorities as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama

Norbu was named 11th Panchen Lama after officials rejected the exiled Dalai Lama's choice for the position.

In Lhasa on Sunday the 15-year-old performed a number of rituals.  After placing a ceremonial cloth around a large statue of the founder of Buddhism, Norbu presented monks with red ribbons.

It is his third visit to the Himalayan capital and one of a handful of public appearances

The Beijing-designated Panchen Lama is always surrounded by bodyguards when he goes out in public. Among his most recent public appearances was his opening of the Communist Party Congress in Beijing in 2002.

While in Lhasa, he met with Communist party officials and "200 representatives from all walks of life," the state Xinhua News Agency reported.

In 1995, the Dalai Lama had named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, then aged 6, as the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

The Chinese authorities have not revealed his whereabouts but it is thought the boy is under house arrest. Amnesty International has defined the boy as the youngest prisoner of conscience in the world.

Deputy mayor of Lhasa Xiao Bai said on Saturday Nyima is "in good health and leading a normal and happy life… He's a senior in high school and his grades are quite good, but to avoid disrupting his and his family's life we have allowed no outside groups to meet him."

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