Huge fire engulfs Tibet’s Jokhang Temple raising fears over future of sacred Buddhist structure

Footage shared on social media shows flames shooting high into the Lhasa sky

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 February, 2018, 12:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 February, 2018, 9:20pm

A fire at one of Tibet’s holiest Buddhist temples on Saturday raised fears for the future of the monastery as investigators tried to determine the cause of the blaze.

The fire at Jokhang Temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the capital Lhasa, started at about 6.40pm but was soon brought under control, Xinhua reported.

“The fire was quickly extinguished, there were no casualties and order has been restored in the area,” state-run Tibet Daily reported, adding that the region’s top Communist Party official Wu Yingjie had gone to the scene.

Internet users posted pictures and videos of the fire on social media, showing flames shooting high into the sky above old Lhasa.

But on Twitter, which is blocked in China, Tibetans living overseas said that photos and posts about the fire were quickly being censored.

Robert Barnett, a London-based Tibetologist, tweeted that sources in Lhasa “claim police have threatened anyone distributing pictures or unofficial news about the fire”.

The blaze comes as Tibetans across the country are celebrating Losar, the traditional Tibetan New Year that began on Friday, the same day as the Chinese Lunar New Year.

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The temple had been closed to the public on Saturday, Xinhua reported, citing a schedule provided by local authorities before the holiday began. It was reopened Sunday morning.

China has ruled Tibet since the 1950s, and has been accused of trying to eradicate its Buddhist-based culture through political and religious repression. Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and argues that it has brought economic growth to the region.

The extent of the damage to the site, which is considered the spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism, is as yet unknown.

The oldest part of the temple was built more than 1,300 years ago and the whole structure was added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2000 as part of the Potala Palace. The temple houses many cultural treasures, including a life-size statue of the Buddha when he was 12 years old.