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Buddhist festival kicks off in Tibet amid tourism revival
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Dozens of lamas unveiled a giant silk tangka in Zhaibung Monastery in Tibet on Saturday at the start of a religious festival that the authorities hope will be a centerpiece in the region's tourism calendar.

The monastery on the outskirts of Tibet's capital, Lhasa, only reopened on Tuesday for the first time since the March 14 riot.

Hundreds of Buddhists and tourists swarmed to the monastery to observe the tangka ceremony at the start of the Shoton festival. Many visitors stood on a hillside in front of the temple for a distant view.

Tibet's tourist numbers plunged after the March 14 violence, but Lhasa Mayor Doje Cezhug said the city government was "committed to turning the Buddhist festival into an event for tourism and business promotion".

"Shoton has become a platform to demonstrate Tibetan civilization and culture to the world," Doje said at a tourism forum the same day.

The 1,000-square-meter tangka with the image of Sakyamuni, or Gautama Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, was hung on a mountain side behind the monastery.

Monks played horns and cymbals and broadcast chants over loudspeakers, as the crowd cheered and presented silk hada offerings to the Buddha.

Zhaibung Monastery was the last temple in Tibet's capital of Lhasa to reopen to tourists, after the March 14 violence.

About 300 monks from the monastery tried to march into downtown Lhasa days before the riot, followed by monks from other temples, but the police foiled the demonstration attempts.

The police later interrogated some of the monastery's monks on suspicion of taking part in the riot, in which least 18 civilians and one policeman died and homes, shops and vehicles were burned.

"All religious services that had been disrupted by the incident have been resumed," said Ngawang Dongjue, administrative director of the temple, on Saturday.

Home to more than 1,200 monks, the lamasery of the Gelukpa sect was built in 1416. Covering 200,000 square meters, it is one of the biggest lamaseries in Tibet.

The annual unveiling of the tangka marks the opening of the Shoton festival, or Xodoin, Tibetan for "yogurt banquet". The lunar-calendar festival, which often falls in August, is also regarded as a tourist draw.

Last year, more than 300,000 locals and tourists joined the week-long festival.

A forum was held by Tibet's tourist authority on Saturday to seek ideas to revive the region's tourism, which has been seriously affected by the March 14 riot.

In the first half, the region hosted 340,000 tourist arrivals, down 69 percent from the same period last year.

But in July alone, the number rebounded to 370,000, signaling a revival.

(Xinhua News Agency August 31, 2008)

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