The Jokhang fire four months on

22nd June 2018

On the eve of the World Heritage Committee's meeting in Bahrain, we assess what we know so far about the Jokhang fire

Earlier this year, Lhasa's Jokhang temple, one of the most sacred sites in Tibetan Buddhism, was engulfed in flames. Since then, Free Tibet has been working tirelessly to uncover the truth of what happened at the Jokhang and the extent of the damage. This report details our findings so far and, for the first time, reveals satellite photography of the site taken shortly after the blaze was put out.

Summary

  • A fire broke out at the Jokhang on 17 February. The roof and upper level of the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel, which houses some of Tibet’s most significant relics, was visibly consumed by fire
  • Initial reports of the fire provided conflicting information on the location and extent of the fire
  • In the four months since the fire there has been no clarity from the occupying Chinese authorities regarding the level of damage to the Jokhang and its relics
  • Photographs taken inside the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel in the days after the fire have provoked suspicion among Tibetans that the building has been badly damaged but that information about the damage is being withheld
  • Satellite photos obtained by Free Tibet show extensive damage to the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel on the east side of the Jokhang
  • UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will meet next week. The Jokhang is likely to be on the agenda
  • An impartial investigation by outside experts is needed to assess the level of damage and what measures can be taken to repair this damage
The Jokhang Temple
The Jokhang Temple (Wikimedia Commons)

Next week, the World Heritage Committee will meet in Bahrain for its 42nd session.  The Committee consists of members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Among the Committee’s task is to monitor sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List to ensure that they are being adequately conserved.

One of the topics on the agenda is likely to be the Jokhang in Lhasa, Tibet. The Buddhist temple complex was granted World Heritage status in 2000, which means that it has been judged to be important to the collective interests of humanity and is legally protected by international treaties.

The Jokhang was the scene of a fire on the evening of 17 February 2018. The blaze was captured on camera and made international news. It also raised fears of serious damage to the temple, one of the most revered sites in all of Tibetan Buddhism.

One of the complications for the World Heritage Committee in discussing the Jokhang will be the lack of publicly available information about the damage caused to the site and what efforts have been taken since then to restore the parts affected by the blaze. Under Chinese occupation, Tibet is one of the most closed places on earth, and arguably nowhere in Tibet is subject to tighter restrictions and surveillance than Lhasa. While the fire was still burning, the authorities moved to block mentions of the fire on social media and take down videos and photos that had been posted online. The result was that, despite the seemingly clear evidence of the fire, the events of that evening quickly became contested, with a range of competing claims over the location of the fire, its effects on the Jokhang and whether the fire even took place there.

Information on the fire and its effects have been restricted ever since. Chinese state media have acknowledged that there was a fire, but claimed that it was quickly contained and no lasting harm was caused to the site or any of the historical and cultural artefacts within.  The meeting comes a full four months after the fire. Yet in these four months there has been little clarity about the extent of the damage.

While there has been no confirmation from authorities over the condition of the Jokhang and its many precious relics, Free Tibet has compiled what is known and obtained satellite imagery of the Jokhang a week after the fire, which appear to show extensive damage to the site.

The courtyard including the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel
The courtyard including the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel

 

The Jokhang: Layout and orientation

The Jokhang is located in central Lhasa. It was established in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd King of Tibet and founder of the Tibetan Empire. Its oldest structures date back to 652, and over the following centuries it has grown in size to take its present form.

It is made up of courtyards, monks quarters, offices, kitchens and temple buildings, all of which hav been built at different stages since the 7th century during various stages of rebuilding and extension. The main gate is located in the west side of the Jokhang. Further into the complex, beyond the Kyamra Chenmo Courtyard, is a square of chapels surrounded by a narrow circuit known as the Nangkor.

The Jowo Rinpoche Chapel, the scene of the fire, is located on the eastern side area. It has three floors, the lowest of which houses the Jowo Shakyamuni statue. This life-size statue depicts the young Buddha and is the most important religious icon in all of Tibet.

According to tradition, the temple was built for the King Songtsen’s two brides, Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty. The latter, as part of her dowry, is said to have brought the Jowo Shakyamuni statue with her in a wooden cart.

Satellite image of the Jokhang taken on 24 February 2018. Damage to the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel on the eastern side is clearly visible (Apollo Mapping)
Satellite image of the Jokhang taken on 24 February 2018. Damage to the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel on the eastern side is clearly visible (Apollo Mapping)

 

The fire

News about the fire broke on 17 February while it was still burning. Footage taken from multiple sources inside Lhasa, and then shared online, showed the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel and the building's immediate surroundings engulfed in flames. The wooden beams underneath the chapel’s golden roof could be seen between the flames. The videos showed that the fire was visible from hundreds of metres away across the city.

Official news sources were comparatively slow to report the fire. Xinhua, the government’s official news agency, later confirmed that this fire had broken out at 6:40 pm. This report claimed that the fire was quickly extinguished and that there had been no casualties.

Material leaked from the Ministry of Public Security later revealed that the fire was not extinguished until 8:05pm, meaning that the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel was on fire for at least 85 minutes

The same evening as the fire, social media posts about events at the Jokhang, including images and videos of the blaze, began to be censored.   According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), monks and staff working at the Jokhang were ordered against speaking about the fire. Posts about the fire on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform like Twitter, disappeared. The ability to re-post and comment on other posts was disabled by Monday afternoon after working earlier in the day. The censorship was even more extensive on the messaging application WeChat, from which references to the fire almost entirely vanished.

Tibet Daily, an official government newspaper, published several photos of devotees visiting the Jokhang Temple on 19 February, purportedly showing that there had been no damage to the interior or exterior by the fire. Two days later, Xinhua published a more detailed account of the fire, claiming that it had broken out on the second floor of the building and restating that it was soon put out. It said the fire originated from a ventilation chamber that was installed in the 1980s. The report cited claims by the Bureau of Cultural Relics that all 6,510 registered cultural relics had been saved, emphasising that the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha was “intact”.

The Jowo Sakyamuni statue before the fire
The Jowo Sakyamuni statue before the fire

 

Controversies

Despite video footage appearing to show the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel in flames and the above admissions by the Chinese authorities that there had been a fire at the Jokhang, there was a range of reporting on where the fire took place in the days following 17 February. The CTA, for example, initially stated that the fire had taken place in a building adjacent to, but distinct from, the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel. Three days later, relying on more detailed information from new sources, the CTA reported that the extent of the damage was far greater than initially reported and that the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel had been affected. 

There were also significant gaps in the official Chinese accounts. The official Xinhua report on 22 February asserted that “an area of about 50 square meters was burned” in the fire. Amy Heller, a Tibet expert and art historian at the East Asian Civilizations Research Center in Paris, has noted that this area is bigger than any of the individual chapels, even before considering the potential damage from smoke, water or the chemical products in fire extinguishers. 

Although the Jokhang reopened on the following day, Sunday 18 February, before closing again for the following three days, there was limited public access that day. The second floor of the temple compound was closed and devotees were not given access to the Jowo Rinpoche. Tourists attempting to find out about damage from the travel website TripAdvisor, were met with responses that the Jokhang had not been damaged, save for some monks’ dormitories.

Mapping the damage

In order to clarify the location of the fire, Free Tibet worked with satellite mapping organisation Apollo Mapping. Free Tibet has previously worked with Apollo Maping to map the destruction caused to Larung Gar Buddhist Institute (PDF) in eastern Tibet after the Chinese authorities carried out a series of demolitions there in 2016 and 2017.

This image of the Jokhang, taken on 24 February, one week after the fire, clearly shows that it was the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel that was affected. The imagery shows an expanse of black where the golden roof would usually be, covering an area of around 150 square metres. This could be due to the roof being removed, in which case the upper level of the building appears to be charred from the fire, or it could show extensive damage to the roof itself.

  • Satellite image of the Jokhang taken prior to the fire. Notice the distinct golden rooftops of all the buildings in the complex. (Google Earth)

  • Satellite image of the Jokhang taken on 24 February 2018. Damage to the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel on the eastern side is clearly visible (Apollo Mapping)
    Satellite image of the Jokhang taken on 24 February 2018. Damage to the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel on the eastern side is clearly visible (Apollo Mapping)

    Satellite image of the Jokhang taken on 24 February 2018, one week after the fire. Damage to the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel on the eastern side is clearly visible (Apollo Mapping)

While satellite imagery from above can pinpoint the location of the fire, there are also questions of how far down the fire extended, and whether the ground floor, containing the Jowo statue and several other statues, carvings and murals, were significantly affected.

Damage to the Jowo Statue

Photos released by official Chinese outlets in the days after the fire appear to show little damage to the interior of the Jowo Rinpoche Chapel. Tibetans have nevertheless  noted that the room looks unfamiliar. The pictures released by Chinese news sources appear to show the Jowo Statue wearing a different type of crown. Meanwhile, the intricately detailed background, which usually consists of other statues, carvings and jewels, is now covered with yellow drapes.  These drapes were unrecognisable to Tibetans familiar with the Jokhang, and heightened concerns that part of the chapel had been lost to the fire.

Photo released in Chinese media of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue, 19 February 2018. The yellow drapes, unfamiliar to Tibetans, are visible behind the statue
Photo released in Chinese media of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue, 19 February 2018. The yellow drapes, unfamiliar to Tibetans, are visible behind the statue

These concerns were reflected in a poem, Heavy Curtains and Deep Sleep Within Darkness, written by Tsering Woeser and released three weeks after the fire. In accompanying comments, Woeser added: “After the fire of 17th, I wonder what’s behind the yellow drapery behind the sacred Jowo…Traditionally the Jowo has never had such hangings. I’ve been to the Jokhang many times since March 1990 and haven’t ever seen a veil around it like this.”

Robert Barnett, a London-based Tibetologist, cited a source who had been informed by an eyewitness that the statue's crown had melted and its robes have been destroyed while surrounding images and objects were also badly damaged. The source added that the monks in the Jokhang had worked all night after the fire to clean up the statue and prepare it for photographs by the morning, replacing its robes and putting up fabric to hide surrounding damage. Barnett added that recently released images; “are part of a ‘drip-feed’ strategy to reassure people that the Jowo is intact and divert attention from other damage.” 

Going forward

Since the 7th century the Jokhang has survived wars, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and numerous uprisings against the Chinese occupation in Lhasa. It is treasured by Tibetans, many of whom remain in the dark about its present condition.

It is crucial that the Chinese authorities are pushed for further information about this damage, and what efforts if any they have taken since to repair the site. Restoration work without the guidance of experts could compound the harm already done to this historic site.

The lack of information of the Jokhang fire has again highlighted the ability of the occupying Chinese government to hide events in Tibet from external scrutiny. The damage to one of the most important and recognisable sites in all of Lhasa has been surrounded with so much secrecy that concerned Tibetans have struggled to confirm whether or not the fire had taken place within the temple and the extent of the damage, and the condition of its many precious artefacts.  Only an impartial, external investigation, conducted by experts with unimpeded access, can assuage these fears. It is vital that the Chinese authorities allow such an investigation to take place, and that its fellow members of the World Heritage Committee push for it.

Help us continue our work

For decades China has heavily restricted the information coming out of Tibet, but that may all be about to change.

Thanks to major advances in the effectiveness of satellite photography, we are now able to commission our own images to be taken.

While the use of this technology is now within our reach, images of this detail remain costly. Join Free Tibet so that we can continue to use satellites to maximum effect. Together, we can show the world what is really happening in Tibet.