The Broader Picture: Burning butter for the gods

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They first came face to face in the winter of 1949. Communism, victorious in Peking but still struggling on the fringes of the Chinese empire, confronted Tibetan Buddhism at Kumbum Monastery. They clashed over a modest but heretical proposal: to stop burning yak's butter, the foul-smelling fuel of countless candles lit in celebration of the Tibetan faith. The confrontation was only a skirmish. It would be another two years before Mao Tse-tung's troops moved into Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, another decade before the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, two decades before Red Guards razed temples and sent thousands of monks to their deaths.

It began, though, with burning butter at Kumbum. The new Communist governor of the region found the stench offensive and the symbolism even worse - an affront to the party's promise to uproot all forms of 'feudal superstition'. He asked the abbot of Kumbum to issue an order to desist. But the abbot stood his ground - his resolve strengthened, perhaps, by the memory of his late brother, the 13th Dalai Lama. If the Communist Party wanted to forbid yak's butter, he said, it would have to do so itself. The party backed down. But it would never do the same again.

Like so many great centres of Tibetan learning, Kumbum was sacked during the Cultural Revolution, its statues smashed and monks rounded up for 're-education'. But Kumbum survived - at a price. Stripped of the land that once ensured a livelihood for its monks, it depends on Peking for the money to repair past destruction and now day-trippers flock here from the nearby city of Xining, capital of China's Qinghai Province. In place of Maoist slogans, the outer wall of Kumbum bears a large sign in Chinese: 'Tourist Map'.

The monastery is allowed to take in novice monks once again, and with their return has come the revival of Buddhist festivals. The main picture here shows a feast day celebrated each winter on the 15th day of the first month of Tibet's lunar calender. The Chinese know it as the Lantern Festival; for Tibetans, though, it is the Great Butter Festival, the high- point of two weeks of prayer - and perhaps, at Kumbum at least, a reminder of their brief triumph in the butter battle of 1949. On this day, yak butter is not only burnt in offering to Buddhist gods but sculpted and painted to form a huge, intricate tableau. A decade ago, when such sculptures first made a comeback after the Cultural Revolution, the motifs were still largely political. Now, a more subtle compromise has been achieved between politics and religion. The photographer Laurie Lewis has visited the festival and his pictures form part of the 'Sacred Art of Tibet' exhibition which opens on Friday at the Royal Academy and was put together originally by 'Tibet House', the organisation started by the actor Richard Gere to draw support for Tibet in the West.

China may have relaxed its regime sufficiently to allow such rituals, but there are limits - as illustrated by the small picture (left). On horseback is Wen Cheng, a 7th-century Chinese princess who married the Tibetan ruler Songtsen Gampo. For Chinese propagandists, this is proof that Tibet has forever been a part of China. Tibetans, however, point out that Songtsen Gampo also married a Nepalese princess, and that Tibet, not China, was the stronger partner when he took his Chinese wife. But Kumbum is not Lhasa, where Tibetan nationalists continue to riot against Chinese rule. Besieged by Chinese tourists and so much closer to the Chinese heartland, Kumbum's token respect for a Chinese princess on a white horse seems a small price to pay.