From the remotest valleys and villages of Tibet, peasants and priests converge on this city to pray for the return of a lost Buddhist leader.
Their final destination is one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, the Tashi Lhunpo monastery.
As in centuries past, multihued prayer flags arc like rainbows over the cloud-tipped peaks surrounding Tashi Lhunpo. Charcoal- and scarlet-robed pilgrims flow in a continuous, clockwise circuit around the monastery, prostrating themselves in homage to a missing god. At the center of the temple complex, Tibetans lay white scarves at the throne of the Panchen Lama, the traditional head of Tashi Lhunpo and Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest leader. It almost seems that time and tragedy have never touched this pocket of Tibet.
But since 1995, the 11th Panchen Lama has been missing in action. Tibetans and Western human rights groups say the 10-year-old Panchen, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was kidnapped by China's central government shortly after being anointed by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled god-king.
Tibetans believe the Panchen is an incarnation of Amitabha, a god who takes human form to lead his followers toward enlightenment and liberation. For centuries the Dalai Lama has had ultimate responsibility for confirming the identity of the reborn Panchen.
In its 1999 report on religious freedom, the US State Department said that the Panchen Lama and his parents are under detention, and that Beijing has refused to allow international observers to meet with the boy. According to the report, Nyima's abduction is one of the softer methods Beijing is using to control Tibetan Buddhism. "There were reports of imprisonment and abuse or torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism, the death of prisoners, and the closure of several monasteries," the report says.
When the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India during an anti-Chinese uprising in Tibet in 1959, the 10th Panchen Lama initially tried to cooperate with the Himalayan region's new communist rulers. But when the Panchen Lama petitioned Mao Zedong, demanding that the party stop attacking Tibet's religious and cultural roots, "Mao had him jailed for more than a decade," says a Tibetan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The 10th Panchen was released and rehabilitated by Mao's less-radical successors two decades ago. He publicly backed the party's policy of limited religious freedom - but not political autonomy - for Tibet. But in January 1989, five days after criticizing communist rule in Tibet, the Panchen Lama died.
Since then, the central authorities have seemed determined to mold a more compliant Panchen Lama. Beijing installed its own candidate on the throne at Tashi Lhunpo four years ago. Yet 10-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu has visited the monastery only once, when he traveled here last June under armed escort and called on the clergy "to love the Communist Party of China, love the Socialist motherland, and love the religion we believe in."
Despite the exile of their god-king and the detention of the Panchen Lama, many monks here say the Chinese assaults on their religion and culture are actually unifying Tibetans. "The more the communists attack, the more we Tibetans seek solace in Buddhism, and the more determined we are to see Tibet become free," says a young monk here.
And each day, from dawn to dusk, Tibetan Buddhists continue to flock to Shigatse's monks and monasteries. Viewed from a nearby hillside, the stream of worshippers that constantly circles Tashi Lhunpo, gently spinning small brass prayer wheels, seems to form a vast human clock around the monastery. It appears to be a timepiece that is in no danger of slowing.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society