In 2015, Italian photographer Marco Grassi traveled more than 18 hours by bus to Larung Gar, a remote town in China’s Sichuan province, and home to the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world.
Grassi photographed the closely stacked red buildings in the valley before the Chinese government ordered a series of demolitions at the monastery. This week, Human Rights Watch said that the authorities are also preparing to roll out tighter administrative controls on the settlement.
In June 2016, the government ordered the monastery to reduce the number of monks and nuns to 5,000 by September 2017. According to London-based NGO Free Tibet, 4,828 people had been evicted and 4,725 buildings torn down by May 2017.
The area is no longer accessible to foreigners after demolitions began in summer 2016. Those who wish to enter must pass checkpoints at the site and on the road from the nearby town of Serthar.
Grassi told HKFP what he experienced of daily life at the Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy.
“I was there in a very particular moment: all the monks and nuns were in a sort of ‘retreat,’ spending the morning and afternoon inside their houses reading books, praying and having time for themselves. They would only exit during the evening to buy what they needed. There were only a few monks and nuns around during the day and their routine was pretty simple: a walk during the morning, lunch in a local place in the village and more prayers in the afternoon.”
Grassi described the village as “chaotic and busy,” but said it was organised according to a logic of its own. “How monks and nuns find their home is still a mystery for me. I asked them when I was there, but all I got was a kind smile and these words: ‘We all know where our home is.’”
Grassi added that one of his friends who was running a hotel in Larung Gar was forced to leave after tourism declined.
Grassi was inspired by his trip and started leading photography workshops to Larung Gar and surrounding Tibetan regions, but he was forced to put them on hold after officials started restricting access.
He expressed sadness at the demolitions. “I honestly think that what’s happened is just unacceptable… Such a place should have been preserved, not destroyed. Such a place should have become a World Heritage Site, not a ghost town.”
In November 2016, six United Nations experts wrote a letter to China expressing “grave concern over the serious repression of the Buddhist Tibetans’ cultural and religious practices and learning in Larung Gar and Yachen Gar [another Tibetan Buddhist complex].”
Chinese officials have said that the complex is being rebuilt to improve safety and public health, citing overcrowding and a risk of fire.
More of Grassi’s work can be seen at his website.