As monks began setting themselves on fire a few hundred kilometres across the provincial border in Sichuan, local officials in this 16th-century monastery town jumped into action.
At a meeting of the monastery's temple management authority, a body that comprises provincial Communist Party representatives, senior monks and “Living Buddhas”, officials outlined a plan of action.
“The message was simple,” said one monk who was told about the meeting, “Do whatever it takes to maintain stability”.
Kumbum, known as Taersi in Chinese, is a monastery with special significance for Tibetans. It is one of the most influential centres for the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
Located in the area known to Tibetans as Amdo in China's northwestern Qinghai province, Kumbum dates back to the thirteenth century, when Tsongkhapa, the founding figure of the Gelugpas, set up a prayer site here.
The monastery is particularly popular with followers of the Dalai Lama, the most important figure for the Gelugpas. The exiled fourteenth Dalai Lama was born in a village called Taktser which is only half an hour's drive away.
Kumbum has remained relatively stable through the troubles over the past year, which saw more than 30 Tibetan monks and nuns setting themselves on fire in monastery towns across the Tibetan plateau.
The response from officials here, monks said in interviews, was a combination of carrots and sticks: a slew of welfare measures — renovating prayer halls, increasing stipends and improving living conditions — coupled with tight security policies that bear no tolerance for dissent.
Signs of change are easy to spot at Kumbum. Construction cranes hover over a main prayer hall as workers add touches of paint. Ceaseless sounds of hammering and drilling reverberate through the monastery's narrow passageways. On a recent April afternoon, migrant workers from Sichuan laboured through light snowfall to lay new roads over the muddy byways that run through the sprawling monastery, which sits on a hilltop.
After the string of self-immolations began in Sichuan last year, officials announced a number of welfare measures for monasteries in TAR and the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. These included the provision of public services such as water, electricity, televisions and Internet access, as well as medical insurance and increased living allowances.
The implementation has been varied across different provinces, according to monks from TAR and Sichuan who are now at Kumbum. Here and at the Rongwo monastery in Tongren in Qinghai's south, moves to open new living quarters where monks can own 50 square-metre rooms, with heating, for a one-time deposit of only 10,000 Yuan (Rs. 83,000), have been widely popular. Authorities have also allowed the display of images of the Dalai Lama, which is banned in many monasteries in TAR.
More controversial are measures to introduce patriotic education. Since last year, all monasteries have had to set up management committees to “better regulate Buddhist activities”. “We are now continuously administering patriotic education,” one monk at Kumbum said in an interview. Asked if the move was popular, he said: “I cannot reply to that question.”
Other monks said that while they welcomed moves to improve living conditions, security restrictions were unpopular. “We cannot talk freely, even our cellphones are monitored,” said one monk. “We are also barred from travelling outside the monastery.”
Authorities have set up a nationwide “blacklist” of monks found to engage in political activities — this could even include posting an “objectionable” message online. They would be expelled and barred from joining any monastery in China.
One monk said policies were more relaxed in Kumbum because the number of ethnic Tibetan monks was less than in places such as Rongwo or Labrang in Gansu, where there have been protests. Here, only half the 700 residents were Tibetans, he said, with other students from Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China.
“The atmosphere is better here,” said one student from Lhasa who moved to Kumbum after the 2008 riots, following which many monks in TAR were sent to other provinces.
The young monk was waiting outside a teaching hall as his friends prepared for an afternoon debate, dressed only in their maroon robes even as the snow fell on their shoulders. Down the road, policemen stood watch at a makeshift station while paramilitary cars slowly patrolled the muddy byways.
As the class began in a snow-covered courtyard, the young monks began debating in the distinctively Tibetan style, stamping their feet on the ground, slapping their forearms to drive home a point, and forgetting briefly the world outside their classroom.