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NGAWA, CHINA (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of Tibetan monks and onlookers celebrated their largest annual religious festival at Gerdeng Monastery in Ngawa, high up in the mountains of southwestern China's Sichuan province.
Monlam, or the Great Prayer Festival, has a history of nearly 600 years and remains a controversial festival in the politically sensitive ethnic Tibetan areas. It was started by the founder of the Gelugpa sect, the sect of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Monks blessed sacks of sweets, then tossed the sweets to the thousands of worshippers, who scrambled to collect them.
One of the highlights of the festival is the unveiling of a giant Buddha scroll on the side of the monastery, known as a "thang-ga" or "thongdrol". The sight of the Buddha is believed to be a blessing for followers. Monks also chant prayers and perform ritual dances as part of the festivities.
Monlam usually lasts from the fourth to eleventh day of the first month on the Tibetan calendar, depending on the customs of individual Tibetan communities.
Located in a mountainous area some 3,000 meters above sea level, Ngawa town, or "Aba" in Mandarin, is the religious centre of the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Over 50 percent of the population in the region is Tibetan.
Gerdeng Monastery is the largest Gelugpa Tibetan monastery there, housing over 2,000 monks who preserve the festival traditions.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule in Tibet, where critics say Beijing curbs religious and political freedoms.
Last weekend, a dispute over the price of balloons in an ethnically Tibetan town in Qinghai province sparked a clash between thousands of residents and police, a source with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.
Reporting by Reinhard Krause; writing by Sophie Hardach