Photo Fees in Tibetan Monasteries, or On Tashilhunpo Monastery

I’ve always thought that there is something slightly unseemly about admission fees at religious sites. Of course being a tourist attraction does result in expenses, in terms of staffing and whatnot, but charging admission highlights the sometimes commercial and parasitic nature of organized religion, and seems to fly in the face of evangelism, which one would think would be an aim of any group that believes that it holds ultimate truths that others do not. That said, I understand that for some institutions admission fees help with capital projects, further charitable missions and fill other gaps in budget. The tourist is getting something of value, and it’s not totally unfair for the faith to benefit.

As we expected, Tibetan monasteries, like all tourist attractions in China (see post of 2008.07.25), charge fairly hefty admission fees (50 RMB, or USD 7.50, on average, I would say).

What we did not expect, certainly at this level of frequency and magnitude, are the camera fees. In order to take pictures inside most of the most visited Tibetan monasteries, you need to pay an additional *per-chapel* charge ranging anywhere from 10 RMB, or USD 1.50, to over 100 RMB, or USD 15–and monasteries can have a dozen chapels (outside pictures are included in the regular admission fee). We’ve encountered camera fees in other parts of the world, mostly in India and ex-Soviet republics, but the photo fees we are encountering in Tibetan monasteries are particularly pernicious, not only because they are on top of relatively high admission fees, but because they are administered in a way that is annoying and demeaning to the monks and the monasteries–on a per chapel basis.

I understand that charging per chapel might result in higher proceeds, but, in an era when photography is so much of a traveler’s experience, it turns each monastery visit into a sort of shopping expedition, where one pauses to evaluate each chapel to decide whether it is “worth” memorializing at whatever price is being asked. It turns each monk into a sort of ticket enforcer (a task some seem to relish), and since there is no clear receipt or anything given, even after one has already paid one is still bothered with questions regarding the photo fee.

Even then, at the first monasteries that we visited, I was willing to give the Tibetans the benefit of the doubt. I told myself that the per chapel fee made sense because they sort of took the place of per chapel donations that the faithful would leave (though of course at many multiples). Until I got to Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.

Tashilhunpo Monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in spiritual authority (and a “recognizer” of new Dalai Lamas), and one of the principal tourist attractions of Tibet, with a prominent place on almost any Tibet itinerary. Admission is a steep 85 RMB (USD 13), befitting its prominence and size, and perhaps the extensive restoration work done. What really sets the monastery apart, however, are the photo fees, which range from 75RMB to 160RMB (USD 11 to 24)–per chapel.

The mercenary character of all this came into full light when we were told that the monks of Tashilhunpo–which is said to be more closely affiliated with the Chinese government than other monasteries–actually work office hours, like civil servants, taking public holidays and an hour off for lunch. Now, I’m not saying that monks have to pray 15 hours a day, but certainly there is something about a religious calling that should be distinguished from regular salaried employees. I knew that the Chinese government was “involved” in the affairs of the Tibetan monasteries, sometimes even requiring monks to profess allegiance to the Chinese government ahead of the Dalai Lama, but did not think that monks would simply be government employees. Through this lens, like so many things in China, Tashilhunpo appears like an operation optimized solely for profit.

Sign at the monastery promoting a sister site, widely reputed not to be worth the admission fee. Why is a monastery advertising tourist attractions?

Our disdain for the photo fees being charged at Tashilhunpo made me reconsider not only the merits of photo fees at all Tibetan monasteries, but also made me feel offended by their general funding tactics, so common to many organized religions. Most Tibetans are extremely poor, yet when they come to these gilded temples, some with fabulous amounts of government support, they throw heaps of (small) bills at each shrine. The money is displayed extremely prominently, sometimes the deities surrounded by bills, apparently equating holiness and material wealth. When a holy man dies, a memorial stupa is raised with obscene quantities of gold and precious metals (the weight of their gold now a favorite fact on tours). Seen this way, the monks are almost predators, feeding on the superstitiousness and awe of the people (who are not even invited to the esoteric knowledge of the monks) in order to maintain their livelihood. The priestly class as parasites–not an uncommon motif.

The stupa of the Tenth Panchen Lama, said to contain 614 kg gold, 868 precious stones and 246,794 jewels

Poor pilgrims, offering their meager savings

7 thoughts on “Photo Fees in Tibetan Monasteries, or On Tashilhunpo Monastery

  1. I am blown away by what they were charging. I guess I have never been to a place where they charge you for picture taking!

  2. it was a bummer on top of plenty of other bummers. I did have to remind myself constantly that I can't simply transplant my Catholic ideas of what monastic life is and neatly place them in Tibet.

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  4. Paul, I totally agree with you. I also hate photo fees anywhere in the world and most often I just refuse. In fact, if a place (e.g. museums including non-practicing religious places) charges photo fees on top of the admission fee, I often refuse to go in so I move on.

    For active practicing monasteries or religious places… often their strategy is to discourage photography without having to totally ban it. It is annoying to religious visitors or pilgrims to pray etc and tourists keep on taking photos of them. So by charging a high photo fee, they likely have only the more serious photographers taking photos. But I do agree, in same places its just plain greediness. I see all over the world how everybody tries to get as much money out of the travelers as possible. I'm on my way to Tibet and will choose 1 to 2 monasteries to take a few nice pics. The rest will be un-captured by my lens.

  5. Wow, I do kind of understand maybe charging a small fee for photos, if the money is really needed (I mean, Western attractions have a gift shop, they have to get money somehow!) but that one charging $11-24 per chapel is ridiculous!

    I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Berlin but one of the things that shocked me there was having to pay for the toilets, everywhere! It’s kind of normal in capital cities – London is mostly the same – but there is NOWHERE that’s free. In fact, I even had to pay to use the toilet in a restaurant would you believe it, despite already being a paying customer having a sit-down meal!

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