China rules out arson in Tibetan temple fire

The streets and square outside Jokhang Temple in Lhasa constitute one of the most important pilgrimage circuits for Tibetans

Chinese authorities have ruled out arson as the cause of a recent fire at Tibetan Buddhism's holiest temple, state media reported Thursday, adding an important Buddha statue had emerged "intact" from the blaze.

The report is the first official account of Saturday's fire at the more than 1,300-year-old Jokhang Temple, after authorities suppressed social media accounts of the incident, leading to accusations of a cover-up.

The fire erupted on the building's second floor, but was soon put out, according to the official Xinhua news agency, which said the blaze had damaged the building's golden roof.

There were no casualties and the building has already been reopened to the public, it said.

Jokhang temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which lies at the heart of old Lhasa.

It is Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred site and home to the Jowo Shakyamuni, a revered statue of the founder of Buddhism.

"The life-sized statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha when he was 12 years old was intact," Xinhua said, without giving any further details.

Chinese government efforts to censor reports of the blaze raised concern among academics and Tibetans abroad that authorities are hiding the extent of the damage at the sensitive religious site.

On Twitter, Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism, linked to videos and photos on social media that he said suggested the Jowo Shakyamuni had sustained superficial damage.

The incident comes as Tibetans across the country are celebrating Losar, the traditional Tibetan New Year that began Friday, the same day as the Chinese lunar new year.

The temple had been closed to the public on Saturday, Xinhua previously reported, citing a schedule from local authorities from before the holiday began.

Jokhang monastery is home to numerous priceless cultural artifacts, including over 3,000 images of Buddhas, deities and historical figures as well as treasures and manuscripts, according to UNESCO.

China has ruled Tibet since the 1950s, and has been accused of trying to eradicate its Buddhist-based culture through political and religious repression.

In 2008, demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Lhasa degenerated into deadly violence targeting China's majority Han ethnic group and the Hui, a Muslim minority.

Later that year, dozens of monks burst into the Jokhang temple to interrupt a state-run foreign media press tour intended to showcase the region's harmony and stability in the wake of the protests, accusing the government of lying.