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Story Publication logo July 2, 2013

Letter from Dharamsala: Aflame

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On January 12th, 22-year-old Tsering Tashi walked into the main square of Amchok township, a...

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Illustration by Martin Ansin. The New Yorker, 2013.

This article was originally posted on The New Yorker's website on July 2.

On January 12th, the day that Tsering Tashi set himself on fire, he didn't seem particularly troubled. He ate an early breakfast with his wife and his parents in the house they shared in a village near Amchok, a historically Tibetan township in China's Gansu Province. Then he took the family herd—most of the animals were dzomos, female yak-cow hybrids prized for their milk yield—to frozen grasslands nearby. He was twenty-two years old and an accomplished horseman, and his family was well respected locally. Tashi watched the animals graze for a few hours, then went home around noon, leaving the herd in the care of friends. It was a frigid, overcast day. Tashi told his mother that he wanted to wear a traditional Tibetan cloak, or chuba. "You should wear a nice thick one," she said. She asked if Tashi would like to join her for lunch, but he said that he needed to get back to work.

Tashi stopped to see his friends and asked if they would look after his animals a little longer. "I have to go into town," he said. "There's something I need to do there." He seemed to be carrying something heavy in the folds of his chuba, but they didn't ask what it might be.

When Tashi got to the main square of Amchok, he took a container from his cloak, doused his clothes in gasoline, and set himself alight. He had wrapped wire around his limbs, apparently to insure that the fuel-soaked clothing would stay in place. As flames engulfed his body, he fell to the ground. Then he got up and ran, darting away from some Chinese police he saw on the road. Finally, he collapsed again, the flames sweeping this way and that in the wind. As his clothes turned to ash, Tashi managed to raise his arms and bring his hands together in a final gesture of Buddhist prayer. "Gyawa Tenzin Gyatso," he called out. "His Holiness the Dalai Lama." A thirteen-second video, apparently shot by a passerby with a phone, shows Tashi's flaming body at the moment he raises his arms. In the background, a Tibetan woman hurries a shocked child past the blazing man ...

Editor's note: We will add the rest of the article once it becomes available. The New Yorker subscribers can access it now here.

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