ZHONGDIAN, China - White clouds of incense billow up from a walled courtyard as the sound of chanting monks floats through the morning air at the Gedan Songzan Monastery here in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. Behind a latticework of scaffolding, a five-story Tibetan Buddhist temple fills with the sounds and smells of construction: the thump of hammers, the whir of a buzz saw and the fragrance of sawdust.
More than three decades ago, the sounds of destruction echoed through this city in Southwest China's Yunnan province. Following Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung's orders to destroy the past, thousands of residents slammed axes and hammers down on the temples' earthen walls until nothing remained but the foundations.
Nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Zhongdian is in the midst of a construction renaissance, restoring the holy site its people obliterated. Where nothing but fallen timbers and battered mud walls once stood, a new monastery with gleaming gold-leaf metalwork and a large white stupa - a domed shrine - has risen on a hillside outside town.
Some local monks, though, say the driving force behind the new construction is not remorse about the past or a newfound respect for Tibetan Buddhism. It's about money.
"The ruins don't make good pictures," says a young monk over a cup of yak butter tea during a fireside chat in his dormitory. Government officials "don't see this as a religious place; they see only tourism."
Such is the tilt-a-whirl of 20th-century Chinese history that something so despised in one decade could become so valued in another. The temples Mao destroyed as part of a campaign to preserve his Communist revolution are being rebuilt under the capitalist profit motives he reviled.
Criticisms of profiteering barely register with the government here.
"The more tourists the better," says Zhaxi, an official with the local Diqing Prefecture Nationalities and Religious Affairs Committee, who, like many Tibetans, uses only one name.
Since the early 1980s, the Chinese government has spent tens of millions of dollars rebuilding hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. In Lhasa, the capital of China's Tibetan Autonomous Region, which people commonly refer to as "Tibet," officials have spent more than $6 million to refurbish the famed Potala Palace.
Before the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was home to perhaps 2,700 monasteries. By all accounts, many were spectacular. A collection of huge, terraced, fortress-like buildings made of rammed earth and brick walls, they clung to the isolated, arid mountains along the roof of the world.
Inside the dark, smoky temples - amid the flickering light and pungent smell of yak butter candles - was a rainbow of colors. Embroidered tangkas - Tibetan tapestry paintings - hung from the walls. White prayer scarves and cobalt-blue and canary-yellow textiles lay draped across Buddha statues.
The People's Liberation Army attacked in 1950 to bring Tibet, then an independent nation, under Chinese control and transform it from a repressive theocracy into a socialist society. Over the next quarter-century, most of the monasteries were demolished, and as many as 1.2 million Tibetans died as a result of Beijing's policies, according to the Tibetan government in exile in India.
Of China's approximately 5 million ethnic Tibetans, more than 2 million live outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region in neighboring Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces - culturally Tibetan areas known as "Greater Tibet."
The Songzan monastery, which lies in northwest Yunnan province, was built in the late 17th century on the orders of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi. At the dawn of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao ordered it razed.
Eight thousand people attacked the monastery and tore it to the ground in three days, according to one monk. Others say it took as long as six months. Historians often blame destruction during the Cultural Revolution on the Red Guards, Mao's zealous young foot soldiers. One Tibetan expert, though, notes that many Zhongdian Tibetans participated in the monastery's obliteration as well.
The mobs burned prayer cushions, ancient hand-written scriptures and tangkas. The government confiscated and melted down all the gold and copper metalwork.
"I was scared to death," recalled one monk who was a teen-ager at the time and, like others, asked that his name not be used. "I had to watch them demolish the monastery. I could do nothing. I had to remain quiet."
Along with his fellow monks, he was sent to work on a farm where he made yak butter for the next 14 years.