The Jokhang temple is closely monitored by guards and security cameras. In 2008, dozens of monks at the temple staged a surprise protest in front of foreign journalists on a government-organized visit, upsetting the careful stagecraft of their visit.
Protests broke out inside or near the Jokhang temple in 1988 and 1989, prompting the government to ban an annual prayer gathering, called Monlam, which takes place at the end of the Tibetan New Year festivities, Robert Barnett, an expert on contemporary Tibet living in London, said by email.
“The Jokhang is seen as the most sacred shrine in Tibetan Buddhism, and for centuries it’s been the focal point of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists,” Mr. Barnett said. “For many people, it is the primary symbol of Tibetan cultural and religious heritage.”
Word of the fire first spread on Chinese social media services, where users shared pictures and video of flames and smoke rising over the temple in the center of Lhasa, the historic capital of Tibet.
But many of the pictures of the fire were quickly taken down, and some Tibetans abroad said the Chinese government may censor the images to play down any damage.
The official reports did not specify which part of the temple, which covers more than six acres, had been damaged by the fire. Some accounts shared on Chinese social media suggested the blaze had broken out in a side hall or annex, possibly a housing area, which was not a part of the main building that Tibetans think of as the heart of the Jokhang.
The centerpiece of the temple is a glittering statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of the religion. In busy months, visitors pack the temple and surrounding maze of narrow streets.
“Generations of Tibetans have traveled to Lhasa, prostrating as they go, just to make pilgrimage to the Jokhang, and to the statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha,” Ms. Woeser, the writer, said.