Saffron-and-maroon-robed Buddhist monks waxed poetic on the ephemeral nature of the world at a Tibetan festival in Annandale yesterday. But they also urged visitors to help them with a more down-to-earth matter: getting a specialized license plate in Virginia.
The application to create a Tibetan plate, which would display a golden sun rising over a line of Himalayan mountains and the phrase "Friends of Tibet" at the bottom, is in danger of failing, leaders of the Capitol Area Tibetan Association said. The group needs 150 more Virginia drivers to sign up to purchase one by Saturday, the state's deadline.
Specialized plates are as common on Virginia roads as traffic and represent causes as varied as the National Rifle Association, amateur radio, Pearl Harbor survivors and the Parrotheads.
Local Tibetan leaders said having their own license plate would be an encouragement for exiles here and for people in their native country, which they say is oppressed by the communist government in China. The Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture would share revenue generated by the sale of the tags.
The leaders added that Virginia would be one of the first states to sanction a Tibet-friendly message on its plates.
The association first lobbied to get the phrase "Free Tibet" on the plate and then changed it to "Save Tibet." Both were considered too political by state Department of Motor Vehicles standards, they said.
"The purpose is to build up the friendship between Tibetans and Virginians," said Kalden Lodoe, spokesman for the association. "Most Tibetans live in Fairfax, and we are indebted to Virginia as a state. It's a way of saying that we are here."
But because Tibetans are so few in number -- local leaders estimate there are a few hundred in Virginia and less than 300 in the Washington area -- the community has struggled to get enough people to support the plate. So far, 200 drivers have paid the required $25 fee and signed up for one, less than the 350 required by state law.
Even getting this far has been a difficult journey for the group. The design of the plate was sponsored by state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria), passed by the General Assembly in 2004, signed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and approved by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and state police.
"We know it's late. . . . We are racing to get enough people to sign up," said Karma Zurkhang, president of the association, who put a license plate application on the windshield of every car parked at the festival.
The campaign for the plate was held at Annandale United Methodist Church, where about 100 church members, neighbors and Tibetans showed up to celebrate Tibetan culture. In addition, an auction of Asian art was held to raise money for children in Tibet who lack health care.
Tibetan vendors lined the hallways of the church with tables full of turquoise necklaces, wool carpets and other wares. Most said they would donate 15 to 20 percent of their proceeds to the charity.
Church members said they welcomed the group with open arms. And for a day, Tibetan monks filled the church with chants and led short prayer services in the sanctuary.
The Rev. John T. Martin, head pastor of the church, said he hoped the festival would encourage relations between Christians and Buddhists. He proudly pointed to a Tibetan wool carpet that would remain underneath the altar -- a gift from his Buddhist friends.
"We wanted to do this in a sacred place, like this church," said Achi Tsepal, who runs the nonprofit Children of Tibet Trust in Falls Church. The license plate effort and the festival, he added, could go a long way in "telling the Christians in Virginia about our faith and who we are."