March 18, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

Each year, ever since the early 1400s, Tibetan Buddhists gather to unveil a large thangka — a painting made on fabric — of Buddha. The great prayer ritual, which was banned during the cultural revolution in China and has made a comeback in recent years, offers a rare opportunity to meet the Buddhists who live at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in China’s Gansu Province.

“China has so many unique and varied parts,” says Getty Images’ Kevin Frayer, who photographed this year’s ceremonial proceedings. “It is important to explore as much of it as we can. In this case, this area in Gansu is mostly open to foreigners and Chinese tourists but during times of political tension access can be difficult. So when there was the opportunity to get there to see these people and the beautiful landscape in which they live, I felt it was a trip I had to make.”

The Canadian photojournalist, who lives in South Asia, has spent time with Tibetan Buddhist communities in India, Nepal and Bhutan, but never, until this month, in China. “In my work I am most drawn to people living at the periphery,” he says. “So often, the narrative on China is the story of economic growth and modernization. While the Great Prayer ritual dates back centuries it is still an integral part of Tibetan tradition today. I think it is important to see the attempt of culture and faith to persevere in the shadow of wide-scale development. In this case it was an opportunity to take people to a place and reveal a way of life.”

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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