Thousands of Buddhist monks in maroon robes joined secular supporters of the Dalai Lama yesterday to welcome the Tibetan spiritual leader as he arrived in the Himalayas for a four-day visit that is testing already strained relations between India and China.
Arriving by helicopter, the religious leader touched down in the small town of Tawang, situated in the north-east of India and the location of a 400-year-old monastery where he briefly stayed 50 years ago when he fled China.
The road to Tawang, set amid steep craggy mountains, was lined with well-wishers who had erected Buddhist paintings, painted buildings and washed the thoroughfare to greet the Dalai Lama.
"He is our god," a young woman called Choeden, who was putting up flags bearing writing from Tibetan scriptures, told the Associated Press. "He has come back to bless us all. China may or may not recognise him but that is not important for us. Can the Chinese remove him from our hearts?"
China, which claims almost all of the state of Arunachal Pradesh as its own territory, has condemned the visit. Yet while India last year refused the Dalai Lama permission to visit the state, this year, amid increasingly tense relations with China, it allowed him to make the trip. Foreign journalists, however, were not permitted to travel to the region.
The state of Arunachal Pradesh was among several Himalayan territories fought over by China and India in a brief war in 1962. Repeated meetings have failed to resolve the territorial disputes and considerable distrust remains between the regional rivals. China even condemns visits by senior Indian politicians to the state, so it considers the arrival of a man it accuses of trying to break up its country particularly provocative.
Yesterday the Tibetan leader, who will open a hospital and hold prayer sessions, said he was not surprised by the Chinese criticism of his visit. "It is quite usual for China to step up the campaign against me wherever I go," he said. "My visit here is non-political."