Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims trekked to a temple in the southern republic of Kalmykia on Tuesday for prayers led by the Dalai Lama (search) during his first visit to Russia in a decade.

The Buddhist spiritual leader had been denied entry to Russia for years because of Moscow's concerns about potentially damaging its strategic relationship with Beijing. The Dalai Lama lives in exile in India and leads Tibetans who have resisted half a century of Chinese rule.

Russia had rejected visa requests for the Dalai Lama at least three times since his 1994 visit. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it granted the Dalai Lama a visa this year on the grounds that he limit his activities solely to pastoral purposes, and he told reporters his purpose was to advance "human values."

China expressed dismay over the visit.

"We cannot understand why Russia granted him permission to visit, and we hope that Russia can strictly abide by ... relevant political agreements between the two sides," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiye.

As believers set up small stools outside the elaborately decorated temple at the Khurul Monastery to await morning prayers, the Dalai Lama sat on a raised platform inside under an elaborately carved gold statue of Buddha, surrounded by urns of chrysanthemums and roses, and monks sitting on carpets. They ate white rice and raisins off white china — the color signifying purity.

Pilgrims walked more than a mile through a wind-swept field to reach the monastery, about four miles northeast of the Kalmyk (search) capital Elista, passing through seven security checks by police. As they entered the monastery complex, they paused to touch 18 drums lined up on both sides under carved roofs.

"There is a link of many generations between your people and Tibet," the Dalai Lama told his followers through an interpreter.

Many pilgrims carried small silk scarves with them, symbolizing a meeting with Buddha. Each time they saw the Dalai Lama, they waved the scarves to show they came with pure hearts and souls. In keeping with Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama was recognized at age 2 as the incarnation of Avalokiteshvar (search), the Buddha of Compassion, and the reincarnation of his deceased predecessor.

The Dalai Lama consecrated a temple built at the same monastery in 1996.

The spiritual leader arrived Monday in Kalmykia, one of the largest centers of Buddhism in Russia some 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow. About half the region's 300,000 residents are Buddhists.

Pilgrims brought pictures of loved ones for blessing. Maria Bembeyeva, accompanied by her daughter Angela, brought photos of her son, Tseren, who is serving as a military driver in Chechnya.

"I believe the Dalai Lama will send grace on him and ... I hope that his military service will be as pure and white as our thoughts today," Bembeyeva said.

About 1 million of Russia's 144 million people are Buddhists. Along with dominant Russian Orthodoxy, Islam and Judaism, Buddhism is officially considered a traditional Russian religion.

China occupied Tibet in 1951, and claims that the Himalayan region has been Chinese territory for centuries. Russia has refrained from any official contacts with the Dalai Lama, saying it considers Tibet "an inalienable part of China."

The Dalai Lama fled into exile after an aborted uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, and he travels frequently to conduct Buddhist ceremonies and seek support for his campaign for Tibetan political and cultural rights.

The Dalai Lama's visit "in no way means some kind of change in our position on Tibet, which is an inalienable part of China, and we fully support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Chinese People's Republic," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Vientiane, Laos, on Monday. "Our Chinese friends know that."

Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, China has become the No. 1 customer for Russian arms manufacturers. In 2001, Russia and China signed a friendship treaty that affirmed Russia's support for China's territorial integrity.