TAWANG, India – Thousands of devout Buddhists poured into this remote Indian mountain town, arriving in packed trucks or on foot after trekking for miles along narrow paths for a rare chance to glimpse the Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan spiritual leader's weeklong visit to this town near the Chinese border, beginning Sunday, has been mired in a diplomatic squabble — highlighting the growing friction between Beijing and New Delhi as the two nuclear-armed giants vie for economic and political power.
The neighbors have been embroiled in a border dispute over the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh since 1962, and China has decried the visit and demanded that India stop it.
China regularly protests the movements of the Dalai Lama, whom it accuses of seeking Tibetan independence, and it is especially sensitive to the issue following deadly anti-government riots in the region last year. But the spiritual leader's visit to Tawang is particularly galling in part because the town's proximity and close links to his native Tibet, which he fled 50 years ago when Chinese troops marched in.
New Delhi insists that the Dalai Lama, who has since lived in exile in India, is an honored guest and free to visit any part of the country. However, in an apparent effort to placate China, foreign journalists were barred from traveling to the restricted region.
In Tawang, political sparring seemed irrelevant as the local population prepared to welcome the man they revere as a living god — his first visit here since 2003.
Many of those flocking to the town were poor villagers from surrounding areas and neighboring countries who otherwise would be unable to see the Dalai Lama at his base in Dharmsala. The hill town is about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) northwest of Tawang.
Despite temperatures already dropping below freezing and icy winds, dozens of young volunteers swept the streets in the center of town while others sprinkled water to settle the clouds of dust. Roads leading from the helipad where the Dalai Lama is expected to land Sunday morning were festooned with colorful Buddhist prayer flags.
The local administration, which expects 25,000 people, erected a small tent city, with 100 tents able to house around 10 people each while other pilgrims sought shelter in local monasteries and guest houses. Facilities at the camp were minimal, limited to drinking water and portable toilets and lit by a single, bare light bulb.
One group of poor Buddhist villagers from neighboring Bhutan walked for five days to hear the Dalai Lama speak.
Karma Wangchu, 23, and his 17 year-old wife, Tsering Yudon, shivered in their thin jackets worn over threadbare T-shirts and jeans.
"There are many lamas in Bhutan as well, but our people respect the Dalai Lama a lot," Wangchu said in broken Hindi as he jumped up and down to keep warm. "We will do anything to see him."
The Dalai Lama will spend Sunday at the 17th century Tawang monastery, and is scheduled the rest of the week to conduct a series of public teaching sessions from a tiny Buddhist temple.
"We are poor people, and this is the only place we could come to hear the Dalai Lama speak. So it is no hardship to walk for so many days," said 17-year-old Dorji Wangdi.
"If I can just see him once in my lifetime, then I am not afraid to die," he added, speaking in a Bhutanese dialect, which Wanchu translated into Hindi.
In Changprong village, on the edge of Tawang town and the first stop on the Tibetan leader's itinerary, 23-year old Pema Choten and a group of villagers decorated the stones surrounding the village center with a mixture of lime paste and water.
"We can't wait to welcome the Dalai Lama," she said. "For us he is our god. We feel peaceful when we see him."