TAWANG, India – The Dalai Lama brushed off Chinese protests and traveled Sunday to a remote Himalayan town near the Tibetan border to lead five days of prayers and teaching sessions for Buddhist pilgrims.
Thousands of poor villagers braved freezing temperatures and icy winds for a rare chance to glimpse the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Monks clanged cymbals and sounded traditional Tibetan horns to greet the Dalai Lama as he arrived at the Tawang monastery from a nearby helipad.
The Dalai Lama smiled and chatted with the gathered crowds. One monk shaded him with a giant yellow silk umbrella, while scores of others bowed before him as he walked into a hall to lead a prayer session.
The trip to Tawang, which has strong ties to Tibet and lies at the heart of a border dispute between India and China, angered Beijing and further heightened already raised tensions between the two nations.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking Tibetan independence and is especially sensitive to protests against its control over the Himalayan region following deadly anti-government riots there last year.
The Dalai Lama said Beijing's accusation that his trip is anti-China is "baseless." He said he is only seeking to promote religious values, peace and harmony.
"My visit here is nonpolitical," the Dalai Lama said.
He said he felt close ties to the region, which was his first stop in India when he fled from Chinese-ruled Tibet 50 years ago. At that time, he was ill and suffering dysentery, but when he reached here Sunday, he felt safe, he said.
In the days leading up to this visit — only his fifth trip here in the last half century — monks and residents painted the monasteries of Tawang and scrubbed the town. They hung prayer flags along the streets and banners welcoming the Dalai Lama.
On Sunday, the main monastery was filled with fresh orange, white and red flowers as young monks bustled around making last-minute preparations.
Pilgrims arrived in packed trucks, others walked along narrow paths in the Himalayan foothills for as long as five days to hear a man they revere as a living god speak.
"If I can just see him once in my lifetime, then I am not afraid to die," said Dorji Wangdi, 17.
The local administration, which expected 25,000 people, erected a small tent city for pilgrims, while other visitors sought shelter in local monasteries and guesthouses.
India and China have been embroiled in a border dispute over the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh since 1962. Tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries have worsened in recent months as they vie for economic and political power in the region.
While China regularly protests the movements of the Dalai Lama, it is particularly sensitive to this trip, which highlights two issues of special concern to Beijing, Tibetan independence and its disputed border with India, said Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
"The Chinese are highly distrustful of what the Dalai Lama is doing there," he said.
Tawang is close to the border with Tibet and is home to the Monpa tribe, who have strong ties to Lhasa. The sixth Dalai Lama came from the region in the 17th century and China fears the current Dalai Lama will say his successor could also come from the region, removing China's role in choosing Tibet's next spiritual leader.
At the same time, India's decision to let the Dalai Lama visit Tawang — just weeks after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Arunachal Pradesh — is another declaration of its sovereignty over the disputed border area.
For his part, the Dalai Lama no longer appears concerned about angering China since negotiations over his Himalayan homeland have gone nowhere, Raghavan said.
"The Dalai Lama really has nothing to lose," he said. "The key thing is for him to be able to preserve Tibetan religion and culture."