TAWANG, India (Reuters) - Thousands of Buddhist monks and supporters welcomed Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader on Sunday to Arunachal Pradesh also claimed by China, a trip that has renewed tensions between the Asian giants.
The Dalai Lama arrived by helicopter in this remote Buddhist enclave nestled in the icy folds of the eastern Himalayas, where he had passed through after fleeing Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
The visit, as well as reports of border incursions in recent months, has triggered tensions between the world’s two most populous nations, whose relations remain hostage to mutual suspicion lingering from a brief 1962 border war.
The Tibetan spiritual leader defended his visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and said he wasn’t surprised by Beijing’s reaction.
“It is quite usual for China to step up the campaign against me wherever I go,” the Dalai Lama told reporters after opening a museum at a 400-year-old monastery in Tawang, which is at the heart of the border row between the two countries.
“My visit here is non-political,” he said.
Beijing, which considers Arunachal Pradesh to be part of south Tibet, criticised the visit as undermining Chinese territorial integrity. It has slammed the Dalai Lama’s “scheme to wreck China’s relations” with India.
India and China have made little progress in resolving their decades-old dispute over the Himalayan border, despite several rounds of talks.
China lays claim to 90,000 sq km of land on the eastern sector of the border. India disputes that and instead says China occupies 38,000 sq km (15,000 sq miles) of territory in Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas.
The neighbours which compete for global resources and influence, have also exchanged diplomatic barbs at multi-lateral forums and sparred over visa policies for their citizens in an escalating row that many fear could spiral out of control.
This, despite relations thawing in recent years on the back of mutual trade that is expected to exceed $60 billion next year, a 30-fold increase since 2000.
On Sunday, thousands of people lined the road to Tawang — a moonscape of steep, craggy mountains and white stupas, which is home to the Monpa people who practice Tibetan Buddhism and speak a tongue similar to Tibetan.
Roads were washed, welcome gates with colourful Buddhist paintings erected and the valley’s main monastery decked up. With hundreds of exiled Tibetans arriving for the event from all over India, the town took on a carnival look to greet the Dalai Lama.
“He is our god,” said a young woman who gave her name as Choeden in between helping put up Tibetan scripture-bearing holy flags.
“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?”
Lamas or monks swathed in maroon and saffron robes chanted sutras, blew gongs and swung incense sticks before a 25-ft high golden Buddha at the main monastery - a pagoda-like structure with brilliant red, blue and white paintings.
“The Chinese government is pure evil and it knows what the Dalai Lama means to us,” said Pema Tsering, who runs a local grocery store. “They call him names to belittle him. But he is like the ocean, a few drops of poison doesn’t spoil it.”
Beijing calls the Dalai Lama a dangerous “splittist” plotting Tibetan independence, a charge he denies. He says he is merely seeking autonomy for Tibet.
(Additional reporting by Biswajyoti Das)
(Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Sanjeev Miglani)