The Dalai Lama will Saturday address devotees at the monastery near India’s border with China where he took shelter on his flight from Tibet, drawing protests from Beijing which claims the Himalayan area as its territory.
Huge crowds are expected to turn out for the 81-year-old monk on what may be his last ever visit to Tawang, a remote, high-altitude corner of northeast India that is home to one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism.
But even before he arrived at the monastery in the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh on Friday evening, the exiled spiritual leader was at the centre of a diplomatic row between China and his adopted homeland, India.
Beijing this week lodged an official protest with the Indian ambassador, accusing New Delhi of arranging a platform for the Dalai Lama to “hold anti-China and separatist activities”.
The Indian government has insisted the visit is purely religious and pointed out that the Dalai Lama has been to Tawang before, accusing China of creating an “artificial controversy”.
But some analysts say New Delhi has adopted a firmer approach to China since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014 and invited the head of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile to attend his swearing-in ceremony.
“The Dalai Lama has always been welcome to travel wherever he wants in India. But this government has been a bit firmer on issues of sovereignty,” said Jayadeva Ranade, head of the Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.
New Delhi is currently pushing to expand its infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh, building new roads and conducting a feasibility study for a railway.
India and China fought a border war in 1962 over the region, which has a large ethnic Tibetan population.
En route to Arunachal, the Dalai Lama was reunited with the Indian border guard who escorted him into the country after he fled his native Tibet following a failed uprising nearly 60 years ago.
Speaking to reporters a few days later, the Dalai Lama said the meeting had been “very emotional”, bringing back memories of his dramatic flight across the Himalayas disguised as a soldier.
Ranade said the visit to Tawang — birthplace of an earlier incarnation of the Dalai Lama — had also raised Chinese concerns over the ageing monk’s succession.
The Dalai Lama has stated that his reincarnation may be found outside Chinese Tibet, and Arunachal, with its rich Tibetan culture, is an obvious contender.
Under Tibetan Buddhist tradition, senior monks identify a young boy who shows signs he is a reincarnation of a late leader.
But China’s officially atheist Communist rulers maintain that they have the sole authority to decide reincarnation.
“The Chinese reaction has been very elevated, they’ve been using tough language,” Ranade told AFP. “This indicates Chinese anxiety about the reincarnation.”