TAWANG: The Dalai Lama arrived in northeast India on Sunday to visit a remote, high-altitude Tibetan monastery on a trip that has infuriated China, which claims the surrounding Himalayan region as its own.
Thousands of Buddhists gave the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has lived in exile in India for 50 years, a rousing welcome as he landed by helicopter near the Tawang monastery, perched at 3,500 metres (11,400 feet) in Arunachal Pradesh.
Sandwiched between Myanmar, Bhutan and Tibet, the lush, forested state of Arunachal is governed by India but claimed by China. Beijing has slammed the visit as a provocation aimed at harming relations between China and India.
Tawang -- 400 years old and the second largest Tibetan monastery in India -- holds personal history for the Dalai Lama.
When he fled Tibet in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule, Arunachal was his point of entry to India and he took refuge in Tawang at the start of his decades in exile.
Preparations for the week-long tour have been underway for two months, with the monastery receiving a facelift and regular prayers being held across Arunachal for the Dalai Lama's safe journey.
It was not his first visit to Tawang, but the timing has caused Beijing to protest in far stronger fashion than in the past.
Indo-Chinese tensions over their disputed Himalayan border -- the cause of a brief but bloody war in 1962 -- have risen in recent months, with reports of troop movements and minor incursions on both sides.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toured the region last month during an election campaign, prompting warnings from Beijing about harming bilateral ties.
The arrival of the Dalai Lama, whom China regards as a "splittist" intent on fomenting separatist unrest in his homeland, is seen as a double provocation.
China accused the Dalai Lama and his exiled "clique" of helping to organise fierce anti-China protests that erupted in Lhasa in March last year and spread across the region.
The Indian government has defended the Dalai Lama's right to travel where he wishes in India, but acknowledged the sensitivity of the visit by barring foreign journalists from covering it.
Phuntso Wangchuk, an 80-year-old retired government employee who lives near Tawang and remembers the excitement that greeted the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet in 1959, said Chinese criticism was misplaced.
"His Holiness' only purpose is to bless us and nothing else. A mentor can visit anywhere to bless his disciples," Wangchuk said.
A similar stance was taken by US Undersecretary of State Maria Otero when she visited New Delhi last week.
"He is visiting a monastery, a holy place. And from our perspective, this is one of the roles he plays," Otero said.
The Dalai Lama's office has also taken pains to stress the "spiritual" nature of the visit, which will include three days of religious teachings at Tawang.
But China will see a possible ulterior motive.
The Dalai Lama is 74 and has had several recent health scares, fuelling speculation over the eventual recognition of his reincarnation and successor.
China is almost sure to make its own selection. The Dalai Lama, however, has stated that his reincarnation may be found outside Chinese Tibet, and Arunachal, with its historically rich Tibetan culture, is an obvious contender.
Buddhist devotees had begun arriving in Tawang two days ahead of the visit, and Arunachal Pradesh officials have insisted that the controversy surrounding the trip will not be allowed to spoil the occasion.
"China has no right to interfere in India?s internal matters. We are ready to give him a warm reception and make the visit successful," said the state's chief minister, Dorjee Khandu.