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Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Frontier town venerates Dalai Lama

Buddhist devotees attend prayer meetings and teaching sessions held by Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, unseen, in the Himalayan town of Tawang, near the frontier with Chinese-controlled Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh state, India, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009.
Devotees flocked to a festive Tawang for the Dalai Lama's visit

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Tawang

Perched high up in a remote corner of north-east India, Tawang is every bit the frontier town.

Maroon-robed Buddhist monks rub shoulders with ethnic Tibetans, Nepalese and Indians in the town's busy market.

Soldiers in olive green stroll down, relaxed and unarmed.

But underneath the surface of apparent calm is a sense of tension and heightened expectation.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is revered here as no other, is in town.

"For us, this visit is very special," says Guru Rinpoche, the abbot of the 300-year-old Tawang monastery, seen by many as one of the last vestiges of Tibetan Buddhism.

Emotional bond

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures to his followers as he presides over teachings at Yid-Gha-Choezin in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state on November 10, 2009
The Dalai Lama found refuge in Tawang

"We have a very close bond with him," he adds.

The Dalai Lama has a special, emotional bond with Tawang.

Fifty years ago, he arrived here after fleeing Tibet on foot and slipping across the border into India.

The monks at the monastery protected him and India gave him refuge.

But his visit this time has been strongly opposed by China which has described it as an attempt to foment Tibetan separatism.

It is easy to see why China is uncomfortable.

At his first public rally at a vast open ground festooned with Tibetan prayer flags, the crowds began pouring in from the early hours of the morning.

Ethnic Tibetans, entire families had travelled several days to come here, some crammed together on the back of pick-up trucks.

They bowed their heads in veneration as the Dalai Lama walked into a grand welcome, with pipes playing in the background and monks leading the way.

"For us the Dalai Lama is like a God, so I don't think China has any right to object to his visit," said one man at the rally.

"We are all Indians and we have always been Indians, so China's claim is absurd," said another.

Humiliating war

But Tawang - with its proximity to Tibet - has immense strategic value.

China has never recognised India's control over the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang.

It sees it as an extension of Tibet and therefore believes it should be part of China.

Pasong
There were so many Chinese soldiers. Everyone was running, even the Indian soldiers had to leave
Pasong

It was also here that the Chinese army invaded in 1962 and inflicted a humiliating defeat on India, in a short, bloody war.

Entire border villages emptied out as the Indian army retreated.

One of those who had to flee with his family was Pasong, a shepherd who is now in his 90s.

As he warms his hands over a fire in his little home in Tawang, he searches for words as he tries to remember what happened.

"There were so many Chinese soldiers," he tells me.

"Everyone was running, even the Indian soldiers had to leave. We were all very frightened."

The India-China border is only 35km (22 miles) from Tawang. The drive is breathtaking but backbreaking over the rugged terrain and the dirt tracks which pass for roads.

There is a strong Indian military presence but even they find it hard to drive up.

"The roads are very bad compared to the ones across the border," one soldier that we meet says.

Over the past few months, there has been an increase in tension here.

There have been reports of Chinese military incursions into Indian territory and an Indian military build-up.

Several local villagers say that since September the roads have been closed periodically to allow military convoys to move.

Indian mind games

At 4,785 metres (15,700 feet), the Bumla Pass is India's last border outpost.

border
The India-China border is only 35km from Tawang

The air is thin and temperatures well below zero.

Amid signs proclaiming "India-China Friendship", the border commander, Dalbir Singh and his men from the Sikh Regiment look out at Chinese positions through binoculars.

"Over there you can see their watchtower," he points out.

The soldiers are unarmed because even the simplest move can lead to a misunderstanding.

The border here was drawn up in 1914 by the British but never recognised by China.

Dalbir Singh tries to show me where India ends and China begins but it is hard to tell the difference. There's just a series of jagged peaks with the border somewhere in between.

Even though everything appears calm, there is a sense of unease beneath the surface.

After 10 minutes, we are asked to leave and head back down the mountain.

Back in Tawang, the Dalai Lama has finished the first of several prayer meetings he is due to hold. The crowds disperse slowly, their faces flushed with excitement at having seen him in person.

Despite the bitter memories of 1962 and the sharp diplomatic exchanges over the past few months, no-one here is in the mood for another confrontation.

But India is not averse to playing mind games - and allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang is just one of them.



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