NEW DELHI — Ignoring Chinese protests, the Dalai Lama traveled Sunday to a remote town in northeastern India near China's Tibetan border where thousands of pilgrims had braved cold weather to catch a glimpse of their spiritual leader.
The Dalai Lama, who was sharply criticized by Beijing before the visit, expects to spend five days praying and instructing Buddhist worshipers in the monastery town of Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, an area claimed by China. His last visit was in 2003.
China has accused the spiritual leader of making the trip to further the movement for an independent Tibet, a region that accounts for about one-sixth of Chinese territory.
"He is always involved in activities that undermine the relations between China and other countries as well as ethnic separatist activities," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a regular news briefing last week in Beijing. "The Dalai Lama is a liar."
Although Beijing has leveled similar accusations for decades, its charges have become more pointed since deadly anti-government riots broke out in March 2008 across the Tibetan plateau.
The Dalai Lama's previous visits to Tawang merited little response from China, said Vijay Kranti, editor of Tibbat Desh, a newspaper for the Tibetan exile community in India.
China's reaction this time has turned the visit into a bigger deal than it otherwise would be, he said. "The Dalai Lama's best advertising agency is Beijing," Kranti said.
Tawang holds political and religious significance. Not only has it been at the heart of a border dispute between India and China since their 1962 war, but China briefly occupied the town during the conflict before pulling back to the current demarcation.
The town of 39,000 is also the site of one of Tibetan Buddhism's largest monasteries and a place where the Dalai Lama took refuge 50 years ago when he fled Tibet ahead of pursuing Chinese soldiers. He is now based in Dharamsala, north of New Delhi.
Tawang residents, many from the Monpa tribe, have close ties to Tibetans in China, adding to China's distrust. The sixth Dalai Lama, enthroned in 1697, was from Tawang.
Beijing, which often blames domestic instability on outside instigators, fears the current Dalai Lama, 74, might name a successor from the area.
Kranti said that as China has cranked up the rhetoric ahead of this visit, India has pushed back, a welcome development. "By saying he's got every right to go and is an honored guest, India is sending a message to China, standing up a bit more to Chinese hegemony," he said.
In recent months, Sino-Indian relations have become strained as the Asian giants, both enjoying rapid economic growth and vying for regional influence, have sparred over visa policy, trade and border issues. Few of these issues are new, however.
"In actual substance, I see no development," said Salman Haidar, a former Indian foreign minister. "But the atmospherics are certainly undesirable. It shows an edginess has crept into the bilateral relationship."
Indian news media cite frequent cases of Chinese soldiers firing weapons into India and leaving Chinese-brand cigarette packs and the word "China" painted on rock faces on Indian territory.
Although the 1962 conflict between the two neighbors, which China essentially won, spotlighted the border dispute, the roots of the differences involving about 56,000 square miles of Arunachal Pradesh actually stretch back nearly a century. India recognizes the so-called McMahon Line, a border drawn by British colonial rulers in 1914, which China does not. China also occupies a part of Kashmir claimed by India.
In recent years, eager for regional stability, China has resolved most of its border disputes with other neighbors. Despite meeting 13 times, however, India and China have not made much progress, in part because the area under dispute is far more populous and culturally sensitive than those shared with Russia and others.
Adding to recent distrust, China tried to block part of an Asian Development Bank loan to India that included projects for Arunachal Pradesh. And China accuses India of discriminating against Chinese workers with its visa policy.
The two countries in recent weeks have tried to lower the temperature given their shared interests. Late last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a meeting on the sidelines of an Asian regional conference.
India, in an apparent effort to placate China, refused to grant permits to foreign journalists hoping to travel to the restricted region to cover the Dalai Lama's trip.
The two nations' economic links have grown stronger as bilateral trade has expanded by 50% annually over the last five years to reach $51.8 billion in 2008, and both sides have significant domestic problems on which they'd prefer to expend their time and resources.
"Neither side can afford this," Haidar said. "China is aspiring to a global role, expanding rapidly and sees Asia as an extension of its bailiwick. Similarly with India, we have enough on our plate without trying to pick quarrels."