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By MUNEEZA NAQVI
TAWANG, India -- Joyous Buddhist pilgrims welcomed the Dalai Lama back Sunday to the Himalayan town he first set foot in five decades ago while fleeing Chinese rule in his native Tibet -- a rare trip close to his homeland that has angered Beijing.
The Dalai Lama's arrival here highlighted a lingering border dispute between India and China, exposed Beijing's ongoing sensitivities over Tibet and raised questions over who would succeed him as the region's spiritual leader.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said last week that the trip "once again exposes the nature of the Dalai Lama as anti-China."
The Dalai Lama, however, insisted the accusation was "baseless" and that he was only seeking to promote religious values, peace and harmony.
"My visit here is nonpolitical," he said soon after his arrival Sunday morning.
For the residents of Tawang, it seemed purely religious.
The streets were lined with prayer flags and banners welcoming the Dalai Lama and thousands braved the cold temperatures and biting wind to attend his five-day visit of prayer meetings and lectures on Buddhism.
"It made us very happy to catch a glimpse of him. Nobody is more important to us than him. The Dalai Lama is our god," said Karmayacha, who uses one name and traveled with her family from a village 20 miles away.
Monks clanged cymbals and sounded traditional Tibetan horns to greet the Dalai Lama as he arrived at the Tawang monastery -- filled with fresh orange, white and red flowers -- from a nearby helipad.
The Dalai Lama smiled and chatted with the gathered crowds. One monk shaded him with a giant yellow silk umbrella, while scores of others bowed before him as he walked into a hall to lead a prayer session.
The Dalai Lama first came to Tawang, which has close religious and political ties to Tibet, in 1959, when he fled communist rule. He has since made five visits to the town, the last in 2003.
At that time, he was ill, weary and suffering from dysentery, but when he finally made it here, he felt safe, he said Sunday.