For India, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, 87, is a symbol of Buddhism, also a revered guest not just of India but of its citizens. He's currently travelling across remote mountainous Ladakh region, bordering Tibet, to give an audience to people of all faiths, 'riling' China.
The visit to the cold desert Ladakh, his first tour outside Dharamsala since the pandemic began and first visit since the India-China military stand-off in 2020, over a month now and extended till September is no different this time, say one of his aides, adding jokingly, "we are avoiding the monsoon on the plains".
He says the spiritual leader has been coming to Ladakh for more than 50 years as people have a special bond with him based on their faith and loving-kindness. His last visit was in July 2018.
From meeting top Indian dignitaries to teasing old friends in the crowd to joining in prayer with members of the Muslim community at Masjid Sharif, founded in 1382, in Shey in Ladakh past week, His Holiness in the current sojourn undertook pilgrimages to the Jokhang, the principal Buddhist Temple in the centre of Leh, the Jama Masjid and Anjuman-e-Imamia mosques, as well as the Moravian Church in Leh.
China expressed 'fury' when top Indian government official, Lt. Governor R.K. Mathur, paid his respects to the 14th Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since staging a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, in Leh on August 16.
Also another occasion of infuriation by China was when India deployed a military helicopter to fly the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetan Buddhists consider their spiritual leader, from Leh to a remote village amid its continuing stand-off along the Line of Actual Control with China, which views the Dalai Lama as a separatist.
"Many conflicts that arise out of anger, fear and jealousy can be resolved if we cultivate compassion for others," remarked the Dalai Lama during his visit to Masjid Sharif in Shey where he donned a skullcap.
He also blessed Sayeed Bano, the first specially abled woman student from Ladakh to be awarded a PhD during his programme at Masjid Sharif, where the Dalai Lama enjoyed the lunch prepared by organisers of his meeting with members of the Muslim community.
One of the of the most striking photos released by the Dalai Lama's office was His Holiness looking out at the view of the Himalayas in the early morning from his residence in the remote village of Lingshed in Ladakh on August 11.
A Nobel laureate and a promoter of peace and religious harmony in the world, the Dalai Lama is one of the respected religious leaders.Responding to the Dalai Lama's photo of gazing the long look homeward, one of his admirers remarked just beyond the mountain range is Tibet. "Hopefully, one day Tibet will be free again and he will return to his homeland."
Officials at his private office told IANS the Tibetan spiritual leader often enjoys the snow-capped Dhauladhar range on a bright sunny day from the balcony of his official residence in McLeodganj a small and quaint hill station on the suburbs of Dharamsala overlooking the Himalayas.
The Dalai Lama, who along with many of his supporters fled the Himalayan homeland and took refuge in India when Chinese troops moved in and took control of Lhasa in 1959, is optimistic that he will be able to return to Tibet one day.
He believes China is in the process of changing. "If you compare China today to 10 or 20 years ago, there is tremendous change. China is no longer isolated...Besides, I am not seeking separation from China.
I am committed to my middle-way approach whereby Tibet remains within the People's Republic of China enjoying a high degree of self-rule or autonomy.
"By amicably resolving the Tibetan issue, China will be able to contribute to her own unity and stability," the Dalai Lama wrote on his website.
Responding to the enormous response that the Dalai Lama is getting in Ladakh, a Union Territory adjoining Tibet, a former Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) official Tashi Wangdi, who was born in Tibet when independent and served in exile, said, "Imagine what will happen if His Holiness returns to Tibet."
On his Twitter handle, Wangdi posted a video showcasing a grand welcome that the spiritual leader received from tens of thousands of followers lined up on both sides en route in traditional costume, waved religious and Tibetan flags and presented a floral tribute to him.
On reaching Leh on July 15, a close aide of the Dalai Lama told IANS that His Holiness specially asked the driver to go slow so that he could see his people and they in turn could see him.
After arriving in Ladakh on July 15, the Dalai Lama undertook his first public engagements on July 24, making pilgrimages to the Jokhang, the principal Buddhist Temple, the Jama Masjid and Anjuman-e-Imamia mosques, as well as the Moravian Church in Leh.
From the Jokhang, His Holiness went to the Sunni Mosque, the Jama Masjid. He told the audience gathered there what a pleasure it was for him to make a pilgrimage to this place of worship, which is consistent with his commitments to foster inter-religious harmony.
"It is my practice to offer prayers at other people's places of worship whenever I can. Since all religions convey a message of compassion (karuna), even though their philosophical views may differ, they are worthy of respect.
"I've been on friendly terms with Muslims since I was a child in Amdo. Later in Lhasa too I was friendly with the small community of Muslim traders who used to regularly attend official functions of the Tibetan government.
So here today I'm pleased to be meeting with Muslim brothers and sisters once again."Next, His Holiness visited the Shia Mosque known as Anjuman-e-Imamia.
While welcoming His Holiness to the Imam Bargarh, his host recalled that it was His Holiness who inaugurated this Mosque in 2006, since which time the congregation has welcomed him back several times.
Different speakers praised His Holiness as a peace messiah and a harbinger of brotherhood. "Your presence here today," one speaker declared, "sends a strong and much needed message of unity, peace and brotherhood among the different religious groups of Ladakh to the wider world."
Speaking at a reception hosted in Masjid Sharif in Shey last week, the Dalai Lama said Tibetans have faced significant hardship for more than six decades. "And yet we have managed to keep our culture alive, while the spirit of Tibetans spirit has remained unflinching."
China criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi for greeting the Dalai Lama on his 87th birthday on July 6, saying New Delhi should stop using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China's "internal affairs."
India hit back by saying: "It has been a consistent policy of our government to treat him as a guest in India and as a respected religious leader who enjoys a large following in India."