TAWANG, India (Reuters) - Perched in the icy folds of the Himalayas near India's border with China, Tawang Buddhist, monastery, where the Dalai Lama made a controversial trip at the weekend, is at the heart of efforts to preserve old Tibet.
To the sound of gongs, maroon-robed monks with shaven heads readied for prayer near a 25-feet high golden Buddha decked with horns, and incense braziers.
In town, elderly Buddhists, many wearing caps made from yak hair, basked in the morning sun with rosaries in hand. Many stopped by the monastery to receive blessings from senior lamas.
Tawang monastery is a complex of 65 white-walled buildings with yellow pagoda-like roofs under which hundreds of monks and nuns keep alive a centuries-old culture and language.
For exiled Tibetans there was little surprise their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, should visit Tawang. [ID:nnDEL266166] China, however, criticized the trip as undermining Beijing's territorial integrity and encouraging Tibetan independence.
Tawang is the biggest Tibetan Buddhist monastery after the Potala Palace in Tibet's capital Lhasa, but for many exiles it is also a home away from home.
"You will find the spirit of Tibet in the air and no matter what China tries, it cannot finish off our culture, tradition," said Gurutulku, a senior monk.
There are other Buddhist enclaves in India -- including the Dalai Lama's headquarters in Dharamsala, but Tawang is a tinderbox in relations between India and China, which claims the town and also an adjoining area roughly the size of Portugal.
Beijing cites the Tawang lamasery as evidence the region forms part of southern Tibet and that New Delhi should hand it back to settle the border dispute that led to a brief war in 1962.
"Tawang's political significance is what makes it important, said Jambey Tashi, Tawang's local lawmaker. "Besides, many look at Tawang for direction when it comes to preserving Tibetan culture and heritage."
A permit system helps protect Tawang's culture, shielding it from mass immigration and unchecked tourism. The region has no airport, erratic power supply and opportunities for higher studies are non-existent.
The sixth Dalai Lama was born in this region, home to the Monpa people who speak a tongue similar to Tibetan and where ancient funeral rituals comprise chopping the dead into 108 pieces and consigning them to the river.
The influence of the current 14th Dalai Lama over Tawang is enormous. He appoints the powerful abbot of its monastery and his government-in-exile funds institutions in this area.
The Dalai Lama also passed through Tawang while fleeing Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Many in Tawang say incidents such as last year's violent Chinese crackdown in Tibet has only steeled their resolve to protect their culture and religion.
"We hear about the atrocities in Tibet, the repression they (China) are carrying out," said R. Neema, a local doctor. "But Tawang will try to sustain what China seeks to destroy in Tibet."
Editing by Alistair Scrutton