DHARAMSHALA, India — The Dalai Lama turned 75 Tuesday, a milestone marked by celebrations in his hometown-in-exile but tinged by sadness that his compatriots in Tibet were unable to honour the occasion.
Under relentless rain, the Tibetan spiritual leader addressed a packed crowd of 5,000 followers at his temple in McLeod Ganj, a hill station in the Indian Himalayas where he has lived since fleeing Tibet in 1959.
In a reminder of the situation in his homeland, where China views him as a dangerous separatist, he expressed regret that his followers there would be unable to pay tribute for fear of reprisal.
"The Tibetans in Tibet have a great desire to celebrate my birthday but they are not allowed to," he said in Tibetan.
Staring out at a banner depicting him at various stages over the last three-quarters of a century, he reflected on his work of preaching peace and religious tolerance while keeping the issue of Tibet in the spotlight.
"When I see those pictures and see the development, I know my life has not been wasted," he said.
Tibetan communities in North America, Europe and Australia organised festivities on Tuesday, but in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu police briefly detained around 200 Tibetan refugees on their way to a birthday celebration.
Police said they had only wanted to question the refugees, but Tibetan activists denounced what they described as a clear violation of human rights.
Under pressure from China, Nepal has repeatedly cracked down on any political demonstrations against Chinese rule in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama favours meaningful autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, but Beijing accuses him of inciting unrest with a hidden pro-independence agenda. Decades of on-off negotiations with China have made no tangible progress.
Amid the dancing, singing and tributes on Tuesday, there were frequent reminders of the challenges ahead for the Tibetan exiles, above all the eventual succession of their ageing spiritual leader.
The Dalai Lama has been in hospital twice in recent times -- in February last year for a pinched nerve and in October 2008 for surgery to remove gall stones.
There is concern that his death would damage the cohesion and momentum of the Tibetan movement that has relied for so long on his leadership.
"It will be a completely different ball game when His Holiness is no longer with us," the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, Tsewang Rigzin, told AFP.
"We need to be prepared for that day when it comes and that means having a strong government in exile."
China has already indicated it will take a hard line on selecting a successor, with Qiangba Puncog, Tibet's former governor, insisting in March that final approval lies with Beijing.
One senior figure tipped to assume the spiritual leadership of Tibet, the 26-year-old Karmapa Lama, was conspicuously seated next to the Dalai Lama on Tuesday.
The prime minister of the government-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, urged the Dalai Lama to slow down to preserve his energy as his endeavours "are certainly taking a great toll".
"We would like to implore him to kindly see to it that his daily programmes do not come in the way of his good health," he added.
At an age when most others are putting their feet up, the Dalai Lama keeps up a globe-trotting schedule that would tire someone half his age, travelling to countries willing to defy Chinese pressure not to grant him a visa.
In an average year, he is away from home for about half the time and in the past 12 months has visited France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, the United States (twice), Taiwan and most recently Japan.
In McLeod Ganj, people arrived hours in advance to secure prime positions.
"This is fabulous, you really need to be here," said 61-year-old American Jan Owen from California, a member of a tour group put together by a Buddhist leader in the United States.
"There's a lot of good energy here, don't you think? It's great fun."
The Dalai Lama urged the crowd to show compassion in their own lives and concluded with some practical advice.
"Be careful of the weather. Don't get ill," he said, as many shivered in the downpour.
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