NEW DELHI, India - One wintry morning last year, a boy monk turned up in the Indian Himalayan foothills after a week-long journey past Chinese border guards and over the snow-capped roof of the world.
In Dharamshala, seat of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, 14-year-old Ugyen Trinley Dorje was hailed without question as the latest reincarnation of the Karmapa, number three in the arcane hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism.
But his arrival was a blow to one faction of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage, which has been riven by acrimony over the true identity of the 17th Karmapa for a decade.
While the world's media relished the drama of the lanky teenager's 1,400-km (875-mile) journey and a red-faced Beijing accused the Dalai Lama of engineering his escape, the backers of a rival claimant smouldered in their monasteries.
The Karmapa feud is a tale of intrigue, greed and ambition, complicated by the fragile diplomatic ties between nuclear neighbours India and China.
"Politics and religion were always totally mixed up in Tibet," says Lea Terhune, an expert on Tibetan affairs. "The bottom line is money and power."
There are four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama, considered the spiritual and temporal head of Tibetans, belongs to the Gelug order. He left his homeland with thousands of followers in 1959, nine years after the Chinese army entered Tibet and overthrew the Bhuddist theocracy there.
JEWEL-ENCRUSTED BLACK HAT
The Karma Kagyu tradition's 16th Karmapa had fled Tibet just ahead of the Dalai Lama, on the eve of a failed uprising.
He established a monastery in the 1960s at Rumtek in Sikkim, an eastern Himalayan state bordering Tibet which China does not recognise as an integral part of India.
A wealth of the order's relics were housed at Rumtek, including the Karmapa's jewel-encrusted black hat.
The 16th Karmapa died near Chicago in 1981, but not before apparently performing feats like tying sword blades in knots and bringing rain to a drought-stricken area of Arizona.
After a lama dies he is believed to be reincarnated in a newborn. The search for such "bodhisattvas," superior beings who are on the threshold of enlightenment, can take many years.
When the 16th Karmapa's body was being cremated at Rumtek a a ball of flesh rolled out of an opening in the pyre and was picked up by Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of four Karma Kagyu regents.
"The story of Situ Rinpoche prophetically receiving and carrying away the relic would achieve the status of holy proof that he was indeed the senior peer of the lineage, selected by the Karmapa himself to bring forth his next reincarnation," wrote journalist Anil Maheshwari in his book "The Buddha Cries!."
Situ Rinpoche announced years later that he had received a prediction letter from the 16th Karmapa. Using this as proof he declared Trinley Dorje, the son of nomads, the next Karmapa.
But one of the four regents, Shamar Rinpoche, rejected the letter as a forgery and said his rival's refusal to allow forensic tests on it was evidence it was a fake.
"He will never ever send that letter for a test," Shamar Rinpoche told Reuters at New Delhi's Karmapa International Buddhist Institute. "It's his own handwriting. I knew the 16th Karmapa's handwriting because I was his nephew."
THE RIVAL CLAIMANT
Shamar Rinpoche said that in the absence of a genuine sign from the 16th Karmapa on his successor, the lineage's hierarchy dictated that it was up to him to recognise the next Karmapa.
His choice was Trinley Thaye Dorje, a serene and quietspoken 18-year-old who is not interested in the controversy which has raged around him since he came to India in 1994.
"This is all created by people who meddle in the conflict," Thaye Dorje told Reuters at the Delhi institute, where a giant golden Buddha sits cross-legged at the back of a hushed and brightly painted convocation hall.
"It is a situation which came about because politics and religion were mixed together. They are like black and white, fire and water, they just don't go together," he said. "I want to concentrate on studying Buddhism and teaching others."
The bespectacled young monk, dressed in a simple mauve robe and sandals, sometimes travels abroad to meet his many foreign followers -- a hefty source of funding -- but spends most of his time at a monastery in Kalimpong, a short distance from Sikkim.
Neither of the two claimants can take the throne at Rumtek monastery, where a bloody clash between the two sides in 1993 led to a legal tangle over rightful occupation.
Thaye Dorje's backers say the Dalai Lama has thrown his weight behind the charismatic 15-year-old to extend his influence to the eastern Himalayas. And they paint Situ Rinpoche as the villain of the piece, dubbing him an agent of the Chinese.
It is true that Beijing, despite its atheism, had endorsed Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa.
Some speculate that China may have turned a blind eye, even encouraged, Trinley Dorje's flight to challenge the authority of the "splittist" Dalai Lama and plant its man in Sikkim.
"The Karmapa's installation in Rumtek will...encourage the to-and-fro movement of agents provocateurs disguised as pilgrims, it is apprehended," the Hindu newspaper said at the time.
"The concerns of security planners here are enhanced as the state (Sikkim) is not far from Arunachal Pradesh, whose status has also been disputed by China. The presence of Dorje can therefore affect India's eastern defences."
Indeed, when Trinley Dorje arrived in Dharamshala the Indian government appeared genuinely confused over how to respond.
But when it granted him refugee status a year later -- shortly after a landmark visit to New Delhi by Chinese parliament chief Li Peng -- there was not a murmur from Beijing.
But Situ Rinpoche, speaking to Reuters from his guest house bedroom during a visit to New Delhi, laughed off the idea that Trinley Dorje was sent into India by the Chinese.
"We didn't request China to recognise the Karmapa: it was China who killed hundreds of thousands of our monks," he said.
An old monk sits on a bed muttering and rattling his prayer beads as he speaks about his friend-turned-rival Sharma Rinpoche.
"When Buddha was alive, his own brother didn't agree with him. But it didn't mean Buddha was wrong," he said. "I am not bitter about Sharmapa but I am very, very sad about him."
Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.