When the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya opens to the public each day at 4:00 a.m., the pilgrim queue already stretches out for half a mile. Through a sheath of grey winter mist, the ground pulsates with the motions of thousands of Tibetans, praying and prostrating on planks of wood, blankets, and wet grass.
The chubas, hats, shoes, and jewelry from Amdo, Kham, and Utsang, reveal the beauty and variety of Tibetan culture at this vast congregation of pilgrims who have come for the Dalai Lama's ancient Kalachakra ritual in the Indian town believed to be the place where Buddha attained enlightenment.
But amid charges that China is intensifying its assaults on Buddhism inside Tibet, and as more monks and nuns are driven to self-immolation, everyone here is wondering: why has the Chinese government allowed up to 10,000 Tibetans pilgrims to travel to India to see the Dalai Lama?
Tenzin Tsundue, the renowned poet and activist who is volunteering at the Tibetan Youth Congress tent, says: "The majority of people who have come from Tibet are over age 55. No one has come from Qinghai Province, where most of the self immolations are happening."
"Most are from Utsang, a few from Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu, some from Western Tibet."
"Many have told us that they have been under extreme surveillance for a long time and do not have a record of engaging in any political activities; that is why they got permission to come."
"The Chinese Communist Party assumes that these people will not be affected by what they see and learn from meeting with the exile community, [or by] the level of freedom that exists in India. The Party is stuck in a rigid, colonial mind set, which treats its citizens like children who cannot think for themselves."
Around the corner from the Kalachakra grounds, Tibet's exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration, has set up a large tent with photos documenting the history of Chairman Mao's invasion of Tibet, the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, and the creation of his exile universe.
The Gu Chu Sum Society for Tibetan Political Prisoners also has a tent with photos showing the methods of torture that Chinese security forces allegedly employ on Tibetan protesters and activists. Pilgrims from Tibet pass through the exhibit every hour, studying the photos and taking books and pamphlets in English, Tibetan, and Chinese.
Tibetan and Indian media report that China has sent more than 1,000 spies to the Kalachakra. On Jan. 8, the Times of India reported that Indian security officers had arrested several alleged Chinese agents who had plans to disrupt the Kalachakra and cause harm to the Dalai Lama.
"We know that we're under surveillance here" says Jampa, a businessman from Shigatse, who left his Chinese passport in Nepal and travelled to India overland. "It's something we Tibetans just learn to live with."
"We have to keep our heads down. We can only do small actions, like not eating in Chinese restaurants or listening to Chinese music."
"If we are caught with even a small photo of the Dalai Lama we can go to jail," Jampa says.
"But people keep them anyway. I've bought lots, and I'm taking them back to Tibet. The Chinese government just cannot understand our culture, our devotion to the Dalai Lama."
Another Tibetan who lives in Chengdu says: "After the uprising [in Tibet] in 2008, the Chinese launched a nationwide anti-Dalai Lama campaign. Millions of Chinese had never heard of the Dalai Lama before; now they are curious. There is a revival of Buddhism in China now, that's why there are more Chinese Buddhists coming to India now. The government campaign backfired."
Many say that China is also trying to save face after causing a diplomatic blunder in November 2011, when it ordered the Indian government to block the Dalai Lama from attending an international Buddhist conference in Delhi. International delegates at the conference were outraged by China's interference, and the Indian government let the Dalai Lama speak as planned.
"The Chinese agents here want to decode the magic of the Dalai Lama's work, for a larger strategic picture of our exile community and how it works, why it draws so many people from around the world" says Tenzin Tsundue.
"Let them see it. There is a strong Indian security presence here. The Indian people love the Dalai Lama. We welcome Chinese pilgrims here. They are learning the real history of Tibet."
This is a special Kalachakra for Namgyal Lhagyari, the daughter of the last descendant of the ancient Dharma Kings of Tibet. Namgyal's father was arrested in Lhasa in 1959 after the flight of the Dalai Lama and spent 22 years in Drapchi prison for the crime of "bad class status."
Namgyal was born in India and recently won a three-year court case to obtain Indian citizenship.
"Today, I've started a Walk of Faith for Peace and Freedom in Tibet," Namgyal says. " I've heard much about what happens in prison, my father's stories of the pain he suffered, so I'm going on this walk for him and all political prisoners."
"I want to get tired and cold and hungry, to feel a tiny part of the pain they've gone through. I'm going from here to Lumbini where Buddha was born, for those who never had the chance"
Like most Tibetans in exile, Namgyal believes that Tibetans inside Tibet are being driven to self-immolate by what she calls Chinese repression of Tibetan religion and culture.
"The Chinese are trying to kill Tibetan culture," she says. "They are terrified of Tibetan unity. But their violence is making us stronger as a whole."
Fifteen Tibetans have set fire to themselves since March 2011 to protest Beijing's rule over Tibetan areas. A sixteenth, a monk named Tapey, set himself ablaze in 2009.
Chinese authorities have blamed the Dalai Lama for the fiery protests, accusing him of encouraging the self-immolations which, they say, run contrary to Buddhist teachings.
The Dalai Lama has denied the charge, blaming instead what he described as China's "ruthless and illogical" policy toward Tibet.
Lhundup, a monk from Tibet's northeastern region of Amdo who recently escaped to India says, "The self-immolations are the ultimate act of defiance. It's a warning to the Chinese government that the situation in Tibet will soon explode into a war zone if the Chinese keep torturing people for practicing Buddhism."
"We will not go down without a fight."
Reported by Maura Moynihan, a freelance correspondent.