One of Tibetan Buddhism's highest-ranking lamas, the 14-year-old head of the Karma Kagyu sect, has fled Chinese-controlled Tibet in a week-long flight across the snow-covered Himalayas reminiscent of the Dalai Lama's own 1959 escape into exile.

The boy, born Ugyen Trinley Dorje and enthroned seven years later as the 17th Karmapa, was reported on Friday to be in the north Indian town of Dharmsala, home of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people.

Desang, an official in the Dalai Lama's exile government, who, like many Tibetans uses one name, confirmed the young lama's arrival to the Associated Press.

China's official Xinhua news agency said that the Karmapa had left his home monastery north of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with "a small number of followers." The news agency quoted Chinese officials as saying that Karmapa had gone abroad to retrieve musical instruments and religious articles used by his predecessor, who had also fled Tibet following the Chinese takeover.

The current Karmapa's defection is a major setback for China in its attempt to solidify control over Tibet, which it invaded in 1949. The Karmapa was the highest-ranking Tibetan Buddhist figure recognized as such by both China and the Tibetan exile community. It was widely believed that Beijing would seek to install him as a hand-picked successor to the Dalai Lama after the 64-year-old leader's death.

"This means that even the ones they try to promote as puppets want to leave anyway," Robert A.F. Thurman, a Columbia University professor with close ties to the Dalai Lama, told The New York Times.

According to reports, the Karmapa, who was chosen as the reincarnation of the previous Karmapa in accordance with traditional Tibetan Buddhist practices, left the 800-year-old Tsurphu Monastery Dec. 28 on foot with four other monks. They were apparently later picked up by vehicles.

Thurman speculated that the Karmapa had chosen to flee now because of increasingly tight Chinese control over his movements and activities.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet, also across the Himalayas, after an aborted revolt in his country. He has since lived in India while traveling the world in an attempt to regain autonomy for Tibet, which over the centuries has been both independent and under Chinese authority. Tibetans have charged China with seeking to destroy Tibet's Buddhist heritage. China maintains that it has sought to modernize Tibet's "feudal" system.

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