GANGTOK, India - Of the many treasures housed in the sumptuous Rumtek monastery in India's Sikkim state,and awaiting its master, Ugyen Thinley, a Chinese citizen, the most coveted is the 600-year-old 'flying crown' of the Karmapas.
Thinley is no ordinary mortal. He was discovered to be the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa, who has headed the Tibetan Karma Kagyu ''red hat'' sect ever since it was founded in the 12th century by the first incarnation, Dhusum Khyenpa.
Along with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the Karmapas form the Lamaistic triumvirate of Tibetan Buddhism, important to Beijing in its efforts to incorporate Tibet emotionally into China.
While the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa fled Tibet following the aborted Tibetan uprising of 1959, the Panchen Lama went under Beijing's tutelage. Only toward his death in 1989 did he protest against Red Army excesses.
Indian officials here see political significance in Thinley's recognition as Karmapa by the Chinese government, so they were dismayed when the Dalai Lama also signified his approval.
Rumtek has not had a head since the last and 16th Karmapa died in 1981, leaving the task of finding his incarnation to four regents. The four fell out over selecting a successor, necessitating the intervention of the Dalai Lama.
Interestingly, Beijing had earlier rejected the Dalai Lama's age-old prerogative to choose the incarnation of the Panchen Lama and rejected his candidate, Gedhun Choeki Nyima, who now languishes in India.
Instead, Chinese officials in 1995, amid protests from monks, installed Gyaltsen Norbhu at the ancient seat of the Panchen Lamas, the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Xhigatse town, barely 200 kilometers north of here.
According to P. Stobdan, strategic analyst at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi, Beijing has both long-term and short-term interests in view.
''In the short term, Beijing seeks to undermine the authority of the Dalai Lama over Tibetan Buddhists. And in the long term, it wants to use Norbhu to select a convenient incarnation of the Dalai Lama when the time comes."
With the Dalai Lama and Beijing in consonance over the Karmapa incarnate, Karma Kagyu devotees here are awaiting the day when the 15-year-old lad can move from his present home in the Tsurphu monastery in Tibet to Rumtek.
''We pray for the early arrival here of the new Karmapa and we hope that he will remain here with the flying crown and other ancient treasures rather than return to Tibet,'' says Pema Dorji, a Karma Kagyu devotee.
Once here, Thinley will wear the famous flying crown at public audiences - taking care to clutch it at all times with his right hand so it does not fly away, for it is believed to be woven from the hair of angels and celestial beings.
But there are earthly obstacles, such as an Indian visa. There is also an India-born claimant to the Karma Kagyu throne, backed by a faction at the Rumtek monastery and by latter-day players of Rudyard Kipling's ''great game'' on the Asian continent.
An official note by the former chief secretary of Sikkim, Sreedhar Rao, warns: ''This is perhaps the first time that the People's Republic of China has given such an approval and is possibly calculated to demonstrate to the world the decisive say the PRC has in the affairs of Tibet, both spiritual and temporal."
''It is not inconceivable that, having established their right to recognize reincarnates, the Chinese would not hesitate to identify the successor to the present Dalai Lama,'' he adds.
Rao fears that Beijing may ignore the Dalai Lama's own declaration that he is the last in his line of incarnates and find a pliable fake who would help consolidate its grip on Tibet.
On the other hand, if the Dalai Lama line goes extinct, religious authority over Tibetan Buddhists will pass to the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa, both of whom are already in Beijing's control.
Thinley stands to be, on reaching adulthood, the lord of a global empire of rich temples now administered from the Rumtek monastery and spiritual leader to millions of Karma Kagyu followers scattered in Taiwan, North America and Europe.
As the primary red-hat sect, the Karma Kagyus also enjoy enormous influence in a vast swath of the Himalayas stretching from the Ladakh region of Kashmir to northeastern Arunachal Pradesh and including Nepal and Bhutan.
The Karmapas, who lead the red hat order of Tibetan Buddhism, are senior to the ''reformed'' yellow hats headed by the Dalai Lamas. Historically, Karmapas have been tutors to the Dalai Lamas and even to several Chinese emperors.
In fact, lamas opposed to Thinley's candidature have questioned the right of the Dalai Lama to select the Karmapa and have set up an India-born rival, Thaye Dorji, who they claim is the real incarnate.
Said Shamar Rinpoche, regent to Thaye Dorje at his monastery in New Delhi, ''The Karmapa is not obliged to request permission to take birth in this world . . . the idea that he needs a visa is laughable."
But more than the political influence of the Karmapas, Stobdan says, the rival groups are interested in controlling the treasures, including the flying crown, smuggled out of Tibet and housed at Rumtek monastery.