Tibetans are by no means overjoyed that the Dalai Lama has decided to relinquish his role as their political leader.

In the southern Indian town of Mundagod, where exiled Tibetans have built a monastery, they told The Times of India yesterday: "We are shocked and pained ... The Lamas are worried over the future of displaced Tibetans who are fighting for freedom from the clutches of China."

Their distress is easy to understand: Tibet has been ruled by the high Buddhist clergy for centuries. The Dalai Lama's legitimacy goes back to his childhood, when he was "revealed" as the 14th incarnation.

The Dalai Lama has exasperated many younger Tibetans in recent years by his refusal to yield on non-violence and his decision to make autonomy rather than independence his Government's goal. But even the Tibetans who criticise his politics would not question his right to do what he does. It is only that unquestioned legitimacy, and his charisma, that has succeeded in holding his impoverished, oppressed and scattered people together.

Tibetans educated in the West may be sceptical about their homeland's reincarnation traditions, but even they are united in their respect for the way Tenzin Gyatso has raised the profile of their struggle.

The Tibetan parliament, which meets later this month to pick a leader, represents 80,000 Tibetan exiles. But despite leading such a small community, he is one of the most famous people in the world. Their elected prime minister will have a job matching that.

For years the Dalai Lama has been trying to get Tibetan exiles to accept rule by reincarnated High Lamas is over; that they must enter the modern world and shoulder the responsibilities of power. It's an uphill task.

He will remain his community's ultimate spiritual authority until he dies, but the danger is that the Chinese, who have "discovered" and raised a Panchen Lama obedient to their rule, will succeed in their long-term aim of usurping Tibet's reincarnation rituals to impose High Lamas of their own choosing.