By Tim Luard
Many Tibetans believe that only the Dalai Lama can save Tibet from extinction.
The Dalai Lama is 71 in July
But even a Dalai Lama is mortal. And they are deeply anxious about what will happen when the present one dies.
For Tibetans, he is not just a Buddhist monk, a god and a king - the latest in a centuries'-long line of spiritual and temporal rulers - but a larger-than-life symbol of their unique civilisation.
For the past 50 years, from his sanctuary on the other side of the Himalayas, the 14th Dalai Lama has kept alive their dreams of survival as a separate people.
The Chinese definitely want to see the Dalai Lama die so they can have a Dalai Lama of their own.
Many fear that his death will rob them of their last chance of any genuine self-rule.
Others predict chaos and bloodshed. Tibetan extremists might finally feel free to resort to terrorism, giving Beijing the chance to crack down harder.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, amidst a failed uprising against the Chinese occupation which had begun nine years earlier.
Since then he has been the face of Tibet for the outside world. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the public backing of film stars, and the private support of presidents and prime ministers.
But no country recognises his government-in-exile.
And as China's power grows there are few who even dare question its claims over Tibet.
The Dalai Lama's choice of Panchen Lama has been missing for years
The Dalai Lama has become more important than ever to Tibetans since he left his homeland, according to Phuntsog Wangyal, who also fled in 1959 after taking up arms against the Chinese.
"He not only touches the people's hearts but he is ingrained in their minds. They have total faith in him," he said.
"It is impossible for the Chinese to destroy this image in his lifetime. But it is inevitable that he will die."
As a founding trustee of the London-based Tibet Foundation, Phuntsog Wangyal believes the sheer charisma of the present Dalai Lama will be hard to replace.
"Who will take up his mantle? There is no-one equivalent to him. I don't think anyone will be able to have that kind of authority."
The extent of that authority was graphically displayed recently when thousands of people in Tibet threw their rare animal skins onto huge fires after the Dalai Lama criticised the use of products from endangered species.