In 2009, I undertook what was to be the most memorable journey of my life. I have made other momentous journeys, but none of them stand out so unmistakably as this trip to western Tibet by air, road and foot. It is undertaken mainly by pilgrims, to a place considered sacred by hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Hindus and Bon-pos (followers of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan shamanistic faith). When it ended, I understood why so many sought to come to this place.
The trip was motivated solely by the fascination for Manasarovar and Kailash – the sacred lake and peak at the culmination of the journey – on the part of our team leader, my dear friend Madhu Sarin, for whom this was the fifth pilgrimage to the area in nine years. Her intense descriptions and photographs had kindled my interest, and although I knew I would accompany her someday, the declining health of my parents had previously made it impossible to fix a date. As their only child, I had responsibilities that made it unthinkable for me to undertake a dangerous journey to places out of reach by telephone, from which it was impossible to return at short notice. And after my mother passed away in 2004, I was preoccupied with looking after my father, who died in 2007. It was all very painful, but with both of them gone the pilgrimage became possible. As it turned out, it also acquired a transcendent meaning for me, because I took along some relics of my parents.
At 15,000 feet, Manasarovar is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It has a circumference of nearly 90 km, while the circumambulation of Mount Kailash, which lies to the north of Manasarovar, traverses about 52 km of mountain trails. It is located in a remote part of Tibet beneath the trans-Himalaya, a range much older than the Himalaya. Many Indian pilgrims take the Indian government’s sponsored tours, which began during the late 1970s after Beijing began to permit them. However ours was a privately organised one – this meant both that it was more expensive and that we could proceed at our own pace.
No one has climbed Kailash, although legend has it that the Tibetan mystic Milarepa’s ascent during the 11th century marked the victory of Buddhism in Tibet. China reportedly permitted some Spanish mountaineers to climb in 2001, but this was resisted by the Tibetans and the report was later denied by the Chinese government. German climber Reinhold Messner, who declined a Chinese offer to attempt an ascent of Mount Kailash in the mid-1980s, criticised the aborted Spanish attempt with the words, ‘If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls.’
We arrived in Nepalgunj, on the Indo-Nepali border, on 22 May. The airport here is the hub for trips into the western Himalaya. Flights are dependent upon the weather. The aircraft are small, with a capacity of 19 passengers, and in heavy demand – bookings do not assure you of a flight. We waited for two days before catching the scary 45-minute flight that took us across ascending valleys, with tall mountains looming large before us, landing on a gravelly mud strip in Simikot (9500 ft). Some pilgrims land here and proceed straight into helicopters taking off for the Tibet border that take them to the plateau within thirty minutes. Tour operators apparently do not warn pilgrims of the danger of ascending from the low-lying area of Nepalgunj to 15,000 feet in less than two hours. It is no surprise that many people become acutely sick and some die of high-altitude sickness. We learned of one flight that took off with about a dozen passengers, of whom three were dead upon arrival.
However, it is not tough or dangerous if one acclimatises slowly. In addition to Madhu and myself, our team included the cook Devi, trekking guide Pradeep Ghale and an Australian professor named Oliver Mendelsohn. We took ten days walking to Tibet, accompanied to the border by a mule-driver and our luggage on his pack animals. He rode a small pony that we named our ‘ambulance ghoda’. Most other trekkers do this in half the time; however, Madhu wanted to do justice to both external and internal aspects of the pilgrimage and paced us accordingly. This meant paying due regard to the limits of physical endurance, by giving ourselves sufficient time to acclimatise; and to reflect upon the effort required to reach a revered place. En route we camped at wonderful places in forests, beside running water, through misty glades and meadows, sometimes in light drizzle. Early one morning at one campsite, I heard a most enchanting birdsong.
There were difficult stretches. At places landslides blocked our way; in one instance the path had caved in, requiring us to make a difficult ascent up the hillside as detour. We walked beside the Karnali, a tributary of the Ganga, and one of the rivers that originate in the Kailash region. Northwestern Nepal is a remote area, one of the zones where the Maoist insurgency began. Madhu recalled how, on an earlier trip, she had been accosted by Maoist fighters on horseback demanding contributions from trekkers (they gave her a receipt). The scenery kept changing, with forest giving way to scrub as we ascended.
Succumbing to altitude exhaustion, we camped for two days and three nights in a beautiful meadow south of the Nara La pass. This prepared us for the ascent to Tibet. When we finally reached the top of Nara La, at about 15,000 ft after a gruelling climb, a grand vision of the Tibetan plateau greeted us. We took photos of ourselves around the chorten (stupa) atop the pass, jostling with shepherds and sheep and goats with bundles of rice atop their backs. This has been a trade and pilgrimage pathway for centuries. Pilgrims also make small piles of stones all along the route as manifestations of piety, and these are added to by other passers-by. The top of every mountain pass in the area seems to be graced with a chorten and strands of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
Six shades of blue
Entering the People’s Republic of China at Hilsa was instructive. Here we connected with our Tibetan guide, with a small truck and a Land Cruiser sent all the way from Lhasa in the east. We underwent medical checks and, as swine-flu was the epidemic of the season, were told to fill out forms that asked whether we had recently ‘been near pig’. Our luggage was examined carefully, and I realised that the authorities were especially concerned about reading material. As the guards rummaged among my clothing and toiletries, they came across bird books and titles by Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse. Then there appeared something that bothered them greatly: The Rebel, by Albert Camus. It had a red cover and caused great alarm. Senior officers were summoned and flipped through the book with Orwellian suspicion. Books! Ideas! Tibet! Rebellion! Red! I could almost see the paranoia at work. I tried to assure them it was philosophy, written in the 1950s and harmless. But it was all to no avail, since they did not understand English. I had a nightmarish vision of being shoved back across the border – when at last they relented. Lord Shiva had intervened. Or maybe Chairman Mao’s ghost took pity on a retired Maoist. Camus would have been amused.
The first thing we saw after this was the body of a dead Indian pilgrim being readied for transportation into Nepal. We heard later that several pilgrims had died this season. We spent the night at a rest-house in Taklakot, on the ancient trade route, now a major military cantonment, where we provisioned ourselves with foodstuffs, cooking gas and other necessities. The morning found us on the three-hour drive to Lake Manas. It felt strange travelling on flat and arid surfaces after emerging from high mountains.
The view of the Himalaya from the plateau is spectacular. No foothills are visible: you only see snow-clad peaks stretching far into the distance. They shone with a salmon-pink glow, as we passed through villages with exquisitely painted doorways and windows. After an hour, Kailash appeared on the horizon and Madhu stepped out of the vehicle to perform sashtang-pranam (full-length prostration). I was moved by her devotion. We drove a while longer and arrived at Rakshastal lake, origin of the Sutlej River.
Rakshastal lake glowed an aquamarine blue, with Kailash visible in the distance. Rakshastal is the mythological residence of Ravan, created by him to perform acts of devotion to Lord Shiva. Manasarovar, shaped like the sun, and Rakshastal, crescent-shaped, represent brightness and darkness respectively. Rakshastal’s water is salty, hosts no aquatic plants or fish, and is considered poisonous by locals. We disembarked and spent some time on its shores.
Shortly thereafter we arrived at Chiu Gompa, a monastery on the shores of the holy lake. The sight of the vast expanse of calm water, of distant snowy peaks, the feel of cold air and clear sunlight, and the vision of the sacred mountain dominating the skyline, was all quite overwhelming. Manasarovar and the peaks surrounding it struck me as an image of Indralok, the abode of the gods of Hindu mythology. It was cold: even in June there was ice on the lake’s edge.
We took a week walking around the perimeter of Manasarovar. The Tibetan name for circum-ambulation, or parikrama, is kora. Our equipment included a kitchen tent, gas cylinders, food and medical provisions. We also carried some light cans of oxygen for emergencies.
The land was undulating plain, with stretches of scrub and marsh. The colours and moods of the lake were versatile: I once counted six different hues of blue. The southern side of the lake is dominated by the Gurla Mandhata massif, which looks like a celestial staircase. Around Manas we saw herds of musk deer and Tibetan wild asses (kiang). One day I saw a large black animal walking confidently some 100 metres away. It stopped for a while, enough for me to take a photograph. Later we identified it as a Tibetan wolf. There were scores of exotic birds, plovers and ducks, including the Ruddy Sheldrake and the Bar-headed Goose. The creeks flowing into the lake teemed with fish – but there are no anglers here. Dead fish found on the banks are used by shamans for medicinal purposes.
Of those pilgrims who were walking, I saw only Tibetans and Europeans. However we saw cavalcades of vehicles carrying Indians and Nepalis doing the Manasarovar kora in three hours. They would stop at selected places to throw 100-rupee notes into the water – our Tibetan driver was amused. There are six monasteries along the route, and we stayed overnight at two of them, otherwise camping at suitable places. Many devotees take a dip in the lake but the cold water was too daunting for me. At one point I placed part of my parents’ relics in the water.
The Kailash kora
After completing the Manas kora, we drove to Darchen, a small town and army cantonment, the point where the Kailash kora begins. There are shops, eating places run by Chinese and Tibetans (in one of the latter I saw posters of Priyanka Chopra), and houses of mud and stone. It has some unkempt official guesthouses and some cleaner Tibetan ones, and we stayed at one of the latter.
That evening we decided to make a quick trip up to the Gyangdrag Gompa – this belongs to the Drikung sect, different from the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa school. The trip involved a bumpy ride along a stream descending from the holy mountain – the Kailash Chu. Gyangdrag was founded during the 13th century and rebuilt several times. We saw finely painted thangkas and spoke with a friendly monk. We then pushed further to an abandoned gompa behind which Kailash loomed large and nearer still, the rock-massif that represents Nandi the bull. I immersed the remains of my parents in Kailash Chu and we filled some bottles with water. Water from Kailash is considered precious in Tibet as well as in India. It was freezing cold, but I splashed some into my eyes, with a sense that it might help me to see things more clearly than before. I have no idea why I did this, but I did so spontaneously. Looking southwards, we saw Rakshastal plus a stretch of the Himalaya, including even Nanda Devi.
The next morning we headed westward from Darchen along dirt tracks and entered the valley of Amitabha. We were on the banks of the Lha Chu, along which a motorable track goes a considerable distance. Yatris who have decided not to do the entire kora on account of their health or because of financial constraints proceed in jeeps up to a point where they get the clearest possible darshan (glimpse) of Kailash, after which they turn back. This becomes possible after entering the valley and circumventing the intervening ridges. As we walked, a dog began to follow us at a distance and remained with us for two days. He reminded me of the canine that followed Yudhishthira on his last journey out of Hastinapura. A sense of timelessness filled me as I thought about the thousands of pilgrims who had walked the same pathways for centuries.
Along the way we passed a ‘sky burial’ site at Tarpoche, a place where in earlier times bodies of expired lamas were left to the elements and animals. We were warned of the ferocious dogs that frequent this place. Soon we entered the stark terrain that surrounds the mountain and passed by Choku Gompa on a cliffside, remote and barely visible. Kailash now appeared in full splendour. I took a photograph of the peak through a solitary stone archway named Shershung. Around the peak were ranged high crags of black rock, sheer ramparts upon which no ice could remain. Later we passed below the west face, stunningly close, and appearing like an entity with arms stretched outwards welcoming the weary pilgrim. We made our first camp soon afterwards, as pilgrims on ponies made their way past us. There was ice nearby, and we slept amid sounds of running water.
The second day we walked to Drirapuk Gompa, at 16,000 ft, one of the oldest monasteries in the region. We felt tired, as the air had become thinner. Throughout the trip, we saw Kailash clearly almost every day – something for which pilgrims are immensely grateful. Tibetans revere Mount Kailash as the residence of the tantric deity Demchog and his consort Dorje Phagmo (Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi); and call it Kang Rinpoche, or Snow Jewel. They also believe that their saint Milarepa spent several years here in meditation. For Hindus, Kailash is the manifestation of Meru, the spiritual centre of the universe and the abode of Shiva and Parvati. For Jains, Kailash is known as Ashtapada, the place where the faith’s founder, Tirththankar Rishabhadeva, achieved enlightenment. For Bon followers, it is where the faith’s founder Shanrab descended from heaven. Bon-pos walk the kora counter-clockwise, unlike other pilgrims. Since both traditions influence each other a great deal, this is perhaps a means of identity and differentiation.
The last stage of the kora took us across the Dolma La pass, at 18,600 feet. It is a tough climb that we needed to complete by noon to avoid blizzards. On the ascent we passed Shiva Sthal, where Tibetans leave remains of the dead or their own blood. Nearer the top is a rock reputed to carry the footprint of Milarepa. The entire route is studded with sacred sites, marked by chortens. There are no Shaivite temples in the region, and I can only presume it is because the entire area is considered sacred. On the way we mingled with Tibetan pilgrims, as well as those from Europe and China. I also noticed discarded phials of what might have been Tibetan medicine for altitude sickness.
When we reached the top of the pass, cold and exhausted, we found an array of fluttering prayer flags, the older ones torn and colourless. This is the highest point in the kora, also nearest to the crest of Kailash. Some pilgrims were performing shaastang pranaam, others reciting the ubiquitous mantra, Om mani padme hum. People were laughing and crying with joy, greeting the mountain as if reunited with an old friend. It was an inspirational sight. I took some gulps of oxygen to reduce my exhaustion, but cannot say whether it helped.
On the way down from Dolma La, we saw Gauri Kund from a height – the ‘lake of compassion’ that mythology tells us Shiva created for Parvati, and where Ganesh acquired his elephant head. It looked deceptively close, but we decided not to venture down. The path ahead now took us over a glacier, riverbeds and some dangerous rocky stretches of descents. After an exhausting day, we camped on the banks of the Lha Chu River that lies on the eastern side of Kailash.
The fourth day was spent trekking back to Darchen. En route, we spent some time at Zutulpuk monastery, also associated with Milarepa. Towards evening, we saw multi-coloured rocks in the gorge and a Tibetan girl handling a large herd of yaks all by herself, with stones and a loud voice. The evening at Darchen was spent bathing (a luxury), eating a fresh meal of stir-fried vegetables and chow made by a young Chinese couple in a small shed and preparing for our departure.
It took us four days to return to Nepal. We had entered Tibet from western Nepal, but exited in the east over the Kodari border, northeast of Kathmandu. Part of the journey was on a dirt-track beside the Tsangpo, the Tibetan name for the Brahmaputra. Along the way we saw other beautiful lakes. As we approached the edge of the vast Tibetan plateau, the Himalayan peaks appeared as if they were rising up slowly on a huge invisible platform. Then came the descent into the border town of Zhangmu/Kodari. The ride to Kathmandu brought us into green forests beside rushing water, muddy roads and packed passenger buses – a different world from the one we had just left behind.
It is two years since we walked around the sacred lake and the Snow Jewel Mountain. Whether Manasarovar is the reflex of Brahma’s mind and Kailash the abode of Shiva or Chakrasamvara, I am in no position to say. But these beautiful myths are appropriate to the beauty and splendour that I witnessed in these places. My memories of Manasarovar – surging sometimes like an ocean, at times still as a sheet of glass, light shimmering outwards from its surface as if touched with a shower of diamonds – preserve a sense of transcendent things. All the moods of life, all aspirations towards serenity seem to reside here. So they seemed to me at any rate, as I sat alone on its banks, bathed in sunlight on the last day of the kora, wondering how and why I was here, an agnostic in a place venerated by millions, where devotees spent their most reflective moments and some people still come to die.
Kailash was always visible from the lake’s banks, towering above it, a point of stillness in a spinning world. There are peaks that rise higher. But this one conveys steadfastness, absolution and mystery. Upon completing the kora of Kailash, despite my physical tiredness, I felt rested. Had I really beheld the jewel in the lotus? The mountain and the water stay with me…
Om mani padme hum.
~ Dilip Simeon is a Delhi-based historian and author of a novel, Revolution Highway.