Kailash Manasarovar—two words, two names, one pilgrimage—and means more than a name, more than even a pilgrimage for followers of five of the world’s major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Bon.
The Hindus believe that Lord Shiva is the creator of the universe and Mount Kailash is his abode.
According to the Jainist belief, Lord Rishabha traveled to Mount Kailash to engage in a spiritual quest and he gained liberation in front of Kailash.
Guru Nanak Dev—the founder of Sikhism and first in the line of the ten illustrious Sikh Gurus—met and had an extensive dialogue with the Siddhas (ascetics) there. This dialogue has been compiled into a text called the Siddh Gosht.
The indigenous Tibetan Swastika Bon religion propounds that Mount Kailash and Manasarovar are the holy lands, which were consecrated by its founder Thonpa Shenrab Miwo who lived, taught and disseminated the religion from this location.
For Buddhists, Mount Kailash is known as “Mt Meru,” the mythical image of the King of Mountains, positioned at the center of the universe.
My pilgrimage began when I became a member of the Isha Yoga foundation in Coimbatore, India. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the spiritual master and founder of this organization was the inspiration and sole reason for me to undertake this journey. I boarded the Mumbai-Kathmandu flight, dizzy with a sense of a deeper spiritual yearning and sheer excitement.
At the Solatee Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kathmandu the entire Isha group traveling to Kailash Manasarovar got together—a 120 strong contingent. After the introductions, some from the group ventured into the city, visiting ancient temples or shopping at the Thamel market. I preferred to sleep off a headache. The hotel is considered one of the best in Kathmandu. It’s tranquil gardens made it seem like a haven among the hustle and bustle of the city, though the interior furnishings could have done with some uplift.
The next day began with a visit to the Pashupatinath temple, the ancient Shiva (Pashupathi is a manifestation of Shiva, meaning Lord of Animals) temple on the banks of the river Bagmati, about a few miles northwest of Kathmandu. The temple is barred to non-Hindus. It is a square pagoda temple with ornate doors. The inner sanctum features a linga with four faces.
From the temple it was a short ride to the ancient town of Patan. Patan is filled with traditional carvings, hand crafted statues and ornate temples. It is one of three royal cities in the Kathmandu valley.
Early the next morning we left Kathmandu in buses headed to Zhangmu (in China), via the Nepalese border hamlet of Kodari. On the way my bus partner and I compared notes about how preprepared we were for the yatra (pilgrimage) ahead. A couple of months prior to the actual journey, the organizers had emailed extensive instructions on the whys and hows of physically preparing for our adventure: yogic practices, brisk walking and jogging were recommended for two months leading to the actual pilgrimage. Immersed in such conversations and entertained by the meandering and roaring River Kosi, we barely realized that Kodari was already at hand.
Scenic, would be insufficient to describe this locale. Located at an altitude of 8,251 feet, the panoramic view of the Himalayas at Kodari is breathtaking. From Kodari in Nepal, to enter into Chinese territory, a “friendship bridge” must be crossed on foot. After passing through passport scrutiny at the bridge, by both Nepalese and Chinese army men and successfully clearing immigration, we crossed over into the Southern Chinese town of Zhangmu.
Standing at about 2,300m (7,546ft.), Zhangmu enjoys a subtropical mild and humid climate, unlike the cold and arid one in the rest of Tibet. Zhangmu, across from Bhote Koshi River, was a night halt for us. Independent travelers should be pre-warned—the Zhangmu PSB won’t give you an Alien Travel Permit to head north into Tibet unless you have a guide, a driver and the mysterious Tibetan Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit!
At Zhangmu, we were joined by our Sherpas, who collected our duffle bags and prepared lunch for the group. For the remainer of our pilgrimage the Sherpas would not only be our luggage carriers but our chefs, waiters, high altitude advisers and friends.
Early the next morning, ably assisted by our “friendly neighborhood” Sherpas, we boarded Chinese tourist buses. It was going to be a long ride, made longer by the winding roads and increasing altitude. We traveled through Saga County, a military town standing at over 16,000 feet and stretching across from the Brahmaputra, which begins its journey from the Jima Yangzong glacier near Mount Kailash.
Saga made us slow down, it made us gasp, it made us feel its altitude. The decreasing air pressure on account of its altitude, made breathing a little harder, but at the hotel our team of dedicated doctors wouldn’t let Saga do us in. Mandatory medical checkups, warm food, cozy rooms, made us realize that Saga might be cold and uncomfortable, but we were well tended.
At Saga is where acclimatization occurs. So we broke journey here for two nights. During this time we shopped for essentials. This was the last stop before we began our climb and hence the last place to shop for the journey ahead. Our guides instructed us to walk with slow small steps, take our daily doses of Diamox, a medication used to fight high altitude sickness and persist with our yogic practices.
The next morning at 6 a.m. it appeared unusually dark, the reason being the Chinese time zone was situated a long distance off at Beijing. This causes a major discrepancy between the sun’s position and the time; our watch might say 6 a.m. but it was actually 4 a.m.
according to the position of the sun! In this confused state of time we left Saga in complete darkness and a dripping sky.
Between Saga and Manasarovar lie 450 Kms (279 miles) and even despite the early hour, the challenging altitude, the wet weather and the cold, the collective anticipation of the group was so thick that it seemed to have an identity of its own. Thus we began the bus ride—Sherpas, duffle bags, backpacks, et al.
Manasarovar is the world’s highest freshwater lake, 90 km (55 miles) in length and stands at an altitude of almost 15,000 ft. Geological survey confirms Manasarovar to be a fragment of the ancient Tethys Sea and of having a mineral density of 400 milligrams per liter.
Somewhere around lunch time, Manasarovar loomed into sight and its limpid blue waters caught our already weak breaths in a cumulative gasp. Chinese disallow private buses to go right up to the lake, but there is a well structured tourist center from where the buses transport the travelers to the lake.
The blue of the lake took on many other hues even as we stood before it in silence and awe. Crying, joining hands in reverence, prostrating and photographing—there was intense activity among our group. And among all this there was the camp site. The Sherpas had done it again! They had pitched tents for our two night stay on the banks of the mystical Manasarovar and prepared a hot meal for us even before we had reached our site. There were the toilet tents, the medical screening, the emergency, the dining and the sleeping tents, all numbered for our convenience. And as if this wasn’t enough, suddenly there he materialized—Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev—my spiritual master, mentor, guide, friend and more. He had just returned from Kailash with another group of Isha meditators.
The rest of the morning, the master was with us, initiating us, talking to us and answering our innumerable queries. For a while, time lost its grip. Dinner that night was a quiet, reverential affair.
The next morning we prayed for the rain to yield and the sun to appear so that we could complete our pilgrimage to Manasarovar with a dip in its waters. Even as we sat on the banks of the lake on the cold, dreary, drizzly morning, there was a miraculous retraction of cloud cover. The sunlight spread itself in a weak haze, enough for us to scramble out of our heavy woolens and into the cold waters of the Manasarovar. Manasarovar resounded with cries of “Shiv Shambo.” We had been strictly instructed not to remain in the icy waters beyond ten minutes and we did not need more.
That night the tents were fervent with packing just enough for a two-day stay at Kailash; the rest of our belongings would reach us later on our way back. From Manasarovar, we boarded the government buses that took us to Yam Dwar via the town of Darchen.
Securing our walking sticks, ponies and porters we began our trek from Yam Dwar to Deraphuk. As instructed we began with small steps, guided by a chant of “Shiv Shambho” to match our strides.
The mighty Kailash stands at almost 22,000 ft, making it one of the highest points of the Himalayan Range. All around this magnificent mystical mountain, the landscape cannot be captured by any device—verbal, written or photographic. One parikrama or circumambulation around the mountain is 52 km (32.31 miles) long and takes about three days.
Our trek had to be shortened, since the previous night it had snowed at Deraphuk. It was considered safe to trek only about 17 kms (10.5 miles) to the north face of Kailash. But no one complained.
Along the way, the makeup of the group shifted and changed. Some trekkers needed medical attention, mostly due to difficulty in breathing. There were many doctors with us and so were oxygen supplies and medications. It took about six hours for the entire group to reach Deraphuk, with some reaching in under four hours and some in over eight hours.
However, despite all the physical complexities that we had endured, the fact that we had caught a brief glimpse of Kailash on the way was all that we chattered about. Most of us managed to capture that transitory view using our cameras and there was an excited sharing of images at the dinner tent.
The “Kailash Hotel” was a two storied barrack styled affair—with no bathrooms or toilets. We had been warned about this. It was cold, dark and overcast when we reached the hotel, but the rooms had warm, cozy beds and the Sherpas had a hot meal ready for us, as usual. Among the excited chattering in the dinner tent, there was a sudden squeal followed by silence and then noise. And then someone explained, “Kailash. North Face.
Clear view.” In a matter of seconds the tent was empty and the entire assemblage was out in the cold, dark night, prostrating, crying, joining hands—Kailash stood unbelievably close, strangely sacred and incredibly majestic.
That night as I crept into bed, the Kailash clearly visible from my window. There was a feeling of having reached—not a place, not a mountain—just an inner destination.
Anita Kainthla is a published writer and poet. She has been nominated for the Pushcart award. She writes features, travel articles and short stories for national and international magazines.