Long shrouded in myth and mystery, Tibet lies on the roof of the world, surrounded by the mountain ranges of Central Asia. Amid this grandeur, rising alone from the western Tibetan Plateau, stands Mount Kailash (Kang Rinpoche) – the most sacred mountain of the world and earthly manifestation of the cosmic Mount Meru. Center of a vast tantric mandala; place of pilgrimage and rebirth; revered by Bon, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain alike.
Thirteen hundred long, dusty kilometers west of Lhasa your cars top a small rise and suddenly this most spectacular and sacred sight is before you. Prayer flags are raised in honor of the first glimpse of Mount Kailash standing alone and distinctive before you and the vast blue waters of Lake Manasarovar below. Collectively known as Kangri Tsosum, Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash are said to be the heart of the ancient Shangshung Kingdom, the supposed land of origin of the pre-Buddhist Bonpo and one of the sources of the legend of Shambhala. It is here too that the great rivers of Asia are born. The Indus, the Sutlej, the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and the Karnali (tributary of the Ganges) flow from the four cardinal directions. Tibetans consider all these rivers sacred and their sources even more so – named for the animals that provide vehicles for the gods – the horse, the peacock, the elephant and the lion.
As dawn breaks, offering light and very little warmth to the icy air, the three-dimensional, seven-tiered mandala we are constructing from one thousand 2kg packets of barley is almost complete. Each of the packets has been wrapped with silk ribbons and is carefully oriented as we build. Lengths of red, blue, white, yellow and green silk (representing the five elements) are wrapped around the completed top layer. It stands on the shores of Lake Manasarovar, the highest and holiest lake on earth, conceived from the mind of Brahma. Nearby we set light to the mound of juniper branches we have brought with us, topping it with offerings of yak butter, bricks of black tea, sugar and spices which fill the air with fragrant incense.
As the first rays of sun strike the snow cap of Mount Kailash, Lobsang Rinpoche begins the ritual chants (accompanied by the bell that represents the elementary sound of the universe and ritual mudras) which precede our offering to the lake. Arms ache, though we are warmed by the exercise of flinging each of the thousand barley bundles into the sacred waters and my poor throwing ability causes much amusement, but is excused on the grounds of being a woman.
The following morning long Tibetan horns sound amid the clash of drums and brass gongs, all accompanied by the cheers of thousands as the 13 meter flag pole is again raised at Tarboche, festooned with new flags of red, yellow, blue, green and white (representing the five elements).
The angle of the new pole dictates the fortunes of Tibetans for the following year so it is a complex process (often taking a couple of hours) as trucks pull, instructions are shouted and men climb up and down the pole and supports to adjust the ropes. All the while pilgrims circle in a clockwise direction and monks chant prayers and play instruments.
It is a rigorous journey to Kailash, but this is one of the reasons that it is so special. Regardless of religious inclination (or lack of) it is truly a pilgrimage and one of the few journeys left in the world where all cannot be predicted and guaranteed.
This is the most important time for pilgrimage to Mount Kailash as on the 15th day of the month of Saga Dawa (the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar), it is the day of the full moon when the birth, enlightenment and earthly death (parinirvana) of the Shakyamuni Buddha is celebrated.
Believed by the Bonpo to be the place where their founder descended to earth and first taught, Kailash, which they call Yungdrung Gu Tse (Nine-Storey Swastika Mountain) continued to be venerated by his followers long after the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.
In the 11th century, with the revival and ascendancy of Buddhism in Tibet, Milarepa (poet, mystic and teacher) followed a prophecy of Shakyamuni Buddha naming Kailash the abode of Chakrasambhava and challenged his Bonpo archrival, Naro Bonchung over control of the mountain. A contest of magical powers left the question of supremacy unresolved until the final challenge, a race to the summit at dawn. Bonchung appeared before dawn riding his magic drum. Milarepa waited until the first rays of sun struck and rode them to the top of the mountain in an instant. So shocked was Bonchung, he fell from his drum, which dropped from the sky gouging out the vertical pits and crevices visible on the south face. He conceded jurisdiction and was granted a neighboring mountain to the east.
From the 12th century the Kagyupa flourished around the mountain. Monasteries and retreats sprang up and pilgrims arrived in large numbers to pay homage to Kang Rinpoche. As well as Buddhists, Bonpo continue to regard Kailash as a place of pilgrimage (circumambulating in a clockwise direction) as do Hindus, for whom the mountain is the abode of Shiva. A single kora (circumambulation) is an act of great spiritual significance. Three kora frees you of the sins of a lifetime and 108 guarantees enlightenment.
The 53 kilometer kora (circuit) is often completed in a single day by locals, but foreigners customarily take a more leisurely 2½ days, overnighting in basic monastery guesthouses or camping en-route. The trek is physically demanding as it takes place at over 5,000 meters, but the terrain is not difficult and follows a clear path. The toughest part is the beginning of the second day, ascending past a number of sacred sites, including the cremation grounds to the Drolma-La (5,636m) where a ritual rebirth takes place.
Tithapuri, on the banks of the Sutlej west of Kailash, is the traditional place to complete the pilgrimage. The dramatic landscape, meditation cave of Padmasambhava, grassy fields to picnic in and rather depleted hot springs provide a tranquil setting to relax and assimilate the experiences of the previous days.
This is the realm of ancient Shangshung. The vast cave city of Khyunglung (Garuda Valley) was inhabited by the kings of western Tibet at least 4,000 years ago and is also the site of pristine hot springs. Even more spectacular, the route continues west against a backdrop of the Ladakhi Himalaya into Guge – a once powerful kingdom controlling the trade routes between Central Asia and India. The murals in the temples of Tsaparang – the cave city-palace that was Guge’s capital and the religious center of Tholing are some of the finest anywhere in the Tibetan world. Despite centuries of neglect and periodic wars their colors remain vibrant, their tantic subjects compelling. Today Tholing is surrounded by the small town of Tsada. Its cliff-top site commands a superb view and it is a perfect site for a sunset beer with the dusty chortens of Tholing’s kora behind, surrounded by a dramatic weathered landscape and the Sutlej flowing swiftly below.
It is a rigorous journey to Kailash, but this is one of the reasons that it is so special. Regardless of religious inclination (or lack of) it is truly a pilgrimage and one of the few journeys left in the world where all cannot be predicted and guaranteed. Whilst Tibetan Expeditions provides what comfort the best available landcruisers can offer, for much of the route the roads are unpaved and dusty. Guest houses in the west are basic. But sitting atop a pass in the sun, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, yaks grazing on the surrounding hillsides, it is hard to conceive anywhere more stunning.
Author: Catherine Spence