By Kanchana Karthikeyan
A pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar, one of the most sacred pilgrim destinations in the world, is an inspiring journey where the rugged mountain peaks fill you with awe and unfold the joy of your soul
A pilgrimage teaches us to focus on the immediate rather than worry about how far or difficult the goal is. We learnt it with every step as we climbed the rocky terrains, our eyes riveted on the path and our souls cherishing each moment that was taking us closer to Lake Mansarovar (said to have been created in the mind of Brahma, creator of the world) and Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. Mountains call for adventure and pose risks and this pilgrimage was no exception. But each testing moment made us more aware of our inner strength, endurance and patience.
With Om Namah Shivaye constantly on our lips, we reached out to all of Shiva’s creation with benevolence and love. The pilgrimage was a great lesson in teamwork and team spirit. It also brought out some of the rare and beautiful human qualities in us, perhaps because the energy of this scared region touched even the grossest parts of our beings and cleansed us. Mt Kailash, like Bethlehem, is one of the rare sites for the intermingling of religions, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Tibetan Bonpas. The conical peak has such a captivating aura that it seems almost spiritual in nature. For the Shaivites, Mt Kailash is regarded as Meru, the spiritual center of the universe, or where the heavens are located. For the Jains, their first Tirthankar (prophet) Rishabdev achieved enlightenment here.
Buddhists recognize it as the manifestation of Meru, the naval of the world. In the Bon religion, practiced in Tibet, it is the site where its founder Shanrab is said to have descended from heaven. From the slopes of this mountain, which is the source for four of South Asia’s major rivers, Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Indus and Karnali (one of the tributaries of Ganga), streams fall to form Lake Mansarovar, where a ritual bath can deliver the pilgrim to Lord Brahma’s world. It forms the highest body of fresh water in the world. A pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar is indeed arduous. When we set out in the early hours on the first day from New Delhi for this sacred land, it was a long-cherished dream coming true for most of us. After all, it was the ultimate pilgrimage.
Visiting Kailash-Mansarovar, was one desire of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, which remained unfulfilled in his lifetime. This prompted my father, D.R. Karthikeyan, now CBI chief, to undertake the pilgrimage. I accompanied him. We made our first halt at Almora, the picturesque district town in Kumaon hills. The next morning, we left by bus for Dharchula, on the border of India and Nepal. The river Kali runs through it. A hanging bridge over the river is perhaps the only link between the two countries. That night, we were briefed about the hazards in store for us, yet we looked ahead with a quiet confidence and prayer on our lips. On the third day, after an hour’s journey by bus. We reached Tawaghat, from where we would start the trek to our destination.
The trek moves uphill and we climbed and rested alternately. Next day, we reached Sirka via an ashram established by Swami Narayana from Karnataka for the uplift of the Bhotia tribe. On the fifth day, we reached Rungling Top which is about 10,000 ft above sea level. It is named after Captain Rungling who, upon reaching the summit of this hill, felt so tired, lonely and dejected, that he shot himself dead. We wondered why he took his life after having reached a spot as majestic as this. From here, a sharp descent starts. Reaching Malpa, the next halt, involved negotiating 4,444 stony, uneven steps that descended sharply. The path was slippery but the strain was soon forgotten when we saw some of the most fascinating and picturesque waterfalls on our way.
We even waded through some of these which was a unique and comforting experience. Fro Malpa, it was an enjoyable stretch to Budhi, a quaint, little place, and we had time and energy to appreciate the beauty of the dancing river Kali that had been our constant companion al this way. We passed through and proceeded to Kalapani where a lovely temple of Ma Kali and Lord Shiva is built. River Kali is said to have originated from below this temple. Navidang, the next halt, is the last camp on the Indian side. Pilgrims here make preparations for what can be one of the most difficult stretches of the journey, through Lipu Lekh Pass into China where a 2,000 ft steep rise has to be negotiated in perhaps the most treacherous weather conditions.
Equipped with torches and warm clothing, and prepared for the rain and snow, we set out at two in the morning for the 5-km stretch. But the worst was that the Chinese officials had not come to receive us at the stipulated time. Taklakot was the first Tibetan village in Chinese Tibet where we halted. Inadequate amenities such as uneven roads and poor hygienic conditions surprised us all. We stayed that night at what was termed the best hotel in town but it had no plumbing. However, our grumblings did not go well with the locals here. Tough, friendly and ruddy people, the Tibetans manage to have a good time despite their poverty. They are also intensely religious, and perform the most strenuous sashtanga danda pradakshina (circumambulation while crawling) of Mt Kailash in a month’s time and that of Lake Mansarovar in less than a month on a regular basis. The rich even hire volunteers to do the circuit for them.
A trek around Mt Kailash is less difficult. While the Indian pilgrims generally complete the parikrama of Mt Kailash in three days, some hardy Tibetans can do the same in a day. Completing one parikrama is said to purify all the sins of a lifetime. After a day’s rest at Taklakot, where we completed immigration formalities, we traveled by bus to Rakshas Tal where we got our first glimpse of the majestic 22,028 ft. high Mt Kailash. Rakshas Tal is the lake where Ravana is said to have done penance to invoke Lord Shiva. Locals say that the water from this lake should never be drunk. From here, we went to Tarchen, a small, wind-blown settlement at the base of Mt Kailash. At this point, we formed two groups. One group did the 52 km parikrama of Mt Kailash while the other went to Houre for the 75 km long parikrama of Mansarovar. Since each circuit is completed in three days, both the groups switch to complete the whole program.
This becomes necessary because the very basic accommodation in mud structures is for a limited number of pilgrims. From Tarchen, the trek is smooth and the view of Mt Kailash enchanting. At Direbu camp, we got the closest view of the peak, especially its southern ‘Sapphire’ face, which is also known as ‘Stairway to Heaven’, because it is marked by a cleft. Legend has it that since this is Shiva’s throne, the long strands of his matted hair flow about him. River Ganga is said to emanate from one of these strands. From Direbu, we proceeded to Zongzerbu via Drolma Pass. This day of the journey was significant because we performed puja at Drolma Pass (20,000 ft), and saw Gaurikund (19,000 ft.) Drolma is the Tibetan name for Taradevi, Lord Shiva’s mother.
Gaurikund is the lake where goddess parvati is said to have bathed and done penance for 50 years to win the heart of Lord Shiva. The next day, we switched camps to start the next leg of the parikrama. The walk round the 330 sq.km Lake Mansarovar begins at Houre, a camp situated near the lake. This is a long and often tiring journey, the harder part being that the pilgrims carry their own provisions for cooking. Our only relief was the view of the placid, blue waters of the lake.
The second day of the parikrama from Chugu on the right bank of Mansarovar also gave us a fascinating view of Mt Kailash. When we reached Mansarovar, we stepped into the cool water of the oval lake for a ritual bath and prayer. It was almost like homecoming, as though after the long and arduous journey, we had finally reached the abode of peace. Next, we made our way back on the same route. We felt uplifted. An ethereal joy seemed to have permeated our beings. However, great joy is rarely without some pain. A twinge of sorrow was soon upon us; it was time to leave. But even as we turned away from the sublime snow-capped peajs and the sparkling waters of the lake, we walked down with the feeling that we had visited a different realm, that even if for a split second, we had actually witnessed eternity. And the grace of the Lord had seeped into our beings, never to be forgotten.
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