By Rajesh Jadhav July 2003 Worshipped by Hindus as Shiva's abode and by Tibetans as Mount Meru, Kailash is an ancient place of benediction. Those who attempt the Kailash-Manasarovar yatra, one of the toughest pilgrimage routes in the world, return with a sense of the eternal sacred Mount of MythsSwati ChopraAs happens with ancient power spots, the human response to Mt Kailash is cloaked with a web of myths. Faiths that originated in the Indian subcontinent Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Tibetan Bon hold Kailash in reverence as a wondrous, divinely blessed place. The only other place in the world sacred to multiple religions is Bethlehem, where all three Judaic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) worship together. The Kailash range in the Himalayas extends from Kashmir to Bhutan, with Mt Kailash at its centre. According to the Mahabharata, it is the place visited by many gods, yakshas, rakshasas and gandharvas. For Hindus, Kailash is the abode of Shiva, and there is mention of Ravana and Bhasmasura doing penance here to propitiate him. The lake, Manasarovar, derives its name from the belief that it originated from the mind, or manas, of Brahma. Buddhist cosmology views Kailash as the manifestation of Mount Meru, navel of the world, the exact centre of the universe. A powerful image is that of Kailash as world pillar around which the entire created world revolves. Even the atheistic Jains worship at Kailash. They believe it to be the spot where the first tirthankara Rishabhdev attained enlightenment. Kailash for them is not a deity or the abode of a god; it is the place where the very earth is imbued with wisdom. It is in the hope of experiencing this nirvanic imprint that they pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. In Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, Kailash is a giant protector deity that holds the soul of the nation, ensuring its continuance. As the place where Shanrab, the mythical founder of Bon descended from heaven, it was the centre of the ancient Bon empire, Zhang Zhung. These myths offer a perspective on the human relationship with Kailash through the centuries. However, as is the nature of places, we cannot really know them without actually breathing their air. Without the journey of faith, Kailash too remains just another mountain, with a lot of snow and a whole lot of fancy stories. They say that the Kailash-Manasarovar yatra just happens. You don't choose it, it chooses you, and that's exactly how it was with us. Somehow, all the imponderables and conflicting pieces fell in place and it seemed that there were forces at work that were bigger than all of us.We were a motley group of 11 yatris from all over the country. Our chosen route, via Kathmandu, is probably many shades easier than the one organised by the Government of India that takes yatris over the 16,500 feet high Lepulekh pass. Nonetheless, it is physically demanding. The yatra stretches over 18 days involving a round trip of over 2,000 km over challenging roads that for most part are muddy ruts. We would cover about 200 km each day, travelling up to 10 hours. The actual parikrama (circumambulation) is a 52 km trek around Mt Kailash. This trek is spread over three days, at an average height of 16,000 feet above sea level. From Kathmandu we would cross over into Tibet at Kodari and then head along the southern corridor in Tibet to Kailash-Manasarovar. Blessings in KathmanduDays flew by and one evening, we were at the Delhi airport. Waiting for our flight to Kathmandu, we felt enveloped by a unifying force. Most of us were meeting each other for the first time, yet there was an instant bonding that was difficult to explain. At Kathmandu, we were given a traditional Tibetan welcome with kha-btag, silk scarves. Later that evening, we went to the Pashupatinath temple to seek Shiva's blessings before our yatra to his abode. In pouring rain, we joined other devotees in lighting the hundreds of oil lamps circumventing the inner temple and at the appointed hour, the doors of the inner sanctum were thrown open to reveal the four-faced Shivalinga within. Energized by the Lord's blessings, early next morning, 11 yatris and an equal number of support staff boarded a bus. As we raced along the narrow mountain roads, there arose before us a snow-clad peak, its sharp jagged edges piercing the thick clouds surrounding it. It looked like a shard of glass shining brilliantly in the sky. It was quite a while before that image faded from our eyes. Border TroubleAt the Chinese border, some papers were discovered to be missing from our travel documents. In the mountains, nothing is ever done in a hurry. There prevails an omniscient calm, and none of our restless urgings had the slightest effect on the events playing out before us. Things weren't resolved till late evening and we had to make an unscheduled halt at night at the border town of Zhangmu. It was only next morning that the yatra finally took off. Bundled into three Land Cruisers, we zipped towards the Tibetan plateau. The change in scenery was nothing short of breathtaking from lush green jagged mountains and nearly vertical valleys with innumerable waterfalls, to a flat, barren black-brown landscape that stretched for miles around. We couldn't help marvel at the beauty that was in evidence even in these arid surroundings. A Subtle ChangeOur first night halt in Tibet was at Nyalam. Now onwards, every night would be spent in cramped mountain tents. Next morning, as we exchanged notes, we felt that a subtle change had already occurred. We felt at ease with ourselves and were eager to reach out to others. Most of us attributed this to the benign influence of Kailash-Manasarovar. At 12,000 feet, we were at an altitude higher than we had ever been and altitude sickness started taking its toll. It was extremely cold at night with rain and howling winds lashing at our tents. The down-filled sleeping bags kept the chill at bay, while silent prayers calmed our jangled nerves. Early next morning, we continued on our journey through the truly awe-inspiring Tibetan plateau. All around us were hordes of sheep, yaks and wild horses, strange cloud patterns in the sky, glistening lakes, gently sloping meadows and snow-capped mountains. So amazing was the scenery that it felt criminal just to blink. Rain continued to play hide and pour. When the sun shone, it was brilliant and hurt the eyes. We stopped often to click photographs and stretch our legs. With no roads to speak of, we couldn't really expect bridges over rivers. So fording rivers became a daily routine, with us criss-crossing the same river several times during the day. The Land Cruisers often got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out with strong ropes. Kailash looked down at us, benign and foreboding, compassionate and aloofWith each passing day, we were drawing closer to Mount Kailash. The First Glimpse Our night halts were evenly placed. First Nyalam, then Paigat-Tso, a ferry over the Brahmaputra (Tsangpo in Tibet), then Saga and finally Darchen. Our next halt after Darchen, a mere 24 hours away, would be the mighty Manasarovar. But before we reached the shore of the most pious of all lakes, we would have our first glimpse of the Kailash. The day stretched on and on and we kept expecting to see the Kailash behind every range that we crossed. The strange cloud patterns became stranger still, and definite shapes of Om and Mt Kailash appeared in them. Suddenly, almost magically, there was Kailash. It is difficult to describe what one felt then. It seemed as if in each of us was a spirit waiting to exhale and at the feet of the Kailash, it had found release. With tears in our eyes, we gazed at Mount Kailash, feeling serenity and a deep emotional catharsis that we hadn't anticipated when we began our journey. Time seemed to stand still as we stored away what we were seeing and experiencing. All this while, Kailash looked down upon us, at once benign and foreboding, compassionate and aloof. The aura of the place was palpable, almost physical. Too weak-kneed to stand, most of us sat down, heads bowed and hands folded. It was almost an hour before we got back into the vehicles to continue on to the campsite. We pitched our tents right beside Manasarovar and frequently crawled out at night to gaze at the Kailash, bathed in the eerie glow of a full moon. Trial of FaithNext morning, thick clouds hid Kailash from our view and it rained intermittently. We gathered beside the lake to offer a brief puja. Bliss comes in surprising ways and that day, shivering in the chilled waters of Manasarovar, we felt warmth rarely felt before. It was time to begin the three-day parikrama on foot. I think that Kailash had been testing us from the moment we began our journey our resolve, patience, determination and above all, our belief. As we overcame each challenge, we gained confidence in our abilities. So when we received information that the Dolma-La pass, the highest point of the parikrama at 18,600 feet above sea level, was snowed out, we simply sought the blessings of Kailash and decided to carry on. Sure enough, the challenges ahead were the toughest we had faced yet. We reached Dira-Puk around midnight, exhausted after a 12 km hike in inclement weather, bone-chilling winds and rudimentary sanitation facilities. It was raining incessantly and as the support staff struggled to pitch our tents, each of us questioned our ability to carry on. It was then that we were reminded of Shiva's prophecy to King Skanda, quoted in the Puranas: Few may come here. In Satyuga seven lakh, in Treta five lakh, in Dwapar three lakh and in Kaliyuga, only one lakh mortals will be able to make this journey. Whoever can visit this place takes the place of the gods. Needless to say, we carried on. At Heaven's DoorThe parikrama begins and ends at Tarchen (Tibetan for big prayer flag), a small settlement at the base of the Kailash. The stunning southern face of Kailash is marked by a vertica
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