Travel Guide: Pilgrimage to the Mysterious Mount Kailash

This is not your five-star holiday. Nor is it an adventure trip. No. This is a pilgrimage of a lifetime. A journey which has changed lives of millions of people. It is a journey towards a mysterious mountain that has secrets of its own.

Mount Kailash. World’s holiest mountain. Known as the center of the universe. Its peak is considered as the stairway to heaven. A celebrated, sacred sight worshipped by four religions and billions of people.

A pilgrimage to Kailash is a way to enhance your own life. 3000 global and more than 20,000 local/indigenous people visit Mount Kailash every year. So without further ado, let’s take a virtual tour starting right from the history, to the religious significance of Mount Kailash.

A view of Mount Kailash

Courtesy of LoneyPlanet.

What is Kailash Mansarovar?

Mount Kailash is a 27, 778ft (6638m) tall peak in the middle of the Kailash mountain range. This range is part of the Himalayas. Kailash is situated in near the Indian and Tibetan border. There are two lakes near the mountain.

Lake Manasarovar, and lake Rakshathal are known to be the sources of important Indian rivers like Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra.[1] The mountain is located in west Tibet.

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Why the name Kailash?

The name Kailash means crystal in Sanskrit.[2] The mountain is named Kailash because it is said to be the paradise where Lord Shiva resides.

The name Kailash is supposed to be a formal and religious name. It represents Lord Shiva’s strong, complex and serious nature.

Saga Dawa Festival
Saga Dawa Festival

Kailash Pilgrimage

In Hinduism and Buddhism going on the Kailash Pilgrimage is considered as an opportunity of a lifetime.

The perfect time to embark on this pilgrimage is in May-June, when the Saga Dawa Festival begins.[3] During this time, thousands of people, pilgrims and tourists both visit the mountain. This festival is a celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment.[4]

Tarboch, which is mount Kailash’s southwest corner, an extremely tall praying poll is rooted on the ground. After praying and celebrations, the trek towards Mount Kailsh begins.

The journey doesn’t end when the pilgrims reach the base of the mountain. They complete a circuit around it which is 57Km long. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the pilgrims walk the circuit clockwise. In Bon tradition they complete the circuit in anti-clockwise direction.

A discussion from bearded man with people listening gathered around him and Mount Kailash in the background.
Courtesy of IshaSadhuguru

What is a pilgrimage?

Pilgrimage is a fancy word for journey. Pilgrimage is an adventure in a foreign land. It is when a person travels in search of his true self, as an act of self-reflection.

Pilgrimage is done for the experience. A journey that will teach the man morals, how to achieve a superior mindset, and how to anticipate the greater good.

Many people have admitted that a pilgrimage changed their life. Literally and figuratively. Pilgrimage is done for 6 months to a couple years. Upon his return, the person goes back to his daily life and routine.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pexels-bishal-sapkota-4133938-1024x694.jpg

Difference between a Pilgrimage and Tourism

The main difference between a pilgrimage and Tourism is the usage of cell phones. Yes, you read that right. When you embark on a pilgrimage, you begin a journey towards self-improvement.

Faith is an important factor of pilgrimage which is absent from tourism. Travelling to touristic destinations doesn’t require you to be faithful or religious.

Tourism is done in the company of your friends or family. But Pilgrimage is done in solitude. Even if you have companions, they aren’t your close relatives.

Pilgrimages include certain religious and philosophical rituals. They are done so that a person can search for a purpose in life. A person is said to be reborn after he returns from a pilgrimage.

For People who indulge in tourism, travelling is a proof that “life is good! This is the life!”

People celebrate the end of a successful pilgrimage to show that they have achieved “victory over self”. But usually, people who travel abroad for trips end up partying and drinking the night away. It is a way to forget their mundane daily life.

A pilgrimage is never really over. And I say this solely because its effects last forever. It changes a person completely. But holidays? They end. And all that’s left are a couple hundred pictures in your camera roll.

Full moon night at Mount Kailash
Credit: https://www.kailash-mansarovaryatra.in/post/3-secrets-about-full-moon-night-at-kailash-mansarovar-you-never-knew

How to prepare for a pilgrimage

First of all, understanding “why” you’re going on a pilgrimage is very important. When we go on adventurous treks to the Himalaya’s or the alps, we collect rocks and pebbles along the way. When we go to a beach, we collect shells or even the sand. Why do we do this? Maybe we keep these things as souvenirs, or as memories of our trip.

But pilgrimage is most definitely not a trip. During your walk towards the Kailash Mountain, you will not pick up rocks, or take selfies. Because your purpose is much greater.

Preparing yourself mentally and physically is very important. Many people make a walking plan ahead of time. They prepare their feet for the long and strenuous journey.

And trust me, even if you consider yourself to be a fit, active individual, you will still need to brace yourself.

Nature is unpredictable. You never know what calamities you might encounter. So it’s always better to train your body accordingly.

Religious and Anthropological Significance

Mount Kailash is known to be a sacred sight in four religions, Hinduism, Bon, Buddhism and Jainism. Bon the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. More than a religion, it is considered as a religious tradition. Bon has its own philosophy, practices, gods and institutions as well. You can read more about the bon tradition here.

Courtesy of V&A

In Hinduism

According to Karel Werner’s Popular Dictionary of Hinduism, “most Hindu places of pilgrimage are associated with legendary events from the lives of various gods…. Almost any place can become a focus for pilgrimage. In most cases they are sacred cities, rivers, lakes, and mountains.”[5]

Mount Kailash is famous because it is known as the resting place of Lord Shiva. It is said that Lord Shiva resided in Mount Kailash, along with his wife Parvati and their two children- Ganesh and Kartikeya.

According to the Indian epic ‘Mahabharat’ the Pandeva brothers trekked mount kailash along with their wife Draupadi. The trek was done in search for liberation because Mount Kailash is also known as the pathway to heaven.

Hinduism worships mount Kailash because it is believed that just one trip around the mountain is powerful enough to erase all the sins in that pilgrim’s life. 108 trips around the mountain will wipe away all the sins of innumerable lifetimes and the person will reach salvation.

Another way to reach salvation is if a pilgrim submerges themselves into the bone chilling water of Lake Manasarovar first before starting the round trip around the mountain

Statue of Buddha
Credit: Courtesy of Tour Radar

In Buddhism

Known as ‘Mount Meru’ Mount Kailash has an important place in Buddhist. Religious texts. Not only is it a major pilgrimage sight in Buddhism, it is also known as the central point of Buddhist cosmology.

Buddhists strictly acknowledge just how important mount Kailash is. The site is sacred both culturally and religiously.

There are some monasteries around the base of the mountain where Buddhist monks pray, practice their religion. Some of the monks living in these monasteries are in the midst of completing their 108 rounds around the mountain in hopes of achieving salvation.

Leaving locks of your hair or your teeth is another tradition amongst pilgrims who have taken part in the pilgrimage to mount Kailash.

Read more about Buddhism

Om Parvat
Credit: Om Parvat

Secrets of Mountain Kailash

As seen In the title itself, mount Kailash is quite popular for being a “mysterious” place. There are tons of YouTube videos trying to prove how mount Kailash has numerous secrets. About how once it had turned completely to gold. And my personal favourite—how it’s not even a mountain but a giant pyramid!

But there are some things that do make mount Kailash at least a little bit mysterious!

First of all, did you know that Mount Kailash is actually un-climbable? That’s right.

For thousands of years millions of people have gone on the Kailash pilgrimage. However, not a single person has climbed the mountain. Even though Kailsh is not a tall mountain.

There is a legend that says that the only person who has attempted to climb the peak was “Milarepa” a Buddhist monk.

Many people believe that climbing the mountain will be offensive towards gods.

When you look from the southern side of the ridge, you can see that the mountain has an “Om” (ॐ) symbol on it. There is a huge ice trough which forms that symbol. Horizontal rock formations from the top make the symbol even more prominent.

Chinese Presence in Tibet

Chinese Military Men seen walking in Tibet
Credit: Asia news.                                                                                        

In the early 1950s Communist china invaded the peaceful land of Tibet. That was when the oppression of religious freedom began. In May of 1951 the Chinese government imposed a treaty called the “17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”. This treaty finalised Chinese dominance over Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama was pressured into signing the treaty.

The Chinese presence in Tibet escalated, leading to extreme repression of the indigenous people. Chinese troops attempted to crush religious beliefs. They destroyed many religious buildings, including six monasteries at Mount Kailash, and imprisoned monks.[6]

People of Tibet were not allowed to practice their religion freely. Soon, many uprisings started within the country.

In 1959, the largest rebellion happened which killed 87,000 Tibetans and forced the 14th Dalai Lama into exile. Dalai Lama has been under India’s protection ever since.

There is always room for progress

In 1980, the route to Mount Kailash was reopened. The Chinese government eased its grip on Tibet’s society, politics, and religion.

Tibet and China are slowly making progress toward achieving peace. Hopefully in the future, people from Tibet will get some well-deserved religious freedom.

In the year 2002, Representatives of Dalai Lama met with the Chinese leader. This meeting happened after nine whole years since their last encounter. Since 2002, there have been several meetings between the representatives and the leaders.

This is a good sign. A much-desired silver lining. The Dalai Lama is advocating an autonomous Tibet. However, the best way for Mount Kailash to be protected is for Tibet to gain complete independence from China.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is raimond-klavins-A0xMkK4-qmA-unsplash-1024x683.jpg

Mount Kailash Today

There is a big difference in how the indigenous people view mount Kailash and how outsiders view it. In the past 10-20 years, the number of foreigner pilgrims has increased. To the point that Mount Kailash can be reached even via cars and buses now.

The Chinese government did not care much for the indigenous people and religious importance of Mount Kailash. Their interest lied in using Mount Kailash to benefit their economy.

China announced in 2006 that they will launch a campaign for a train line straight from Beijing to Lhasa (the nearest big town near Mount Kailash). As tourist flow increases in the region, less pilgrims are able to truly experience the peaceful journey to the sacred site. Now, chattering tourists and cars interrupt their prayers and they are no longer able to experience the remoteness of the region.[7]

Becoming a UNESCO world heritage site would be the most helpful way for Mount Kailash to remain sacred. However, in order for it to achieve this status, it has to be nominated by the Chinese government (Poriter).

View of Mount Kailash in the distance
Credit: Courtesy of Himalayan Glaciar

So, are you up for the challenge?

While conducting my research about Mount Kailash, I came across a quote which intrigued me— “Being human means there is a longing to transform. Only a human being is capable of aspiring to transform. That is why these places of Grace became so popular, and for thousands of years, people have been coming, in spite of all the difficulties.” [8]

Mount Kailash is a place of grace, a place that is sacred.  Indigenous people have been worshiping it for thousands of years. Today, it is in our hands to let this place of grace remain peaceful and untouched.

References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kailash

[2] https://www.whatisthemeaningofname.com/what-is-the-meaning-of-the-name-kailash-29416/

[3] https://www.tibettravel.org/tibetan-festivals/saga-dawa-festival.html

[4] https://www.learnreligions.com/the-enlightenment-of-the-buddha-449789

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilgrimage

[6] https://sites.coloradocollege.edu/indigenoustraditions/sacred-lands/mount-kailash-2/

[7]  https://sites.coloradocollege.edu/indigenoustraditions/sacred-lands/mount-kailash-2/

[8] https://isha.sadhguru.org/global/en/wisdom/article/what-kailash-yatra-pilgrimage-means

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