The Written Word

Several Tibetan prelates who made the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash have written guidebooks for the convenience of others. Perhaps the most well-known of these is The Crystal Mirror (Tise-nashad). An English translation of this book is included in Elena Filibeck’s Two Tibetan Guide Books to Ti se and La phiy, 1988. But apart from being difficult to find, this guide book’s focus on the myths and legends surrounding the sacred mountain makes it rather inaccessible and uninteresting to the average Westerner. Therefore I would like to recommend some other guidebooks to and accounts of Mt. Kailash that you may find useful and interesting.

Two books that give thorough and interesting accounts of Mt. Kailash are Charles Allen’s A Mountain in Tibet: The Search for Mount Kailash, 1982 and John Snelling’s The Sacred Mountain: The Complete Guide to Tibet’s Mount Kailash, London, 1990, the updated and profusely illustrated edition was published in 1990. Both books are excellent and worth taking with you when you go. Eki Kawaguchi’s Three Years in Tibet was published in 1910 and reprinted in Kathmandu some time in the 1980s, if my memory serves me correctly. It’s not an easy book to find nowadays. If you can’t get it, Scott Berry’s retelling of Kawaguchi’s adventures at Mt. Kailash and elsewhere in Tibet is a good substitute. It is called A Stranger in Tibet: The Adventures of a Wandering Zen Monk, 1990, and is an enjoyable read. Lonely Planet’s Tibet includes all the information you will need to get to Mt. Kailash and do the parikarma, as well as information about other places in Tibet. This information is updated with each new edition. However, when I was in Tibet the Chinese authorities considered this book to be ‘subversive literature’ and searched for it when I entered the country and at several checkpoints during the trip. So if you take it you run the risk of problems with the authorities.

Far more detailed and better-informed about Tibetan culture and religion is Victor Chan’s Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrim’s Guide, 1994, which I highly recommend, although I only found it and read it on my return. The Mount Kailash Trek-A Trekker’s and Visitor’s Guide by Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons, 2007, has all the details you need to know for going to Mt. Kailash, but much unnecessary information as well. I used this book but found myself constantly flicking through pages of information I didn’t need to find the information I did. It’s a useful book but perhaps with a little too much padding.

The German Buddhist Lama Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds, 1966 and reprinted many times since, is the most popular account of a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash. Govinda’s almost total absorption into and uncritical acceptance of everything Tibetan, makes his explanation of the mountain’s significance a bit fanciful, at least to some people. However, the chapters ‘The Sacred Mountain’, ‘The Land of the Gods’ and ‘The Last Trial’ contain some fine prose which beautifully depicts the marvels of the Kailash region and the impression it can have on the mind of the pilgrim. Related to this book is Tibet in Pictures, 1980, a two-volume collection of photos taken by Lai Gotami, Govinda’s companion on his journey to Mt. Kailash and elsewhere in Tibet. It is probably best to peruse this fascinating book after you return from your pilgrimage to avoid making comparisons while on it.

For me the best read on Mt. Kailash is Swami Pranavananda’s Kailash Manasarovar, New Delhi, 1949, re-published in 1983. Although Swamiji was a deeply religious Hindu, his piety and reverence never went off the rails. He was able to write objectively while being non-judgmental about some of the more overblown Hindu and Tibetan legends and superstitions associated with Mt. Kailash. While doing his devotions he was also measuring the temperature of Rakshstal’s water, collecting rocks and soil samples and making careful notes on the flora and fauna. He even brought some lotus seeds and planted them in Manasarovar to see if they would grow there, as ancient texts say they did. They didn’t. His recommendations of preparations pilgrims should make and what they should bring for the pilgrimage, are a charming and evocative reminder of another time, a time when travel really did allow you ‘to get away from it all’. Indians didn’t need a passport to go to Mt. Kailash. The cost from Almora to Kailash and back ranged between Rupees 250 and 500 (Good God! It costs more than that today to take a beaten up old taxi from Delhi’s international airport to the city!)

Some of the things Swamiji recommended for the journey included two ropes each 20 feet long, one portable aneroid barometer, fruit salts for indigestion and diarrhoea, two locks, one umbrella, one hot water bottle, an enema can and rubber catheter, one pair of cotton pyjamas and one woollen balaclava, what he called a ‘monkey cap’. Swamiji warned pilgrims to try to travel in groups after crossing into Tibet and if possible to bring at least one firearm to ward off bandits. “They carry all sorts of weapons including swords, daggers, old type matchlock guns, the latest types or Russian and German pistols, revolvers, and rifles.” These Tibetan bandits apparently helped pay for their pilgrimage to Kailash by robbing and sometimes murdering other pilgrims. Very pious indeed! While Swami’s book is an absorbing read the practical information it provides is completely out of date and should not be relied upon. I recommend his book merely as a fascinating account of how pilgrimage was in the not-too-distant past.

00 A Mountain in Tibet, photo by Ven. Dhammika

00 The Sacred Mountain, photo by Ven. Dhammika

00 The Mount Kailash Trek, photo by Ven. Dhammika

Invocation to Mount Kailash

Oh Crystal Mountain, Axis of the Earth,
You who are praised even by the praised.
I come to you with mind humble and body frail.
Teach me your lessons that I may become
As pure as your immaculate snows,
And as clear as your crystal streams.
No earthquake can shake your rocky foundations.
No storm your mighty peak can shake.
May I become as immovable as you.
May I be undisturbed by praise and blame.
May I not tremble with desire or hatred.
May I be still in the face of
Distraction and provocation.
Oh Mighty Sumeru, of beauty unsurpassed,
Delighting the mind and filling the heart with joy.
May I too be adorned with beauty,
The beauty not of form but of virtue.
May my thoughts be of kindness and love
May my speech be encouraging and true
May my actions be gentle and kind.
Oh glorious Kailash, Abode of Peace,
No sound issues from your eternal repose.
May your silence inspire silence in me.
May composure and calm follow my days.
May serenity be written on my heart.
Oh Pivot of the World, glorious Sumeru,
I aspire to virtues such as these
Not for my benefit alone but for all beings everywhere.
May they all look upon the face of the Buddha.
May they all be guided by the Dhamma.
May all derive warm comfort from the Sangha.