Those Who Went Before

More beautiful than any garland, sweeter than any taste,
Truthfulness generates great good and is less arduous
Than practicing austerities or pilgrimage to far-off shrines.
Jatakamala XXXI,57

In going to Mt. Kailash the pilgrim is following in the footsteps of countless thousands who have gone before. Due to its geographical particularities and remoteness, Mt. Kailash has always been difficult to get to. Until the 1950s between about 500 and 1000 Tibetans made the journey every year. Like Nepalese and Bhutanese, they mainly went from central Tibet and traversed the ancient trade route that followed the Tsangpo River. Buddhists from Ladakh had to trudge across the high, dry and empty plain to the west, while those from Lahaul and Spiti took the trade route that followed the Sutlej. Hindu pilgrims had three main choices, each of them starting from Almora. They could go via Jotimath and over the Niti Pass, take the Milam track to the Kungri Bingri Pass, or follow the Kali River demarking the westernmost border of India and Nepal and go over the Lipu Lekh Pass.

The number of Indians making the pilgrimage was always limited by the ruggedness of the terrain and the lack of roads and bridges. However, by the early 20th century the British Raj had pushed passable roads and well-maintained paths far into the mountains, making it easier for more people to go. The modern road to Gangotri sometimes follows or passes near the old pilgrim’s path. Wandering swamis and shepherds still use parts of this path and despite having become redundant since the building of the paved road and not being repaired for decades, long stretches of it are still in good condition.

British administrative reports show that in 1907, 150 people, mainly Hindu swamis, made the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash, in 1930, 730 went, and in 1938, 400. The majority of such pilgrims were always swamis, sadhus and sannyasins. Only they had the time, the freedom and the determination to go to the land of the gods. It is said that some pilgrims stood on the top of the Pass, prostrated towards the sacred mountain, but horrified by the bleak empty landscape they would have to cross to get there, turned back, satisfied with just a glimpse of the mountain. A few pilgrims went more than once. The indomitable Swami Prananvananda went at least 12 times and sometimes stayed for months. In the 1940s he led several groups consisting of a few hundred lay pilgrims. Records also show that in 1931 the Maharaja of Mysore made the pilgrimage with a retinue of 700 attendants and porters.

Others have gone to Mt. Kailash for purely secular reasons – to study the region’s geological particularities, to map the region, to find adventure or simply because it was difficult to go there. The first Westerners to ever see Kailash were the Jesuit missionaries Hippolyte Desideri and Manuel Freyer in 1715. They were not impressed and described Kailash as “a mountain of excessive height and great circumference, always enveloped in cloud, covered with snow and ice, and most horrible, barren, steep and bitterly cold”. The next westerner to see the holy mountain was the slightly eccentric Englishman William Moorcroft who passed through the Kailash region in 1812. After that a string of Westerners, predominantly British officers and adventurers went, occasionally even making the parikarma. Some of the more distinguished of them were the Swedish explorer Sven Heidin, the Austrian mountaineers Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufchnaiter, Salim Ali the famous ‘bird man of India’ and the Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci.

Of those who went to Mt. Kailash for mainly religious reasons in pre-modern times we have very little information. In about 1044 the great Bengali Buddhist monk Dipankara Srinyana, also known as Atisha, circumambulated Mt. Kailash while on his way from Toling to central Tibet. There is a cave at Gosul Monastery on the shore of Manasarovar where he stayed. The tantric siddha Milarepa (1052–1135), Tibet’s national poet, visited Mt. Kailash and lived in different locations around the mountain for several years. In one of his ‘hundred thousand songs’ he praises Kailash thus.

By the side of Sumeru, the central mountain,
The sky is blue o’er the Southern Continent;
The filament is the beauty of the earth,
The blue of heaven its adornment.
And high above the great Tree of Sumeru
Shine radiant beams from sun and moon
Lighting the Four Continents.
With love and compassion the sky dragon
Wields his miraculous power
And from the endless sky lets the rain fall.
This is the adornment of the earth.

During the 17th century the fifth Panchen Lama made the pilgrimage. The famous Hindu Swami Tailanga of Varanasi visited Kailash several times in the middle of the 19th century. But it is not until the 19th century that we get detailed accounts of pilgrims and their pilgrimages to the sacred mountain. The biography of Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangsbrol (1781-1851) includes a whole chapter about the subject’s adventures at and impressions of Mt. Kailash.

The first non-Tibetan Buddhist to visit Mt. Kailash and give a detailed account of his experiences there was the Japanese monk Eki Kawaguchi. This hapless and awkward monk had little time for Tibetan Buddhism, but like his hosts the sight of Kailash stirred his spiritual feelings. “As far as my knowledge goes, it is the most ideal of the snow peaks of the Himalayas. It inspired me with the profoundest feelings of pure reverence, and I looked upon it as a ‘natural mandala’, the mansion of a Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Filled with soul-stirring thoughts and fancies, I addressed myself to this sacred pillar of nature, confessed my sins, and performed to it the obeisance of one hundred and eight vows. I also took out the manuscript of my ‘twenty-eight desires’ and pledged their accomplishment to the Buddha. I then considered myself the luckiest of men, to have been enabled thus to worship such an emblem of the Buddha’s power, and to vow such things in its sacred presence…”

Probably the most famous non-Tibetan Buddhist to make the pilgrimage was the German Anagarika Lama Govinda. Govinda described what it is like for a pilgrim reaching the top of the Lipu Lekh Pass and seeing Kailash and its environs for the first time. “Suddenly the clouds lift and the pilgrim looks down the other side into a country of eternal sunshine, with mountains that have nothing of that sombre heaviness of the Himalayas, but seem to be made of the purest, almost transparent, pastel colours: yellow, orange, red, purple, set into a deep blue velvet sky. The contrast is so surprising that the pilgrim almost forgets the dark, heavy clouds still threateningly hanging over his head and breathing their icy air upon him. However, he soon gets down into the wide open valley, and only now realizes fully the difference of the world he left behind from the world he has entered: the valleys which he left were lined with sombre fir-forests, the ground was covered with grass, moss and ferns, flowers and shrubs; dark rocks were towering above the green valley and were lost in heavy monsoon clouds which hid the snow peaks; while here the vivid colours and the chiselled forms of rocks and mountains stand out in brilliant clearness, divested of any trace of vegetation, like the world on the first day of creation when only heaven and earth were facing each other in primeval purity.”