After Mount Everest, Mount Kailash is the most celebrated mountain in the Himalayas. The name Kailash is derived from the Sanskrit kailāśā meaning ‘crystal’. It is 6,714 meters (22,028 ft.) above sea level and some 2000 meters above the surrounding plain. Technically Mt. Kailash is not in the Himalayas but in what is called either the Gangdise Range or the Kailash Range which runs parallel to the Himalayas. Despite its fame it is by no means the highest mountain in the Himalayas, not even the highest in the region. The spectacular Gurla Mandhata on the other side of Lake Manasarovar from Kailash is 7,694 meters (25,242 ft.) high, Nanda Devi which can be easily seen from Lake Rakshastal is 7,817 meters (25,645 ft.), and a little further west Kamet is 7756 meters (25,446 ft.). However, the absence of any high mountains in Kailash’s immediate vicinity gives it the impression of tremendous height and its unusually symmetrically-shaped peak attracts and holds the attention.
The Kailash region is the source of four of India’s major rivers. These rivers are the Indus, the Sutlej (the easternmost tributary of the Indus), the Brahmaputra (Yalang Tsangpo in Tibetan) and the Ghaghara (Karnali in Nepali), a major tributary of the Ganges. In geographical lingo the Kailash region is “the hydrographic nexus of the Himalayas”. These features, together with its remoteness, the quality of the light due to the altitude, and the purity of the air, all combine to give Mt. Kailash and its environs a strangely beautiful, even a mystical aura. Those who have been there often attest that it is one of the most, and some say perhaps the most beautiful landscape on earth. Ancient Sanskrit authors never tired of eulogizing the mountain’s beauty. The Jatakamala describes it as “draped in rain-clouds hanging low and tinged with the hue of the twilight.” (Jm.VIII,41). After Kailash itself, the most spectacular mountain in the general vicinity is Gurla Mandhata, known as Sudassana in Pali. According to Pali commentarial literature, Sudassana is one of the five mountains surrounding Kailash. It is also described as sloping downwards “like a crow’s beak” which is actually a rather good description of it’s western side (Ps.III,35).
No one knows when or how Mt. Kailash first came to the attention of the ancient Indians. The Vedas (1000-1500 BCE) mention a great mountain called Meru at the centre of the world, although this mountain probably existed only in the imaginations of the Vedic sages. But when the first Indians found their way up the Himalayan valleys, clambered over the highest snowy passes and found themselves on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, they would have seen Kailash in the distance and quite understandably they identified it with the mythical Mt. Meru. It was these people, probably shepherds and wandering ascetics, who first brought back to India proper news about Mt. Meru/Kailash. But even then the reality was always mixed with myth and imagination. Traditional Indian geography was always a strange amalgam of a few facts and a lot of fiction. But facts there are. At least as the Himalayas lie in Garhwal and Kumaon, there are actually seven ranges of mountains and ancient tradition says that Kailash is surrounded by seven rings of mountains. Many sources mention two lakes at the foot of Kailash which corresponds to reality too. But beyond these and a few other facts the rest is myth, or perhaps better, the result of eyes that see with faith and wonder.
Mt. Meru, also called Mahameru, Sineru, Neru, Kelasa and today Kailash, is often mentioned in the earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali Tipitaka (A.I,227; Ja.I,321; III,210). In the Mahabharata it is occasionally called Hemakuta. To the Jains it is Athapada and the Tibetans call it Khang Rinpoche. In ancient Buddhist geography the Earth was conceived as a disk “supported by space” (akasattha, D.II,107) and which rotated “like a potter’s wheel or the stone in an oil mill”. (Nid. 25). In the centre of this disk was Mt. Meru, the highest point on Earth and the meeting place of the four great continents (mahadipa or mahapathavi). To the mountain’s north was the continent of Uttarakuru, to its south Jambudipa (i.e. India), on the east was Pubbavideha and to its west Aparagoyana (A.V,59). At the foot of Mt. Meru were two lakes, the more important one being Manasaka or Anotatta (Mn. III, p.1134). While later sources say that India’s five great rivers all had their sources in Lake Anotatta, the Buddha says they all originate near each other but from different sources, which is actually correct (A.IV,101). It is often the case with Buddhist literature that the older it is the more it is rooted in reality.
Interestingly, Mt. Meru/Kailash actually has ‘copies’. In ancient times the Hindus and Buddhists of Indonesia identified the Meru they read about in their sacred books with the highest mountain they knew of, the 3,676 meter (12,060 ft.) high volcano on the eastern tip of Java still called Sumeru. Looming above Kalpa, the main town in the Kinnaur Valley in Himachal Pradesh, is a 6050 meter high mountain called Kinnaur Kailash which local Buddhists know is not the real Kailash but which they consider ‘as good as the real one’. Copies of Kailash can also be seen on most ancient Hindu temples in that the spires of these were meant to be ‘architectural’ versions of the sacred mountain. The stupendous Kailash Temple at Ellora is a re-creation of the sacred mountain, complete with caves containing images of Siva and Parvati and other divine beings.
It is commonly said that Mt. Kailash is ‘sacred’ to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and the followers of Bon, but this statement needs to be qualified as far as early Buddhism is concerned. According to the Buddha, going to “sacred mountains, trees or shrines” cannot impart any significant spiritual benefit (Dhp.188-92). Neither did he teach that a ritual like circumambulation of a mountains could purify negative kamma or lead to enlightenment. Only wisdom can do that. If spiritual advancement was as quick and convenient as a three-day walk around a mountain we would not need the Buddha and his precious Dhamma.
To the earliest Buddhists, Mt. Kailash was special because of its geographical placement and its extraordinary beauty and grandeur. Its perceived characteristics are sometimes used as a metaphor for the highest spiritual values. To have attained enlightenment was metaphorically described as having “touched great Neru’s peak.” (M.I,338). The mountain’s immovability and equanimity were also seen as traits worthy of emulation. However, other characteristics the mountain possessed were considered less admirable. Legend said that it gave off a golden radiance that made all the animals living around it, noble and ignoble, appear to be the same. In other words, it lacked discrimination (avisesakara) and the ability to distinguish (navibhajati) between skilful and unskilful, good and bad, foolishness and wisdom. In the Jatakas this is pointed out as one of the mountain’s blemishes (Ja,III,247; V,425).
In later centuries Mt. Kailash came to be seen as the abode of bodhisattvas, gods and demigods. Later still in Tibetan Buddhism, a pilgrimage to the mountain was believed to have the power to purify the most negative kamma and if walked around 108 times, to lead to complete liberation. Like early Buddhism, the gentle ascetic faith of Jainism has always revered Mt. Kailash without attributing it with any particular salvic power. The Jains revere Kailash as the centre of the Earth and the place where their first Tirthankara, the sage Rishabha, attained enlightenment. Jain cosmological charts and paintings always show Mt. Kailash in the centre of the Earth.
Whether or not one believes in Mt. Kailash’s spiritual efficacy, a journey there can certainly be a powerful experience. However one approaches the mountain, one has had to travel for days through vast empty landscapes to get there. The pilgrim’s mind will be uplifted every now and then as happens when he or she passes the spectacular 8,013 meter (26,289 ft) Mt. Shishpangma (Gosainthan in Nepali) with the beautiful Paiku Tso at its foot, both offering a foretaste of what is to come. But mostly one’s mind is expectant but dull, exhilarated by the landscape but exhausted by travelling through it. Then suddenly, above the rolling plains and hills one sees it, shining in the sun, perhaps topped with a wisp of cloud. Another hour or two and one arrives in Darchen, the starting point of the parikarma. One cannot but be cast down by this dirty woebegone village with its mangy dogs, ill-tempered yaks and often equally ill-tempered Chinese hotel owners, shop keepers and officials. And amidst all this shabbiness and dirt one cannot even look up to see Kailash’s pure white peak, obscured as it is by the nearby hills. The whole experience is like samsara itself – long, tiresome, sometimes even sordid and with only a distant or an occasional glimpse of the Absolute.
The next day, or maybe the one after that, one sets off with one’s companions and perhaps a few cheerful Tibetan porters and maybe some horses or yaks. Good company makes any journey more enjoyable. In my case, one of my companions, Cittalaya, was unable to proceed due to altitude sickness. He had been lethargic for a day or two and on the morning of our departure he woke up with a splitting headache and purple fingernails. After some discussion it was decided to proceed without him, to both his and our great disappointment. Again this mirrors experiences we sometimes have in life. It is a blessing to walk the Path with good friends (kalyana mitta) but sometimes, for whatever reasons, they hold us back and to move forward we have to go without them.
So we begin our journey full of joy, confidence and expectation. After a few hours the energy flags but the enthusiasm is still strong. Eventually we pass through the Gangni Stupa marking the official beginning of the parikarma, pass the great flag pole nearby at Tarpoche which honours the Buddha, and enter the Lha Chu Valley. This must be one of the most awesome and intimidating valleys imaginable. Although wide, its walls are high, dark and unwelcoming. Further along, clinging precariously to the almost perpendicular western wall of the valley we see the Chuku Monastery. It looks minute against the massiveness of the rock wall and seems to remind us of our own insignificance. Towards evening you cross the rickety bridge over the Lha Chu and arrive aching and exhausted at Drira Puk Monastery. You drop your pack, flop onto the veranda and when you look out in front of you there, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, is the western face of Mt. Kailash in all its glory. Its sheer grandeur is overwhelming. Words fail. Suddenly the aching muscles, dry nostrils and throbbing head are dispelled. You have passed through the shadows and can now see the Light, still at a distance but now its accessibility is seen to be a real possibility.
The next morning you set off on what you know will be the most gruelling leg of your journey, the ascent to Dolma Pass, at 5668 meters (18,595 ft.) the high point of the parikarma, both metaphorically and literally. Early in the trek you are disappointed when more hardy Tibetan pilgrims pass you, contentedly mumbling prayers and spinning prayer wheels. Without wanting to, they seem to reproach your waning energy and determination. Later in the day when others pass you, you are too exhausted to care. Just putting one foot in front of another requires supreme effort. Then, when you think you just can’t go on, you reach the top of the pass. Tibetans see the ascent to Dolma Pass as a sort of metaphorical death (easy to understand) and reaching the top as a rebirth, and the descent down the other side as the beginning of a new life. As a reminder of the passing away of the old and the beginning of the new they leave something of themselves on the top of Dolma – a lock of hair, a piece of clothing or a tooth. You sit on a rock resting and watching the Tibetans do their devotions.
The very thought that the remainder of the parikarma is all downhill is an encouragement to continue. And so with renewed vigour you commence the last leg of the pilgrimage. But soon you realize that the descent is as difficult as the upward climb. Every step down brings all your weight onto either one knee or the other and after a while both are aching. Again you are reminded to your journey through samsara – every advantage conceals problem; every problem opens up an opportunity. Not to be downcast when the path is difficult or exultant when it is smooth will give you a balance and inner calm. Towards late afternoon you arrive back in Dachen exhausted but at the same time exhilarated by a sense of accomplishment. Somehow you feel that something has changed within you.