South and southwest of Mt. Kailash and aligned to each other are two huge and extraordinarily beautiful lakes, Manasarovar and Rakshastal. Manasarovar has a circumference of 86 kilometres (54 ml.) and is up to 90 meters (300 ft.) deep. It has a surface area of about 320 square kilometres (120 sq. ml.). At 4,556 meters (14,948 ft.) above sea level it is the highest large body of fresh water in the world. Rakshastal has a circumference of about 123 kilometres (77 ml.), a surface area of about 362 square kilometres (140 sq. ml.) and is at a slightly lower elevation than its neighbour.
The most important of these two lakes is Manasarovar, Manasa or sometimes Manasaka in Sanskrit and Pali. The name means “Lake of the Mind”. It is also sometimes called Anavatapta in Sanskrit or Anottata in Pali. This name means ‘not hot’ and refers to the belief that the mountains around the lake prevent the sun from ever shining on it, thereby making its water icy cold. The water of Manasarovar is indeed very cold although none of the nearby mountains really cast their shadow on it. Manasarovar is traditionally believed to be the source of four of India’s most important rivers. These rivers were believed to leave the lake through spouts in the form of a lion, a bull, an elephant and a stallion, to circle the lake three times and then flow down into India. In reality only the Sutlej has its source in Rakshastal, not Manasarovar. The water of Manasarovar has long been believed to be exceptionally pure and have curative powers. According to the Tipitaka, just after his enlightenment the Buddha used his supernormal powers to fly to Anotatta and bathe in its waters (Vin.I,27). Later legend says Maha Maya bathed in the lake after giving birth to the Buddha. For centuries an essential part of the consecration ceremony for Indian monarchs included being sprinkled with water from the lake. The first king known to have been so sprinkled was the great Buddhist emperor Asoka Maurya. After Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation in 1947 a portion of his ashes were taken to Tibet and immersed in Manasarovar.
Standing on the shore of Manasarovar or looking over it from one of the surrounding hills, it will be easy for the pilgrim to understand why the ancient Buddhists held it in such esteem. When the sun is shining on the water it appears an unearthly blue, sometimes described as turquoise, ultramarine or the color of a kingfisher’s wing or a peacock’s neck. And yet when the pilgrim actually peers into the water or takes some in his or her cupped hands it is seen to be crystal-clear and colorless. The color of the water as seen from a distance may have something to do with its mineral content which includes small amounts of borax and soda. Walking along the shore the pilgrim will sometimes see thin lines of a white substance that crumbles to the touch. This is soda.
Often, particularly in the morning, the water is so still it appears almost mirror-like. At other times the winds can whip up quite large waves. In the winter the whole lake freezes over. Swami Pranavananda wrote: “Both Manas and Rakshas freeze into pure white opaque ice in the beginning of winter and within a month or so it becomes transparent greenish blue.” During my pilgrimage I went to the shore of the lake before sunrise to meditate and found a thin sheet of ice all along the shore and extending for about 6 meters out from it, although as the sun came up it quickly melted. Legend says rubies, crystal, topaz, coral, and other precious and semi-precious stones are to be found on the shore of Manasarovar. The Abhidharmakosa says of the lake: “Its edges are lined with jewelled slabs.” If the pilgrim lingers on the shore he or she will immediately notice numerous polished pebbles of different shapes and colors, some of them very beautiful, no doubt the origin of this legend.
In sacred Indian geography Manasarovar and Rakshastal are seen as a pair, each representing the opposites of good and evil, light and darkness. And indeed the two lakes do have different characters. The water in the second lacks the sweetness of that in the first. Manasarovar is roughly round while Rakshastal is irregular, elongated and concave on its eastern shore so that it is described as crescent-shaped in sacred geography. Thus Manasarovar represents the sun (light) and Rakshastal the moon (reflected light). Rakshastal has two islands in it, Manasarovar has none. While both lakes are beautiful to behold they each evoke quite different feelings. Gazing at Manasarovar seems to naturally calm the mind. Standing on the shore of Rakshastal by contrast gives one a slightly eerie feeling. The name Rakshastal means ‘demon lake’.
Kailash’s two lakes are joined by a small river or channel called Ganga Chu flowing out of Manasarovar on its north-west shore. During my visit, the first 250 meters of this channel was dry although water must percolate through the sand below the surface because further along it has water in it. Overlooking Ganga Chu is a rocky cone-shaped hill with a monastery called Chu Gompa perched on its top. Part of this monastery is built around a small cave that the famous Indian siddha Padmasambhava is said to have stayed in. The top of this hill offers a spectacular view of Mt. Kailash, Manasarovar and Gurla Mandhata beyond it. Behind this hill and on the bank of Ganga Chu is a small village and three hot springs. Recently the villagers have constructed several bathrooms here where the pilgrim can have a refreshing and most welcome hot bath. Probably because the hot springs raises the temperature of the water in the channel, this stretch of it is frequented by Manasarovar’s legendary geese.
The hamsa and the cakkavakas are nearly always mentioned in Indian poetic works as two of the most beautiful natural adornments of Manasarovar. Poets such as Kalidasa, Bana, Asvaghosa, as well as the Divyadana, Ramayana, Mahabharata and numerous other religious and secular works all mention these birds living around the lake. The Jatakamala says: “Adorned by flocks of geese whose song calls to mind the soft and lovely tinkle of woman’s anklets, that lake (Manasarovar) is utterly beautiful. When clustered together the geese resemble a bouquet of lotuses, and when in small groups they make that lake look like the blue sky embellished with wisps of clouds”. (Jm. XXII). The Sanskrit and Pali word hansa is often incorrectly translated as ‘swan’ but swans are not native to Tibet or India and were unknown to both ancient Tibetans and Indians.
The hamsa is the Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus) and the cakkavaka is the Greylag Goose (Anser anser). The cakkavaka got its name from the way the male and females (they are always seen in pairs) call to each other, the male gently honking, the female responding, the male replying, and so on; a cycle or ‘wheel’ (cakka) of song. This gentle, musical ‘aang aang aang’ is widely acknowledged by those who have been privileged enough to hear it as one of the most enchanting calls in the natural world. To both see these beautiful birds and hear their song is absolutely captivating. I will never forget it.
The other bird, the Bar-headed Goose, sometimes rajahamsa in Pali, is the most celebrated bird in the Tipitaka. The Buddha said that householders are like the peacock in that they are beautifully colored but a clumsy flier while monks and nuns are like the goose, drably colored but able to soar into the sky (Sn.221). Vangisa addressed the Buddha saying: “Quickly send forth your melodious voice, Oh Beautiful One. Like geese stretching out their necks, honk gently with your soft sonorous voice.” (Sn.350). Bar-headed and Greylag geese can be seen in northern India during the winter, feeding in swamps and fields until mid-March when they fly off to nest in around Manasarovar and other Himalayan lakes.
To the Buddha, this migratory behavior was suggestive of freedom and detachment. He said: “Mindful people exert themselves. They are not attached to any home. Like geese that fly from their lakes, they leave one abode after another behind.” (Dhp.91). “Geese fly the path to the sun, sages fly by their psychic powers. Having defeated Mara and his army, the wise are led away from the world.” (Dhp.175). The monk Pingiya used the geese’s arrival back in northern India in October as a metaphor for the coming of something wonderful. “Just as a bird might leave a small grove to dwell in a forest full of fruit, so do I, having left narrow-minded teachers, come to He of Wide Vision (i.e. the Buddha), like a goose arriving at a great lake.” (Sn.1134).
Other animals associated with Mt. Kailash region were kesara, huge lions with impressive manes, nagas, a type of dragon and kinnara, lovely half-bird half-human creatures, Not surprisingly, I saw none of these strange beings. But I did see the elegant little Tibetan Antelope (Oantholops hogsonii) turning their distinctive white rumps to the snow during a blizzard. I also saw several herds of Tibetan Wild Ass (Equus kiang) resting, grazing and galloping through the snow. It is hard to know why these animals, so numerous and so tame, are not mentioned in ancient accounts of Mt. Kailash. Other creatures that can be seen in the area are the slender Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), hares, kites, various song birds and little voles that scurry down their holes when you get near.