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Kailash Mansarovar Yatra

Pilgrimage - The Throne of Shiva Kailash Mansarovar

A journey through the incredible landscape in the remote western Tibet mountains, the trek to Kailash Mansarovar is an intense experience. Though geographically located in China, this holy shrine has been an ancient pilgrimage for the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jains and the Tibetan Bonpos. An annual yatra is still organized for the pilgrims by the Indian and Chinese authorities jointly.

In a remote corner of Western Tibet, in one of the highest, loveliest and most desolate places on earth, rises a sublime snow-clad pyramid of rock, Mt. Kailash. For over a thousand years pilgrims have made the aruous journey here to walk around the mountain in an ancient ritual of devotion, for Kailash is a site of immense natural power. Here the temporal and the eternal unite and the divine takes physical form. For the Hindus, Kailash is the throne of Shiva; for Buddhist a gigantic natural ‘mandala’; for both it is the epicenter of Tantric forces. In its shadow lies the holy lake of Mansarovar, born from the mind of Brahma. Even to non-believers, the mountain and lake are awe-inspiring and mystical – a journey through the incredible power of nature in the rarefied atmosphere of 15000 feet.

Mt. Kailash, the pyramid shaped 22028 feet rock is considered the throne of the gods and the ‘Navel of the earth’ by pilgrims of four religions (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpos) who for well over a thousand years, have journeyed here to pay homage to the mountain’s mystery, circumbaulating (performing parikrama) of this sacred mountain in ritual devotion. It is considered the mythical Meru, the great mountain at the centre of the universe around which the whole creation revolves. Walking a single circuit of this 32 mile path about it erases the sins of a lifetime. Their faith proclaims that not just the mountain’s snow-capped summit but the entire region is the abode of the gods: a holy land made doubly sacrosanct by the presence of the nearby Lake Mansarovar, a fifteen mile wide circle of the deepest blue which is among man’s most ancient holy sites.

The lake and mountain are the crowning jewels of a magical land of pure light and intense colour.

For each pilgrim Kailash holds a different religious significance. Hindus, who cross the frozen mountain passes form India to China to circle the peak believe it to be Lord Shiva’s throne and bathe in the lake created from Brahma’s mind (“manas”). Buddhist journey form Ladakh, Bhuta, Nepal, Mongolia and every corner of Tibet to this holiest of mountains they call Kang Rinpoche, the precious snow mountain. The Jain religion considers Kailash as Mount Ashtapada; Rishabanatha the founder, attained spiritual liberation atop this summit. And to the Bonpo, followers of Tibet’s old pre-Buddhist beliefs, it is the ‘Nine-storey Swastika Mountain’ the mystic ‘soul’ of the entire region. All the four religions hold different beliefs, each sees different gods but the underlying reality is the same. However, the journey to it is made in the spiritual as well as the earthy realm.

Kailash rises in the Nagri region of Western Tibet, one of the highest, loveliest and most desolate places on the planet where except, for a few small bands of nomadic herders, the empty plains are crossed only by the wind. The land is a barren wasteland devoid of any vegetation. Naked hills of rose, violet and flaming orange ripple off into the distance. Over this immensity arches the Tibetan sky a vision from a fairy tale. The blue of the sky is so deep and clear, all else is pale in contrast. Confronted with such space and silence man feels superfluous, out of place. The land dominates him and not the other way around, and you can feel the presence of larger invisible forces.

To the Hindus their connection with Mansarovar stretches back two millennia. The Ramayana says: ‘There is no mountain like Himachal (Himalayas) for in it are Kailash and Mansarovar. As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sight of Himachal.’ Kailash and Mansarovar remained unknown to the western world until the 18th century. The first European to pass through this region was an Italian Jesuit missionary, Father Ippolito Desideri. In 1907 it was discovered and believed that this region was the source of four rivers the Indus, the Sultej, the Brahmaputra and the Karnali. Hindus believe that the sacred River Ganga falls from heaven and divides into the above four rivers which water the four quarters of the earth. The unquestioned expert on Kailash and Mansarovar was the energetic Swami Pranavanand, who between 1928 and 1949 made 25 circuits of the mountain and 23 of the lake and wrote a pilgrim guidebook crammed with a mixture of scientific and spiritual observations.

The pilgrims’ trail continued unbroken for over a thousand years until the Chinese army entered Tibet and the Sino-Indian border clashes in 1959 sealed off all the routes for a few years. Now the situation has changed again. The Tibetans are allowed a degree of religious freedom, and pilgrims are returning to Kailash and Mansarovar in increasing numbers. Under the 1981 agreement between China and India around 200 Hindu pilgrims are allowed to visit every year. Monasteries which had been destroyed have been rebuilt and prayer flags and monuments once again line the parikrama paths.

In order to undertake the yatra to this place form India, one has to go through the Ministry of External Affairs which receives a flood of applications every year. A few are selected on the basis of a draw. If you are among the chosen few, (as only around 200 are selected every year form among thousands who apply), your ultimate departure for the yatra depends upon your being found medically fit to undertake the arduous trip in which trekking t almost 20000 feet is involved. For this purpose your whole physical system is put through a grueling test at a public hospital in Delhi for two days. Once the green signal is given you have to undergo the visa and foreign exchange formalities. Pilgrims are allowed to take US $ 500 for the yatra of which $ 400 are given to the Chinese authorities to cover expenses of accommodation, transportation, coolies, etc., for the duration of the trek – which lasts for 15 days.

The duration of the entire trip is 32 days form Delhi and back of which only the first 2 days and the last 2 days are by bus. The entire trip is under the guidance of the Ministry of External Affairs and Kumaon Vikas Mandal Nigam (KMVN, a unit of U.P. Tourism, responsible for the pilgrimage on the Indian side). Swami Radhakrishnan of the Kailash-Mansarovar Ashram at Palam near Delhi even offers free rations and cooking and eating utensils that would be required while on parikarma as no food is available for almost 12 days on the Tibetan side.

The first halt is at Kasauni near Nainital, which is famous for its sunrise beauty, and the next at Dharchula. The trek starts from Tawaghat (17 kilometres from here). One can even engage ponies but most of the yatris opt for trekking. Pilgrims visit the Kailash-Mansarovar in batches of 25 headed by a liaison officer, an appointee of the Ministry of External Affairs. Before the commencement of the actual trek at Dharchula another medical fitness test is conducted and those found unfit are returned to Delhi. This is just the beginning of the medical test ordeal which is a part of the daily rituals for the next 12 days upto the last camp on the Indian side. Some rejections take place even at the last camp.

Finally at Lipulek Pass the “crossing” is made. The time and the date of the crossing is so pre-determined that both the outgoing and the incoming batches meet here and exchange views and information. On the Tibetan side, after descending the pass area, there is no further trekking involved as there are sufficient ponies to take you down to the awaiting bus for Talakot which is about 50 kilometres from Lipulek Pass. Taklakot is a border town where the yatris are put up at the state-run hotel. The hotel comfortable. The customs and baggage check formalities are done here prior to the allotment of the rooms.

After a day’s rest the entire batch is taken by bus to the Kailash and Mansarovar camps. The group is divided into two. The Mansarovar camps. The group is divided into two. The Mansarovar batch gets dropped off first at Hore from where they commence their parikrama. The second batch for Kailash is dropped off at Tarchen . The parikrama is done either on foot, horses or yaks. A single circuit of Kailash is said to erase the sins of an age, while 108, a holy number, ensures Nirvana. In Tarchen substitutes can be hired to perform the arduous journey for the indolent or ill. The religious merit is shared between the sponsor and the who actually walks the path. Kailash and Mansarovar Lake is a shifting fluid mirror meant for contemplation. As one approaches from Taklakot to the right lies the turquoise disc of Mansarovar while on the left is the equally beautiful Rakshas Tal. Legend holds that Rakshas Tal was poisoned and therefore nobody even sips its water. Originally the two lakes were one, until an island in the middle grew into a dividing strip of land. Ahead on the northern horizon shines the ice dome of Kailash. Mansarovar is 15 miles wide and 55 miles in circumference. Its colours and moods shift as swiftly as the flickering light of an opal. Its waters are said to possess miraculous healing properties.

Both the groups complete their respective parikramas in about 2-3 days and return to their camps. The bus again comes after four days and interchanges the two groups in order that each group gets a chance to perform both the parikarmas, Again after four days the bus comes, and collects both the groups and brings the entire batch back to the base at Taklakoit. After a day’s rest the return journey commences. And when you are finally home the yearning for another trip begins.

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