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Monday, September 6, 2010

Divine Intervention- religious sojourn to Mount Kailash- Geeta Muralidharan Spiritual spectacle

Divine Intervention- religious sojourn to Mount Kailash- Geeta Muralidharan
Spiritual spectacle




On her religious sojourn to Mount Kailash, Geeta Muralidharan is captivated by the beautiful landscape of Tibet and the placid Manasarovar Lake.


We stood on the shores of the Manasarovar Lake watching the glowing golden disc of the sun slowly sink below the mountains. The snow-clad mountains had taken an orange hue. The icy waters of the lake were gently lapping at our feet. You need not be a devout Hindu to be held captive by the scene. Western tourists standing nearby were equally spellbound by the ethereal beauty of the evening. That golden moment symbolically marked the culmination of our Mt Kailash yatra. 

Mt Kailash is located at the south-western part of Tibet bordering the Kumaon hills and Nepal. It is one of the holiest natural shrines for the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and indigenous Tibetan Bons. To the pious Hindu, Mt Kailash is the throne of Lord Shiva as it is this place where Lord Shiva is said to have recited the Ramayana to Parvati.

Soaked in divinity

The lake and the mountain are imbued with divinity and are considered to be ultimate pilgrimage destinations. Buddhists revere it as Kang Rinpoche (a tantric Buddhist transformation of Shiva); the Jains regard it as the place where the first Tirthankara, Adinatha Vrishabhadeva gained emancipation while followers of Bon religion of Tibet worship the mountain as the spiritual centre of the ancient country of Shang-shung. It is the most significant peak in the world that has not seen any known climbing attempts and is considered off limits to climbers in deference to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs 

There are two routes — one via Darchula in Uttarakhand, which is the route taken by those visiting under Govt of India quota. The other route is via Kathmandu arranged by private operators. I took the second option to save time. Our group assembled in Kathmandu and after a day’s local sightseeing, we started our journey towards the Nepali-Tibet border. It was a picturesque four-hour-drive through the idyllic countryside and verdant green mountain roads. Kodari is the border town on the Nepali side and Zhangmu on the Tibetan side. We had to cross the Friendship Bridge across the river Bote Koshi to enter Zhangmu. After this minor hurdle, we hopped into our car and set off to Nelamu — our first halt in China. It took us four days of road journey to reach Manasarovar, after covering approximately 250 kms each day. The entire route was a desolate, cold desert with hardly any vegetation or habitation.

Enroute, we crossed three high passes touching 16000 ft between Nelamu and Saga. The terrain was peppered with a few lakes such as Sishu Pangma near Nelamu, Cha Tso, Piegut Tso near Saga and Tuk Tso near Paryang, blessed with crystal clear water reflecting the snow peaks. We also visited towns like Saga and Darchen. The only sad thing is that these places are not very clean and not maintained either by locals or tourists. 

At the end of the fourth day, we were on the shores of Manasarovar Lake. At the first sight it looks like an ocean sans waves.  It’s huge with a periphery of about 88 kms. Mt Kailash on one side of the lake and the Mathanga Parvat (Gurla Mandhata, in Tibetan) on the opposite side amidst a range of other mountains complete the beautiful view. The 26 degrees temperature had made the water warm but the chilly winds forced us to retreat after a hurried dip in the holy waters. Some in our group organised extensive poojas on the shores of the lake with curious Tibetan locals looking at the spectacle. 

For most, the pilgrimage ended with a dip in the lake and the darshan of the Mt Kailash. For the healthy, devout and intrepid, it continued with the goal of doing the parikrama (circumambulation) of the mountain. Darchen is the base for starting the parikrama. We took a day off there for acclimatisation by undertaking a 16 km-trek to Ashtapada.  

The parikrama is done over three days. On the first day, a little distance is covered by travelling in a vehicle followed by a walk for eight kms, which starts near Yamadwara and Tarboche at Shersung. The eight-km-walk to Diraphuk (16400 ft), our first camp, took about four hours. We started from the southern face of Mt Kailash and moved around in clockwise direction. The changing face and the colour of the the peak as the day progressed presented a lovely sight. 

Tents were pitched just outside the village facing the mountain while dark clouds gathered in the evening sky. With snowfall and a hailstorm outside, we slept inside our tents, experiencing one of the coldest night of our yatra with the temperatures touching subzero. Luckily, we woke up to a clear sky the next morning, had early tea and breakfast and braced ourselves for the toughest (and risky) part of parikrama. We had to cover 22 kms with an ascent of over 2000 ft to Dolma La (18600 ft) and descend about 4000 ft.

Mythical tales

After a walk of one km, we reached the river Lha Chhu which was mostly frozen. The wooden bridge across the river was broken. We had to walk on frozen ice with water gurgling beneath the surface and at some places it was treacherous with the surface ice giving way under our weight. As soon as we crossed the river, the ascent began. Some of us had hired ponies and used them as the climb proved tough. There was no regular path and the climb was over boulders and across frozen streams. It was tortuous and backbreaking and breathing was becoming difficult with reduced atmospheric oxygen.  

After about three hours, we reached Dolma La. It was truly a moment to savour as we stood on the pass overlooking snow and colourful Buddhist prayer flags. We offered prayers, took photographs and started our descent. Our guide Dorje and sherpas were with us all the time and did not permit us to rest for long. Within a few minutes of our descent, we passed by Gaurikund, a lovely oval shaped lake where Parvati is said to have taken a bath while Ganapathi guarded her. 

For the next eight kms, it was a steep descent over boulders, frozen rivers and loose stones. But the unfolding vista was breathtakingly beautiful with mountains of myriad shapes and colours. After a laborious walk of two hours, we reached a valley and the banks of river Lham-chhukhir Chhu. From then on, the walk was relatively easy. Mt Kailash was out of sight for most of the time after the descent from Dolma La. 

Trundling along the river bank, we reached our camp site in Zutulphuk village in the evening. It  was then that we experienced a sense of accomplishment as we had completed the most difficult part of the journey. 

We were in a relaxed mood on the third day of the parikrama as we had to cover just five kms. The walk was very pleasant in the misty weather with the river flowing down below. At the end of the walk, a warm welcome awaited us from other members of our group waiting anxiously for our safe arrival. Camps were pitched on the shores of the Manasarovar Lake. As the evening progressed, the glowing spectacle of the setting sun unfolded over the lake. A colony of barheaded geese and gulls added to the beauty of the golden sunset. 

In retrospect, I often wonder whether we should have undergone the physical torture, endured the unhygienic living conditions and the lurking fear about our safety during the parikrama. And then images of the picture postcard beauty of the landscape, the snowy peaks, the placid and beautiful Lake Manasarovar and the majestic Mt Kailash flash across my mind. And I tell myself, it was worth it.

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