Thursday, September 20, 2012

An agnostic in Kailash

from Himal, October 2011


The Mind of Brahma
Dilip Simeon

In 2009 I undertook what was to be the most memorable journey of my life. I have made other journeys as momentous in their implications, but I would have to think of a reason. The trip to Tibet by air, road and foot was unmistakably different. It is undertaken mainly by pilgrims, to a place considered sacred by hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Hindus and Bon-pos (followers of the pre Buddhist Tibetan shamanistic religion). When it ended, I understood why.

The trip was motivated solely by the fascination for Manasarovar and Kailash on the part of our team leader and my dear friend Madhu Sarin, for whom it was the fifth pilgrimage in nine years. Her intense descriptions and photographs had kindled my interest, and although I knew I would accompany her someday, the declining health of my parents made it impossible to fix a date. As their only child, I had responsibilities that made it unthinkable for me to undertake a dangerous journey to places out of reach by telephone, from which it was impossible to return at short notice. And after my mother passed away in 2004, I was preoccupied with looking after my father, who died in 2007. It was all very painful, but with both of them gone, the pilgrimage became realistic. As it turned out, it also acquired a transcendent meaning for me, because I took along some ashes and relics of my parents.

At 15,000 feet, Manasarovar is one of the highest fresh-water lakes in the world. It has a circumference of nearly 90 km. That of Kailash is about 55 km. It is located in a remote part of western Tibet beneath the trans-Himalaya, a range much older than the Himalaya. I leave it to the reader to study the information about this region and the history of pilgrimages. Many pilgrims take the Indian government’s sponsored tours that began in the late 1970’s after the PRC permitted them. No one has climbed Kailash –although legend has it that Tibetan mystic Milarepa’s ascent in the 11th century marked the victory of Buddhism in Tibet. China reportedly permitted some Spanish mountaineers to climb in 2001, but this was resisted by the Tibetans, and the news was later denied by the Chinese government. German climber Reinhold Messner, who had declined a Chinese offer to ascend Mount Kailas in the mid-1980s, criticised the aborted Spanish attempt with the words, ‘If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people's souls.’

We arrived in Nepalganj, on the Indo-Nepal border, on May 22. The airport here is the hub for trips into the western Himalaya. Flights are dependent upon the weather. The aircraft are small (with a capacity of 19 passengers) and in heavy demand - bookings don’t assure you of a flight. We waited for two days before catching a scary 45 minute flight that took us across ascending valleys, with tall mountains looming large before us, and landed on a gravelly mud strip in Simikot (9500 ft). We also saw helicopters taking off for the Tibet border - some pilgrims are transported within thirty minutes to the plateau! Tour operators apparently do not warn pilgrims of the danger of ascending from sea level to 15,000 feet in less than two hours. It’s not surprising many people die of high altitude sickness. We learned of one flight that took off with about a dozen passengers of whom three arrived dead.

The Karnali river valley
However, it’s not tough if one acclimatises slowly. Our team included our cook Devi, the trekking guide Pradeep Ghale, team-leader Madhu Sarin, an Australian professor and myself. We took ten days walking into Tibet, accompanied upto the border by a mule-driver and our luggage on his pack animals. He rode a small pony whom we named our ‘ambulance ghoda’. Most other trekkers do this in half the time; however, Madhu wanted to do justice to both external and internal aspects of the pilgrimage and paced us accordingly. En route we camped at wonderful places in forests, beside running water, through misty glades and meadows, sometimes in light drizzle. Early one morning at one camp-site I heard a most enchanting bird-song. There were difficult stretches. At places landslides blocked our way, in one instance the path had caved in, requiring us to make a difficult ascent up the hillside. We walked beside the Karnali, a tributary of the Ganga, and one of the rivers that originate in the Kailash region. North-western Nepal is a remote area, one of the zones where the Maoist insurgency began. Madhu recalled how on an earlier trip, she had been accosted by Maoist fighters on horseback demanding contributions from trekkers (they gave her a receipt). The scenery kept changing, with forest giving way to scrub as we ascended. Succumbing to altitude exhaustion, we camped for two days and three nights at a beautiful meadow south of the Nara La  pass (15000 ft). This prepared us for the ascent to Tibet.

When we finally reached the top of Nara La after a gruelling climb, a grand vision of the Tibetan plateau greeted us, and we took photos of ourselves around the chorten atop the pass jostling with shepherds and sheep and goats with little bundles of rice atop their backs. This route has been a trade and pilgrimage path for centuries. Chortens are stupas, often rapidly put together with stones, which are then added to by other passers-by. The top of every mountain pass in the region seems to be graced with a chorten and prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

Entering Tibet
Entering the People’s Republic of China at Hilsa was instructive. Here we connected with our Tibetan guide, a small truck and a Land Cruiser, sent all the way from Lhasa. We underwent medical checks, and as swine-flu was the epidemic of the season, were told to fill forms that asked whether we had ‘been near pig’. Our luggage was examined carefully, and I realised that the authorities were especially concerned about reading material. As the guards rummaged among my clothing and toiletries, they came across bird-books, Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse. Then there appeared something that bothered them greatly: The Rebel, by Albert Camus. It had a red cover and caused great alarm. Senior officers were summoned and flipped through the book with Orwellian suspicion. Books! Ideas! Tibet! Rebellion! Red! I could almost see the paranoia at work. I tried in vain to assure them it was philosophy, written in the 1950’s and harmless. It was all of no avail, since they didn’t understand English. I had a nightmarish vision of being shoved back across the border – when at last they relented. Shivji had intervened. Or maybe Chairman Mao’s ghost took pity on a retired maoist. Albert would have been amused.

The first thing we saw after this was the body of an Indian pilgrim being readied for transportation into Nepal. We heard later that several pilgrims had died that year. We spent the night at a rest-house in Taklakot, on the ancient trade route, now a major military cantonement, where we provisioned ourselves with foodstuffs, cooking gas and other necessities. The morning found us on a three hour drive to Manas. It felt strange travelling on flat amd arid surfaces after emerging from high mountains. The view of the Himalayas from the plateau is spectacular. No foothills are visible: you only see snow-clad peaks stretching far into the distance. They shone with a salmon-pink glow, as we passed through villages with exquisitely painted doorways and windows. After an hour, Kailash appeared on the horizon and Madhu stepped out of the vehicle to perform sashtang-pranam. I was moved. We drove a while longer and arrived at Rakshastal, origin of the Satluj. The vast lake glowed in brilliant acquamarine blue with Kailash clearly visible. Rakshastal is the mythological residence of Ravana, created by him to perform acts of devotion to Lord Shiva. Manasarovar, shaped like the sun, and Rakshastal, shaped as a crescent, represent brightness and darkness. Its water is salty, hosts no aquatic plants or fish and is considered poisonous by locals. We disembarked, and spent some time on its shores.

Manasarovar
Shortly thereafter we arrived at Chiu Gompa, on the shores of the holy lake. The expanse of calm water, the sight of distant snowy peaks, the feel of cold air and clear sunlight and the vision of the sacred mountain dominating the skyline all took my breath away. Manasarovar and the peaks surrounding it struck me as an image of Indralok, the abode of the gods. It was cold: even in June there is ice on the lake's edge. We took a week on the kora, the Tibetan name for parikrama. Our equipment including a kitchen tent, gas cylinders, food and medical provisions. We also carried some light cans of oxygen for emergencies.
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The land was undulating plain, with stretches of scrub and marsh. The colours and moods of the lake were versatile: I once counted six different hues of blue. The southern side of the lake is dominated by the Gurla Mandhata peak, which looks like a celestial staircase. Around Manas we saw herds of musk deer running free and Tibetan wild asses (kiang). One day I saw a large black animal walking confidently some 100 metres away. It stopped for a while, enough for me to take a photograph. Later were identified it as a Tibetan wolf. There were scores of exotic birds, plovers and ducks, the Ruddy Sheldrake and bar-headed geese. The creeks flowing into the lake teemed with fish – but no one fishes here. Dead fish found on the banks are used by shamans for medicinal purposes.

I saw only Tibetans and Europeans walking. We saw cavalcades of vehicles carrying Indians and Nepalis doing the kora in three hours. They would stop at selected places to throw hundred-rupee notes into the water – our Tibetan driver was amused and collected them as mementos. There are six monasteries (gompas) along the route, and we stayed overnight at two of them, otherwise camping at suitable places. Many devotees take a dip in the lake but the cold water was too daunting for me! At one point I placed a part of my parents’ relics in the water.
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The Kailash Kora
After completing the Manas kora in seven days, we drove to Darchen, a small town and army cantonment, the point where the Kailash kora begins. There are shops, eating places run by Chinese and Tibetans (in one of the latter I saw posters of Priyanka Chopra), and houses of mud and stone. It has some filthy official guest houses and cleaner Tibetan ones, at one of which we stayed. That evening we decided to make a quick trip up to the Gyangdrag gompa – this belongs to the Drikung sect, different from the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa school. The trip involved a bumpy ride up the stream descending from the holy mountain – the Kailash Chu. Gyangdrag was founded in the 13th century and rebuilt several times. We saw beautiful tankhas and spoke with a friendly monk. We then pushed further to an abandoned gompa behind which Kailash loomed large, and nearer still, the rock-massif that represents Nandi the bull. I placed the remaining relics of my parents in Kailash Chu and we filled some bottles with water. It was freezing cold, but I splashed some water into my eyes, with a sense that it might help me see things more clearly than before! Looking southwards we saw Rakshas Tal plus the Himalayas including Nanda Devi.

Next morning we headed westward from Darchen along dirt tracks and entered the valley of Amitabaha, along the banks of the Lha Chu, along which a motorable track goes a considerable distance. Many yatris proceed in jeeps upto a point where they get a darshan of Kailash, and turn back. A dog began following us at a distance and remained with us for two days, reminding me of the canine that followed Yudhishthira on his last journey out of Hastinapura. A sense of timelessness filled me as I thought about the thousands of pilgrims who had walked the same pathways for centuries. Along the way we passed a sky burial site at Tarpoche, a place where in earlier times bodies of expired lamas were left to the elements and animals. We were warned about the ferocious dogs that frequent this place. 

Soon we entered the stark valley that surrounds the mountain and passed by Choku Gompa on a cliffside, remote and barely visible. Kailash now appeared in full splendour. I took a photograph of the peak through a solitary stone archway named Shershung. Around the peak were ranged high crags of black rock, so sheer they looked like ramparts upon which no ice could remain. In a few hours we passed the west face, stunningly close, appearing like an entity with arms stretched outwards, welcoming the world-weary pilgrim. We made our first camp soon afterwards, as pilgrims on ponies made their way in the distance. There was ice nearby, and we slept amid sounds of running water.

The second day we walked to Drirapuk Gompa at 16000 ft, one of the oldest monasteries in the region. We felt tired, as the air had become thinner. It lies opposite the supposedly fearsome northern face, that I did not experience as fearsome. Throughout the trip, we saw Kailash clearly almost every day – something for which many pilgrims would be immensely grateful. Tibetans revere it as the residence of the tantric deity Demchog and his consort Dorje Phagmo (Chakrasamavara and Vajravarahi); and call it Kang Rinpoche, or Snow Jewel. They also believe their poet saint Milarepa spent several years here in meditation. For Hindus Kailash is the manifestation of Meru, the spiritual centre of the universe and the abode of Shiva and Parvati. For Jains, Kailash is known as Ashtapada, the place where their founder, Tirththankar Rishabhadeva achieved enlightenment. For the Bons, it is where their founder Shanrab descended from heaven. Bons walk the kora counter-clockwise, unlike other pilgrims.

The last stage took us across the Dolma La pass at 18,600 feet. It is a tough climb that we needed to complete by noon to avoid blizzards. On the ascent we passed Shiva Sthal, where Tibetans leave relics of the dead or their own blood. Nearer the top there is a rock reputed to carry the footprint of Milarepa. The entire route is studded with sacred sites, marked by chortens. There are no Shaivite temples along the way, presumably because the entire area is considered sacred. On the way we mingled with Tibetan pilgrims, as well as those from Europe and China. I also noticed discarded phials of what may have been Tibetan medicine for altitude sickness.

When we reached the top, cold and exhausted, we found an array of fluttering prayer flags, the older ones torn and colourless. This is the highest point in the kora, nearest to the crest of Kailash. Some pilgrims were performing shaastang pranaam, others reciting the mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum. People were laughing and crying with joy, greeting the mountain as if reconciled with an old friend. It was an inspirational sight. I took some gulps of oxygen to reduce my exhaustion – but I can’t say if it helped.
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On the way down from Dolma La we saw Gauri Kund from a height - the ‘lake of compassion’ that mythology tells us Shiva created for Parvati, and where Ganesha acquired his elephant head. Someone had placed a large amount of sindur on the rock from where we looked at it. It looked deceptively close, and we decided not to go down. The path ahead now took us over a glacier, river beds and dangerous rocky descents. After an exhausting day we camped on the banks of the Lam Chu river that lies on the eastern side of Kailash.

The fourth day was spent trekking back to Darchen. We spent some time at Zutulpuk monastery, associated with Milarepa. Towards the evening, we saw multi-coloured rocks in the gorge, and a Tibetan girl handling a large flock of yaks all by herself, with stones and a loud voice. Late evening was spent bathing (a luxury), eating a fresh meal (vegetable chow made by a young Chinese couple in a small shed), and preparing for departure.

It took four days getting back to Nepal. We had entered Tibet from western Nepal, but exited in the east from the Kodari border. Part of the journey was on a dirt-track beside the Tsangpo the Tibetan name for the Brahmaputra. And there were other beautiful lakes to be admired. As we approached the edge of the vast Tibetan plateau, the Himalayan peaks appeared as if they were rising up slowly on a huge invisible platform. Then came the descent into the border town of Zhangmu/Kodari. The ride to Kathmandu brought us into green forests besides rushing water, muddy roads and passengers sitting on bus-roofs - a different world from the one we had just left behind.
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It is two years since we walked around the sacred lake and the Snow Jewel Mountain. Whether Manasarovar is the reflex of Brahma’s mind and Kailash the abode of Shiva or Chakrasamvara, I am in no position to say. But these beautiful myths are appropriate to the beauty and splendour of Manas and Kailash. My memories of that body of water, surging sometimes like an ocean, at times still as a sheet of glass, light shimmering outwards from its surface as if touched with a shower of diamonds, preserve a sense of transcendent things. All the moods of life, all aspirations towards serenity seem to reside here. So they did to me at any rate, as I sat alone on its banks, bathed in sunlight on the last day of the kora, wondering how and why I was here, an agnostic man in a place venerated by millions, where devotees spent their most reflective moments, and some people still come to die. And Kailash, always visible from the lake’s banks, towering above it, a point of stillness in a spinning world. There are indeed peaks that rise higher. But this one conveys steadfastness, absolution and mystery. No one knows if anyone has ascended it, save in myth. After I completed the kora, despite my physical tiredness, I felt rested. Had I really beheld the jewel in the lotus? The mountain and the water stay with me..

Om Mani Padme Hum