For the past several years I have been working with a team of scholars, writers, artists and educators preparing for a month-long religious pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in western Tibet. As I write this we are in the Nepal/India border town of Nepalgunj, waiting for our flight to Simikot, the capitol of the far western district of Humla, where our pilgrimage trek begins in earnest. Our group will spend the next month hiking through the mountains of Nepal into Tibet trying to better understand the complex spiritual and cultural dynamics of the area.
The Crystal Mountain
Kailash is a paradox.
It is as much a mythical place as a real geographic entity. It is Kailash and Kailas. Gang Rinpoche and Tise. Meru and the Crystal Mountain. The Naval of the Cosmos. The abode of Shiva and Parvati and the sky goddess Sipaimen. The list goes on and on, depending on which religious tradition or historical source you consult.
It is the only major mountain peak in the world that has never had its summit climbed, although German climber Reinhold Messner almost attempted such a feat in 1985, followed by Spanish climber Jesus Martinez Novas in 2001. Both trips were cancelled due to widespread global opposition by mountaineers and the general public. Even avid mountaineers felt it would be taboo to summit the mountain, with a fellow climber reportedly telling Messner that one should “not trample in mountain boots on gods turned to stone.”
Kailash and Manasarovar together form a sacred complex that is considered holy by five of the major religious traditions of South Asia–Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Bönpo. Because of this significance, hundreds of thousands–possibly millions–of religious pilgrims undertake the journey to this area each year. While I am still trying to understand all of the different spiritual hierarchies linked to these different pilgrimage traditions, the common point of unity is the beneficial merit one earns by making the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is seen as a way to rid oneself of negative energy and purify the soul, and the more visits one makes to the region the more your karma can be improved. This can occur either by making a kora or circumambulation around Mount Kailash or by bathing in the holy waters of Lake Manasarovar, depending on which tradition one follows.
One has to add to these paradoxes the politics of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), where Kailash is located, and the Chinese political control over all activities in the region. The slightest whiff of interest in the he whose name shall not be spoken, or anything related to independence will earn you an immediate one-way ticket out of the TAR. Needless to say one must always be on guard for prying eyes and curious ears.
The area around Kailash forms the headwaters of five major river systems in South Asia–the Sutlej, Karnali, Bramaputra, Ganges and Indus. Because of this significant ecological resource, this area of the Tibetan plateau is often referred to as the water tower of Asia, and over a billion people rely on this area for water. This has created a complicated landscape of water politics between India, China and Nepal, which have only increased as worries about climate change are added to the picture.
Just this past week dozens of Nepalis had to be evacuated from Tatopani in north central Nepal when a mountain lake on the Tibetan side burst and flooded the Sindhupalchok are of the Bhotekoshi River without warning. Such risks are only compounded by the complicated and oftentimes secretive relationship around water policies and dynamics in this region.
Yet all of these dynamics co-exist in what has come to be called the Kailash Sacred Landscape, which has been the research focus area for the Sacred Himalaya Initiative at the India China Institute (ICI) at The New School, which is how I first got involved. Since then our project has expanded to working with a group called ICIMOD on their larger conservation and development project in this area, known as the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI).
Kailash Sacred Landscape
Our group is undertaking this religious pilgrimage–or yatra–for several reasons, but the central one is to gain a better understanding of what it means to think about sacred landscapes from a critical social science+arts and humanities perspective. For the better part of the past two years we have been trekking in this region, following religious pilgrims, meeting with local communities and trying to better understand how scholars, policymakers and development NGOs are shaping this region.
This means asking what happens when you try to think about the ecological, social, cultural and political dynamics that people live with on a daily basis as an integral part of the forces at work in constructing a sacred landscape. How do you determine what is sacred and what is not when there are so many competing religious traditions in the same area? How are local livelihoods impacted by external definitions of the sacred or cultural values? Who is sitting at the table when development agencies designate a protected area or a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are issues such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) being respected? What does it mean to say the rivers and mountains are embodiments of the divine and have their own forms of agency?
All of these questions and more are at play in our work in this area.
Finding A Spiritual Path
For me this trip to Kailash also signifies the moment when my own personal spiritual quest has brought me face-to-face with Kailash as more than an object of study. As Tenzin Norbu, our tour operator reminded us during a briefing dinner before departing Kathmandu, “they say the [pilgrimage] group is formed by Shiva himself.” In other words, if you were not meant to go on the pilgrimage, the gods will find a way to thwart your plans. But if the gods favor your journey, Tenzin reminded us, “going on a pilgrimage makes you wiser.” I certainly hope there is some truth to that!
And just in case we were worried about some of the difficult mountain passes we will cross–the highest two being between 4,564 meters (~15,000 feet) and 4,949 meters (~16,250 feet)–Tenzin offered the group a bit of sagely advice. “The harder the pilgrimage trip the more dharma you earn.”
This is a point that stuck with me, as one of the common themes we have come across in our research is precisely how safe and easy pilgrimages to Kailash have become in the past century. Not that long ago, undertaking a pilgrimage through the Himalayas required months of trekking on foot, required extensive planning and coordination, and very often resulted in death. Today a Hindu yatri from India can fly to the border of Nepal via plane and helicopter, hop into a jeep or bus in Tibet, and with the exception of making a kora around Kailash of Manasarovar, hardly have to do any real trekking at all. What are the drawbacks, as well as the benefits, of these changing pilgrimage dynamics and how are they shaping this sacred landscape?
Many years ago renown Buddhist scholar Lama Anagarika Govinda wrote about his own experiences as a religious pilgrim in this region of Tibet, and one passage in particular from his book The Way of the White Clouds resonated with me as I stared out the window from our small passenger plane, reflecting on the white clouds that draped the mountain tops of southern Nepal before my eyes:
When every detail of our life is planned and regulated, and every fraction of time determined beforehand, then the last trace of our boundless and timeless being, in which the freedom of our soul exists, will be suffocated. This freedom does not consist in being able ‘to do what we want’, it is neither arbitrariness nor waywardness, nor the thirst for adventures, but the capacity to accept the unexpected, the unthought of situations of life, good as well as bad, with an open mind; it is the capacity to adapt oneself to the infinite variety of conditions without losing confidence in the deeper connections between the inner and the outer world. It is the spontaneous certainty of being neither bound by space nor by time, the ability to experience the fullness of both without clinging to any of their aspects, without trying to take possession of them by way of arbitrary fragmentation.
Time and space are two dynamics that long Himalayan mountain walks bring into sharper relief.
It’s hard to fully capture the importance of a place like Kailash succinctly, which is perhaps why it has remained such a magickal and mysterious place through the ages. As the crystal mountain slowly draws me nearer to its summit, these are a few of the things I continue to reflect on in my own spiritual journey, wondering what pilgrimage experiences and revelations await me in the days and weeks ahead.