Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Bon–four faiths of the world–exceptionally diverse, yet tied at the waist. Tied with what, you ask? A magnificent mountain. Nestled in the Himalayan range, snow-capped and peaceful, stands Mount Kailash, at 21,778 feet, one with a virgin peak and at the very epicentre of their beliefs.
The Hindus believe Kailash to be the abode of Lord Shiva. For the Buddhists, the mountain is Gangs Rinpoche–the abode of Guru Rinpoche. For the Jains it is the place where their first leader Rishabha achieved enlightenment, and for those of the Bon faith, the mountain is the seat of the sky goddess Sipaimen.
A glorious massif such as this ought to have visitors. Year after year, thousands of devotees, pilgrims and tourists alike gather from all corners of the world to take the arduous trek to the mighty Kailash.
So, what is the big deal about this trek? This pilgrimage is believed to be one of the toughest to undertake. The 52-km trek that starts at 15,000 feet is no less than a herculean task and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Physical challenges aside, the grit this trek demands is immense. People train for weeks and even months to prepare. While the altitude sickness, bone-chilling cold and lack of oxygen don’t make it any easier, the real test is more mental than physical. For those who pass the test, an intense spiritual experience awaits.
The sacred circuit around the mountain is called Kora. While the Hindus and the Buddhists walk the circuit clockwise, people from the Bon and the Jain faiths do this anti-clockwise. The Kailash Kora starts at the foot of the mountain in the small town of Darchen in Tibet. Between May and October, Darchen, the only town with food and lodging, swarms with visitors.
After an overnight stop at Darchen, pilgrims head to the barren valley of Lha Chu. The Lha Chu river bending and twisting through the valley, acts as the only water source for the pilgrims. After crossing the river via the Chuku bridge, the long ascent to Drolma-la begins. The climb is one of the steepest in the circuit. Besides the overwhelming view of the Kailash’s peak, the stretch between the Chuku Monastery and the Dira-puk Monastery makes for the most picturesque spot of the Kora.
Some finish the trek in a day, others take around three days. There are different ways to complete the trek, the toughest being trekking in prostration. Those choosing this form of trekking lie face front on the ground with hands outstretched. The point where their fingers reach is their next step. They get up, walk till there, and prostrate again. Usually, this takes approximately three weeks. Legend has it that one can attain enlightenment by completing 108 circumambulations of the mountain.
Out of respect for the Hindus, the Jains, the Bons and the Buddhists, no mortal has ever set foot on the peak or even tried to scale Mount Kailash. Till date, its peak remains unconquered.
Watching people trek up is a sight to behold. People from all walks of life”•on yaks, on foot, prostrating, plodding painfully onward”•battle harsh weather even as their inner voices beg them to turn back.
The mountain is believed to be the navel of the universe and the veneration it begets is unmatched. Out of respect for the Hindus, the Jains, the Bons and the Buddhists, no mortal has ever set foot on the peak or even tried to scale Mount Kailash. The only known mountain peak in the world to have remained unconquered, Kailash is fascinating even to people with no ties to religion.
Mount Kailash doesn’t promise enlightenment. The trek, though, is said to have a life-altering effect. It could be a revelation, a euphoric state, a new outlook in life, or a memory to cherish.
Pilgrims say they feel exhilarated and moved–not only by the white peak of Kailash and the turquoise blue of Lake Mansarovar, but also by their own will to have undertaken and concluded the journey.
Kailash’s peak may not have been conquered but its trek has helped many-a-pilgrim to conquer the mountain within.