Standing at a height of 6,714m (22,028ft) Mount Kailash in western Tibet is undoubtedly the holiest mountain in the Himalayas, considered the perfect shape this mountain boasts four great faces: the Eastern face believed to be crystal, the Western ruby, the Southern sapphire, and the Northern gold. It is the spiritual center for four great religions: Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and the pre-Buddhist animistic Bon.
According to Buddhist legend, Milareppa, a great Tibetan Yogi & master of Tantric Buddhism vied with Naro-Bonchung, a grand master of the Bon sect, to prove the superiority of Buddhism. Many contests took place but the final one was to determine who would reach the summit of Mt Kailash first by the break of dawn.
Riding his damaru (ritual drum) Naro-Bonchung flew towards the peak only to be overtaken at the last minute by Milarepa. Naro-Bonchung was so astonished that he let go of his drum, which crashed down the mountain leaving a vertical scar - a now distinctive feature on the south face.
To Tibetans it is known as Khang Rinpoche (Precious Jewel of Snow) which they perceive as the navel of the world. It is said that a stream from the mountain pours into a nearby lake which feeds rivers in the four cardinal directions: the River of the Lion-Mouth to the North, the Horse-Mouth to the East, the Peacock-Mouth to the South, and the River of the Elephant-Mouth to the West. Strangely enough, four major rivers do indeed originate near Kailash: the Indus, Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Karnali, and Sutlej.
For Hindus, Mount Kailash is the earthly manifestation of Mount Meru, the spiritual center of their universe, described as a fantastic 'world pillar' 84,000 miles high around which all else revolves, its roots in the lowest hell and its summit kissing the heavens. On top resides their most revered God, Shiva, and his consort, Parvati.
For the older more ancient religion of Bon, it is the site where its founder, Shenrab, is said to have descended from heaven. It was formerly the spiritual center of Zhang Zung, the ancient Bon Empire that once included all of western Tibet.
Over the centuries pilgrims have journeyed immense distances, braving harsh weather, desolate conditions and bandit attacks to achieve enlightenment or cleanse themselves of sin.
The circumambulation of Mount Kailash is an important pilgrimage for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bons. Hindus perform a parikrama, Buddhists refer to it as a kora.
Buddhists believe that a single kora washes away the sins of one life and 108 circuits can secure nirvana in this life. Devout Tibetans often make the 52km circuit in a single day. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pilgrims make a clockwise circuit of the peak, while the Bon tradition is to circumambulate in the opposite direction.
The most pious of pilgrims are those who prostrate themselves around Kailash, lying flat on the ground, then rising, walking to the point that their hands touched and repeating the process. To Meet a group of pilgrims performing this deed is of course a humbling experience.
There is also an 'inner kora' that passes two lakes to the south of Kailash; Lake Manasarovar (Mapam Tso) & Rakas Tal. Freud & Jungian analysts often talk about the unconscious; of symbolism, of the light & of the darkness, the forces of good and of evil but such things are rarely recognisable within our natural habitat. Here however, amidst the western flanks of the Tibetan plateau such a representation does exist. Lake Manasarovar (the force of light) is simply beautiful, home to a hidden mass of rare wildlife it is to here that pilgrims travel from great distances, in harsh conditions to bask in the water & rinse away a lifetime's culmination of sin.
Manasarovar represents a geographical manifestation of life, of vitality, of forgiveness but as with all aspects of life & humanity to have one side is to also have its opposite. Light only exists in the presence of darkness, so it's curious that Manasarovar is neighboured by Lake Rakas Tal, the force of evil. This Lake is feared amongst the people here, a lake representing darkness, infertility and death.
Here the water is the most indescribable shade of turquoise, like a precious gemstone it lures you into its illusion and only upon closer inspection is it realised how barren are its shores. Nothing grows or lives here and considering the two lakes are literal neighbours its frightening to see just how desolate Rakas Tal & its surrounding areas are.
Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar are located in the Ngari region of Tibet, perhaps the most inaccessible place on earth. Here the desolate plains are populated by 'Dokpas' - nomads who wander endlessly across the Tibetan plateau herding sheep, goat & yak.
Ngari is widely considered the last frontier of Tibet, so where better, I thought to continue my exploration into the shadow.
From crossing the Nepalese/Tibetan border on foot (via Hilsa) we were scenically met by a land of striking contrast. Gone were the deep gorges, the rich lush terraces, the breath taking valleys which lay cradled beneath mighty peaks; here we entered a desolate, barren land, a land where even the gentlest of breezes felt wickedly harsh against the skin.
In the smallest of time lapses, by the act of simply stepping over a line marked on the ground I found myself thrust into another, altogether different culture. Never before had I physically felt such a deep seated sense of oppression, a sense of unease that whilst here ran throughout my entire body. If this was the last frontier of Tibet then my senses were more than aware of it, my voice somehow lost as if taken by an invisible force, a force I couldn't describe or pinpoint. In a single moment I was certain that any experience(s) encountered here would be different to that which I've encountered anywhere else on my travels.
From Lake Manasarovar the journey took us to Tarboche at the foot of the Lha Chu Valley & the start of the Kailash Kora (or parikrama). Walking here amongst pilgrims was a deeply moving experience. I felt honoured to bare witness as my fellow pilgrims endured physical/emotional hardship & pain in order to achieve blessing.
At times I looked on with disbelief as people incapable of physical exertion somehow discovered, through their faith an inner will and determination to succeed. From behind my sunglasses ran a thousand tears, as small Tibetan children gently guided, supported and nurtured elderly members of the Hindi, Buddhist & Bon communities over high altitudes and challenging terrain.
The atmospheric energy felt throughout our time near the Drolma La (approx 5,630m pass) was a complete paradox, a sensual mix of intensity, caused by the physicality and serenity resulting from euphoric states of consciousness.
Rather obscurely as with Lake Manasarovar & Rakas Tal the Kora itself also boasts an element of the light & dark. As pilgrims wander up the Lha Chu Valley they are surrounded on all flanks by vertical walls of a deep black rock, here one has plenty of opportunity to reflect, to feel the chill of life within the shadows. Once however, the descent from Drolma La is achieved and Thukpe Dzingbu (Lake of Compassion) is passed this sense of darkness suddenly transforms into a sense of light. Here the surroundings become spacious & airy, the valley mouth gently opens to reveal a riot of grass and wild flowers.
To engage fully in the Kora (parikrama) of Mt Kailash is a courageous step. To expose oneself to the uncertainty of the challenge(s) ahead is to also risk revealing unto oneself those same challenges that exist within. I feel truly blessed for everything seen & encountered during my time in & around Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Rakas Tal & throughout Western Tibet.