Up above the world so high: Kailash-Mansarovar is the ultimate pilgrimage point for many

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Welcome to the abode of Lord Shiva. The kind and soft-hearted Bholenath resides on this hilltop in western Tibet at an elevation of 6,638 metres (21,778 feet). It’s “the place where Shiv (happiness) and Prakriti (nature) are always engrossed in a dance.” Indeed, those who have seen it will attest to a feeling of profound contentment while gazing at Kailash.

A trip to Kailash-Mansarovar is the “ultimate” pilgrimage. But, despite the planes, helicopters and plush buses, it’s an arduous journey. The hotels and inns along the way provide almost every comfort, but what they don’t dispense is immunity against high-altitude sickness and sheer lack of oxygen. Those from coastal areas such as this writer curse the pollution in their metros, but, at least, they can breathe. As you head north, suddenly, the air starts becoming scarce.

You start the journey from Kathmandu in Nepal. But the latest starting point is Nepalgunj, an hour’s flight away. The narrow-bodied Boeing 737 flies you to this town which is lower than Kathmandu and one of the hottest in the southern Terai region. The scene at the airport is chaotic. Two hundred to 300 pilgrims converge every day to fly to Simikot (2,818 metres, 9,246 feet) at the northern tip of Nepal. Flights take off only if the wind and weather conditions are amenable both at Nepalgunj and at Simikot.

The flight to Simikot is by a 19-seater Dornier, which covers the distance in 45 minutes. Every passenger has a window seat, and, with the snowfall having ceased in March-April, you can see the snow-covered peaks. Below them are beautiful pine and conifer trees interspersed with dark-green shrubbery. Besides, of course, the sheer slopes and penetrating peaks.

Simikot is at the northern tip of Nepal, bordering Tibet. It is at double the elevation of Kathmandu and, here, you start feeling a slow, throbbing pain at the back of the neck. Tour operators offer tablets of Diamox (acetazolamide) to all pilgrims. The Dorniers take off and land on a short, black-topped runway. Next to the runway is a little bay with about a dozen helicopters landing and taking off every 10-12 minutes.

This is the last flight on the trip and it takes 20 minutes to get to Hilsa, a dot on the north-western tip of Nepal. The helicopters land beside a river. A rickety old iron bridge over a gurgling rivulet takes you to Chinese-controlled Tibet. In a little tent across the bridge, Chinese clerks check group travel permits and passports. Mr Dong, in a starched uniform, checks your passport once again and herds you into waiting buses for the 35-kilometre drive into Taklakot.

Kailash MansarovarA view of Kailash from up close, from the northern approach. (Photo: Aarush Manchanda)

The journey to Taklakot (now Burang town) is eye-opening. A few kilometres into the Tibet Autonomous Region (China), the buses are halted outside a high-walled building. You don’t know what it’s called, but you can see the Chinese police at work. All bags are lined on the side of the road and passengers asked to stand behind their belongings. Uniformed Chinese wear gloves and inspect the contents of each bag. Those carrying cameras have to hand them over and the inspectors go through all the photographs stored in them.

The catchword is the Dalai Lama. The Chinese are still paranoid about him, full 60 years after he escaped to freedom in India. One camera yields an image of the Nobel Laureate. The offending piece is sent into a cabin inside the building; the officers complete their inspection and ask the passengers to resume their seats.

The lone woman, whose camera had an image of “that man”, is made to stand in the sun while the officers “examine” her camera minutely inside the cabin. A tour guide goes into the buses and wags a thick finger, “I had warned you to delete every photo of the Dalai Lama, but…” After pin-drop silence for 25 minutes, the camera is returned. The caravan takes off again, amidst a hush. Soon, a few voices pipe up, asking, “Who is this Dalai Lama?” And the spell is broken. Those who had never heard of him want to know more. So much for Chinese censorship.

Our group checks into a huge hotel in Taklakot. It’s a lovely place, never mind the fact that the restroom is as smelly as that at an Indian railway station. More tablets of Diamox are handed out, and, the next morning, you get into a new set of buses, driving all the way from Taklakot to Lake Rakshas Tal, then Lake Mansarovar, and, finally, to the base of Mount Kailash — all in one day. You go from an elevation of 4,590 metres (15,060 feet) at Taklakot to 4,755 metres (15,600 feet) at Mansarovar and 6,638 metres (21,778 feet) at Mount Kailash. Of course, you stop about 1,500 to 1,800 metres (5,000 to 6,000 feet) below the peak.

The hotel at the base of Kailash is good, but the bathrooms have neither faucets nor showers! Next morning, as you await the King-Long buses for your closest look at Mount Kailash, you ask the Tibetan taxi drivers about Kailash. They point to the cloud-covered peaks and say, “Chuppi-gelo”, and then blow on their hands to suggest that when the clouds clear, the majestic mount will appear. Till then, Shiva will hide behind a veil of clouds. Ten minutes later, the clouds blow away and reveal Mount Kailash. “Oohs” are followed by “Aahs” and, like the proverbial Japanese of yore, the Indian pilgrims whip out their mobile phones and go clicking.

The King-Long buses (they’ve been rejected by Mumbai’s BEST undertaking) quickly cover the 12 km to the last motorable point permitted near Kailash. But, it’s still far from the peak. What you have here is the Yama Dwaar, a little temple-like structure with no deity inside. You’re supposed to walk in and perform three circumambulations around this doorway of death. Once you’re done, you “know” that when your time comes, the Yama Doot will not harass you. In fact, he may even be kind and make your final trip comfortable! It’s also the spot where those who wish to make a parikrama of Kailash separate from the rest. The more adventurous ones start on foot or hire ponies.

Kailash MansarovarA Tibetan poses alongside his sturdy pony. (Photo: Aarush Manchanda)

As does Aarush Manchanda, a cardiologist from Cider City, Utah, and his wife Nupur, also a doctor. They ride a pony and spend the night at Dhirapuk. The first day’s trek is not tough. But it snows all day on the second. The ground below their feet turns slippery, accentuating the risk. But they prod along. The third day is easier and his group of 14 (out of 41 who started from Kathmandu) is able to complete the “parikrama” of Mount Kailash. This is a constant with most groups: just 20 to 25 per cent of the pilgrims are able to do the “real” thing, the rest are held back by oxygen-related issues. Manchanda carries his American Verizon phone with roaming services and an international data plan — it switches to “China Mobile” once he crosses the border. But the SIM cards he bought in Delhi and Nepal don’t work in Tibet. He makes a voice call to his parents from Yama Dwaar, but no video call.

“Once I reached the north face and had my darshan, a magical moment occurred. I was face-to-face with my Shiva. I wanted my parents also to experience that. So I made a FaceTime call – and they were able to see Kailash and have darshan! My entire family had darshan. At the top of Dhirapuk, right at the north face, it was a great connection and clear video conferencing!”

Among the pilgrims is head priest Ramprasadji Maharaj of Bada Ram Darbaar at Chand Pole in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. He leads a group of 25 devout people, mainly Sonis or goldsmiths. But he has to turn back at the half-way mark because his chief patron (yajman) has fallen ill and cannot continue up the mountains. The two are quickly transported back to Taklakot and then to Kathmandu.

Also in the group is Samadhan Kadam, chief priest of the Tulazapur Bhavani Temple in Maharashtra. He completes the pilgrimage and even starts the parikrama on foot from Yama Dwaar. But, it is truncated because the Chinese do not want too many pilgrims on the other side of Mount Kailash, where the Tibetans are celebrating their own festival of the Full Moon. There is Uma Giramkar, a kabaddi player who sports a T-shirt and slacks, while everybody else has three layers of warm clothes, a long, warm coat, hood and gloves. She claims she can hold her breath for 90 seconds. The 65-year-old Rajkanya Vyas of Jodhpur refuses to speak a word till she has had a bath — even when the temperature is below freezing point and there is no hot water — and completed her prayers.

They all make it to Yama Dwaar and Kailash-Mansarovar and return home alive, to spend the rest of their lives reliving those divine moments. As has Damayanti Patel, a yoga teacher from Mumbai, who is 60 and has completed her fourth yatra.

By the holy waters
* There are several magical sights on the way to Mount Kailash, especially Rakshas Tal and Lake Mansarovar. The first is where demons frolicked. The second is where the divine swans dwelt. Nobody knows why the sweet water of Mansarovar turns briny after overflowing into Rakshas Tal. No one bathes in Rakshas Tal, but everybody eagerly awaits the opportunity to step into Lake Mansarovar. The wind howls like a banshee at both lakes, making it difficult to walk.

* One theory doing the rounds at Rakshas Tal is that the wind blew Raavan all the way to Lanka when he started to covet the beauteous Parvati.

* The holy dip at Manasarovar is a divine experience. As you splash a little water on your face and your head, you wonder about the supermen who dare to venture further into the icy cold water.

* The third important water body is Gauri Kund on the other side of Mount Kailash. Parvati used to bathe here. It was while doing so one day, that, she made a human-like figurine from the wet earth. Then, one of the gods breathed life into that figure – and lo! Lord Ganesh was born! So, the story of how Ganesha came to be has its origins here.

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