Let us start this story with a question. Do you know which site of Hindu pilgrimage is said to be the most revered of all, and yet visited by the least number of people? The answer lies in the heart of the Himalayas, where stands the towering peak of Mount Kailash, believed to be the home of Lord Shiva. Let us know more about this mysterious place.
Mount Kailash, together with the nearby Lake Mansarovar, collectively forms Kailash Mansarovar—a sacred place of immense religious significance. Situated in the remote corners of the Himalayan range, the Kailash Mansarovar region spans across three countries: India, Nepal, and China. Mount Kailash, the centrepiece of devotion of this region, is located in Tibet, which is an autonomous part of China.
Mount Kailash: The Divine Abode
Standing at 6,638 metres, Mount Kailash (or Kailash Parvat) is a symbol of divine energy, the abode of Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati. It is believed that when Shiva was devastated after Sati’s death, he started living an ascetic’s life on Kailash, disinterested in worldly matters. It was after Sati was reborn as Parvati, and married Lord Shiva, that he regained his interest in taking care of the universe. Thus, Kailash symbolises the blissful and blessed domestic life of Shiva and Parvati. In Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, Mount Kailash is believed to be the centre of the universe or the cosmic pillar of the world. The black, rocky peak has an unusual shape, which is like a square based pyramid, with the four faces pointing in the four cardinal directions. When the sunlight of the rising sun falls on Mount Kailash, the snow-capped peak glows golden yellow in unparalleled beauty.
Mansarovar Lake: The Lake of the Mind
Mansarovar Lake lies at 4,590 m above mean sea level, making it one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. Legends say that Mansarovar, which translates to "the lake of the mind," was created by the mind of Lord Brahma. Mansarovar is revered as a symbol of purity and a source of spiritual enlightenment. Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar are considered to be the mythical Mount Meru and Manas Lake mentioned in ancient Hindu texts. Four major rivers of Asia originate from Lake Mansarovar: Sutlej River, a large tributary of the Indus River; Brahmaputra River that flows across Tibet, India, and Bangladesh; Indus River, one of the longest rivers in Asia that flows through Tibet and Pakistan and Karnali River, an important tributary of the Ganges River.
Rakshas Tal: The Mysterious Demon Lake
Another lake, Rakshas Tal, situated near Mount Kailash, holds significant religious and mythological importance. Rakshas means demon, and the lake is believed to be associated with Ravana, the demon king of Ramayana. It is said that Ravana, on being denied access to Manasarovar, created this lake, and performed severe penance here to please Lord Shiva residing on Kailash Parvat and attain extraordinary powers. As a result, the lake has come to be associated with his name. Interestingly, while Lake Mansarovar contains freshwater and has birds and vegetation around it, the Rakshas Tal presents a bleak contrast, where the water is high in salt minerals and does not support wildlife and plants around it. The Tibetan name for Rakshas Tal is Lagngar Cho, which means ‘the dark lake of poison’. Locally, people also call it ‘the Ghost Lake’.
What is the spiritual significance of Mount Kailash?
The spiritual significance of Mount Kailash extends beyond the boundaries of Hinduism. In Buddhism, Mount Kailash is considered the dwelling place of the Buddha Demchok who symbolises supreme harmony. Jainism, another ancient Indian religion, associates Mount Kailash with spiritual enlightenment, where Rishabhadeva, the first Tirthankara, attained moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Mount Kailash is considered sacred also in the Bön religion, which is one of the ancient indigenous belief systems of Tibet. Apart from the Ramayana, Kailash Parvat is also mentioned in the Mahabharata and other ancient Hindu texts. It is said that after Lord Krishna left the Earth, the Pandavas also decided to renounce their worldly existence and leave for Swargalok. Thus, the five Pandava brothers and Draupadi climbed Kailash Parvat, as Kailash was the route to reach Swarglok.
An unusual pilgrimage
The pilgrimage to this holy place, called the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, is one of the most arduous pilgrimages in the world. For millennia, pilgrims have embarked on the challenging journey to reach the base of Mount Kailash, taking a ritualistic dip in the Mansarovar Lake, and circumambulating the sacred peak as an act of devotion. This ritual, known as the “Kailash Parikrama”in Sanskrit and “Kora” in Tibetan, holds immense significance and is believed to bring moksha to the pilgrim.
There are several routes that pilgrims and tourists can take to reach the sacred site of Kailash Mansarovar. The Lipulekh Pass route is a popular route that starts in Uttarakhand, India. This route has now been made more accessible by a new Link Road, reducing travel time by 80%. Pilgrims can drive up to 5 km from the border and trek the rest. Nathu La Pass in Sikkim offers a motorable route taking 21 days, which is suitable for people unable to trek. From Nepal, three routes lead to Kailash Mansarovar: Hilsa of Humla district, Khori of Bajhang, and Tinker of Darchula district, all in western Nepal. The Simikot-Hilsa route in Nepal involves a combination of road travel and trekking.
Since Mount Kailash is located in China-occupied Tibet, China supplies visas and permits for the yatra. Only group visas are issued, so the yatra has to be done through tour operators. Thus, visiting Kailash Mansarovar requires a health certificate, passport, travel visa, and permits, which are facilitated by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Pilgrims must follow strict rules during the journey. Visiting this holy place, one must travel through rugged terrain, facing extreme weather, and high altitudes. That is why, despite its immense significance, only a relatively small number of people undertake and complete the pilgrimage successfully.
The forbidden holy site
It is forbidden to climb Mount Kailash by the Chinese government due to the religious significance, and it is also believed that no one can climb it, even if they wanted to. The people who attempted to climb it in the past failed to do so, and some stories speak of the great bodily harm that one faces if a climb is attempted. Many visitors to Kailash Mansarovar describe a unique and profound feeling when they visit the region. They often mention that the place has a distinct spiritual energy or vibration. It is a place where many find peace and a deep connection to the spiritual. Some visitors report magnetic anomalies near the Kailash peak while some feel that time passes quickly around the area. Regardless of the geological and physical reasons, the special characteristics of this place only add to the divine mystery of this unique pilgrimage site.
Unity of faith
As a guardian of ancient traditions, the Kailash Sacred Landscape faces modern environmental challenges. Conservation efforts with the cooperation of the involved nations are essential to protect the natural beauty of the region and its cultural heritage. Kailash Mansarovar is not only the most sacred site of Lord Shiva, but is also a symbol of unity, bringing together people from diverse faiths who share a reverence for the holy mountain and the pristine lake.