Updated: September 27, 2015 1:00:50 am
As the two buses carrying our group of 38 Kailash Manasarovar yatris wound their way up from Taklakot on a cool crisp August morning, the first darshan was of Rakshas Tal. The divine grace of Manasarover Lake and Mount Kailash would have to wait. First, we had to contend with the charms of Rakshas Tal, the legendary site of Ravana’s supernatural devotion to Shiva that made him the Darth Vader of Hindu mythology. A ridge and a 15-metre difference in elevation separate the two.
Rakshas Tal is at 4,575 metres above sea level whereas the Manasarovar is at 4,690 metres. But while the brackish waters of Rakshas Tal carry the stillness of death, Manasarovar, where we arrive at shortly afterwards, true to its name, appears to shimmer and ripple as a mirror to all life and consciousness. After a longer break by the Manasarovar for a dip, we head towards Darchen, the base camp for the Kailash Parikrama. A few kilometres into a drive as we enter the Barkha plains, a break appears in the clouds on the horizon and we have our first view of Mount Kailash. The bus erupts with cries of “Om Namah Shivayah” and “Har Har Mahadev”. I gaze at Kailash with a mixture of wonder, reverence and even déjà vu.
In all mythologies, the mountains belong to the gods. No wonder then that as the most magnificent mountain range on earth, the Himalayas evoke the most fervent faith and elaborate fables amongst all the cultures that have evolved along its northern and southern slopes. And amongst all the spectacular and sacred peaks that dot the entire length of the Himalayas, Mount Kailash occupies a unique pride of place. It is without a doubt the Mt Everest of spirituality. The entire Kailash Manasarovar region is a natural Jerusalem of Indian and Tibetan religious traditions. It is not just Hindus, but Buddhists and Jains too, who have a special place for Mount Kailash in their respective faiths and the spiritual practices associated with them. Even the Guru Granth Sahib makes a mention of it.
The followers of Bon, a mystic religious tradition native to Tibet, predating even Buddhism, see it as a seat of spiritual power. The parikrama of Kailash that they perform over three weeks by a series of prostrations must rate as one of the most gruelling displays of faith anywhere on earth. In contrast, our own parikrama spread over three days feels like a short cut. But even that is a 50 km journey performed completely above 15,000 feet and, at its highest, going through the Dolma Pass at over 18,000 feet. Not a journey for those short of breath and faint of heart.
But from the Hindu perspective, getting to Kailash is just as arduous as its parikrama. The Himalayas constitute not just an impenetrable wall of rock and ice that have served as a dividing line between South Asia and Tibet, but also contain innumerable trails and passes that mark tireless human attempts to overcome their natural barrier. The Lipu Lekh pass at nearly 17,500 ft is one such sieve that has filtered goods and cultural influences back and forth between the two sides of the Himalayan barrier since prehistoric times. The rigours of the trek to Lipu Lekh easily exceed those of the Kailash parikrama. Starting from the roadhead at Pangla, some 40-odd km beyond Dharchula in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, we climb 12,000 feet over seven days of trekking, covering over a hundred kilometres.
The trek on the Indian side is, figuratively and literally, a journey of renunciation. First, you lose your mobile signal at Dharchula, next, other creature comforts, such as the Western-style toilet and hot water, are left by the wayside, and by the time you arrive at Gunji, a village at nearly 11,000 ft, sheer isolation has created an enforced state of meditative calm.
Walking by the river Mahakali, swollen and surging with monsoon waters, is an education on both the precariousness and the tenacity of life. The Himalayas appear as less of a barrier and more of a blanket that provide shelter and livelihood to apparently isolated communities. To the uninitiated, the mountains might evoke endless anxiety as a vast unforgiving ocean of rock and ice. But as the Atlantic had its Vikings, this part of the Himalayas has the Bhotias to serve as its master mariners, especially those from the Vyas Valley. The pilgrimage is literally fuelled by their toil and sweat as they haul our luggage and guide us and our ponies through the Mahakali valley. They straddle three countries and their different systems with enviable ease and self-assurance.
Our passage through Gunji coincides with their annual congregation at the time of Raksha Bandhan and so the valley is abuzz with the newly instituted chopper service between Dharchula and Gunji. I am able to meet Mohan Gunjyal, a Padma Shree awardee, a retired ITBP officer and a living legend of mountaineering and skiing. A day of rest is spent on a short trip to nearby Nabi village.
It is beyond Gunji that the real test of the body and spirit awaits us. The trek to Lipu Lekh commences at 2.30 am, driven by the necessity to synchronise our arrival there with the Chinese authorities who are on Beijing time, two and a half hours ahead of us. We are walking in the dark on a wing and a prayer. If you don’t find your Maker, He is sure to find you. Thankfully, the last stretch is traversed in twilight. And all of a sudden you are at the pass, one foot in India and the other in Tibet.
The journey down through Lipu Lekh to Taklakot is an eye-opener. The road comes up to barely 500 metres below the pass. A little further down, and you see a solar-powered mobile tower. And then the dirt track gives way to a cemented road and soon enough you cross the Kairali and enter the town of Taklakot. Located at
a little over 13,000 feet and a population around the same figure, this is going to be the lowest point of our journey through Tibet.
By Indian standards, it will not even qualify as a mofussil town but it is the administrative seat of Burang County. There are several new impressive structures coming up. Tree planting and farming are both being attempted in ambitious and innovative ways. Walking around Taklakot, one sees little visible presence of the supposedly oppressive Chinese. There are no bunkers, no armed soldiers or policeman patrolling the streets. Of course, there is no Google, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube either. The Dalai Lama too is conspicuous by his absence. But one does not see any visible curbs on Tibetan Buddhism. The monasteries and temples that were destroyed or damaged during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution are being restored. There is talk that the railway line to Lhasa will be extended to this part of Tibet as well. Apart from Indian pilgrims and Western devotees of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet now attracts a fair number of tourists from mainland China too.
All in all, one sees two distinct narratives unfolding on the northern and southern slopes of the Himalayas. On the south side, we have a democratic India but the vast majority of its citizens are excluded from buying land and settling down in its Himalayan states. It is a strange concept of citizenship where those on the geographical periphery of India are permitted to buy into the mainland but the reverse is not possible. For an ordinary Indian who is not domiciled in these states, land and employment and business opportunities in these Himalayan regions are becoming increasingly restricted. State-level politics on the Indian sides of the Himalayas is dominated by local elites whose first priority is raising and then sustaining the bogey of the exploitative outsider. Both demographics and economics show visible signs of stress and stagnation. Religious sensibilities and environmental concerns are routinely invoked to isolate and eventually impoverish our side of the Himalayas from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh.
On the northern slopes of the Himalayas, a very different world is being imagined into existence. It sees no contradiction between man’s co-existence with nature and his attempts at mastery of nature for material well-being. In the backdrop, Kailash and Manasarovar provide a reassuring sense of physical and spiritual permanence and transcendence. I spend two days by the Manasarovar, not just dipping in the lake with reverence but swimming with childlike joy and frivolity. As a pilgrim, one came back from this yatra spiritually nourished and rejuvenated. As a citizen of India, one brought back a sense of disquiet and discomfort.
The author was a liasion officer on the Kailash Mansarovar yatra 2015. Views are strictly personal
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