Tibetan Buddhists consider it a dwelling place of Demchog (Chakrasamvara) and for Hindus it is the abode of Lord Shiva. For Jains, it is the place where the first Tirthankara attained enlightenment, and for Bonpos, Mt Kailash is a nine-story swastika mountain that is the seat of spiritual power.
Indian yatris at the Purang Customs and Immigration Building (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Moreover, the region of the mountain and nearby Lake Manasarovar is where Thonpa Sherab founded and disseminated Bon.
A street in Tarchen. Gurla Mandhata (Memo Nanyi) in the distance (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Our complicated tour group consisting of people of three different citizenships (US, Nepal, India) had a police escort wherever we went (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
In the grand ticket collection and information center by the shore of Lake Manasarovar were a number of items for sale, including tea and instant noodles, plastic jugs in which pilgrims could take the sacred lake’s water home, and a number of books, including several of Larung Gar’s Khenpo So Dargye, who is particularly popular with Han Chinese disciples. The entire area is managed by Tibet International Shangdi Travel, which has quite a few CSR signs about their environmental protection and development work in the visitors’ center (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Located in western Tibet, near the contemporary borders of the PRC, Nepal, and India, the symmetrical cone-shaped Mount Kailash, at 6638 meters (21,778 feet), rises alone above the rugged landscape.
Here one can see both Rakshas Tal (lag ngar mtsho) to the right (west) and Manasarovar (ma pham gyu mtsho) to the left (east) (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Heading for a dip in Manasarovar Rakshal Tal, which means “lake of the demon” in Sanskrit, is a closed drainage basin, and thus its water is saline. We saw dark, brackish water lapping up on its shores. Manasarovar is a freshwater lake which is connected to Rakshal Tal by a small channel. For Hindus, taking a ritual bath drinking the water of Manasarovar is said to cleanse all sins, and the lake is a more important destination than Mount Kailash. Here, most of our group is heading for a dip in Manasarovar (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Tibetan pilgrims typically complete the 52-kilometer circumambulation route over the 5600-meter (18,500 feet) Dolma La pass in 15 hours, rising at 3am and finishing at 6pm.
Tibetan pilgrims packing up at a simple guest house at Thrugo, the main bathing gate at the south side of Manasarovar (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Most do more than one circuit; we met quite a few groups of pilgrims who had done or were planning to complete 13 circumambulations.
First prostration point (lcags tshal sgang) around the Kailash kora. This pilgrim, who came with his family from the Ngari prefectural seat for circumambulation over the weekend, decided to crash my photograph (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Second prostration point (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
One Bonpo pilgrim in his 50s, a former businessman who had renounced everything, had walked the circuit 800 times over five years and was planning to complete 1000 circumambulations altogether. Still others complete the circuit doing full-body prostrations. Whereas Buddhists and Hindus circumambulate clockwise, Bonpo pilgrims circumambulate counter-clockwise.
Pilgrim performing circumambulation by full-body prostration. Rather than simply walking around the 52 kilometer path, some pilgrims perform full-body prostrations along the entire circuit (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
At the time of our visit, most Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims we met were from Ngari prefecture, especially from Gerze, Gegye, and Tsochen counties.
Just beyond the second prostration point, Gyatso (Sagar), Abhimanyu, Pasang and I stopped to take a break with three women from Gerze who were doing full-body prostrations around Kailash. They are pastoralists who herd sheep, goats, and yaks. They come every year, though this is their first time doing full-body prostrations. They said they do so to rid themselves of demerits (dikpa) and to repay the kindness of their parents (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
We also met pilgrims from Nyingtri, Dechen (Yunnan) and Kyirong. The Tibetan Bonpos we met were mainly from Bachen County in Nagchu and Dengchen County in Chamdo. Passing each other as they walked in opposite directions, they greeted each other with “blessings” (byin rlabs byed) or “Tsering!” (“long life,” a common greeting in Nagchu).
Line of stupas in front of the newly reconstructed Drira Phug (‘bri rwa phug) monastery. In back of the monastery is painted the Tibetan alphabet. Four monasteries were built around Mounta Kailash in the four cardinal directions. Drira Phug is one that also serves as a nail to hold it down and prevent the mountain from changing (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Drira Phug (‘bri rwa phug) means ‘cave of the female yak (‘bri) horn.’ Gyalwa Gotsangpa, who ‘opened’ the circumambulation route around Kailash in the thirteenth century, was led by Sengdongma, the manifestion of a goddess of Dzogchen, in the form of a female yak to a cave at the place where the monastery now stands, where it put its horns onto and then disappeared into a rock. He meditated in the cave here for 3 years, eating only the food of gods and dakinis, rather than human food. The cave around which the monastery is built is said to have a history of 2500 years. The monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In 1996, the main lama, Tenzin Namgyal, began to rebuild a small part of the monastery. In 2013, the monastery received permission to rebuild more of it, and when we were there, there was quite a lot of activity, with a number of interior rooms being painted (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
There is now a government agreement in place that allows Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash and Manasarovar. However, the quota to come directly from India, which requires a long trek, is very limited and so most Indian pilgrims instead fly through Kathmandu and visit through private tour operators. Upon arrival in Simikot, they take a 15-minute helicopter ride to the border (in contrast to our many-day walk) and then head directly for a ritual bath in the waters of Manasarovar. Because of their sudden arrival at very high altitudes, twelve pilgrims had already died in 2016 when we visited.
A pilgrim stopping to meditate at the second of two sky burial sites, Srid Pa Tshal (or srid pa chags p’i dur khrod). Pilgrims leave pieces of clothes, or cut their nails or a bit of hair and leave them at this sky burial site to represent their bodies, as dying at Mount Kailash is considered very auspicious (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
The place to see if one has repaid one’s parents’ kindness. Here there is another well-worn rock with many kathaks draped around it, in front of which are two prominent round indentations and one less prominent. One’s task is to close one’s eyes, and then aim one’s finger toward the indentations. One should pray and then try three times. If one is able to hit an indentation exactly, then one has repaid one’s parents kindness; otherwise not. To do it is nearly impossible, and that’s the point. As one tour guide remarked, “It’s impossible! How can one ever repay parents’ kindness? Children don’t give birth to parents” (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Along the route, Tibetan pilgrims visit monasteries and other important sites. Among these are a number of footprints, including those of Milarepa, the Buddha, and Gyalwa Gotsangba (who ‘opened’ the circumambulation path in the thirteenth century), as well as numerous self-arisen forms, including a saddle of King Gesar, the Karmapa’s black hat, and prayer beads.
Pilgrims touch the various manifestations with their own prayer beads or bow to touch their foreheads upon them. In still other places pilgrims test their level of merit, sin, and fortune through physical encounters with the landscape.
Pilgrims at a tent on the east side of the route. It is called “the unmovable spike” (‘gul med sa gzer), referring to one of four nails that the Buddha is said to have put in each of the four cardinal directions around the mountain to make sure it would never change. Nearby is Buddha’s footprint on a boulder (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Further along the path toward Drolma La is this auspicious boulder on which pilgrims have used butter to affix photographs of themselves as well as money. Someone affixed a photograph of an entire junior high class from Shigatse. Some say this was the original “place to see white or black karma,” where one’s karma will be white if one manages to affix one’s photograph or other item on the boulder (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Lake Manasarovar (ma pham g.yu mtsho, the Unconquerable Turquoise Lake) lies at 4590 meters and is located to the south of Mount Kailash. Pilgrims also circumambulate the lake, which is eighty-eight kilometers in circumference. This is now possible by car as well as foot. For Hindus, bathing and drinking from the lake cleanses all sins and guarantees going to the abode of Shiva after death. Though Kailash is now the more important focus for Tibetans, there is considerable historical evidence that the earliest sacrality was of the lake rather than the mountain.
Restoration at Guru Gyam currently taking place with artists hired from Kham, meticulously painting wall murals under the direction of a master painter (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Stairs up to the cave temple above Guru Gyam (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Indeed, Alex McKay has found that as late as the early 1900s, Kailash was more an ideal heavenly place than one associated with any particular place on the earth’s surface. He finds little evidence that the earthly mountain was considered sacred until the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, or that Kailash was considered the premier pilgrimage site of Tibet until the twentieth century.
Guru Gyam Valley below (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
An occupied cave room (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Its emergence as sacred in the 12th/13th centuries was related to a power struggle between Buddhism and Bön, now told as a contest between the magical powers of Milarepa and Naro Bönchung.
Our visit to Kailash, Manasarovar, and the associated sacred site of Tirthapuri was motivated by a proposal by ICIMOD to have Nepal, India, and China nominate the larger Kailash Sacred Landscape as a transboundary World Heritage Site.
The place to take white or black stones (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Limi woman weaving in Taklakot. This 72 year old woman from Til village in the Limi Valley, is weaving a carpet. She is paid piece-rate in Purang (Taklakot) for weaving carpets and chubas. A widow with no children, she first started to come to Purang three decades ago to weave for income. (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Our goal was to understand historical pilgrimage routes, document the cultural landscape, assess current tourism, and seek to understand what effects such a designation, were it to come to pass, might be.
A version of this photo essay, with additional images, was published by the Tibet Himalaya Initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder on January 6, 2017.