Mt. Kailash or Mt. Kailas (Tibetan: Gang Tise or Gang Rinproche; Chinese: Gangdisi Shan) is a striking peak in the Himalayan mountains of western Tibet. The source of some of the longest rivers in Asia, Kailash is a sacred mountain for four faiths: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and followers of the indigenous Tibetan religion of Bön. Next to the mountain are two sacred lakes, the most important of which is Lake Manasarowar.
Myth and Mystery
According to Hindu mythology, Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration, resides at the summit of a legendary mountain named Kailāśā. Mount Kailāśā is regarded in many sects of Hinduism as Paradise, the ultimate destination of souls and the spiritual center of the world.
According to a description in the Puranas, Mount Kailash's four faces are made of crystal, ruby, gold, and lapis lazuli; it is the pillar of the world; rises 84,000 leagues high; is the center of the world mandala; and is located at the heart of six mountain ranges symbolizing a lotus. From it flow four rivers, which stretch to the four quarters of the world and divide the world into four regions.
This legendary mountain has long been identified with the striking peak in the Himalayas that now bears its name. Shiva is therefore believed to dwell at its summit. Some traditions say the mountain is Shiva's linga, while Lake Manasarowar is the yoni of his consort.
The importance of this holy mountain in Hinduism is reflected, among other places, at the famous Ellora Caves in India, where the largest and most important rock-carved temple is dedicated to Mount Kailash.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that Kailash is the home of the Buddha Demchok (also known as Demchog or Chakrasamvara), who represents supreme bliss. They also say it was on this sacred mountain that Buddhism displaced Bön as the primary religion of Tibet.
According to legend, Milarepa, champion of Tantric Buddhism, arrived in Tibet to challenge Naro-Bonchung, representative of Bön. The two magicians engaged in a great sorcerous battle, but neither was able to gain a decisive advantage.
Finally, it was agreed that whoever could reach the summit of Kailash first would be the victor. While Naro-Bonchung soared up the slope on a magic drum, Milarepa's followers were dumbfounded to see him sitting still and meditating. Yet when Naro-Bonchung was nearly at the top, Milarepa suddenly moved into action and overtook him by riding on the rays of the sun, thus winning the contest and bringing Buddhism to Tibet.
In Jainism, Kailash is known as Mount Ashtapada and is the site where the founder of their faith, Rishabhadeva, attained liberation from rebirth.
In Bön, the religion which predates Buddhism in Tibet, the mountain is believed to be the abode of the sky goddess Sipaimen.
What to See
Mount Kailash rises to 22,028 feet (6,714 m) in one of the highest and most rugged parts of the Himalayas. Made of black rock, the symmetrical peak has a distinctive diamond-like shape with four steep facades. The south face has a vertical gash across its horizontal layers, creating the appearance of a swastika - an ancient symbol of good luck in this part of the world.
The landscape around the mountain is rugged and dry but crossed by crystalline blue streams and other bodies of water. Near the sacred mountain is the source of the Indus, Sutlej and Bramaputra rivers and on its south side are two freshwater lakes, the easternmost of which is the highly sacred Lake Manasarowar (Mapam). With an altitude of 14,950 feet, Mansarovar is the highest body of fresh water in the world. The other lake, Rakshastal, also has legendary significance.
Every year, thousands make a pilgrimage to Kailash, following a tradition going back thousands of years. Pilgrims of several religions believe that circumambulating (walking around) Mount Kailash will remove sins and bring good fortune. The pilgrimage around the sacred mountain is called the Kailash Kora.
It is said that one trip around the sacred mountain will wipe away all the sins (bad karma) of one's current lifetime; 108 revolutions will remove the sins of all one's lifetimes and bring salvation from reincarnation (moksa). Alternatively, pilgrims who complete one circumbulation of Kailash and bathe in the frigid waters of Lake Mansarovar will also bring salvation.
No pilgrims climb Mt. Kailash; all four religions believe it would be a serious act of sacrilege to set foot on its slopes. Legend has it that the only person to have reached the summit is the Buddhist champion Milarepa (who flew to the top in the 12th century) and that all others who have ventured to defy the taboo have died in the process.
The rugged path around Mount Kailash is 32 miles (52 km) long, following a blue mountain stream much of the way. Altitudes range from 15,000 feet at the start to 19,000 feet at the Dolma Pass. The circumambulation is made in a clockwise direction by Hindus and Buddhists but counterclockwise by followers of the Jain and Bön religions.
A typical journey lasts about three days, but some try to earn extra merit by completing the entire walk in a single day. Braving the uneven terrain, high altitudes and variable weather, these hardy souls can complete the trek in about 15 hours.
Other pilgrims seek special merit by taking much longer to circle the holy mountain: instead of walking, they perform body-length prostrations for the entire 32 miles. The pilgrim bends down, kneels, prostrates full-length, makes a mark with his fingers, rises to his knees, prays, and then crawls forward on hands and knees to the mark made by his/her fingers before repeating the process. It requires at least four days of physical endurance to perform the circumambulation this way.
The mountain is located in a particularly remote and inhospitable area of the Tibetan Himalayas. Only those in the best health are able to undertake the journey even to the starting point of the circumambulation, let alone walk 52 km in a single day. A few modern amenities, such as benches, resting places and refreshment kiosks, exist to aid the pilgrims in their devotions.
Most pilgrims and trekkers take three days to complete the journey around Mount Kailash from the city of Darchen, aiming for Drirapuk Monastery on the first night, crossing Dolma La Pass and arriving at Zutrulpuk Monastery the second night, and finally returning to Darchen on the third day.
Monastery accommodation is not always available, so travelers must carry tents and food. To help with the burden, yaks and porters can be hired in Darchen for about ¥100 per day. The path frequently crosses mountain streams, so waterproof boots or an extra pair of shoes is essential.
Most pilgrims begin their journey overland from Kathmandu or Lhasa. From there, they travel over the Tibetan plateau (ranging 10,000-16,000 feet in elevation) in a rented Jeep. It is a long journey with four night stops in camps, finally arriving at Darchen (elevation: 4600 m).
Western visitors usually need a guide, vehicle, driver, and a military permit to visit Kailash, all of which are arranged on tours from Kathmandu or Lhasa. The short version of the tour takes 14 days and cost around ¥15,000 ($1,950), which can be split among four travelers. The longer 21-day tours run about ¥17,000 ($2,210).
The circuit around Mount Kailash typically begins and ends in Darchen, where foreigners must register and pay an admission fee to the Kailash area (currently ¥100). Popular hostels in Darchen include the Yak Hotel and the Darchen Guesthouse, where dorm beds are available for under $10.
Quick Facts on Mount Kailash
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Map of Mount Kailash
Below is a location map and aerial view of Mount Kailash. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- "Kailas Range." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online (accessed June 2009).
- Norbert Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places (Oxford University Press, 1998), 191-93.
- Colin Wilson, The Atlas of Holy Places and Sacred Sites (Dorling Kindersley, 1996), 119.
- Introduction - mountkailash.com (accessed June 2009)
- Mt. Kailash - Sacredsites.com (accessed June 2009)
- Mount Kailash and around - Rough Guide to China (accessed June 2009)
- Wild China: Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarowar - Frommers.com (accessed June 2009)
- Mount Kailash - Wikipedia (accessed 2006)
- Mount Kailash Pilgrimage - travel-himalayas.com
- Kailash Pilgrimage - Potala Tours
- Kailash Pilgrimage - Shrestha Holidays
- Photos of Mount Kailash - here on Sacred Destinations
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