O Resident of Kailash!
November 7, 2016
My fascination with Tibet began in the 1960s. I was fifteen, and the hippie movement, with its unconventional philosophies and ways of life, had just taken hold in America. I often visited alternative bookstores in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and one day I found The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the Eastern Spirituality section. I read it for years until I found a deeper understanding of spiritual philosophy in Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is.
Three years ago an opportunity to visit Tibet arose when several devotees invited me to join them on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, the sacred abode of Lord Siva, situated in the remote western part of the country, but our plans ended abruptly when the Chinese government refused our visa applications. My interest in Tibet was reignited last year when I met a Buddhist monk from Tibet in New Delhi. He was traveling to Bodh Gaya, the place of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment in Bihar, India. The monk had encountered many difficulties in his travels, and I did my best to help him. In the short time we were together, a close, almost mystical, bond arose between us, and as we separated he told me he would leave something of great spiritual value for me in his monastery in Tibet. I wondered, of course, what he would leave for me, but I wondered even more how I would ever obtain it. Though I am used to packing my bags on a moment’s notice and traveling to wherever my service takes me, Tibet had never been within my realm.
Then a few months ago, I received a call from the group who had planned the original journey to Tibet. The Chinese government was again issuing visas for Mount Kailash. Would I be interested in going? Oh, would I ever! Thirteen of us were granted visas through an official Tibetan travel agency.
My motivations for visiting Tibet went beyond the fascination I had had as a teenager, and even beyond the desire to obtain the gift from the Tibetan monk. My objective, as a devotee of Lord Krsna, was to obtain the blessings of Lord Siva who resides with his consort, Parvati, atop mount Kailash. In Vaisnava teachings we learn not to approach the Lord directly, but through His pure devotees.
“My dear Partha,” Lord Krsna says to Arjuna in the Adi Purana, “one who claims to be My devotee is not so. Only a person who claims to be the devotee of My devotee is My devotee.”
And of all devotees of Krsna, Lord Siva is considered the best:
nimna-ganam yatha ganga
devanam acyuto yatha
vaisnavanam yatha sambhuh
purananam idam tatha
“Just as the Ganges is the greatest of all rivers, Lord Acyuta the supreme among deities and Lord Shambhu (Siva) the greatest of Vaisnavas, so Srimad-Bhagavatam is the greatest of all Puranas.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 12.13.16 ]
Mount Kailash, 22,000 feet (6,705 meters) above sea level, is a special and sacred dhama because it is there that Siva meditates deeply on Lord Krishna and meets with great sages like Narada. It was at Mount Kailash that the Ganges descended with great force from the spiritual world to the material world and was caught by Lord Siva in his matted locks.
“The demigods observed Lord Śiva sitting on the summit of Kailāsa Hill with his wife, Bhavānī, for the auspicious development of the three worlds. He was being worshiped by great saintly persons desiring liberation. The demigods offered him their obeisances and prayers with great respect.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 8.7.20 ]
Kailash is also known as Mount Meru, the center of the universe. Throughout the ages it has been called by various names including Jewel Peak, Lotus Mountain, and Silver Mountain. The city of Kuvera, the treasurer of the demigods, is said to be near Mount Kailash.
Local Buddhists recognize the spiritual significance of the mountain and consider it one of their holiest places of pilgrimage. It is also fervently worshiped by followers of the Bon religion, the religion of Tibet prior to the arrival of Buddhism in the seventh century. Tibetans say that there is an invisible ladder connecting Kailash to heaven, and the rulers of ancient Tibet were said by their citizens to have descended to Kailash from heaven attached to ropes of light.
Because of the mountain’s sanctity in the eyes of several of the world’s great religions, no one has ever attempted to climb it. Reinhold Messner, the famous Austrian mountaineer who has scaled all fourteen of the 8,000-meter mountains of the world, was offered a license to climb Mount Kailash by the Chinese government in the 1980s. “Of course I declined,” he writes. “It would not have been intelligent to do otherwise. One should not trample on gods.”
A Buddhist saint once said: “Only a man entirely free of sin can climb Kailash. And he wouldn’t have to actually scale the sheer walls of ice to do it. He’d just turn himself into a bird and fly to the summit.”
Through the centuries Westerners have been attracted to visit Kailash, not for spiritual reasons though, but out of curiosity. The first recorded Westerner to visit Kailash was an Italian Jesuit Missionary, Ippolito Desideri, in 1715. He wrote:
“Kailash is a mountain of excessive height and great circumference, always enveloped in clouds, covered in snow and ice, and most horrible, barren, steep and cold. The Tibetans walk devoutly around the base of this mountain which takes several days, and they believe this will bring them great indulgences. Owing to the snow on the mountain my eyes became so inflamed that I well nigh lost my sight.”
Following more in the footsteps of the pilgrims and less in those of the curious, our group left Kathmandu, Nepal, on September 15, 2016, and headed for Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Our short flight over the beautiful Himalayan Mountains was meant to take only one hour. Unfortunately, as we were to repeatedly experience in the coming two weeks, we encountered an obstacle. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the captain announced that we were unable to land in Lhasa due to inclement weather and that the flight was being diverted to Chengdu in Southwestern China, two hours away. I knew someone was lying. The weather in Lhasa was fine. I had checked it on the internet just before we took off. Later we learned that the flight had been diverted to Chengdu to pick up more passengers for Lhasa.
The airlines put us up in a hotel in Chengdu for the night and we flew out for Lhasa the next day. The austerities in the detour were bearable, but little known to us there would be serious flow-on effects from the delay. Because of the detour we would begin our pilgrimage later than planned and would have to face bad weather.
Within hours of arriving in Lhasa, 11,450 feet (3,490 meters) above sea level, most of our team began struggling with altitude sickness, also known as mountain sickness. Caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels, it affects climbers, skiers, and travelers. At times, altitude sickness can be life-threatening, causing pulmonary edema or cerebral edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs or brain), both of which require the sufferer to be evacuated to a lower altitude. In most cases, though, symptoms are mild: difficulty sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Altitude sickness was an ongoing problem for us during our stay in Lhasa, one of the highest cities in the world. I had acclimatized myself somewhat by spending twelve days in the mountains of Kashmir before the trip to Tibet. Most of the other members of our team, though, suffered from headaches and dizziness during our first days in Tibet.
While they rested, I decided to take a look around the old city of Lhasa that I had heard about during my youth. It was harder to find than I expected. Much of the city had been rebuilt with endless modern structures like apartment buildings, office buildings, and shopping complexes. The romantic idea of exotic, spiritual Tibet I had formed as a young man seemed nothing more than an insubstantial dream until I rounded a corner and saw thousands of Tibetans in traditional dress walking in pilgrimage around the sacred Jokhang Temple (built starting from 1652 AD), the most important site of pilgrimage in Tibet. Hundreds of Buddhist devotees were bowing down repeatedly while others walked around the temple fingering their wooden prayer beads as they chanted om mani padme hum (I worship He who sits on the divine lotus). I joined the surging crowd circumambulating the temple and then sat among the pilgrims. I immediately became an object of discussion. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone without exception welcomed me and several even came over to congratulate me on my good fortune to be there. When I took out my japa beads to chant, swarms of curious people surrounded me and listened attentively to my chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra.
I had been chanting for a couple of hours when two young women approached me.
“Are you a lama?” one asked.
“Do you mean a priest?” I asked. She nodded. “Well yes, I am trying my best,” I said.
“We are honored to meet you,” said the other woman. “My name is Nima.”
“And I am Zaya,” said the first woman.
“You speak English very well,” I said.
“Yes,” said Nima. “Here in Tibet we learn three languages in school: Chinese, Tibetan, and English.”
“Why is English mandatory?” I asked.
“It’s the international language, of course,” Nima said.
“Ours is a beautiful country,” said Nima. “And the most important thing for Tibetans is our spiritual tradition. That’s why every morning more than fifteen thousand people circumambulate Jokhang Temple.”
“I very much appreciate the pilgrims’ devotion,” I said.
“My grandma tells me that you Western people have very strange habits,” Zaya said, abruptly changing the reflective tone of the conversation.
“Like what?” I asked.
“She said most of you take a bath every day.” They both giggled.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Don’t you do that in Tibet?”
“No!” exclaimed Zaya, looking horrified. “My grandmother bathes once a year. She says if she were to bathe every day, the blessings she received by prostrating herself before the temple three hundred times a day would be washed away.”
“We all bathe during a special festival called Karma Dunba,” said Nima. “Everyone, even Zaya’s grandmother, goes down to a river and takes a full bath. Strict followers wash their clothes just once a year on that day.”
“But times are changing now,” said Nima. “I bathe once a month.”
“And I bathe once a week,” said Zaya. “Some of my friends even bathe every day like you Westerners.”
We needed another day in Lhasa for acclimatization before beginning our journey to Mount Kailash some thirteen hundred kilometers away, so I suggested we visit the famous Potala, formerly the residence of the Dalai Lama. Built at various stages beginning from 1645, it is rich in Tibetan history. The palace was visually stunning, a reminder of the mysterious enchantment of old Tibet, but as we meandered through the amazing structure my mind was elsewhere. I was remembering the Buddhist monk I’d helped in New Delhi and the special gift he had left for me in the Sera monastery in Lhasa.
But where was the Sera monastery? And how would I get there? We only had one afternoon left in Lhasa. I decided to ask the monks who were tending to the shrines in the palace.
“Excuse me,” I said to one. “Can you kindly tell me where I can find the Sera Monastery?”
“Sera means ‘wild rose,’” he said. “It is one of our most important monasteries. You can find it in the northern suburbs of Lhasa.”
“Is it a big building like this palace?” I asked.
“Oh no!” he said proudly. “The monastery consists of thirty six buildings scattered over twenty eight acres of land.”
“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling despondent. It would be impossible to find the priceless gift in a complex so huge. I resigned myself to following our group around the Potala.
We returned to our hotel late in the evening, and I quickly fell asleep. I dreamed that our group was visiting an old Buddhist monastery. Guests were being given headphones that guided them through various parts of the monastery. Everyone in our group except me was given brown headphones. I was handed a silver set that glowed brightly in the dark. When I put the headset on, I heard the familiar voice of my monk friend.
“I told you we would not meet again in this life,” he said, “but I will speak words regarding the gift I promised you. I cannot give you anything greater than that which your spiritual master has already given you. Be content with his boundless mercy alone, and with it attain the highest perfection.”
I woke suddenly and raced around the room to find paper and pen before I forgot the monk’s words. Part of me wanted to knock on the other devotees’ doors to tell them about the amazing dream, but I also felt shy. Afterwards, it took me hours to fall asleep.
The next morning we were meant to fly to Ngari, a city just one hundred kilometers from Mount Kailash. But we were informed at breakfast that the flight had been canceled. China’s security was on red alert because of North Korea’s recent test-firing of missiles. It was another setback in our pilgrimage. The only other way to reach Mount Kailash was a four-day drive across one thousand three hundred kilometers of mountainous roads.
Our government travel agency provided two SUV cars with drivers, a small truck for our luggage and cooking equipment, and two official guides who were required to be with us every minute of our stay in Tibet. Ultimately, their presence worked to our advantage, because wherever we went we were subjected to security checks.
Upon departing Lhasa, we learned that a storm and cold front were about to descend on western Tibet. We had to get to Mount Kailash as fast as possible. By driving seventeen hours one day and eleven hours the next, we managed to cut the journey in half. The long hours in the car were austere, but gave me time to reflect again on the purpose of our journey to Mount Kailash: to obtain the blessings of Lord Siva that we might become become better devotees of Lord Krsna and His representative, my beloved spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.
During the drive, I read the Sivastakam, eight prayers glorifying Lord Siva spoken by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and recorded in Murari Gupta’s book, Sri Caitanya Carita Mahakavya. I did so to better understand Lord Siva according to our Vaisnava philosophy.
“I perpetually offer obeisances unto you, the lord of the thirty primal devas, who are the original father of created beings, whose character is gracious, upon whose head, which is crested by the sickle moon, the Ganga springs, and who are a festival for the eyes of Gauri, the fair goddess.
“I offer my obeisances to you who resemble a moon of molten gold, who are dressed in garments colored like a group of budding blue lotuses or lustrous rainclouds, who bestow the most desirable boon on your devotees by your delightful dancing, who offer shelter to those who seek to become one with the transcendental effulgence of Godhead, and whose flag bears the image of the bull.
“I offer my obeisances to you who dispel darkness with your three eyes – the moon, the sun, and fire – and thus cause auspiciousness for all the living entities of the universe, and whose potency easily defeats thousands of moons and suns.
“I offer my obeisances to you, whose form is brilliantly illuminated by the jewels of Ananta-deva, the king of snakes, who possess divine potencies and are clothed in a tiger skin, who stand in the midst of a thousand-petaled lotus, and whose two arms are adorned by lustrous bangles.
“I offer my obeisances to you who bestow happiness on your servitors as you pour upon them the liquid nectar flowing from your reddish lotus feet, upon which charming ankle bells ring. Obeisances unto you who are adorned by an abundance of gems. Please endow me today with pure love for Sri Hari.
“O Sri Rama! O Govinda! O Mukunda! O Sauri! O Sri Krsna! O Narayana! O Vasudeva! I offer my obeisances unto you, Sri Siva, who are the monarch ruling over all the bee-like devotees who are mad to drink the nectar of these and other innumerable names of Hari, and who thus destroy all grief.
“I offer my respectful obeisances to you, Sri Siva, who are forever inquired of confidentially by Sri Narada and other great sages, who very easily bestow boons on them, who bestow the happiness of Hari-bhakti on those who seek boons of you, who thereby create auspiciousness and are thus the guru of everyone.
“I offer my obeisances to you who are a festival of auspiciousness for the eyes of Gauri, who are the lord of her life-energy, who bestow rasa and are expert in forever singing songs with eagerness of the pastimes of Govinda.
“A person who lovingly hears with rapt attention this wonderful eightfold prayer to Sri Siva, can quickly gain Sri Hari-prema as well as transcendental knowledge, the realization of that knowledge, and unprecedented devotional potency.”
Sripad Sankaracarya also wrote a well-read Sivastakam, but even more popular are Ravana’s prayers to Lord Siva which he composed while residing at Ravana-tal, a lake near Mount Kailash. The demoniac king, a devotee of Lord Siva, created the lake and performed severe penance and austerities on its banks with the desire to gain the strength to pick up Mount Kailash, along with Siva and Parvati on its summit, and take it back to his abode in Sri Lanka. He was unsuccessful because Lord Siva increased the weight of Kailash so that no human, devata, demon, or snake from the lower planets could ever lift Mount Kailash.
In his Siva Tantra Stotram, Ravana prays:
“When will I be happy, living in a hollow cave near the celestial river Ganga with folded hands on my head all the time, with bad thoughts washed away, uttering the mantra of Lord Siva and devoted to the God (Siva) who has a glorious forehead and trembling eyes.” [ Verse 13 ]
After two days of driving, we approached Ravana-tal and the even more important nearby lake of Manasarovar (Mapham Tso in Tibetan). Every pilgrim first takes darsan of Manasarovar on the way to Mount Kailash. It is famous for three things: its changing colors, its infinite variations of reflection, and its fearsome storms. On the top of Mount Kailash, Lord Siva and Parvati once sat in deep meditation on Lord Krsna for twelve years by the calculation of the demigods. No rain fell in the area during that period, so Lord Siva called Lord Brahma to create a sacred lake where he and his consort could bathe. Lord Brahma created Manasarovar from his mind. After their bath, a self-manifested golden Siva lingam appeared in the center of the lake.
We took darsan of Manasarovar and that same day reached Darchen, a small village just a few kilometers from Mount Kailash situated at an altitude of 15,010 feet (4,575 meters). Darchen serves as the starting point for every pilgrim’s journey around the sacred mountain.
We rested in a simple hotel there for two days to prepare ourselves for the arduous pilgrimage ahead. Despite our best efforts to be in good physical shape and to avoid altitude sickness by acclimatizing ourselves, we all knew that faith in Krsna and His devotee Lord Siva were the most important qualifications for completing the kora (the Tibetan word for “pilgrimage”).
Two days later, at long last, all thirteen of us set out on our kora around Mount Kailash. It was to take us three days. The first day is called the day of purification, the second the day of departure (from one’s illusory self or the false ego), and the third the day of renewal. Many Tibetans do the pilgrimage in a single day. There are also those who do the circuit in prostrations, which takes three weeks.
Most of our gear and kitchen paraphernalia had gone ahead on yaks to meet us where we would stay the first night, a location twenty-two kilometers further up the winding road. We were carrying just basic necessities in our backpacks as we started on the barren moonscape terrain towards Mount Kailash. Eager to get the journey underway after so many days of waiting, everyone started out at a fast pace.
“Slow down, Prabhus!” I called out. “At this height you have to pace yourselves. And remember to drink three liters of water as we walk along today. It’s easy to get dehydrated up here.”
I noticed that Bhakta Alexey, a strong, healthy, and well-built Russian man in his early 30s, was missing. He had come on the trip to help Ananta Vrindavan das film the expedition. I retraced my steps along the path until I found him trailing far behind us. He was barely moving along the road.
Saradiya Rasa dasi came up behind me with our chief guide. “He doesn’t look good,” she said.
“Maybe he’s just exhausted from traveling here,” I said. I turned to the guide. “Do you think he should stay back this morning? Maybe one of the other guides can stay with him.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can take him back to the hotel, and I’ll keep in touch by phone to let you know how he is doing. Your phones should certainly work on the first day of your pilgrimage. If he feels better this afternoon, we can catch up by horse.”
The rest of us proceeded onwards. As the road gradually got steeper I didn’t have to remind the devotees to slow down. The altitude made sure of that. Soon we were walking only ten paces at a time before having to stop and catch our breath. To our left the huge, treeless Barkha plain was dotted with white nomadic tents and herds of sheep and goats. After four hours we arrived at a chaktsel gang, one of four places on the kora where Tibetan pilgrims offer prostrated obeisances to the mountain. At these sites there are images on rocks which are reputedly places where Lord Buddha left his footprints when he magically visited Kailash in the 5th century BC.
From the chaktsel gang we had a clear and direct view of Mount Kailash’s beautiful, awe-inspiring southern face. All the devotees lay down on the ground for a few minutes of rest. Already exhausted by the high altitude I began to wonder if I could carry on, especially when I saw the trail ahead. From where we were, it entered the glacial Lha Chu valley, a flat, rocky wasteland that wound along vast scraggly mountain slopes.
The silence of the party was broken by the ringing of Saradiya Rasa’s cell phone. When she hung up, her face was pale and had a worried look.
“Alexey is in critical condition.” she said. “He has pulmonary edema, the worst-case scenario in high-altitude sickness. Our guide has taken him to the hospital.”
“We need to act quickly,” I said. “Pulmonary edema can be fatal in a matter of hours. The golden rule is to get the patient to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.”
“But that’s the problem,” said Saradiya Rasa . “We’re on the Tibetan plateau and there are no lower altitudes. Our guide says the doctors are trying to stabilize him with oxygen and some medication, but he’s not responding. He is unconscious, his extremities are cold, and he’s shaking like a leaf.”
Everyone was dazed by the news. I stood up quickly.
“OK,” I said. “We’re aborting the pilgrimage. We have to turn around and go back to Darchen to assess Alexey’s situation. Let’s move now.”
“It’s serious, but surely not all of us have to go,” one devotee said. “Maybe one or two of us can go and work with the doctors. We can break into two groups and meet along the trail tomorrow. We don’t all have to break the kora.”
“Forget the kora!” I said loudly. “No kora is as important as a devotee’s life. We need to go back to Darchen as a team. We’ll have kirtan together and pray that Krsna protect Alexey.”
Everyone stood up and we began following our tracks back to Darchen, passing many pilgrims who looked at us quizzically as if to say, “You’re going the wrong way.”
All the way back Saradiya-Rasa was on the phone with our main guide, who suggested that we put Alexey in a car and drive him several hundred kilometers south where the attitude was slightly less.
“It’s not enough!” Saradiya rasa shouted. “He’s in critical condition! We have to get a helicopter in to take him to Kathmandu.”
Even as she said it, I knew it wouldn’t be possible. The only helicopters in Tibet were used by the military. The officials would never give permission for a helicopter to fly in from another country to rescue someone who, for them, was just a tourist. I had read extensively about the region before our journey began, and I knew there were risks attached to the Kailash kora because the place is so remote. Our guide had privately told me that over thirty pilgrims, mostly Indians, had already died on the kora this year, almost all from high-altitude sickness. The situation looked bleak at best.
But by the time we reached Darchen three hours later, Saradiya rasa was making things happen. She had contacted both the Russian Embassy and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing to ask for assistance. She had also contacted a private helicopter service in Kathmandu. She was a miracle worker.
“The Russian Embassy called the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and told them to get into action,” she told me. “The Ministry has called the local Darchen police station and told them they have one hour to get Alexey into an ambulance and start driving him to Kodari, a small village on the border with Nepal, about two hundred kilometers south of here. Once we make it to Nepal, there will be a helicopter from Kathmandu to pick Alexey up and fly him straight to the hospital. It’s a five-hour flight, with one stop for refueling.”
The only ambulance in Darchen was broken down, so Saradiya Rasa quickly arranged a private car. In the meantime, the rest of us visited Alexey in the hospital, which was nothing more than a few rooms with some beds and oxygen canisters. The nurses and doctors all seemed capable, despite the lack of facilities.
Alexey opened his eyes when he heard us enter his room. He spoke a few faint words of greeting.
“Much of the water has receded from his lungs,” his doctor said.
“It could return without warning, though. His condition is very, very serious.”
A few minutes later, the hospital staff helped us move Alexey into the car. Saradiya Rasa and her husband, Sukanta das, were to travel with him as far as the border, and Rasika Mohan das would accompany him all the way to Kathmandu. As they sped off leaving a small cloud of dust in their wake, Nrsimhananda das, Nicolae, Mahavan das and Varsana-rani dasi waved goodbye. Rama Vijaya das stood nearby on his cell phone arranging a bank transfer of thousands of dollars from his account in the United States to pay for the helicopter.
The next morning at 6:15, I received a call from an exhausted Saradiya Rasa. I had been up most of the night chanting and waiting for news.
“The mafia was waiting for us at the border,” she said. “They demanded a fifty-thousand-dollar cash payment to allow Alexey to cross into Nepal. They had weapons with them, but I got out of the car and was arguing with the leader when my phone rang. It was the Russian Embassy following up on our progress. I told them where we were and handed the phone over to the mafia leader. Within moments he and his gang were gone. A representative of the helicopter company was waiting halfway across a rope bridge swinging over a river between Nepal and Tibet. We helped Alexey and Rasika Mohan to the halfway point on the bridge and left them in the care of the man from the helicopter company. They all disappeared into the night. As soon as it was light, the helicopter took off for Kathmandu. The doctor on board called me to say we had gotten Alexey out just in time and with proper medical care he should be OK in a week or so. We’re on our way back now.”
After Saradiya Rasa’s call I collapsed in bed, but a few short hours later I was awoken by Chaturatma das knocking on my door.
“Maharaja, let’s go. Back on the kora. We have to walk fourteen kilometers today.”
The weather was changing for the worse and we didn’t want to lose time, so we rode in jeeps to where we had stopped the day before. After walking for an hour I realized how physically and emotionally exhausted I was from the events of the previous day. I asked one of our guides if he could arrange a horse for me. Bada Haridas and Ram Vijaya also asked for horses. The guide found horses to rent further down the valley for all three of us.
We rode and the others walked at different paces, braving the high altitude. We all chanted and absorbed ourselves in the remarkable beauty of the scenery. The mountains were beyond description. I remembered a quote from the Ramayana:
“There is no mountain range like the Himalayas, for this range contains both Kailash and Manasarovar. As the dew is dried by the morning sun, so our sins are dried when we gain sight of the Himalayas.”
As we moved through the valley a strange sight caught my eye: a flat area a little above the plains was draped with Tibetan flags flying majestically in the wind, and many large vultures were sitting and flying about.
“What is that?” I asked my guide. “A special temple?”
“No,” he replied, “it’s a sky burial site. In our Buddhist tradition we don’t bury or burn the dead. We lay their bodies out in the open for vultures to eat. That might sound repugnant to you, but you Westerners bury your dead in the ground and worms eat the body. Worms or vultures, it’s the same principle. The only difference is that in a sky burial, family members watch the vultures feast on their loved ones while priests chant mantras.”
“Wow!” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “It allows us to confront death and understand the impermanence of earthly life, and it helps us appreciate the importance of searching for the eternal life of the spirit.”
By late afternoon all the devotees reached Diraphuk, our campsite for the night. The yaks, which had carried all our paraphernalia up the day before, were waiting for us. Situated at about 5,000 meters, the site allowed us a view of the soaring, resplendent north face of icy Mount Kailash. I prayed for the eyes to see the spiritual beauty of Kailash, which is described by Srila Prabhupada as a celestial place, quite different from the cold icy granite mountain I was now seeing:
“It appears from these verses that Kailash is situated near the residential quarters of Kuvera. It is also stated here that the forest was full of desire trees. In the Brahma-samhita we learn about the desire tree, which is found in the spiritual world, especially in Krsnaloka, the abode of Lord Krsna. We learn here that by the grace of Krsna such desire trees are also found in Kailash, the residence of Lord Siva. It thus appears that Kailash has a special significance. It is almost like the residence of Lord Krsna.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 4.6.28, purport ]
It was the closest we would come to the mountain itself.
“Could we walk a bit closer?” I asked the guide. “I would like to take a small stone from the face of the sacred mountain. I want to worship it as tadiya, (something connected to a holy place and the pastimes that take place there).
“Not possible” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “The government no longer allows pilgrims to come closer to the mountain than we are now. They used to issue permits for the “inner kora” along a path that runs close to the mountain, but too many pilgrims were killed by landslides. Plus, the area immediately surrounding Kailash has high velocity winds. Many times pilgrims just disappear from there without a trace.”
Exhausted from the day’s walk, we all settled down for a good night’s rest. But sleep was difficult at such an altitude, and temperatures plunged well below freezing during the night. The accommodations were austere. We slept on wooden beds in huts made of concrete without insulation or heating. The toilet was a hole in the ground outside and a bucket of ice-cold water. There was no facility for bathing.
At 2:00 a.m. I crawled out of my sleeping bag to answer the call of nature. I couldn’t find my flashlight, so I stumbled outside and made my way along by the light of a full moon. I looked up at Mount Kailash and was amazed at the sacred mountain’s beauty in the moonlight. The moon’s rays gave the snow a shimmering luminous effect and made the whole mountain glow silver in the darkness. I stood there dumbfounded as if seeing a mystical vision, unable to take my eyes away from the mountain.
Suddenly, one of the yaks appeared from around the corner of a small building and began to charge at me. Its aggressiveness broke my meditation and I ran for the shelter of our room. I made it inside just in time. So ended our first day of the kora, our day of purification.
We began our second day—the day of departure (from the false ego) — after a breakfast of hot porridge. Nobody ate much, as the fire of digestion is not strong at such altitudes. The second day proved the greatest challenge of the kora. We had to walk (or ride) more than ten kilometers upwards to the highest point of elevation on the kora, a pass called called Drolma-la, at 5,630 meters. It would take approximately seven hours. Before leaving I sat down in a quiet place and meditated on beautiful Mount Kailash. I took out my notebook and read several verses from Srimad Bhagavatam trying again to see the sacred mountain through the eyes of scripture:
“The abode known as Kailash is full of different herbs and vegetables, and it is sanctified by Vedic hymns and mystic yoga practice. Thus the residents of that abode are demigods by birth and have all mystic powers. Besides them there are other human beings, who are known as Kinnaras and Gandharvas and are accompanied by their beautiful wives, who are known as Apsaras, or angels.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 4.6.9 ]
Again we made our way in small groups at different paces. Clouds moved in at mid-morning and rain began to fall. The storm we had feared was upon us. Several hours later, cold winds picked up and the rain turned into sleet and snow. Everyone, including our guides and horses, moved at an agonizingly slow and painful pace, our faces whipped by little drops of ice and freezing cold droplets of water. Each step took an immense amount of strength, and I could see everyone gasping for oxygen in the rarified atmosphere, except the Tibetan pilgrims, who walked past us, one group after another, at a steady pace, eventually disappearing in the distance.
I was wearing many layers of clothes, but I was chilled to the bone. The protection of my layers was no match for the harsh weather. As I was contemplating the severity of the cold, a jeep with an open cab and several somber-faced policemen inside rumbled down the rough terrain towards us. When it passed by, I gasped at the sight of a dead man lying face up in the back of the cab, his ankles and wrists tied with rope. He was fully clothed for doing the kora and had apparently died while doing it. I glanced over at one of our guides. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “No big deal, it happens every day.” My lamentation about the cold melted away. I was grateful I was still alive.
Because Bada Haridas, Rama Vijaya, and I were on horseback, we moved faster than the others and ended up far ahead of them. After some time, my horse took me so far ahead that I could see no one behind me or ahead of me. I was alone on the mountainous track, which had begun to ascend so steeply that I had to hold on to my horse to keep from sliding off backwards.
Eventually I came to a small plateau. A passing pilgrim told me it was the famous Shiwa-tsal charnel ground, named after a place of cremation at Bodh Gaya in India. Pilgrims undergo a symbolic death at Shiwa-tsal. It is traditional to leave an item of clothing or a bodily part such as hair, teeth or blood to represent the renouncing of life. In fact, what is being renounced is the false ego—the false identification with the material body—in favor of a true spiritual identity. For followers of the Vedic tradition, such renunciation means giving up all temporary bodily designations such as race, nationality, family, name, fame, beauty, and all material attachments and realizing oneself as a pure spirit soul, a servant of God.
It is said those who are close to that goal of self realization immediately leave their bodies while passing through the Shiwa-tsal charnel ground. I left a favorite hat as a sign of renunciation and prayed to Lord Siva to help me realize that I am an eternal servant of Krsna, but I didn’t leave my body. Disappointed, I mounted my horse again and continued up the steep pass. I was encouraged though, when an old sadhu I had never seen before loudly greeted me, “O Kailash-vasi!” (“O Resident of Kailash!”) I took it to mean that although I
had a long way to go in spiritual life, Lord Siva was pleased with my humble prayers at the Shiwa-tsal charnel grounds.
We continued on for another two intense hours— I, my horse, and my guide. At one point, the guide and the horse both stopped abruptly, exhausted from the steep climb.
“White Lama,” my guide said to me after he caught his breath, “If you are fortunate you will see a yeti. Sometimes lamas see them.”
“What is a yeti?” I asked.
“You Westerners call them abominable snowmen. But your people have little faith in such things. Your countrymen live in mundane lands devoid of the mystics, sages, and rsis we have here in our sacred mountains. Nothing out of the ordinary happens in lands where your people dwell.”
I gazed at the mountains.
“Have you ever seen a yeti?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “But my father and uncle have seen them many times, much higher up in the mountains. They are very large. Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, reported seeing large human-like footprints at 22,000 feet as they ascended Mount Everest for the first time. The footprints are several
inches shorter but at least four inches wider than a human’s. Other mountaineers in the Himalayas have photographed such footprints.
“Hundreds of years ago there was an entire village of yetis near here. It is said that during a feast many became intoxicated and practically killed each other off. Only a few families remain, hidden in the vast mountains and valleys of our Himalayas. They live a very long time because of the medicinal herbs that are found in the fertile valleys of these mountains.”
“It’s all very interesting,” I said. “But I have not come here looking for yetis. I’ve come to receive the mercy of Lord Siva, who can help to destroy my false ego and show me the path back home to Vraja.”
“I understand,” said my guide with a smile. “And if you are fortunate you may even see Lord Siva. But if you are even more fortunate, he will see you.”
We finally reached Drolma-la pass which was festooned in prayer flags. My horse had put in hours of strenuous effort. I marveled at his strength and agility on the rough surfaces, which were steep and strewn with boulders. My guide told me that Genghis Khan used the same species of horse (more of a large pony than a horse) to conquer the known world.
Though I had ridden and not walked up the steep path, I was exhausted from the harsh atmosphere, the altitude, and the cold. A posted sign read, “5,630 meters.” Because of the extremely high altitude, pilgrims are warned not stay there longer than ten minutes.
While we rested I reflected on how fortunate I was to have a horse to navigate my way down the precariously steep side of the mountain. But I was in for a big surprise. My guide broke my thoughts.
“You have to get off the horse and walk for five kilometers now,” he said. “The incline down is too steep for the horse to carry you. We will meet you at the bottom of the mountain.”
Standing alone on top of Drolma-la, I wondered whether I could make it down. I could feel my heart beating fast, and I felt nauseated and increasingly disoriented. A snow flurry descended on the pass and the thought crossed my mind that I might die there at Mount Kailash.
A few moments later, Bada Haridas arrived at Drolma-la and relinquished his horse too. We waited for Ram Vijaya, but it got colder and colder and we decided we had better start walking. Picking my way down the steep slope, I was unsure where I was going. The high altitude was finally catching up with me. I fell behind and lost Bada Haridas. No other pilgrim appeared on the trail.
I managed to walk fifty meters farther before resting on a boulder. I thought about lying down for a short sleep, but something inside me resisted the idea. Chaturatma later told me that when he had reached the summit of the pass a few hours after me, he actually did lie down and felt himself drifting off. A passing Tibetan pilgrim shook him violently to wake him. “Don’t do this!” he shouted. “You will never wake up again!”
Navigating my way down the steep ridge, I saw to my right a beautiful turquoise-green lake that I had seen in photos. It was Gauri Kunda, the lake of compassion. The lake is the bathing place of Parvati, Lord Siva’s consort, and the site of numerous pastimes between them. It was here that Parvati performed austerities to win Lord Siva as her husband. Devout followers of the Vedic tradition bathe in the frigid waters to become free from sin. I resisted the temptation. Watching two pilgrims struggle to get down the jagged hill to bathe in the kunda, I reflected on how simple and sublime the path of Krsna Consciousness is compared to other paths, which encourage great austerities and penance. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna says,
pavitram idam uttamam
su-sukham kartum avyayam
“This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.” [ BG 9.2 ]
What, then, could I say to critics who challenged me and our group for undertaking the austerities and risks of the Kailash kora? I would again quote the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita:
dyutam chalayatam asmi
tejas tejasvinam aham
jayo ’smi vyavasayo ’smi
sattvam sattvavatam aham
“I am also the gambling of cheats, and of the splendid I am the splendor. I am victory, I am adventure, and I am the strength of the strong.” [ BG 10.36 ]
Real adventure is to be found in service to the Lord and His representatives. This is why we were on the kora trying to attain the blessings of Lord Siva. There are, however, easier ways to get his mercy.
At the beautiful and sacred site of Gauri Kunda, I offered full dandavats and took several serious vratas (vows) which I had been planning to take while on the kora. Generally, a Vaisnava does not reveal his vratas, but for the benefit of my disciples I will share one of the vows I took on that day: that for the rest of my life I would not watch, read, or listen to any mundane media: no internet news sites, no newspapers, no magazines, no movies. I imagined the demigods calling out: “Bhisma! Bhisma!” (“How horrible! How horrible! What a horrible vow!”), but I realized that I, as a person in the renounced order of life, should have had the determination to give up mundane news long ago. As Lord Caitanya said to Ragunatha das Goswami:
gramya-katha na sunibe, gramya-varta na kahibe
bhala na khaibe ara bhala na paribe
amani manada hana krsna-nama sada la’be
vraje radha-krsna-seva manase karibe
“Do not talk like people in general or hear what they say. You should not eat very palatable food, nor should you dress very nicely.
“Do not expect honor, but offer all respect to others. Always chant the holy name of Lord Krsna, and within your mind render service to Radha and Krsna in Vrndavana.” [ Caitanya Caritamrta, Antya-lila, chapter 6, verses 236 – 237 ]
One reason for going on pilgrimage to holy places is that in the sanctity of the dhama one gets the inspiration and strength to take courageous steps forward in spiritual life.
Soon after I moved on from Gauri Kunda, I heard the voice of Rama Vijaya behind me. He had been trailing behind me without his horse, but had managed to catch up. He was a welcome sight. The trail was becoming more and more treacherous. Even the Tibetan pilgrims were slipping. Some of them even slid part way down the dangerous slope.
I was struggling with the descent, so Rama Vijaya went in front of me and extended his hand to steady me, but then his bootlace came undone. The slope was so steep that he couldn’t let go of my hand to retie it. Two young Tibetan men made their way toward us and bent down to tie Ram Vijaya’s bootlace. It was typical of the Tibetan people. They were friendly, helpful, and courteous to us without exception. Because I was always in my sannyasi robes they treated me with great respect. Even the poorest pilgrims would offer me money.
After several hours, Bada Haridas, Rama Vijaya, and I finally reached the valley at the bottom of the mountain where our horses were waiting for us. The three of us felt we couldn’t go another step, but our guide told us we still had another ten kilometers to go. We rested half an hour, and then mounted our horses for the final leg of our second day on the kora. We found ourselves in the midst of a terrible storm. Our walking team members caught up with us and we all trudged along shivering through sheets of cold, driving rain.
When we reached our campsite, we found the same rudimentary facilities as those of the previous night. Once our packs were brought off the yaks, I changed into dry clothes and jumped into my sleeping bag to try to warm up. Later that evening as I was dozing off in the freezing cabin, I wondered if the second day on the kora—the day of departure—had had any tangible effect on me. I once again prayed to Lord Siva to help destroy my material attachments and grant me eternal residence in Sri Vrindavan dhama.
We awoke to a sunny morning on the last day of the kora, the day of renewal. “Renewal” means that having gone through so much austerity on the kora, the pilgrim would be purified of sin so that his or her spiritual nature would shine forth. When I looked in the mirror that morning, all I saw was an unclean, bearded, disheveled person. But in my heart I had the feeling I had become purified. That morning I chanted my japa with extra attention and relish.
But the kora was not over by any stretch of the imagination. We still had twelve kilometers to trek until we reached our original starting point, the village of Darchen. The path wound up and down several gorges that run along the Indus River (in ancient times called the Sindu). The gorges were so steep that they were unsuitable for the horses. When we were one hour into the trek that morning, the Tibetan family that had rented the horses to us appeared from nowhere to reclaim them. All that kept us going from that point on was the thought that by evening we could take our first shower in days.
Clouds once again darkened the sky. I looked for a sign that we had achieved the mercy of the Lord’s greatest devotee, that Lord Siva had noticed our endeavor. On a hillside, I saw an interesting formation of rocks that bore distinct impressions.
“What is this?” I asked our guide.
“This is where Siva and his bull Nandi come down to congratulate saintly people on the completion of the kora,” he said. “These marks are the impressions of Nandi’s hooves and Siva’s feet.” As I reached out to touch the impressions, the sky cleared for a moment and the sun burst through, giving the atmosphere a golden hue for just a brief moment. When I finished touching the stones, the clouds covered the sky again.
Perhaps it was just the beauty of material nature shining forth. But maybe, just maybe, it was a sign from above that we had received the mercy of Lord Siva. Certainly, such signs are not unusual in a sacred place that, as my guide had said with such confidence, is inhabited by mystics, sages, and rsis.
Aspiring devotees may also receive and experience such divine mercy. In Bhagavad Gita, Krsna is encouraging non-devotees, not pure devotees, when He says famously:
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” [ BG 18.66 ]
It was late afternoon when we walked out onto the open plain and into the village of Darchen. Our kora was officially finished. We all prostrated ourselves on the ground in the direction of Mount Kailash and paid our final obeisances. I stayed on the ground for a long time, reflecting on the journey and all that I had undergone. It had been an adventure, but having completed the Kailash kora, I would not recommend it as an adventure for most Vaisnava devotees. The risks are too great. But I indeed felt I had become a different person, reborn, purified, and cleansed. While walking the path of the kora, I felt I had also journeyed further along on the path of bhakti.
I got up and took a last glance back at the arduous path we had traversed. Then, without looking back again, I walked forward toward my next service for my spiritual master. But wherever that service takes me, part of my heart will always remain in the mountains and valleys of Mount Kailash. I pray that all the mystics, sages, and rsis who reside there, and, most important, Lord Siva himself, will truly accept me as a Kailash-vasi, a resident of Kailash, that mysterious and sacred abode.