This is the ultimate pilgrimage, a trek if you like, that very few people can afford to undertake. But it does grant you a second life and the energy to live it
Why spend a minor fortune to undergo severe hardship, friends would wonder on my return from the Kailash-darshan-Mansarovar-dip pilgrimage this year. But I assure you that the mini fortune spent is worth every naya paisa.
The Yatra takes anything between 10 days with private tour operators and around 22 days through the Government of India package and costs within Rs 2 lakhs from home to home. This does not include charges for porters or horses for the parikrama. The private tour operators do not have an age bar and will take you at your own risk but the GOI stipulates an illness-free traveller below the age of 70.
The routes too are different. The private operators take various routes through Nepal onwards to Tibet, but the GOI takes you either through the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand or the Nathu La pass in Sikkim, the latter shut down this year following diplomatic squabbles with China.
The tour guides start their Yatra in early May and continue till September. But the early May freezing cold is not recommended; I nearly became a Kailashvasini, having braved both the cold and the altitude with a feverish body. So, the best time to travel is between June to September which is when the GOI takes its 8 batches of 50 pilgrims each.
This is a tough Yatra; both for the mind and the body. All comforts are best shunned since none shall be available en route. Yet this is also the most exhilarating Yatra of a lifetime. Here are five reasons why this part of the Tibetan Plateau must be visited at least once in a lifetime.
This is the best eyeball grabber on your social network: This is something which can’t be faked. This is rare. This has a unique value. This can also be called a trek if that suits your sensibilities better. This is not easily doable by others. This helps you stand out. This gets you likes. Makes sense?
This is the most ancient pilgrimage in the world: The Hindus and the Bon Po have been circumambulating the Mount of Kailash, described as Sumeru Parvat in ancient times long before the written word. Later they were joined by the Jains and the Buddhists.
It is remarkable to see the locals doing dandvat parikrama around Kailash. Without food, shelter, oxygen back-up or medication, they patiently brave harsh ultra violet filled days and harsher snowy nights to complete the parikrama. Perhaps it’s because their ancestors have always been doing it; perhaps it’s because they are genetically fortified compared to us plains-folks.
Now that’s something to celebrate. This parikrama of 52 kilometres in the wilderness between 16 to 19 thousand feet is not a mean feat!
This is the Axis Mundi of Earth, the point where heaven meets earth or so say the scriptures. Derived from the Latin terms axis, meaning pivot and mundi, meaning world, the phrase means a pivot point or a line connecting earth with heaven. This cosmic axis supposedly represents the centre of the world and is marked by different symbols in different cultures. In the Indian subcontinent Mount Kailash is believed to be the most revered cosmic axis, the navel or the centre of the world.
This is the holiest place on earth for four major religions, namely, the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the Bon Po people who preceded the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. Mount Kailash is ringed on all sides by six different mountain ranges including the Nandi Parvat which makes it virtually inaccessible to human touch. Legend has it that none who dared to reach across to it has ever returned. Fact has it that no international climber of repute has succeeded in climbing this singular, spectacular block of black stone; some say the impossibility is because of the elevation of Kailash, others believe it is just not meant to be climbed.
The Buddhists believe that the Chakrasamvara - the Deity of Supreme Bliss, a Tantric divinity - resides on Kailash. The Buddha himself had flown to the Mount of Kailash in the form of a black crane, thus making it a pilgrimage for all Buddhists. The Jains venerate Kailash because saint Rishabhdeva attained liberation at the feet of Kailash. And the Bon Po believe that Kailash is the seat of all mystical and spiritual powers.
This is the sustainer of life, having given birth to four rivers : Without this area around Kailash Mansarovar, there would be no water for us to live on. The Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej and the mythical Ganges (Karnali) are rivers that originate here and sustain life of billions of people living in South Asia.
Five things to be careful about:
Foreigners are known to have circumambulated Mount Kailash multiple times. And the locals are masters at being the youngest, oldest and the most frequent to keep doing the parikrama year after year after year.
If you’ve made up your mind to go too, here are five things to keep in mind:
Make sure what you are getting what you are paying for: The Parikrama is 52 kilometers long and needs two nights and three days to complete. Most tour operators have introduced the practice of taking pilgrims up to the first halt at Derapuk and bringing them back to the base camp at Darchen the next day.
The reasons they offer are varied: it being very cold; Dolma La Pass – which is to be crossed on the 2nd day of the parikrama being snowed in – being dangerous; Permits denied by the local authorities etc. This makes for an immense saving for the tour operator because escorting pilgrims on the parikrama is the most intense and challenging part of the yatra.
There is no doubt that a pilgrim is physically closest to the Mount of Kailash during the first day of the parikrama between the Yam Dwar at Darchen and the first night halt at Derapuk. But a parikrama is a full circumambulation of a deity. But the 2nd day – between Derapuk and Zuthulpuk, over Dolam La Pass at 19 thousand feet – is frequently abandoned by most tour operators. This is of course the most challenging part. The third day is an easy descent from Zuthulpuk to Darchen.
The guide fools the pilgrims into believing that since they have come up to Derapuk and seen Kailash from its closest point, the rest of the parikrama is immaterial. So, ask your tour operator clearly as to how many batches of his tour company have actually completed the entire parikrama in recent months. They will realise you are no pushover!
Make sure you do not fall for the two-nights-at-Manasarovar spiel: After convincing you that the parikrama is best left undone, the guide shall tell you that you are getting an extra night at Manasarovar. Fact is no one is doing you a favour. The Chinese system of issuing permits makes it mandatory for the tour guide to keep you in that area for the stipulated number of days. So, you are accommodated at Manasarovar on the night that you should have been at Zuthulpuk.
Make sure you clarify there shall be a Manasarovar-dip halt. Only a few portions of the banks of the Manasarovar are conducive to a dip, where a temporary tent can be put up to change, and the water is safe to wade into. This is the area directly facing Mount Kailash across the Manasarovar. So, do clarify with your tour operator that a dip-halt shall be a specific part of the trip.
Make sure you carry some pure ghee, pure kapoor (camphor) and pure ultra violet protection: This is the driest, harshest and thinnest air you shall ever get to in your life. Dry nasal tracts often bleed and are best treated with pure ghee. Ultra violet induced parched and burnt skin is best prevented by a thorough use of the best UV protection you can get. All run of the mill brands fail, so ask your physician to recommend something effective. Pure camphor or kapoor wrapped in fine cotton (malmal) aids in breathing, especially on the climb during the parikrama, since the ascent is rapid and steep for us living in the plains.
Make sure you opt for a maximum-number-of-days tour that will help you acclimatise better. This is one trip that is best attempted as being directly proportional to time invested in the trip. The more you reduce the days involved the greater the chances of discomfort. No wonder the Government of India takes almost 20 days on this yatra and charges almost the same as do the tour operators for a nine-day yatra.
( Swati Gautam is an entrepreneur, writer and teacher who lives in her world of words)
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