The Himalayas, land of ice and snow, of high barren plateaus and green flower carpeted valleys, have always been dear to my heart. There the air is so pure and invigorating, the spiritual vibrations so strong, that higher meditative states dawn easily and spontaneously. Having been born in the Himalayas, 1 used to experience such states even in my childhood. Often I was inspired by the great souls passing my door on their way to the higher regions where they could immerse themselves for long periods of time in the blissful states of cosmic consciousness. With such strong samskaras, it is not surprising that I left my home at an early age to take up the spiritual life in Rishikesh, where I lived with my guru for 12 years. During this period and also later during my wandering days, I had many opportunities to make long pilgrimages by foot to such places as Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Amarnath, Pashupatinath, and many others. I have also been to Mount Kailash, the holiest of the holy, situated high in the Tibetan plateaus.
Since early childhood I had thought of making this sacred pilgrimage but the actual plan didn't formulate itself in my mind until one summer when I was walking from Rishikesh to Badrinath. My original intention had been to spend the rainy season in Badrinath, but the closer I came to this destination the more the idea of continuing on to Kailash filled my mind. Of course I was aware of the difficulties of such a journey, especially as a sadhu with little more than an old, worn blanket to ward off the extreme cold and no money for provisions. None the less, my mind kept returning again and again to the same subject until finally I could see nothing but the silver, lingam shaped mountain rising up before my inner vision.
In Badrinath I rested for a week at Badrikashram, the sacred place where Nara and Narayana performed their penances. Nearby I visited the temple of Badrinath where Vyasa, Sukadev, Gaudapada and Shankaracharya once lived. Within a few days I met several other sannyasins who were headed in the direction of Kailash, and we decided to make the journey together.
On the first of June we set out for Thholinga the first important place enroute to Kailash. Three miles above Badrinath we came to the cave of Vyasa and spent some time there before continuing on to Kesava Prayag, the confluence of the Saraswati and Alakananda rivers. There we left the Alakananda and travelled north along the banks of the Saraswati. Badrinath is 11,000 feet high and as we travelled higher, the path became more difficult to follow and the cold increased. We could only cover a few miles per day under such conditions, but still we went on and on, crossing mountain after mountain. We had very little supplies with us and accepted bhiksha, mostly flour of roasted grains or a few potatoes, when they were offered. Nights we passed in small villages, if possible, and otherwise in caves or sometimes even out in the open when no other accommodation presented itself.
We were moving slowly towards Mana Pass, the route used by the ancients on their journey to Kailash. This pass, being 18,000 feet high and covered in snow year round, is extremely difficult to negotiate. Fortunately, we made the ascent without any problems, and at the top we rested for a short time at the edge of a celestial lake, the beauty of which exalted our hearts and filled our bodies with renewed strength. From Badrinath to the top of this pass is 35 miles of gradual ascent, and from here begins the descent. At this point India ends and Tibet begins.
We descended quickly and reached the plain on the other side of the pass shortly past nightfall. After a day of rest we began our journey along the Tibetan plateau. On the way we passed by the memorial hoof-prints left in rock by the horses of Rama and Lakshman as they passed through to Kailash along this same route. Now the way was much easier and we arrived at Thholingamatam (80 miles from Badrinath) in a few days. From here the way to Kailash lies directly east on level ground.
Thirty miles from Thholingamatam is the village of Dappa. It has a Buddhist temple and monastery and nearby is a marketing place. Fifty five miles from Dappa is Gyanimamandi, the most famous trading center in western Tibet. The route from Dappa to Gyanimamandi is infested with highwaymen and most travellers move along it in great fear and trepidation. Being poor mendicants, however, we had nothing to worry about on this account. Within a few days, having forded several rivers and crossed extensive plains, we arrived in Gyanimamandi. During the summer season this centre is very active, wool and other local things in plenty being bartered for food and clothing which are scarce. After a brief rest here we continued our journey.
Mount Kailash is only 40 miles north east of Gyanimamandi, and all along the way we had many glimpses of it. In three days we came to the village of Darchan in the Kailash valley. From here we beheld Sri Kailash, fabled home of Shiva and Shakti, in all its austere grandeur, rising straight up from the plain like an enormous spiritual, tower, piercing the very gates of higher consciousness. Sri Kailash is some 30 miles in diameter. Its granite sides rise sharply to a height of 23,000 feet, and its peak is perpetually covered with snow. In the scriptures Kailash is known as Mt. Meru, the centre or backbone of the earth, and now I could see why.
The most important part of the pilgrimage to Kailash is the 30 mile circumambulation around the base. It is traditionally believed that those who are able to complete the circumambulation of this holy peak have fulfilled the purpose of human existence. So after a day of rest at Darchan, we began our circumambulation. On all four sides of Kailash are situated four Buddhist monasteries where Tibetan monks live a meditative life. We passed the first night in one of these monasteries and the next day we crossed the Dolma Pass which is 19,000 feet high. Here is the divine lake of Gaurikunda where the goddess Parvati is said to bathe. From Dolma Pass, we descended to Darchan.
We passed several more days in the Kailash valley before setting out for Lake Manasarovar, 15 miles to the south east. The beauty and holiness of this lake, which are well described in the scriptures, continue to attract pilgrims from all over the world. It lies 16,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded on all sides by black granite mountains whose peaks glisten with snow. After bathing in the lake we sat in contemplation for several hours, inspired by its tranquil beauty and spiritual vibrations.
From here we decided to return to Rishikesh via Taklacote and Dharchoola, the highest point on this route being Lippu Pass at 17,000 feet. From here every step took us farther and farther from the profound peace, grandeur and holiness of 'tapobhumi' the sacred peaks where sages, rishis and saints live an austere life immersed in perpetual meditation on the supreme. We made the return journey, some 250 miles, from Taklacote down to the plains in about two weeks, and soon we were back in Rishikesh. But the spectacular vision of Sri Kailash, rising straight up into the air, its snowy peak gleaming in the sun like a silver diadem, has ever remained with me, as a part of my consciousness, even to this day.