Zhangmu. Gateway to Tibet with a massive concrete archway welcoming visitors to China. Nothing coy there. The police and immigration officials— all Han Chinese— are dressed in smart green uniforms and wear neckties. The only thing is that they tend to look very young, something they feel compelled to redress by wearing fierce expressions. We wait endlessly for our turn in line, shuffling up slowly. When it’s my turn at the counter I try a greeting I learnt from a Chinese phrase book on the internet.
The glowering face behind the plate glass registers surprise and then a weak smile spreads slowly across it. “Ni hao,” he replies politely. The other officials walk over to his station, curious.
“Ni hao...” I try again. Grins in return this time. Hell, it works— even with the Chinese. I then Ni haoed my way past the now smiling guards into Tibet. It can’t be easy being part of an occupying force and forever being looked upon with a mixture of hatred and fear.
My driver is called Wu Shen, and he is a kind man as he also responds to Yu Shen or even Yu Xen and Wu Jin. He’s Tibetan from Lhasa but none of the variations on his name sound remotely Tibetan. We are five in the Land Cruiser including Wu Shen: The kindly doctor and his wife, who have the most touching affection for each other, and the man from Andhra. There are three other vehicles which are occupied by the fifteen who make up the rest of the group. And then the big, lumbering truck with the supplies and the sherpas.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about a trip like this is to be thrown together with a bunch of strangers into a pot for two whole weeks without respite. There’s absolutely nothing to be done but stew. But I am glad of the present company: a mixed group of Indians, NRIs, Westerners, and even a few from the Far East. The last time it was my mother and I with a large group of devout Hindus from Gujrat and Bombay. Indians, who are normally the most fussy and discerning of travellers, seem to believe that to bring along one’s faculties of discrimination on a pilgrimage is to commit the gravest of sins. End result was that when the Tour Leader— an RSS thug— decided that we were to turn back to Kathmandu after four days of journeying into western Tibet, there was hardly anyone else besides us who threw fits and demanded explanations. When it was discovered that the food stocks had run out, indicating a wicked plot hatched in Kathmandu itself (the money is taken in full in advance), and that the claims of bad roads and worse weather ahead were merely excuses, the sanctimonious simply looked up to the heavens and decided that God didn’t think them worthy of Kailash.
And who can be worthy of Kailash, that mountain made as much of myth amassed over thousands of years as rock and ice and snow? The mother of all pilgrimages, most sacred to Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Bönpa alike. The navel of the world, the spine of Jambudvipa, the physical manifestation of Mount Meru, the cosmic axis. Its virtues extolled in the Ramayan and Mahabharat, celebrated in exquisite verse by Kalidas. The meditation seat of all the heavyweights in the pantheon: home to Shiv and Parvati, place of contemplation for Krishna. Milarepa, the greatest of Tibetan yogis wrote his songs on these hillsides; Padmasambhav, the greatest of Indian gurus, the first to subdue the wild Tibetans with the Buddhadharma, chose to spend his last day on the banks of the Manasarovar. Blessed land. And yet will I ever be able to think of Kailash or Manasarovar without the cast of characters who became fellow journeymen? Some kindly, some irritating, some whose memories would fade with time, and a few who would, perhaps, remain friends. All these very ordinary people linked forever to that land; linked as strongly as Shiv or Parvati, or Tara or Padmasambhav in my head, in my very own private mythology.
The river marked the boundary. Until you reach the Tsangpo, the landscape is grand and exciting. After Zhangmu one traverses a land as delicate as a Chinese silk painting: a forested mountainside with clouds curling around the peak, a rocky canyon with a juniper perched precariously on its lip, a thin waterfall plummeting thousands of feet before atomising on a dark, glistening rock. Then, crossing Nyalam, twin of Zhangmu, one enters classic Tibetan countryside: dry rolling hills punctuated by the occasional verdant valley, high prayer-flagged pass, or startlingly blue lake. Then the river, green and benign, which marks the border between land which is inhabitable and land you know could kill you if things were to go wrong.
After the crossing it seemed like we were driving on those roads forever, each long day merging seamlessly into the next. I would doze off, head throbbing, the glare, bouncing off the sere plains, unbearable even behind the Ray Bans and closed eyes, until a bump would rudely jolt me awake. My eyes open, the brain would dully register the unchanging scenery around me: a thin plume of dust marking the convoy miles ahead, the vast Tibetan plain, muted brown, rolling on endlessly until it met a row of low, dun coloured hills at the horizon, occasionally covered by a stubble of coarse grass. All this under a harsh, bleached sky, as vast as the land itself. I’d shrink into my seat after a while to doze again until we’d hit the next bump. I’d come awake and it would seem as if we had not moved at all. Hadn’t I just seen that rock before I went off to sleep? It was like being in an unending dream; not as dramatically disturbing as a nightmare, but unpleasant all the same for its length and lack of tone and variation. This is not the Tibet I had imagined.
Mid-morning of the fifth day, after crossing the Maryum La pass I jolt awake to a changed scenery. The plain we’re driving on has a faint green tint, enough to cause great excitement among us. We had not realised how much the absence of trees would affect us. We had not realised how we take some colours for granted. Someone lets out a cry of excitement. There in the distance is a herd of graceful Tibetan Antelope. Once protected by the sanctity of the Kailash-Manasarovar region which forbade the killing of any sentient being , now it is hunted mercilessly for its meager yield of soft wool which is spun and woven into the Shahtoosh shawl of Kashmir. They bounded elegantly over the horizon.
It was evident that the area afforded refuge to all kinds of beings: little rodents peeking out of burrows, hares darting about, delicate little birds whom I cannot identify, fat phyangs or marmots constantly foraging, and then to my delight, there, bobbing on a swollen stream, a flock of gulls which rose with a racket as we approached, and led us to the lake.
I saw it first. But I wasn’t sure. A small, flat blue disc embedded in the left hand corner of the horizon behind a hillock. I tap Wu Shen’s shoulder and point. He slows down and answers me by closing his eyes and bringing his folded hands to his crown, “Mapham Tso!” he whispers.
Manasarovar. In its centre grows the magical, invisible Tree of Life, which marks the navel of Jambudvipa. When the tree’s fruit ripens into gold it drops into the lake, transmuting the waters into an elixir of immortality. For the Tibetans and Bonpos, Manasarovar is the mother of the earth, just as Kailash is the father. Yin and Yang; the depth of the lake matching the height of the mountain. The Ramayan describes it as the “only true paradise on earth” where “in the form of a golden swan dwells Shiva.”
I have stripped down to a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I now stand before Manasarovar, tears rolling down my cheeks. I am crying with joy, it is so beautiful, this massive expanse of pure, blue water. Fifteen miles wide, fifty-five in circumference. After days of dull sepias, the sudden introduction of a primary colour at this scale shocks the senses. The sky has drained into the lake. It looks anaemic in comparison. The lake invites me. I hadn’t expected this feeling. I hadn’t expected to relate to it elementally, but this is precisely what I was doing now. My cells were singing. I pass the Indians performing their rituals on the shore, gingerly pouring water on their heads, and step into the water. It is electric. A current of something runs up my body. I laugh aloud with delight and wade in further. It is shallow, so I have to go some distance before I am hip deep in water. It occurs to me then, quite gradually, not as a sudden revelation, but as a slow dawning of clear knowledge that this is where life began. Then the realisation that this, all this blueness, is the physical manifestation of love and of compassion. What else to do but to immerse oneself in it completely? But the instinct moves away from formal prayer and ritual and I dive in head first instead, come out gasping at the cold, laughing, dive in again, splash, gambol, play, and drink deeply. Much later, lying on the littoral, drying myself and admiring the mass of peaks of the Gurla Mandhatta which seem to rise out of the waters of Manasarovar, I see two gold coloured ducks skimming along the surface only to settle some distance away from me. The Golden Swans!
On our hurried journey around Kailash, which was to last only three days, we came across a group of pilgrims— three monks and a nun— who stirred a mixture of longing and envy in me. Equipped with a few pots and pans, tea and barley flour for sustenance, sheepskin to sleep in, and prayer beads, they were planning to walk around the mountain a hundred and eight times. When I met them they had done thirty-eight already. After thirteen you may enter the secret valley which connects the main parikrama with the inner one. Far from a heavy piety which marked the demeanour of some of the Indian groups on yaks, they had a cheerful and carefree air to them. I passed them at least once every day of the parikrama and would join them for a cup of tea, sharing my biscuits or dried fruit which they’d accept happily.
How different their attitude to pilgrimage from ours. They had all the time in the world. The old monk must have been at least seventy, and he slowly made his way around the mountain. And here we were, haring around. The groups on the yaks were worse, arms wrapped around yak necks, hanging onto dear life. The Kailash Yaktra! One fell and broke his ribs, the other fell and broke her hand. We found one man wandering around without food and water, abandoned by his group, clearly delirious. One night two middle aged women in thin cotton salwar-kameezes stumbled into our camp begging shelter. There was no medical aid to be had, nothing to be done until you reached Kathmandu, and so the sick and the injured suffered.
In spite of being fit and a trekker, I found the going hard. I cursed often as I’d stumble, exhausted. I questioned the very act of going on pilgrimage with every tired step I took. Climbing up the steep incline towards Dolma La, I remembered Guru Nanak mocking the Brahmins of Benaras offering water to the sun, remembered the eight-four Mahasiddhas mocking ritual, recalled Basavanna’s words: They plunge/ Wherever they see water/ They circumambulate every tree they see/ How can they know you/ O Lord/ Who adore waters that run dry/ Trees that wither?
My reaction to the mountain itself is curious. I know I am supposed to be filled with joy, with religious fervour, but that is not what happens. Excitement, yes, at finally having arrived. But whether it is seeing it through the rain of dust pouring over the windscreen as we traverse the Barkha plain after Darchen, or from closer up, from our camp in its shadow in the Lha Chu valley or Dirapuk, I have a strange feeling of equanimity. At one point, on our first day we had climbed up to a flat topped cliff where the Tibetan’s cut up their dead to feed the encircling vultures for the sky burial. It was a hard climb and we rested for a while before we made our way down again.
The vantage point afforded excellent views of the valley, the mountain, and the Tibetan plains to the south. I began to say something to someone when I realised, that all the pilgrims were sitting cross-legged, facing Kailash and praying with perfect concentration. I fell silent, turned and faced the mountain. It gleamed in the bright mid-morning sunlight against a clear blue sky, a few wispy clouds embracing it. It was splendid in its isolation with no other peaks surrounding it, splendid as a jewel off-set by the ring of dark rock. I was to be amazed by its symmetry, the north side being a mirror image of the south, the east and west, except for the absence of the vertical cleft that marks the south face. Also amazed by the path that along with the mountain at the centre formed a perfect mandala. But there, that morning, with the gentle breeze drying the sweat off my face, I felt I couldn’t pray to the mountain. There was no separation, no subject and object, no I and no Kailash. In that moment everything was equally sacred: the pilgrims, the vultures wheeling above us, I and Kailash.