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Tibet: The Lakes in Winter

Tibet: The Lakes in Winter
Photo Credit: Milan Moudgill
06 Min Read

Mt Kailash, and the two lakes it overlooks, are a moving sight even for unbelievers

It is hard not to be taken in by the energy of Kailash-Manasarovar. Even an atheist like myself was drawn back again and again, compelled, it seemed, by forces I did not quite comprehend. Only someone who has been there can understand this draw.

Over the years I made trips to locate the sources of the four rivers, view Kailash’s east face, do the inner parikrama, cross the Khado Sanglam La, and visit a host of significant places linked to the myth of Meru–that colossal mountain at the centre of Creation, of which Kailash is supposed to be the earthly manifestation.

Somewhere, caught up in all this energy, I came upon an account of the freezing of the lakes Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal in the writings of the eclectic Swami Pranavananda. A regular visitor to the region, he witnessed the event in the winter of 1936—37, during a year-long stay at Thugolho Gompa.

The Swami rose on December 28, 1936, sensing something had happened–“There was pin-drop silence everywhere. Like the eternal silence of Nirvana there was perfect stillness all around.”

Climbing up to the monastery’s terrace, he realised that the lake had frozen a mile from the shore. (Two days later, the entire lake turned solid.) With this “there had descended a thorough change in the whole atmosphere (physical, mental and spiritual)”. The experience moved him deeply. “Tears of joy trickled down the cheeks, only to be frozen on the parapet.”

His description of the frozen lakes, and his adventures that winter had me hooked! Can lakes that size freeze over? Quite unimaginable. Yet, he said they do, and, what’s more, solidly enough to support the weight of a human being. He made a tentative crossing on foot across the northwest corner of Manasarovar, but later visited two islands in Rakshas Tal, during a journey across the lake, that he made riding a yak! This had to be experienced to be believed.

In 2006, after years of trying, I finally got a permit, and made my way to this corner of southwest Tibet. These are images from that visit. And, yes, the experience was every bit as magical as the Swami described.

Despite Manasarovar's strong association with Mt Kailash, it is the lake adjacent to it, Rakshas Tal, that the mountain faces and is linked to. All the water draining into this lake is from the Kailash range, while Manasarovar receives none from the holy mountain.
Here, costal eruptions of ice slabs, at the south edge of Rakshas Tal, set up fracture lines that snake across the lake Ö caused by expansion of water as it freezes.
According to Swami Pranavananda
One thing remarkably different in a winter visit to Kailash is the sense of solitude. The only people you see are a few locals gaining merit by circumambulating the lake. Here a family of nomads takes a break during their kora, at the south-west edge of Manasarovar.
Even though we smiled a lot and gesticulated, little was understood between these curious children and myself. However we came away happy for whatever warmth the interaction provided Ö an odd reprieve in an otherwise supremely quiet surrounding.
For the three inhabitants of Gossul Gompa, Manasarovar, 100ft below the monastery, is their only source of water. Every day, when the sun has warmed and softened its surface, the Kushok makes repeated journeys to the lake, to the hack an opening in its frozen surface, from which a jerry can full is drawn out and carried back up to the Gompa.
Looking west across Rakshas Tal, from the top of Lachato, the island in its centre.
Viewed from about 100ft above, cracks and fissures give the surface of the lake an eerie skin-like texture.
Swami Pranavananda, who visited Lachato on April 15, 1937, tells a frightful tale that had played out here earlier. Every year, in the first week of April, two servants of the Goba of Khardung, under whose jurisdiction this area falls, would come to the island. Over two weeks of stay, they would collect two to four thousand eggs laid by swans that nest on the island's shores, and return while the lake was still frozen. However on one occasion, the lake melted without warning leaving them stranded on the island. The two survived on what little provisions they had, on the meat of the few hares that were on the island, and on the swan eggs Ö till they could return the following winter once the lake refroze! But so emaciated were they that one of them died within a few days of reaching the mainland.
On the western and eastern sides of the hill the walled enclosures of these egg-gatherers Ö as identified by the Swami Ö still exist.
Rinzin Motup, one of the two monks at Gossul Gompa, meditates in a ghostly chamber illuminated only through a small opening in its roof and the soft light of a few butter lamps. The ethereal silence of the region is enhanced in winter, which I imagine is perfect for deep contemplation. Through the time I watched him, mesmerized, the monk remained statue-like.
Only five of the seven monasteries around Manasarovar have been rebuilt after they were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. While all the seven are located at the edge of the lake, old maps of the region, quite perplexingly,  place Seralung Gompa a distance inland. Upon making inquiries, the Kushok of Selung, whose father and grandfather served in the same monastery, confirmed that the present structure has been built at a new location overlooking Manasarovar. Here he poses at the ruins of the original Gompa, two kilometers from the lake shore.
We were grateful to the monks at Gossul Gompa for allowing us to shelter at the monastery for two nights. This, the room they provided us, was a luxury compared to spending a night mummified in a sleeping bag.
Here Bhim, my companion from Kathmandu, cooks us Wai-Wai noodle on a butane-fuelled mountaineering stove Ö a royal feast given the circumstances. Beside me (in the red jacket) is Chunda, a Tibetan friend.
A mani wall at Seralung Gompa watches over the grand spectacle of frozen Manasarovar from its north east corner.
That a lake which is regularly moved to waves, can be brought to a standstill, is unimaginable. Yet incredibly the entire 200 square miles of Manasarovar freezes over in peak winter.

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