On Tibet’s Holy Mountain

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Hiroyuki Nagaoka/Getty Images
Buddhist prayer flags at the base of Mount Kailas in Tibet, where pilgrims come to walk the perimeter of the mountain, and where some monks and nomads follow the practice of sky burial. ‘Especially in this propitious month of Saga Dawa,’ Colin Thubron writes, ‘people may repair to lie down and enact their own passing.’

Mount Kailas in Tibet is the epicenter of the universe for one fifth of humankind. To Hindus and Buddhists it is the source of life itself, created by cosmic waters and the mind of God, and blessed by the Buddha, who flew here with five hundred disciples. From its foot flow the four rivers that nourish the world, and in sacred scripture everything created—trees, rocks, humans—finds its blueprint here.

Geography has strangely reinforced this. Early wanderers to the source of the four great Indian rivers—the Indus, Ganges, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra—found that each one rose near a cardinal point of Mount Kailas. Situated in Ngari, the coldest and most sterile region of Tibet, the mountain has become synonymous with the remote and forbidden. It was already old in sanctity when Buddhism entered the country in the seventh century. Hindus believe its summit to be the palace of Shiva—lord of destruction and change—who sits there in eternal meditation.

But it is unknown when the first pilgrims came. Buddhist herders and Indian ascetics must have ritually circled the mountain for centuries, and the blessings accruing to them increased marvelously in sacred lore, until it was claimed that a single circuit expunged the sins of a lifetime. The mountain was dangerous to reach, but never quite inaccessible. Only in the nineteenth century did Tibet itself become a forbidden land. And Kailas kept its own taboos. Its slopes are sacrosanct, and it has never been climbed.

But in recent years it has been protected less by sanctity than by political intolerance. In 1962, four years before the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese banned all pilgrimage here (although devotees still circled it secretly) and only in 1981 were the first Tibetans and Indians permitted to return. Twelve years later a few hikers were tentatively allowed to cross the mountain borders between Nepal and Tibet.

My own small journey follows these. But the Chinese suspicion of lone travelers has compelled me to join a group of seven British trekkers on the Nepalese border—we separate at the foot of Kailas—for the charade of not entering Tibet alone. To this remotest province access has always been hard, and police have constricted it further. It is over a year since the pre-Olympics riots in Lhasa, but in this Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa, Beijing’s distrust of gatherings is running high. On the eve of the full moon, they fear a huge congregation under the mountain.

I reach it with two sherpas, climbing along the Karnali River from Nepal. The mountain lies barely sixty miles beyond the border. An espalier of linked prayer …

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