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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 flags has converted the valley beneath its western face to a vast, open-ended oval of dripping color. At its center an eighty-foot pole—three or four pine trees clamped end to end—hovers stupendously aslant, waiting to be raised ceremonially tomorrow, and around it the crowds are already circling clockwise, several hundred people, chanting.

But apprehension is in the air. The trucks of the Chinese police and army have penetrated along the valley—they are lined up opposite us—and every twenty yards, in a cordon around the pole, a soldier is standing stolidly at attention. The police are sealing off an overhanging hillock, and squads of soldiers, wielding batons and riot shields, are stamping back and forth, their march an open threat. But beyond the palisade of flags the pilgrims camp oblivious among boulders, picnicking or praying. Traders have set up shop in tents, and a Chinese mobile clinic is processing people for swine flu.

The only building is a stone hut. Cramped into its dimness, seated at low tables, some twenty monks are chanting and playing instruments. The noise is terrific. They are robed in a medley of crimson, maroon, and mustard yellow, and they span all ages. The emblazoned hats of the senior monks taper up like cherry-red miters while the juniors’ flare into pharaonic crowns that overhang their faces a foot above. They motion me to sit with them. Their tables are littered with butter lamps, bells, bottles of cola, and the stiff leaves of sutras. Aligned in worship, they form a genial gallery of whiskered age and callow youth. Pilgrims crowd in, touching money to their foreheads before they leave it for the monks. A novice collects the notes in a box labeled Budweiser, while another ducks among the chanting heads to serve them bowls of coagulated rice and radishes, which they eat with jovial slurping while they pray. And all the time the unearthly music continues, with its voices like insects stirring, the horns braying their melancholy, the tap of a curved stick on an upright drum, and the watery explosion of cymbals.

It was this Red Hat Kayuga sect, in the twelfth century, that instigated around Kailas the practice of sky burial. Perhaps, as some say, Tibetan culture is death-haunted. Certainly its death cults haunt others. When I escape from the clamor of the monk-filled hut, I see, above the ground where the enormous pole will rise tomorrow, an empty plateau, called Drachom Ngagye Durtro, against the valley wall. On this durtro, or charnel ground, the sky burial of monks and nomads continues. The remorseless Demchog, the Buddhist demigod who dances out on Kailas the promise and terror of dissolution, imbues this durtro with an ambivalent power. Like Shiva, whose ash-blue skin and skull garlands he shares, Demchog is lord of the charnel house, and his followers in the past have inhabited cremation grounds (they occasionally still do) to meditate on the impermanence of life and achieve the truth of emptiness. It is to such places, especially in this propitious month of Saga Dawa, that people may repair to lie down and enact their own passing. So the durtros become sites of liberation. Rainbows are said to link them to the eight holiest cremation grounds of India, whose power is mystically transmitted to Tibet.

A land of frozen earth, almost treeless, can barely absorb its dead. Holy law confines to burial only the plague-dead and the criminal: to seal them underground is to prevent their reincarnation, and to eliminate their kind forever. The corpses tipped into Tibet’s rivers are those solely of the destitute. Embalmment is granted to the highest lamas alone, while the less grand are cremated and their ashes encased in mounds of mud or clay called stupas.

For the rest, the way is sky burial. For three days after clinical death, the soul still roams the body, which is treated tenderly, washed by monks in scented water, and wrapped in a white shroud. A lama reads to it The Liberation by Hearing, known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, by which the soul is steered toward a higher incarnation. An astrologer appoints the time of its leaving. Then, before the corpse can decay, its back is broken and it is folded into a fetal bundle. Sometimes this sad packet—surprisingly small—is carried by a friend to the sky burial site; sometimes it is laid on a palanquin and preceded by a retinue of monks, the last man trailing a scarf behind him to signal to the dead the way they are going.

As the corpse approaches, the sky master blows his horn, and a fire of juniper twigs summons the vultures. The master and his rogyapa—corpse dissectors—then open the body from the back. They remove the organs, amputate the limbs, and cut the flesh into small pieces that they lay nearby. The bones are pulverized with a rock. The master mixes their dust with barley or yak butter, then rolls it into balls. Finally the skull too is smashed and becomes a morsel with its brains. One by one these are tossed onto a platform—the bones first, for they are the least appetizing—and the vultures crowd in.

These birds are sacred, thought to be emanations of white dakinis, the peaceful sky dancers who inhabit the place. Their foreknowledge of a meal is uncanny. The submission of a corpse to them is the last charity of its owner, and lightens the karma of the dead. The birds themselves are never seen to pollute the earth. They defecate in the sky. Tibetans say that even in death they keep flying upward until the sun and wind take them apart.

As I climb to the durtro plateau it shows no sign of life. A healing spring flows near its foot, and a white segment of Kailas shines above. My path winds up into light-blown dust. The sun is dipping as the way levels into an aerial desolation. It is scattered with rocks that may be the remains of rude memorials, makeshift altars, or of nothing. An icy wind is raking across it. The slabs for dissection are merely platforms, smoothed from the reddish stone and carved with mantras. People have left hair and clothing here, even teeth and fingernails, like hostages or assents to their death. I see a woman’s silk waistcoat, and a child’s toy. A palanquin lies abandoned. And now the wind is wrenching at all ephemera and bundling it away—faded garments, old vulture feathers, tresses of hair—to decay at last under rock shelves.

For a while I see nobody but an old couple wandering the perimeter. They move as if blind, huddled against the cold. Then I become aware of a man lying prostrate fifty yards away. As I look he gets to his feet and hurls handfuls of roasted barley into the wind, crying out. I make out a young face, circled in black locks. The wind stifles his words. He seems to be praying not to Kailas—his back is turned to it—but to the cemetery itself. Perhaps he is addressing the dakinis, but more likely invoking the Gompos, the Dark Lords, who inhabit all cemeteries. The followers of these Gompos are the dregs of the spirit world: the hungry ghosts, the flesh-eaters, the rolang undead. By the rite of chodpa the yogi invites them to devour his ego, hurrying him to salvation. And suddenly the man’s barley has finished and he is rolling in the dust. His hair spins about him. He makes no sound. This is no pious grovel but a headlong rotation over the ground, inhaling the dead. Then he lies still.

After he leaves, I go over to the terrace where he had been. Among the boulders I see two long, wide-bladed knives, then the ashes of a fire where a charred hacksaw lies. Then I come with alarm to the center of the platform. A wooden board is there, scarred by blades. There are other knives, quite new, and an ax. They seem to have been discarded. And beneath the board, two bones are lying together—the arm bones of a human—with dried blood and flesh still on them.

I feel a wrenching revulsion, and a shamed excitement at the forbidden. I had heard that sky masters were artists of their kind, heirs to a strict profession. To leave one human piece uneaten will invite demons into the body: they will reanimate it as a rolang, a living corpse, and steal its spirit.

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