The Spiritual Significance of Mount Kailash: Why Pilgrims Flock to This Holy Peak

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Mount Kailash
Mount Kailash

Mount Kailash, also known as Kailasa, Kangrinboqê, or Gang Rinpoche, is a significant mountain situated in the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China. This peak is part of the Kailash Range within the Gangdisê Mountains of the Transhimalaya, located in the western region of the Tibetan Plateau. Standing at an impressive elevation of 6,638 meters (21,778 feet), Mount Kailash is positioned just north of the trijunction point where the borders of China, India, and Nepal converge.

Nearby, the notable lakes Manasarovar and Rakshastal can be found, adding to the region’s spiritual and geographical significance. The area around Mount Kailash is the source of four major rivers: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali.

Mount Kailash holds profound religious importance across several faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and the Bon religion. Pilgrims from India, China, Nepal, and various other countries embark on journeys to this revered mountain, highlighting its spiritual and cultural relevance.

Etymology

Mount Kailash, referred to as “Kailāsa” (कैलास; variant Kailāśa कैलाश) in Sanskrit, possibly derives its name from the word “kelāsa” (केलास), meaning “crystal.”

In his Tibetan-English dictionary, Sarat Chandra notes that ‘kai la sha’ (Wylie: kai la sha) is a loanword from Sanskrit. The Tibetan name for the mountain is Gang Rinpoche (Tibetan: གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་; simplified Chinese: 冈仁波齐峰; traditional Chinese: 岡仁波齊峰). In Tibetan, “Gang” or “Kang” signifies a snow peak, akin to “alp” or “hima,” while “rinpoche” is an honorific meaning “precious one,” thus rendering the combined term as “precious jewel of snows.” Another local name for the mountain is Tisé, which comes from “ti tse” in the Zhang-Zhung language, meaning “water peak” or “river peak,” emphasizing the mountain’s role as the source of the mythical Lion, Horse, Peacock, and Elephant Rivers.

Tibetan Buddhists call it Kangri Rinpoche, or “Precious Snow Mountain.” In Bon texts, the mountain is known by various names, including Water’s Flower, Mountain of Sea Water, and Nine-Stacked Swastika Mountain. For Hindus, it is the dwelling place of the god Shiva, believed to reside there. For Jains, it is the site where their first leader attained enlightenment. Buddhists regard it as the navel of the universe, and adherents of the Bon religion see it as the abode of the sky goddess Sipaimen.

Alice Albinia lists some of the names of the mountain, highlighting its religious significance across different faiths.

About Mount Kailash

Geography:- Burang CountyTibet Autonomous Region
Country:-  China
Highest point:- (Elevation:- 6,638 m (21,778 ft))
Coordinates:- 31°4′0″N 81°18′45″E

Mount Kailash: The Sacred Mountain

Mount Kailash, also known as Kailasa, Kangrinboqê, or Gang Rinpoche, stands as one of the most revered and enigmatic peaks in the world. Located in the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, this majestic mountain is part of the Kailash Range within the Gangdisê Mountains of the Transhimalaya. Its peak reaches an impressive height of 6,638 meters (21,778 feet), making it a significant landmark in the western region of the Tibetan Plateau.

Geographical Significance

Mount Kailash’s geographical location is both unique and strategic. It lies near the trijunction of China, India, and Nepal, adding to its prominence. The mountain is situated close to the sacred lakes of Manasarovar and Rakshastal. These lakes, like the mountain itself, hold profound spiritual significance and attract pilgrims from all over the world. Additionally, the region is the source of four major rivers: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali. These rivers are lifelines for millions of people across multiple countries, further underscoring the mountain’s importance.

Etymology


Mount Kailash, referred to as “Kailāsa” (कैलास; variant Kailāśa कैलाश) in Sanskrit, possibly derives its name from the word “kelāsa” (केलास), meaning “crystal.”

In his Tibetan-English dictionary, Sarat Chandra notes that ‘kai la sha’ (Wylie: kai la sha) is a loanword from Sanskrit. The Tibetan name for the mountain is Gang Rinpoche (Tibetan: གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་; simplified Chinese: 冈仁波齐峰; traditional Chinese: 岡仁波齊峰). In Tibetan, “Gang” or “Kang” signifies a snow peak, akin to “alp” or “hima,” while “rinpoche” is an honorific meaning “precious one,” thus rendering the combined term as “precious jewel of snows.” Another local name for the mountain is Tisé, which comes from “ti tse” in the Zhang-Zhung language, meaning “water peak” or “river peak,” emphasizing the mountain’s role as the source of the mythical Lion, Horse, Peacock, and Elephant Rivers.

Tibetan Buddhists call it Kangri Rinpoche, or “Precious Snow Mountain.” In Bon texts, the mountain is known by various names, including Water’s Flower, Mountain of Sea Water, and Nine-Stacked Swastika Mountain. For Hindus, it is the dwelling place of the god Shiva, believed to reside there. For Jains, it is the site where their first leader attained enlightenment. Buddhists regard it as the navel of the universe, and adherents of the Bon religion see it as the abode of the sky goddess Sipaimen.

Alice Albinia lists some of the names of the mountain, highlighting its religious significance across different faiths.

Geography and Topography


Topography of the region with Mount Kailash in the background and Manasarovar (right) and Rakshastal lakes in the foreground

Mount Kailash is situated in the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China. It forms part of the Kailash Range (Gangdisê Mountains) within the Transhimalaya, located in the western segment of the Tibetan Plateau. The peak of Mount Kailash reaches an elevation of 6,638 meters (21,778 feet). Geographically, the mountain is positioned north of the trijunction where the borders of China, India, and Nepal converge.

The region around Mount Kailash is notable for being the source of several major rivers. These include the Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Brahmaputra), the Indus, the Sutlej, and the Karnali, a significant tributary of the Ganges. Remarkably, all these river systems originate from a compact area of about 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) in the Kailash region. Additionally, Mount Kailash is situated near the sacred lakes Manasarovar and Rakshastal. Manasarovar is a high-altitude freshwater lake, fed by glaciers, that overflows into Rakshastal, an endorheic saltwater lake.

Geology

The geological characteristics of the region surrounding Mount Kailash and the headwaters of the Indus River are marked by extensive faulting of metamorphosed sedimentary rocks from the late Cretaceous to mid-Cenozoic eras. These sedimentary rocks have been intruded by igneous Cenozoic granitic formations. Mount Kailash itself appears to be a metasedimentary roof pendant, supported by a substantial granite base. The Cenozoic rocks in this area represent offshore marine limestones that were deposited before the subduction of the Tethys oceanic crust. These sediments accumulated along the southern margin of the Asian block during the subduction process, which occurred before the collision between the Indian and Asian continental plates.

Climate Change

Climate change impacts due to global warming are occurring at a rate three times faster on the Tibetan Plateau compared to other regions globally. Observations indicate that the land around Mount Kailash has experienced a noticeable increase in temperature in recent years, with winters becoming less severe. Data from the region suggest that glaciers are retreating, lakes are diminishing in size, barren land is expanding, and the eventual thawing of permafrost could have unpredictable consequences for water resources and carbon cycles.

The intergovernmental organization ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) is actively engaged in efforts to study and address the ecological, social, and economic effects of climate change in this area. Their work is part of the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative, a transboundary project aimed at promoting sustainable practices and generating knowledge to cope with climate change. This initiative covers the Chinese region around Mount Kailash, as well as the bordering areas of Uttarakhand in India and western Nepal.

Mountaineering


Mount Kailash from the south

Mount Kailash, one of the most sacred peaks in the world, has a unique and intriguing mountaineering history, marked by both reverence and the recognition of its formidable challenges.

In 1926, Hugh Ruttledge studied the north face of Mount Kailash, estimating it to be around 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) high. He described it as utterly unclimbable and contemplated an ascent via the northeast ridge. During his exploration of the area with Colonel R. C. Wilson, who was on the opposite side of the mountain with a Sherpa named Tseten, Wilson noted that Tseten had identified the southeast ridge as a feasible route to the summit. However, Wilson’s attempt to climb the mountain was thwarted by heavy snowfall, rendering the ascent impossible.

A decade later, in 1936, Herbert Tichy visited the region while attempting to climb Gurla Mandhata. When he inquired of the local people about the climbability of Mount Kailash, a Garpon (local Tibetan leader) responded, “Only a man entirely free of sin could climb Kailash. And he wouldn’t have to scale the sheer walls of ice to do it – he’d just turn himself into a bird and fly to the summit.”

In the mid-1980s, renowned Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner was offered the opportunity by the Chinese government to climb Mount Kailash. Messner declined, famously stating, “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls. I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder.” His response highlighted the deep spiritual significance of the mountain and the respect it commands among climbers.

In 2001, reports surfaced that the Chinese government had granted permission for a Spanish team to attempt a climb of Mount Kailash. This news sparked international backlash, with many viewing the climb as a desecration of a sacred site. The Chinese authorities subsequently denied the reports and reiterated that any climbing activities on Mount Kailash were strictly prohibited.

As of 2023, there have been no known successful ascents of Mount Kailash. The mountain remains unclimbed, its summit untouched, preserving its sanctity and continuing to symbolize the profound spiritual aspirations of multiple religions. The combination of its religious significance and the formidable natural challenges it presents has ensured that Mount Kailash remains one of the few unclimbed high peaks in the world.

Religious Significance


An illustration depicting the Hindu holy family of Shiva at Kailasha

Mount Kailash, one of the most sacred mountains in the world, holds profound significance for several major religions, including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Its majestic presence and spiritual aura make it a central symbol of divine connection and enlightenment.

Hinduism

In Hinduism, Mount Kailash is traditionally recognized as the abode of Lord Shiva. Shiva is believed to reside there with his consort, Goddess Parvati, and their children, Ganesha and Kartikeya. Hindus regard Kailash as Mount Meru, a cosmic mountain considered the axis mundi, or the center of the universe, connecting the earth to the heavens. It is believed to be a stairway to Svarga, a heaven where the devas (gods) reside.

The Uttara Kanda of the Hindu epic Ramayana recounts that Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, attempted to uproot Mount Kailash in retaliation against Shiva. In response, Shiva pressed his right big toe upon the mountain, trapping Ravana beneath it. This form of Shiva is referred to as Ravananugraha, meaning “the form showing favor to Ravana,” depicted while seated upon Mount Kailash. Additionally, the Mahabharata narrates that the Pandavas, along with their wife Draupadi, traveled towards the summit of Mount Kailash to reach heaven. However, only Yudhishthira, accompanied by a dog, succeeded in the ascent.

The Vishnu Purana describes Kailash as a pillar of the world, positioned at the heart of six mountain ranges that symbolize a lotus. It also states that the four faces of Mount Kailash are made of crystal, ruby, gold, and lapis lazuli. According to the text, Shiva sits in a lotus position, engaged in deep meditation within the confines of the mountain.

Jainism

In Jainism, Mount Kailash is known as Ashtapada, where the first Jain Tirthankara, Rishabhanatha, attained moksha (liberation). According to Jain tradition, after Rishabhanatha attained nirvana, his son, Emperor Bharata, constructed three stupas and twenty-four shrines of the 24 Tirthankaras in the region, with their idols studded with precious stones, naming them Sinhnishdha. Jain traditions also narrate that the 24th and last Tirthankara, Mahavira, was taken to the summit of Meru by Indra shortly after his birth. Indra, after putting Mahavira’s mother, Trishala, into a deep slumber, bathed and anointed the infant Mahavira with precious substances.

Buddhism

Thangka depiction of Mount Kailash

Buddhist texts refer to Mount Kailash as the mythological Mount Meru, which is central to Buddhist cosmology and a major pilgrimage site for various Buddhist traditions. Numerous sites in the region are associated with Padmasambhava, whose tantric practices at holy sites around Tibet are credited with establishing Buddhism as the main religion of the country in the 7th–8th century CE.

Vajrayana Buddhists believe that the saint Milarepa (c. 1052 – c. 1135) arrived in Tibet to challenge Naro Bönchung, the founder of the Bön religion of Tibet. The two engaged in a battle of wits with neither able to gain a decisive advantage. Eventually, it was agreed that whoever could reach the summit of Kailash first would be the victor. While Naro sat on a magic drum to climb up the slope, Milarepa meditated and reached the summit riding on the rays of the sun, thus winning the contest. He also flung a handful of snow onto the top of a nearby mountain, known as Bönri, bequeathing it to the Bön people and ensuring their continued connection with the region.

Pilgrimage

Mount Kailash holds immense religious significance, and consequently, people from India, China, Nepal, and other countries undertake a pilgrimage known as the Kailash Yatra to this sacred site. The tradition of pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar resumed after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950-51. Initially guaranteed by the 1954 Sino-Indian Agreement, access for Indian pilgrims was restricted following the 1959 Tibetan uprising and completely halted after the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Nearly two decades later, in 1981, a pilgrimage from India was reinstated following an agreement between the governments of India and China. However, the pilgrimage was suspended once more for three years starting in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yaks are often used in the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. Pictured are yaks on the banks of Lake Manasarovar with Mount Kailash in the background

The pilgrimage involves a trek towards Lake Manasarovar and a circumambulation of Mount Kailash. The circumambulatory path around the mountain is approximately 53 km (33 mi) long. Pilgrims believe that walking this path on foot is spiritually beneficial, bringing positive effects such as meritorious karma, the cleansing of sins, and good fortune. Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains perform the circumambulation in a clockwise direction, while followers of the Bön religion do so counterclockwise. The journey typically begins and ends at Darchen, a small settlement located at an elevation of 4,670 meters (15,320 feet). The highest point of the pilgrimage is the Drölma Pass, which is situated at 5,650 meters (18,540 feet).

The circumambulation can be completed on foot, or with the assistance of a pony or domestic yak, and generally takes three days to complete, with night camps at Dirapuk gompa, located about 2 to 3 km (1.2 to 1.9 mi) before the Drölma Pass, and at Zutulphuk. One of the most extreme methods of circumambulation, known as Kora in Tibetan Buddhism, involves performing full body-length prostrations over the entire distance around the mountain. This method, which takes about three weeks to complete, involves the pilgrim bending down, kneeling, prostrating full-length, making a mark with their fingers, rising to their knees, praying, and then crawling forward to the mark made by their fingers before repeating the process. Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist pilgrims often sing nyelu songs while crossing the Drölma La Pass, which are believed to foster a sense of fraternity among all pilgrims.

Given the mountain’s remote location in the Himalayas, there are very few facilities available to assist pilgrims. Furthermore, for various reasons specific to each faith that reveres the mountain, setting foot on the slopes or attempting to climb it is strictly forbidden by law.

Mani stones on the path around Mount Kailash

Since the reopening of the pilgrimage in 1981, the number of pilgrims participating in the annual yatra has grown significantly. Before the closure in 2020, several thousand pilgrims from India participated each year. Since 2015, Indian pilgrims have been required to apply in advance to the Ministry of External Affairs, and a specific number of passes are issued through a computerized random selection process. In India, the pilgrimage is organized by the Government of India and is permitted between June and September. Pilgrims from India travel through two designated routes, with border crossings at Lipu Lekh Pass in Uttarakhand and Nathu La Pass in Sikkim. Since 2020, a motorable road has been available up to the Lipu Lekh Pass through the Indian side of the Mahakali Valley before crossing over to China. The Nathu La route, opened in 2015, involves traveling to Gangtok before crossing the Nathu La Pass into China.

In Nepal, since 2015, the pilgrimage typically starts from the Humla district in the northwestern part of the country. Pilgrims also pray to Mount Kailash from within Nepal, where it is visible from the Lapcha La Pass above the Limi Valley on clear days. Before the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake, the major pilgrimage route from Nepal was through the border crossing at Tatopani-Zhangmu. Another route exists through the crossing at Rasuwa-Gyirong. In China, the pilgrimage usually begins in Lhasa, followed by a journey to Lake Manasarovar or Darchen.

The Kailash Yatra remains a deeply spiritual journey, drawing devotees who seek to honor the sanctity of Mount Kailash and connect with the divine.

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