Jen Baxter goes on a pilgrimage to Tibet’s Mt. Kailash, the holiest mountain in the Eastern world. Photos courtesy of Isha Yoga Center,  India. 

“I’m on this trip because this time last year my Aunt died at Mt. Kailash on a pilgrimage,” Selva explained.

“She went with a group of friends. When they reached Kailash she wasn’t feeling well and told them to continue without her. They left to do the three-day Kailash Kora (the trek around the mountain) and she died before they returned. One of the women told me she looked so peaceful her sari wasn’t even ruffled.”

My body froze and I sat quietly in our hotel while Selva talked.

“You must understand, to Hindus that’s the holiest way a person can die. It’s an honor. At the same time I was confused and angry. I decided I had to do it for myself to understand what it was all about. I’ve heard stories about it my whole life.“

The only thing I could say was, “Did you say she was wearing a sari at Mt. Kailash?”

Mt. Kailash, in Western Tibet, is considered the spiritual center of the universe in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bonpo; a spiritual pilgrimage there is considered be the pinnacle of a person’s life. It’s as important as Jerusalem is to Christians, Jews and Muslims.  The Kailash Kora is the act of circumambulating the 32-mile radius of the sacred mountain. One circuit is believed to wipe away all bad karma of this lifetime; 108 circuits wipe away the sins of all one’s lifetimes and bring salvation.

Isha Yoga Center, the Ashram that organized the trip, had drilled the dangers of extreme weather conditions and high altitude – Mt. Kailash peaks at 21,778 feet – and presented us with a comprehensive packing list of mountain clothing that excluded saris and shalwar kameez (traditional Indian clothing for women): during August, at altitudes of 15,000 feet, we could expect snow, rain and sub-zero night temperatures.

Tibetan Prayer Flags at Mt. Kailash
Tibetan Prayer Flags at Mt. Kailash

Our group of 120 meditators was planning to camp at Lake Manasarovar first, then trek around the North and the South faces of Mt Kailash; Sadhguru would meet us en route. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev is a yogi, mystic and humanitarian, and the heart and soul behind the Isha Foundation. Going on this Yatra (pilgrimage) with him was a big attraction.

Twenty kilometers away and lying at a height of 15,015 feet, Lake Manasarovar is the world’s highest freshwater lake. Taking a bath and drinking its water is said to absolve you of all sins committed during 100 lifetimes. Some consider this extraordinarily beautiful blue and emerald lake to be the source of all Creation, attributed with healing properties.

Selva and I shared a hotel room at the start of the Yatra and along the way we shared beds, duffle bags and long bus rides. When I was asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” her story was like a jolt to my soul. Other pilgrims in our party were asking the same question. Some said they were following their internal voice; some felt mystified as to why. Our common ground was we were all seekers.

What was I hoping for? Raised an American Jew I had no context for spiritual pilgrimages.  The first time I heard about Kailash was during my visit to the Isha Yoga Center in India. That voice inside me said “yes” when I saw the poster. I expected to face (minimal) physical hardship. I knew we’d be in for freezing weather but I wanted a good story as much as I wanted to experience personal transformation. Part of my intention was spiritual growth and another could be what Sadhguru’s calls “a convoluted sense of wellbeing” coming from my desire to be special.

Four buses overflowed with the pilgrims—mostly Indian ex-pats, with a smattering of westerners. Our route started in Kathmandu, and took us over the Friendship Bridge into Zhang Mu, Tibet. Then onto Saga, a dusty, dry military station where we stayed two days to acclimatize; many people suffered altitude sickness. With daily bus rides of up to ten hours, punctuated by flat tires and engine trouble, it felt we spent more time driving than trekking.

Dusk  at Lake Manasarovar
Dusk at Lake Manasarovar

On the banks of the Brahmaputra River, we spilled off the buses for a meditative process led by one of the Swamis in preparation for the journey ahead. 120 modern day pilgrims sat on the banks overlooking the river with closed eyes, trying to be silent.  Someone’s cellphone went off.

“Hello… Ma? Did you get the shoes? Size seven… OK – wait, I gotta go, we’re meditating. Call you later.”

Mike Pandey recently wrote in a National Geographic article, “Pilgrimages are voyages of faith and in most cases, enduring a little bit of hardship, making do and living with less is part of the trip. The surrender of material comforts and cutting down of daily requirements was considered part of the journey towards spiritual bliss.”

I experienced that at Lake Manasarovar. The morning we were leaving, I woke to find my sleeping bag absorbing a puddle of water. In the face of battering rain, my tent had leaked, and my camera, backpack and warm clothes were soaked. The night before, we had been told to consolidate our duffle bags and share one bag between four people. As these were already loaded on the truck (and our individual duffle bags were already on their way back to Saga), I had to make do by borrowing gloves, thermals, and jacket, and carrying my wet clothes in my backpack.

Lake Manasarovar - Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center
Lake Manasarovar – Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

At the same time, Lake Manasarovar – “Lake of Consciousness” – is among the planet’s most beautiful places; a crystal azure lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains that touch the clouds. Colors changed constantly: I marveled at the blue reflection at dusk, the warm orange hue stretched out across the lake at sunset. The morning we woke for a 5am meditation with Sadhguru there was a blanket of golden yellow as the sun rose above the lake.

Before leaving Manasarovar, Sadhguru asked us to think as we walked to Kailash of one negative habit we could relinquish. During a pilgrimage you not only surrender material comforts, but also part of yourself.  We would consciously let go of a negative habit or some deluded expectation.  The majority of our group said anger. “I’m not naïve, you all won’t give up anger,” he called out, “How about angry words? Can you at least try to give up angry words from now on? Just stay silent.” Heads wobbled yes. I agreed silently but reluctantly, while deciding I would come up with something more realistic.

Sadhguru sent us off asking that we be conscious with our every step; we were walking on the body of Shiva and so should walk with reverence. No unnecessary conversation (not easy for this group); just chanting “Shiva Shambo” with every breath. As the valley extended before me I chanted quietly, accompanied by my Tibetan porter on the six-hour trek around the North Face. On my first full view of Kailash I stopped in my tracks and stared at what has been called “a mountain of knowledge and knowing grace”. Tall black rock covered with white snow towering in the clouds. People on ponies rode by with tears in their eyes. I witnessed Tibetan woman in leather aprons and hand clogs inching around the North Face in full prostration.

 Mt. Kailash and Sadhguru - Photo courtesy of Isha Yoga Center
Mt. Kailash and Sadhguru – Photo courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

During our three-day journey back to Kathmandu, with long stretches of interminable bus rides, I felt I didn’t understand the Kailash experience. I didn’t get it. In the day-to-day chaos of traveling with a large group to such a reverent and mystical place, by the end, I felt off-balance and tired. I began looking at my companions with a feeling of friendliness and compassion, like we had experienced something together. A bonding was occurring, yet inside I was feeling I’d missed something. My expectations of a mystical experience or even a “journey towards spiritual bliss” had died. All the uncertainties, the weather, material discomforts, and my own expectations about what a spiritual pilgrimage would be like, caused a sense of loss inside me.

This incomprehension stayed with me as I returned home. Then, without all the daily conundrums, I felt a very subtle shift inside, as if those daily challenges were a necessary part of a much larger process.  Something had solidified, like when a rock breaks open to reveal its crystallized interior. Those crystals have their own energy, vibration and knowledge. Deep inside me something feels transformed. It seems those daily challenges of the yatra were necessary to break open another part of me.

Lake Manasarovar
Lake Manasarovar

You can find more information about the IshaFoundation, yoga, meditation and Sacred Walks programs at http://www.IshaFoundation.Org

This article first appeared in THE WORD – What’s On Guide To Vietnam Travel Section, October 2013.

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