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Kailas–Manasarovar Sacred Landscape

Understanding a Multicultural Transboundary Region

Shekhar Pathak ( is associated with PAHAR (People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research) and edits a journal of the same name.

Tracing the journeys of three old travellers—Rahul Sankrityayan, Pranavanand, and Nain Singh Rawat—three study tours to the Kailas region as well as to the adjoining Indian, Tibetan and Nepal Himalayas were undertaken along different routes in the last 30 years. These study tours help in the understanding of the larger Tibetan and Indian frontier history relating to Kailas.

(Figures 1 and 2 accompanying this article are available on the EPW website.)
The author is thankful to Surinder Singh Pangtey, Ram Singh, Madan Bhatt, Dan Jantzen, R Chand, Kailas pilgrims (Kailash Pande, Anup Sah, Threesh Kapur, Uma Bhatt, Sher Singh Pangtey, Lalit Pant, Prakash Upadhyay, Chandan Dangi, Pushpa Dangi, Tshewang Lama, Abhimanyu Pande, Mukta Lama, Ashok Gurung, Mark Larrimore, Himani Upadhyay, Rafi Youatt, Chris Crews, Pasang Sherpa, Anil Chitrakar, Emily Yeh, Kunga Yeshe, Rinzin Lama, Swapnil Chaudhary and Nyingcha Duoji) and many traders from India, Nepal and Tibet (Daulat and Damyanti Raipa, Ganga-Yamuna Kutiyal, Jaman Singh Bohra, Chandra Aitwal, Deepak Bohra, Devi Lal and Mandodari Tinkri, Moh Zakir, Govind Singh Rawat, Padam Singh Raipa, Rajendra Raipa, Sunder Singh Bonal, Shyam Kharkwal, Chherring), interviews with whom have informed the understanding about Kailas. The author thanks Rupin Maitreyee for commenting on the initial draft.

Parts of this paper were presented in the conference “Mountains and Sacred Landscapes,” organised by India China Institute, New York in April 2017 and in a lecture organised in memory of R S Tolia, by Uttarakhand State Council for Science and Technology and G B Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development, in Almora in 2016.

There are no mountains like the Himalaya, for in them are Kailas and Manasarovar. As the dew dries up in the morning sun, so do the sins of mankind by the sight of the Himalaya.

Skand Puran

Holy places never had any beginning. They have been holy from the time they were discovered, strongly alive because of the invisible presences breathing through them. Man is amazed or fearful as he feels the vibrations of invisible power in the air; and religions, feebly falling behind like all human institutions, gradually assign various names and different symbols to delineate the mystery.

— Giuseppe Tucci (1980)

The ecological, social, economic, cultural, religious, spiritual and geopolitical importance of the Himalaya as and its centrality for many Asian societies and cultures is well known. The “abode of snow” is home to an imposing geographical biological diversity and a multitude of flourishing human concerns and constructs. These have remained visible in hunting–gathering communities to pastoral–agrarian societies and their settled cultures, and also in the economies of modern trade and industry. The Himalayas have created and developed a unique ecology that has become the basis for the existence of the natural as well as cultural systems of a large part of South Asia. It stands like a subcontinental arc and connects the tropical rainforests of Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh with the sparse and cold semi-desert of Ladakh, and the great northern plains of the Indian subcontinent with the Tibetan plateau. It is dynamic and active in many ways, making the plains below fertile and alive, transforming the landscape extraordinarily. Different communities arrived and settled here over millennia, developing their culture and spreading out in many directions (Pathak 2016).

The Himalayas have created many unique physiographic formations all over its geography, and humans developed these “natural wonders” into their “culture areas,” where they started cultivating their myths and developing these as their “holy” places and “sacred” destinations. Among these wonders, there exists a natural amphitheatre consisting of two beautiful peaks Kailas1 and Gurla, and two big lakes Manasarovar and Rakastal (in short, KGMR). Four great rivers of South Asia have their origins here. All these places are traditionally known to people as “sin destroying localities.” Kailas and Manasarovar are at the heart of this sacred geography. Geology, geography, climate, and altitude jointly evolved this sacred, difficult, beautiful and exceptional region of western Tibet.2 Attracted by these elements, many communities, cultures, and religions related themselves with this natural and cultural complex over the last 2,000 years or more. These include four major religions of the east as well as modern tourists, explorers, scientists, non-believers and agnostics.3

Kailas is a mountain standing with a beautiful crown looking over its reflection in the waters of Manasarovar. According to Kangri Karchhak (the Tibetan Kailas Puran) (Pranavanand 2007: 8), Kailas is located at the centre of the universe, towering in the sky like a handle of a millstone. Halfway on its side is kalpavriksha (the wish-fulfilling tree) and it has square sides of gold and jewels, with the eastern face made up of crystal, southern of sapphire, western of ruby, and northern of gold. Further, it is depicted that the peak is clothed in fragrant flowers and herbs, and that there are four footprints of the Buddha on the four sides so that the peak might not be taken away into the sky by the deities of that region, and four chains prevent denizens of the lower regions from taking it down (Pranavanand 2007: 8).

The KGMR region was important for nomad–pastoral communities and as the interactions evolved among different communities, it developed as the destination for barter trade, connecting different regions of Asia. These trade routes became the pilgrim routes for many communities belonging to different religions, cultures, and regions. This paper analyses the ecological, cultural and economic role that the Kailas–Manasarovar transboundary culture area has evolved to play eventually in the lives of Asians, focusing more on the Kailas sacred landscape (KSL) in the Indian region.

Creation of a Mythic Land

Deities emerge with human beings only. The initial hunter-gatherers or pastoralists may have noticed the beauty of Kailas, but they did not have deities and their initial folklore got dissolved in time and space. The initial myths were born much before the birth of any institutional religion and started with respecting or worshipping nature’s expressions. With the emergence of organised religions, the deities of these religions were visualised to be residing in a mountain or rock, lake, river, hot spring or cave. McKay (2015: 73) correctly observes,

We need to remember that although Puranic references to Kailas represented states or constructions of knowledge about the site at the time they were recorded, such aspects of that knowledge as were empirical must have been compiled from disparate sources–renunciates, traders, nomadic tribes … characters who left no direct traces of their experiences. Collated by one or many agents and authors, permeated through different layers of cultural and sectarian perception, and strategically associated with earlier mythological cycles, the resulting representations were transformed into myth ... different conceptual worldviews enables us to see the historical diversity behind model unities. We may thus analyse them alongside texts of the Buddhist, Jain, and Tantric traditions, each of which preserved and represented discreet understandings of Kailas that were only to coalesce in the colonial period.

He further writes (McKay 2015: 76–77),

These cosmologies informed those of the Buddhists, Jains, and even Tibetan Bonpas, with the Abhidharmakosa, composed by the north-western Indian monk Vasubandhu (4–5th century CE) becoming the foundational exposition of this system in the Buddhist traditions. So in the context of Kailas–Manasarovar, the key feature common to these cosmologies, was the idea of a central mountain, Meru, which was the source of four (or more) major rivers, the identity of which varied in different accounts. That model did not remain solely attached to Meru, but also became a fundamental part of the geo-sacral associations of Mount Kailas. The distinction between Meru the cosmic centre, Meru an actual Himalayan mountain, Kailas in its various conceptions and manifestations became increasingly blurred over time.

The main religions that associate themselves with the KGMR region are Bon, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Sikhism does not directly relate itself with Kailas. In the late 1930s an alternative mountain and lake were searched by Sikh enthusiasts at Hemkund Sahib near the valley of flowers in Uttarakhand.

The Kailas–Manas region was one of the important centres of the Bon faith long before Buddhism appeared in Tibet around the 7th century CE during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (Govinda 1966; Reynolds 2014). This shamanistic religion developed in the remote Zhang Zhung kingdom of Western Tibet! Kang Tise (pronounced as Tije), that is, Mount (Mt) Kailas, also known as Yungdruk Gutseg (the nine-storey Swastika mountain) was the “soul mountain” of Bonpos and was supposed to be the emanation body of Tonpa Shenrab
Miwoche, the founder of the formalised Bon religion and in the words of Govinda (1966) (Reynolds 2014; Vitali 1999), “the Buddha of Bonpos.” Mt Kailas was also imagined as a great chorten (stupa) of rock crystal with several families of gods residing there. Now it is difficult to trace the Bon symbols of Kailas but the idea of the nine-storey swastika may have come from Bon tradition. Later on, many of the Bon symbols were accepted, accommodated and appropriated by Buddhism and Hinduism in their cultural and religious schemes.

The presiding Buddhist deity of Mt Kailas is Demchok or Demchhog4 (also known as Chakrasamvara, meaning supreme bliss) and his yum (consort) is Dorje-Phangmo or Vajra Varahi (also named as Vajra Yogini) (McKay 2015), who is shown in Tibetan paintings and idols, clinging to him in an inextricable embrace and interlocked in sexual union. Adjacent to the Kailas on the western side is a smaller snow peak Tijung, the abode of Dorje-Phangmo. Gautam Buddha and 500 Bodhisattvas are said to be residing on Kailas, which is also the abode of Buddhist Tantric singer–saint Milarepa.

This mountain had four gates, with a Chinese tiger, tortoise, red bird, and turquoise dragon guarding the four cardinal points (Tucci 1980: 285–91). For gaining control of this auspicious mountain Kailas (or Tise) from Bonpo influence, there was a “contest of magic” between Milarepa and the Bonpo priest Naro Bhun Chon. At last Milarepa won. Since that time the Bonpo started the parikrama (or pradakshina or circumambulation) of Mt Kailas in an anti-clockwise direction. Others do it clockwise. The Bon faith was rooted in nature and acknowledged dark and magical forces and deities which governed mortal lives. Many aspects of this autochthonous belief system later reflected in the rise and growth of Vajrayana in Tibet (Mukharji 2014: 208).

For Buddhists, Kailas represents a gigantic mandala (a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe) of Dhyani Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There were 10 sects of the Mahayana school of Buddhism in practice in Tibet when Pranavanand (1939: 55–56) conducted his explorations there before 1940. From the beginning of Buddhism in Tibet, different branches of this religion connected themselves with the Kailas region and cosmology was developed around this sacred geography.

According to the Hindu belief system, Lord Shiva resides there with goddess Gauri, Ganesha, and Kartikeya, also deities in their own right. At its foot is seated Hanuman, the monkey god. Hindus also consider Kailas as the seat of many other deities, including Kuber and name it Mt Meru or the cosmic mountain. The name of the Puranic king Mandhata Mahipati is associated with Mt Gurla, the highest mountain in this area. In Hindu tradition, pilgrimage to Kailas (also Kailasnath) became part of the Char Dham Yatra of Uttarakhand and an extension of Muktinath and Pashupatinath Yatra of Nepal.

In Jain tradition, it is thought that the first Tirthankara Aadinath (Rishav Dev)5 attained nirvana (liberation from all sorrows) near Ghangta Gompa above Darchin. This hill near the south face of Kailas is known as Ashtpada. Guru Nanak also reached there and had dialogues with the Buddhist siddhas (Singh 1969: 115–17, 159–62; Singh and Singh 2004: 3, 5–7, 11–18). Pradakshina is an essential part of each pilgrimage to Kailas and its many forms are still in practice. After completing a certain number of the outer kora (circumambulation) one is entitled to inner kora. It is also to be noted that inner kora is not the pradakshina of Mt Kailas but it is only a journey to Nandi hill (Wollmer 2014: 125–70).

There are many names for Manasarovar in Sanskrit, including Achhodsar, Bindusar, Padmhrid, Brahmsarovar, Hemkoot, and Anabhtatv. In Pali, it is named Anotatta. In the Tibetan wall paintings and tankas, Manasarovar and Rakastal are depicted as sun and crescent moon—symbols of the visible forces of light and the hidden forces of darkness, or as lakes of consciousness and demons respectively (Figure 1). The story goes that Manas was created out of the mind of Brahma, first among the Hindu trinity. Rakastal is also known as Rawanhrid or Rawansarovar. Several other myths about the lakes are still prevalent, such as the story of Ravana, who meditated along the banks of this lake, or that of the golden fish, which went
to Rakastal from Manasarovar by creating Ganga Chheu (the water channel which connects Manasarovar with Rakastal). A detailed study of the scattered folklore may come up with useful stories related to local myths.

Geo-ecological Aspects

In the Asian perspective, Kailas is at the centre geographically and ecologically. According to geologists, the Himalayas (including Kailas region) have come up in the place of Tethys Sea. This geodynamic process was in itself a unique episode in the evolution of the Himalayas. At present, the Tethys Himalaya is a very rugged terrain with sculptured landforms and a desolate landscape. It is made up of sedimentary rocks with their age ranging from 600 million to 40 million years. These sediments were part of the Tethys Sea. Gansser (1994) found Kailas geologically unique, having been elevated to more than 22,000 feet above sea level with its strata remaining horizontally undisturbed, despite being encompassed by steeply inclined bedrock. He also writes that Kailas stood witness to the birth of Himalaya. On its southern flanks, he found ophiolite—a rock formed hundreds of millions of years ago on the bed of the ancient Tethys Sea (Gansser 1994: 98–99). K S Valdiya (2012: 16) puts it clearly,

The Himalaya province ends up against mainland Asia, a 30–60 km wide zone of collision of India with Asia demarcating the margin of India. The collision took place 65 to 50 million years ago. The rivers Sindhu and Tsangpo occupy the collision zone. To the north of collision zone lies the Ladakh-Kailas and the Karakoram ranges. To the east, the Ladakh-Kailas range is represented by the Nyechentanghla or Gangdese range in southern Tibet. To the north is the Karakoram that ends up in Pamir massif, a mountain knot of sorts. These belts belong to an orogenic province older and quite different from the Himalaya. The Holy Kailas (6714 m) is made up of feldspar-rich sandstones, and conglomerates laid down 27 to 10 million years ago in the channel of a broad braided river, a precursor to the Sindhu-Tsangpo. The conglomerate beds rest on the Ladakh-Kailas granites emplaced 70 to 40 million years ago.

Chheu Gompa (monastery) is at the centre of this amphitheatre. To its north is Kailas Range with the dominating Mt Kailas at its centre. To the south is Gurla Range with its highest peak Gurla Mandhata, and seen behind is the Himalayas. To the east is Manasarovar, and west has Rakastal, which receives the waters from all sides of Mt Kailas and also Manasarovar (Figure 2). A circle from Chheu Gompa with a radius of less than 50 kilometres (km), contains the four rivers originating here and flowing in different directions covering large areas of the Tibetan plateau and the Indian subcontinent. These rivers have been given very symbolic names. To the west from Rakastal flows the Langchen Khambab or elephant-mouthed river (Sutlej or Shatadru); to the north Singhi Khambab or lion-mouthed river (Indus or Sindhu); to the east from Mayum La the Tamchok Khambab or horse-mouthed river (Tsangpo or Brahmaputra); and to the south from Gurla range the Mapcha Khambab or peacock-mouthed river (Karnali). In this way, two lead rivers of the Indus–Sutlej system, one each from the Ganga and Tsangpo systems originate from this corner of Tibet. In terms of distance, the origins of Kali, Gori, Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers are not very far from this region.

The waters of southern slopes of Kailas range, northern slopes of Gurla and western slopes of Mayum La with Manasarovar and Rakastal make the initial catchment of river Sutlej, which brings waters to the other side of the Himalayas. All other three rivers originate outside but close to this Sutlej catchment. These three rivers also take very interesting routes for entering into north Indian plains. The Indus flows northwards initially, turns north-west and then south-west after meeting with river Kabul. The Tsangpo flows 1,700 km eastwards before suddenly turning south-west entering into India. Karnali flows south and enters into Nepal at Hilsa (Humla) and becomes Saryu/Ghaghra before its confluence with Ganga in India.

Some of the rivers of the Indus Valley and Vedic civilisations (Panchnad or Sapt Sindhu, which includes Indus, Sutlej or Saraswati) originated in the Kailas area. Initially, the descriptions developed in Vedic, epic and Puranic literature were more mythic than actual.6 Later on, the heavenly mountains, lakes, and rivers became earthly and actual, when they were seen and touched by different communities. The ethnic migrations, barter trade and finally the pilgrimage helped in understanding the complex geography of this region, which was already transformed into the “sacred.” But the ecological relationship of the Kailas area always remained natural, even when the people of the Indian plains were not aware of the origins of these rivers.

These rivers contributed in creating the unique ecology of north Indian plains by giving it soil, water, and fertility and connected western Tibet with eastern (Bay of Bengal) and western (Arabian) oceans through north Indian plains, where the Harappan civilisation grew and which later witnessed the rise and growth of Vedic culture. These rivers evolved the ecological relationship of western Tibet with North India before the emergence of many communities and cultures here. The trade and pilgrim routes came up later along the rivers and adjoining passes.

Before the humans, yak, kiang (wild ass), snow leopard, kastura (musk deer), three types of long-haired mountain goats–tahr, serow and bharal (blue sheep), marmot (large squirrels) and varieties of fish and birds have been part of Kailas wilderness. The plains of Parkha (between Kailas and Gurla ranges) create the environment for wildlife and nomad–pastoral life. The fish might not be visible as moving to other regions but all other faunal and avian species were not restricted by any kind of political boundaries. They continue challenging the man-made boundaries.

The Making of a Cultural Landscape

The idea of sacred mountains, lakes, and rivers is present in all ancient cultures and religions. It was found in all kind of geographies. Mountains were seen as fathers and lakes and rivers as mothers (McKay 2015: 28–36). As discussed earlier, the initial society of pastoralists saw this wilderness and they were captivated by its beauty. Before the invention of myths, they started considering the mountains and lakes as sacred. This was some kind of “folk religion,” if it is to be termed at all. The society did not need poetic descriptions or certifications from the scriptures yet. With the birth of institutional religions, a variety of deities were attached to this landscape.

The Bonpos may be the first to relate this landscape with their religion. Naturally, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, the founder of the formalised Bon religion, was associated with the mountains and rocks of western Tibet. Their region was known as Zhang Zhung. Till 7th century, the Bonpos were the sole custodians of this region, as no other community had been challenging them. The very initial motifs, symbols, sculptures, designs, geometry and colour schemes were created and developed by the Bonpos. The residue of Bon expressions is traceable in different later motifs, symbols, and designs of Tibetan and some other Himalayan cultures.

McKay (2015) has done a very detailed survey of the evolution of this region from the “imagined” to the “actual” one. This transformation has an obvious relationship with the increasing mobility of people and their interrelations. During the Rigvedic times, Rudra was a minor Himalayan god, who later came to acquire a very powerful position (McKay 2015: 36). The Atharva Veda mentions “snowy mountain” and the river Indus only (p 43).

Initially, Mt Meru was described as the abode of gods. Later the names Meru and Sumeru came to be used for many imagined and divine mountains and sometimes they were also used for Kailas. There is a reference in Valmiki Ramayana, where Mandodari cries after Ravana was killed and remembers that she travelled with her husband to Mandar and Meru mountains (Bhatt 2012: 60–61). In the texts of Manaskhand (Skand Puran), Rudrayamal Tantra, Sidh Siddhant Paddhati (Guru Gorakhnath), and Ramcharitmanas (Tulsi Das), Kailas and Meru are described as two different mountains (Bhatt 2012: 61–63). In Taittiriya Aranyaka “Maha Meru” word is used but it is not geographically consonant with Kailas (McKay 2015: 44). Actually, Meru, later on, became the centre of Indian cosmology. In terms of the rivers, there is mention of Ganga, Saraswati, and the Yamuna in the Hindu epics but the rivers originating in the Kailas area, Indus, Sutlej, Tsangpo, and Karnali are notable for their absence (p 59).

The pilgrimage to Kailas and Manasarovar had begun before the emergence of sacred Kailas in the epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana). This is supported by Buddhist and Jain texts. Over time, the sources of knowledge about sacred sites increased. Traders, migrating tribes and renunciates (including tantric practitioners, siddhas and alchemists) were contributing in this scheme through directly gained knowledge (Mckay 2015: 50, 98–101). Beautiful places have the elements of becoming sacred, and the power to influence the human mind as well as the religions created by humans.

Buddhism reached Tibet with several Indic motifs, symbols, and designs. Many of its motifs were also similar to the Hinduism of the time. Some of the symbols and deities transformed and got their place in the Tibetan Buddhist divine hierarchy. Most of the deities, gods, and goddesses of Tibetan Buddhism resemble their Hindu counterparts. Animals and birds associated with these gods were adopted by Buddhist artists. Influence of Tibetan tantric practices was also visible in different monastic expressions. Several Indian gurus visited Tibet and some of them even reached the highest positions. Among them, the best known is Guru Padmasambhava.

Slowly over centuries, Kailas and Manasarovar became part of Indian (Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain) iconography, sculpture and painting. Temples were built and rocks were carved in the name of Kailas. The Kailasnath temple of Ellora is best known among these (Snelling 1983: 23–24). The stone statue of King Ravana lifting Mt Kailas with his 20 hands is well preserved at the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakallu near Badami caves (Dharvad, Karnataka). At Mahabalipuram, the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture depicts Arjun standing on one leg and
doing penance in Kailas. Later the associated stories were expressed thus in pahari paintings,7 too (Vijay 1994: 3–5).

The idea of “multiple Kailas” also evolved as those away from the KSL region or unable to reach Mt Kailas, invented traditions of creating their own “local Kailas” in their regions. Chhota Kailas (Kuti valley, Byans, Pithoragarh), Shri Kailas (Uttarkashi) and Bhurkania Kailas (near Bhimtal, Nainital) in Uttarakhand and Mani Mahesh Kailas, Kinnar Kailas in Himachal are examples of this kind of cultural creativity. There is a tradition of circumambulation of Mt Kinnar Kailas. Uttarakhand’s presiding goddess Nanda Devi’s sasural (the in-law’s place) is in Kailas and “Kavilas” is the expression used for the Kailas in local folklore. Nanda Jaat (a yatra or pilgrimage) itself is a parikrama.

A mountain plateau north of Pashupatinath, Kathmandu is also known as Kailas (Michaels 2008: 196). Same is the case with Mt Khirpani near Tumkot in Humla district of far west Nepal (Karnali valley), a sacred mountain which looks like Kailas, though it is covered with snow only for some months.8 It is visited, circumambulated and worshipped by local communities. Such developments show the deepening of the idea of “KSL” among the Indians and Nepalese belonging to different religions and their sects (Pandey 1989). Simultaneously, trans-Himalayan trade was slowly increasing in volume and benefits.

Colonial Period

The developments in the colonial–imperial period in the context of Tibet and particularly the Kailas region are very interesting and have to be investigated further. The opening of the Himalayas culminated in the opening of Tibet and Central Asia for the British Empire. The European journey of precolonial Asia starts with East India Company and the Jesuit Fathers. The former had trade and transit in mind and the latter had religion and exploration. Jesuit Fathers proved themselves the very first modern explorers of Asia. But a definitive historical shift occurred only with East India Company after the war of Plassey in 1757. Two major landmarks in this history are the establishment of the Survey of India in 1767 (63 years before the birth of Royal Geographical Society, London) and the Great Trigonometrical Survey in 1802. In between many expeditions were sent to Tibet and different Himalayan countries and provinces through different routes.

In 1624, the first Europeans who crossed over a Himalayan pass in Uttarakhand were two Jesuit Fathers, Antonio de Andrade, and Emanuel Marques, as they reached Tsaprang in West Tibet in search of “forgotten Christian brothers” (Ettinger et al 1973: 73–75; Maclagan 1932: 344). They repeated the difficult journey in 1625 with a third missionary Gonzales de Sousa. On 12 April 1626, they were able to complete the building of the first church in western Tibet. This is the old Zhang-Zhung country located west of the Kailas–Manasarovar region in Sutlej valley. They succeeded in converting some Buddhists, though the process could not sustain, as a revolt surfaced against this conversion. Soon the converts were killed and the church was destroyed in 1630 (Maclagan 1932: 344; Mason 1955: 57).

The Jesuits (including Bento de Goes who travelled from Lahore to China in 1603–07 and Stephan Cacella and John Cabral who journeyed from Bengal to Shigatse from 1627 to 1631) became the first to report this part of Tibet to Westerners, although they never saw Mt Kailas and Manasarovar. After these initial explorations of the Jesuits, a few Europeans tried to cross over the Himalayan passes. After 1640, it was only in 1912 that an officer crossed over Mana pass and reached the ruins of Tsaprang (Mason 1955: 58; Young 1919). The Mana pass was crossed by Adolf von Schlagintweit (one of the three famous German explorer brothers) in September–October 1855 and he returned to Mussoorie on 21 October 1855 crossing over Nilang pass. A month before this visit, Adolf and his brother Robert also visited Gartok (Schlagintweit and Schlagintweit 1857: 125–33; Schlagintweit et al 1861: 18–19).

The first Europeans who passed by Mt Kailas through the plains of Parkha in 1715 were two Jesuit Missionaries—Ippolito Desideri and Emanuel Freyre, en route to Lhasa from Kashmir. Desideri describes the mountain and its religious importance but does not mention its name (Fillipi 1937: 126). Ninety-seven years after them, the first Englishman to cross over Niti pass and reach the twin lakes in 1812 was the pioneer British veterinarian William Moorcroft, accompanied by Hyder Hearsay. He called it “Cailas,” and also mentioned another name used by the pilgrims, “Mahadeo Ka Ling.”

Moorcroft described the method of prostration around Kailas. He was the first outsider who described the streams coming from the Kailas range and the river Sutlej as originating from Rakastal. He also found that only a channel comes out from Manasarovar and merges into Rakastal. While returning, he was arrested by Gorkhas near Almora, but was later released (Alder 1985: 126–56; Moorcroft 1818: 380–424). Three years later, Uttarakhand (British Kumaon) came under the rule of East India Company after the Anglo–Nepal war and with the Treaty of Sigauli in 1815–16, a new era of pilgrimage and Indo–Tibet trade began.

G W Traill, Commissioner of British Kumaon, visited the border areas and crossed a difficult pass around 1825. His two reports were based on these visits. He has also mentioned the name of the village Puckasao in Johar as a sadawart village9 for the pilgrims of Kailas–Manasarovar (Triall 1828: 168). In September–October 1846, Henry Strachey made a journey to Rakastal and left behind an impressive description of the area (Strachey 1848: 98–120, 127–82, 327–51). In 1848, Richard Strachey went to the region (Strachey 1900: 150–70, 243–64, 394–411). In 1849, both brothers revisited Tibet and returned from Niti pass (Strachey 1848: 1–69; Strachey 1900: 79–82, 239–42). In 1855, Edmund Smyth and Robert Drummond went to Manasarovar with a boat (Allen 1992: 125–38) and in 1864, Edmund Smyth, Thomas Webber and others again went to the region (Webber 1902). Due to these journeys, the KSL region remained a part of the continuous discussion among the Europeans, especially the British.

During the colonial period, first under East India Company and later under Her Majesty’s rule, a few new initiatives were undertaken on Indo–Tibet trade and pilgrimage. There is a long list of different travellers to the KSL region (Mukharji 2014: 73–87). After the Younghusband mission (1903), Tibet did not remain a closed territory. In the 1930s and 1940s, Swami Pranavanand, Narayan Swami and Geeta Swami initiated an organised pilgrimage with the help of the Shauka traders. This continued till the Chinese takeover of Tibet and after the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet, another era started. The pilgrimage was entirely closed for the two subsequent decades and trade was closed for three decades.

In 1981, pilgrimage reopened and partial trade started in 1990. Thirty-four years after this, in 2015, another route to Kailas was opened from Nathu La in Sikkim. Tibet is also opened for international tourists and pilgrims now. The process of modernisation with more airports, rails, roads, buildings and reconstruction/repair of destroyed cultural sites is rapidly going on in Tibet.

Economic Exchange

There is some truth in the statement that “the lure of gold, not Gods, may well have first drawn attention to Kailas region” (Mckay 2015: 50). It can be added that the basic exploratory tendency of humans was also behind this. Many scholars think that barter trade in the trans-Himalayan region was older than the practice of pilgrimage. This seems to be true that with the traders from different parts of Asia, pilgrims also started coming to the Kailas region, starting with very few initially. This tradition may have been continuing since two to three millenniums.

Gold, salt, wool, borax, musk pods, fly whisks (yak tails), medicinal herbs, mineral medicines, skins, furs and livestock (yak, horse, goat, and sheep) were the trans-Himalayan products and these were exchanged for different grains (rice and pulses), flour, dry vegetables, sugar, metal works, cotton, puru/phuru (wooden bowls) and some other items as per the region/place from where the items were brought (Nain Singh’s Thokjyalung diary in Bhatt and Pathak [2006: 291–315]; Fisher [1986]; Fürer-Haimendorf [1975]; Traill [1832]; Pilgrim [1844: 171–77]; Pangtey [1992: 45–64]; Raipa [1974: 291–306]).

The emergence of Kailas–Manas complex as a multireligious and cultural destination and the rise and growth of many trade marts around it in that area in the last many centuries is a fascinating history of human enterprise and religious quest working together. In a case like this, religion, culture, and economy get intertwined. The vertical trade routes from the Indian subcontinent were directly or indirectly connected with the main silk routes of the Tibetan traders. The nomadic way of life and transhumance was also practised by those who came from the settled pastoral–agrarian societies of Indian and Nepal Himalaya. They are unlike Tibetan nomad–pastoralists. The pastoral way of life was the very natural expression of this geography but cottage industries and barter trade emerged as the endeavour for sustaining the economy and as a means for survival.

During medieval times the trans-Himalayan trade increased and after the coming of East India Company to Uttarakhand and Himachal, it increased further. It is an interesting fact that Tibet was closed for Europeans but the Himalayan communities were allowed to come to certain marts for bartering. However, in the early 20th century, Lhasa was attacked and trade rights were monopolised by the British (Sanwal 1962). This was a significant chapter in the opening of Tibet for the British.

It is well known that the rulers of Kumaon (Chands), Garhwal (Parmars) and Kashmir (Dogra) had captured parts of western Tibet at different times. However, no ruler was able to control this area politically. The Kings of Kumaon and Garhwal even after winning some parts of western Tibet had to return back. This in addition to Zorawar Singh’s tragic end near Taklakot tells us much about the aspects of political sustainability of outsiders in Tibet (Charak 1978: 124–37; Francke 1977: 157–62). Even China is facing continuous protests in Tibet, including more than 140 self-immolations.

Chand ruler Baj Bahadur Chand (1638–78) attacked Taklakot (Pulan) in 1670 for expanding trade activities and he made the trade route safe from the obstructions and attacks of Humlees, Jumlees and Tibetans (Raipa 1974: 48–49; Sankrityayan 1958: 86–89). Laxmi Chand (1597–1621) rehabilitated the deserted Ralam village with people from Darma valley.10 Ralam people have been going to Gyanima mandi (mart) via Darma pass. Panwar rulers Shyam Shah (1611–1629) and Mahipat Shah (1631–1635) attacked Daba (Tibet) as the inhabitants of that area had been attacking and looting the settlements of upper Garhwal for a long time. Mahipat Shah won but his representatives in Daba, the Bartwal brothers, were killed. The army was defeated, and most of its members were killed during winter later (Dabral 1971: 244–45, 254–56; Raturi 2007: 378). The same happened with Zorawar Singh in the 19th century
(Pranavanand 1939: 68).

Some of the gompas around Mt Kailas were administered and owned by Ladakh and Bhutan. Nyenri, the first gompa of Kailas, Darchengompa, and Zutulpukgompa fell under the
aegis of the Maharaja of Bhutan. During the Chinese cultural revolution, these gompas were destroyed and then rebuilt after 1980 (Snelling 1983: 139, 315, 373). F Williamson (qtd in Snelling 1983: 423–25), the political officer in Sikkim, wrote about the Darchin monastry on 6 January 1934,

The Darchin area, including Kailas, appears to have been granted to the Bhutanese some hundreds of years ago by a King of Ladakh. The grant was confirmed by one of the earlier Dalai Lamas, perhaps the fifth. The confirming document is in the possession of the Maharaja of Bhutan. Tibetan dates go in a cycle of sixty years and it has not been found possible to ascertain the date of the document, as the particular cycle in which it was written is not stated.

Williamson further says that this was a controversial issue since 1921, as neither the ownership nor the legal status of the Darchin monastery was clearly defined. In last few years, the gompas have been rebuilt but the old residence of Bhutanese representatives is in ruins, albeit still standing in the upper part of the Darchin town.

It is to be noted that the Shauka/Bhotiya community was fully participating in transhumance and semi-nomadic life with trans-Himalayan trade and commerce. In this way, the seasonal migration of Bhotiyas was closely associated with partial agriculture, animal husbandry, cottage industries, and trade. They became pioneers in Indo–Tibetan trade and later in the pilgrimages to Kailas. In this way, they connected Indian plains with Tibetan plateau through the exchange of products of the two different regions. This exchange not only fulfilled the needs of the communities living between foothills and mountains of Uttarakhand together with Tibet and western Nepal, but it also connected different communities all over this region. For centuries Bhotiyas were the creative link between these regions, assisted by anwals (shepherds), bhurris (servants) and mirasees/tahluwas (shilpkars) (Pant 1989: 28–37; Pangtey 1989: 32). Gorkha oppression bore a negative impact on Indo–Tibetan trade from 1790 to 1815. The border communities were paying tax to three sets of rulers—Gorkhas, Jumlees/Humlees and Tibetans. But trade and pilgrimage continued, involving many others in the process.

The volume of trade can be observed at three different points during the colonial period. In his first report, Traill has described sugar, gur, spices, European cloth (cotton), and coral as the main items of export and shawl wool, general wool, silk, saffron, cured leather, skins, and horses as the main items of import (Traill 1828: 194). Surprisingly there was no reference of salt in this list of items. But in his second report, he mentioned the export items as 30,000 maund (1 maund equals 37 kilograms [kg]) grains, clothes worth ₹ 10,000, hardware/metal items worth ₹ 10,000, 1,000 maund gur, 1,000 maund misri (refined sugar), 10 maund spices, 10 maund dyes (lac and indigo), puru, munga (coral) and pearls. Among the import items were 15,000 maunds salt, borax/tincal 1,500 maunds, wool 600 maunds, gold 100 fetangs (uncoiled gold pieces). The other items were pankhi (large woollen shawl), silk, yak tails, medicines, dry fruits, etc (Traill 1832: 37–44). Traill (1832: 44) also mentions that from 1816 to 1821, the volume of the trade increased and for the first time the use of cash was introduced in the trade. The cash could have been in silver coins, which were later used for ornaments too.

In 1840–41, total export from Johar (Kingri Bingri La), Darma (Darma Pass) and Beans (Lipu La) was of ₹ 79,375 and total imports were of ₹ 1,55,700. The main items of export were sugar candy, gur, cloth, grain, almond, indigo, camphor, dates, pearls, coral, tobacco, hardware and many other things like buttons, knives, and chillies. The total bhelees (a lump of raw sugar weighing 2–3 seer, 1 seer equals 1.25 kg) of gur exported were 12,000, grains 21,000 maunds, tobacco 350 maunds, dates 70 maunds and all kind of clothes were more than 15,000 pieces (Pilgrim 1844: 172–73). The main items of import were borax 17,000 maunds, salt 5,000 maunds, musk 380 tolas (tola has been used in India to measure gold. At present, one tola is equivalent to 10 grams of gold), pasham wool 22 maunds, course woollens 1,300 pieces, gold dust 1,500 fetangs, goats and sheep 1,000, ponies 60, Ladakhi tamashas (3 anna pieces/coins) 7,000 and kaldar rupee coins of silver 15,000. The other items were saffron, shawls, Chinese silk, tea, etc (Pilgrim 1844: 174–75).

In the first half of the 20th century, trade activities were stabilised and increased. The statistics of exports and imports from Dharchula mart (through Lipu and Darma passes) in India for 1922 are given in Table 1.

Pangtey (1992: 54) gives details of the trade from Milam (Kingri Bingri pass) using different sources. According to these, 28,631 maunds of salt was imported from Tibet in 1877; 51,337 in 1889; 37,827 in 1894; 41,022 in 1913 and 21,747 in 1925. In the late 19th century, salt from the Sambhar lake started coming to Uttarakhand, but people still liked Tibetan salt due to its rich mineral qualities. The import of borax was 29,337 maunds in 1877; 53,611 in 1889; 35,717 in 1910 and 31,754 in 1925 (Pangtey 1992: 55). The import of Tibetan wool was 6,225 maunds in 1878; 10,459 in 1897; 14,014 in 1908 and 14,414 in 1925 (1992: 57). Grains were the major items of export and 28,164 maunds were exported to Tibet in 1878; 1,05,444 in 1889; 1,96,183 in 1907 and 36,926 in 1925 (1992: 61). Other export items included misri, gur, dry fruits, clothes, metallic items, fire-arms, match-boxes, munga and tobacco.

End of a Mobile Economy

While this trade continued during World Wars I and II, it experienced a first major interruption in 1949–50 with the Chinese takeover of Tibet and in 1960 it literally stopped. With this came an end to a centuries-old economic activity. This obstruction to the continuity of relationship of different communities was cleared to some extent only in 1981 when pilgrimage was restarted and in 1991 when border trade reopened. This reopening, however, was different from the traditional pilgrimage and trade which had continued till 1960.

The trans-Himalayan trade was traditionally carried out through five Himalayan passes in Uttarakhand. The nearest Tibetan marts were allotted to the trading communities of adjoining Indian valleys. These included Taklakot for Beansees and Chaudansees; Chakra for Darmees; Gyanima for Joharees; Shibchilam for the communities of Niti valley and Chhaprang for the traders of Mana. When the trade was reopened after more than three decades, a memorandum was signed between India and China on 13 December 1991 and another round of talks commenced from 15 July 1992. This was obviously some cause for hope and excitement among the border communities. An Indian delegation was also sent to Tibet to participate in the trade fair at Taklakot in August 1993.

In 1992, the total exports were worth ₹ 12.09 lakh and imports worth ₹ 0.86 lakh. The main import items were raw wool (3,626 kg), pashm (1,404 kg), goats and sheep (3,634 numbers), yak tails (460 pieces) and borax (6,225 kg). The main items of export were textiles, coffee, vegetable oil, unmanufactured tobacco, gur, misri, phaphar (buckwheat) and wheat flour. The 1993 Indian delegation gave many suggestions for further development in trade. Many of them are yet to be implemented (Tolia et al 1993).

Twenty-four years after the return of the above delegation, there has been much change in Tibet and an increase in border trade. Now instead of “tented marts,” the Indian and Nepali traders have a permanent and protected market in Taklakot, though all other marts remain deserted. The numbers of traders from India and Chhangru-Tinkar and Humla in Nepal have increased, but the trade has to be further developed. One could understand the current trade practices from the Indian and Nepali traders based in Taklakot, Darchin, and Hilsa.

The trans-Himalayan trade is no longer carried along the lines of traditional barter; and it has also not yet taken the shape of international trade. This is the end of an old mobile economy. A new start is also visible in a much changed Tibet now. Space and facilities given to the traders of India and Nepal in the main market of Taklakot is a new initiative taken by the Chinese and the local government of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Though the Tibetan traders are no longer interested in coming to Gunji in India for trade, they do come to Hilsa in Nepal near the border. From Hilsa the traders and pilgrims enter into Tibet. It is interesting to note that once again many traditional items are being exported to Tibet from India and Nepal. The puru has become a major item of trade as Tibetans very much like to have it. Puru productions have connections with Kashmir, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Nepal.11

Today when old Indian and Nepali traders look back, they tell the story of change in Tibet also. Half a century ago, the Tibetans used to wait for Indian and Nepali items and grains, and these commodities were essential for them. Now Chinese food items and maida (refined flour) are coming to Nepal with many modern products. Lhasa beer is visible in Indian and Nepali border shops. But many items like gur, misri, and other sweets are still liked. Metal items, wooden bowls, sticks, cloth, ready-made garments are in much demand in Tibet. Nepali restaurants also do good business in Taklakot. Many Nepali traders have been waiting for officially allotted shops as presently they have been paying high rents to private house owners.12

Pilgrimage Routes

Alongside the reopening of this trade, an increasing craze for the pilgrimage to Kailas–Manasarovar region from all over the world has also become prevalent. Currently, two routes each from Nepal (Simikot-Hilsa and Kodari) and India (Lipulek and Nathu La pass) are open. The internal route through Tibet, which has also become a popular route for international tourists, comes through Lhasa. There is a tourist rush from Europe, America and other Western as well as Asian countries. The coming of railways to Lhasa (and now Shigatse) has further increased the number of visitors.13

Apart from being the ecological snout of North India, the Kailas–Manas complex is unique in its cultural–religious attractions. There is no other multicultural, multireligious destination of this kind, where a variety of visitors are seen together. They walk together and talk to each other. In these decades of globalisation, when the rise and growth of monocultures, fundamentalism and parochial nationalism has become eminent, there is much to learn from this region, its nature and culture. Kailas connects, liberates, equalises, democratises, supports diversity, provides spiritual experiences and economic opportunities, and also tells us about the power of the beautiful, sublime and the wilderness.

There is a need to creatively visualise how this region could be developed further as a common destination for different people. The communities living at this tri-juncture, need a sustainable economy, but not at the cost of ecology and culture. There should not be attempts to make this region a Lhasa, Kathmandu, Badrinath, Ayodhya or a Jerusalem. If nature gets minimised from this amphitheatre, there will be a loss of culture too. The pilgrims and traders should try to minimise the encroachments on nature in this area. People who visit Kailas–Manasarovar should feel the place, come back and relate their experiences with others. Such an approach will neither destroy nature nor make unwanted inroads into a culture.

For making the pilgrimage and tourism dignified and decentralised, it is needed that the construction work around KSL gets regulated, more local participation is encouraged and the process of change slowed down. Huge modern introductions in the name of tourism can destroy the very fabric of the KSL. Though the total population of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Bonpos, and Sikhs is around 1,530 million and they make around 21% of the world’s population, very few can think of going to the KSL. The population around KSL and in the transboundary Kailas region in India and Nepal is very little and scattered. They are mostly nomadic pastoralists, considered poor and backward by others. They are self-reliant communities but are involved very little in the activities around. Hence, there is a challenge as well as an opportunity for this entire region and its communities to involve themselves in creative ways.

It is further understood that many areas, especially in the Hindukush–Himalaya region, need to be protected from the permanent human influx. In the past, while these distant Himalayan frontiers were only visited by people, these were not places of permanent settlement, given the climatic conditions and inhospitable altitudes. Today, with the coming up of better medical, transport and communication facilities, there is a need to stress on pilgrimage and minimise tourism. This is directly related to facilities (coming up of big hotels, roads, airports, vehicles, etc) and patterns of consumption (use of polythene, plastic, and bottles). It is to be seen and experimented whether elements of pilgrimage can be made part of the tourism agenda!

In Conclusion

The well-wishers of Himalayan and trans–Himalayan communities can evolve a strategy through which the abuse of nature and culture can be stopped in the KSL region. Regulated tourism and pilgrimage associated with handicrafts, cottage industries, development of museums and training schools for indigenous knowledge systems and care and conservation of the biodiversity in Tibet, India, and Nepal are some creative and participatory ways for a new beginning.

The ecological, sociocultural and economic interdependence of three parts of the KSL region is in the interest of all communities living in the three corners of the three adjacent Asian countries. The international borders are there but the landscape and sociocultural commonalities dissolve these. This is the power of the KSL and the traditions associated with it.


1 The name is “Kailas” and not “Kailash,” as many tend to spell it. “Kailash” is not included even in dictionaries.

2 Kailas stands at a height of 6,714 metres (m) or 22,028 feet (ft), and to Tibetans it is known as Kang Rinpoche. Gurla Mandhata or Memonani or Naimona’nyi is of 7,694 m or 25,355 ft. Manasarovar, also known as Tso-Mavang or Tso Rimpoche has the surface elevation of 4,530 m or 14,950 ft. Rakastal or Lang Tso is at the altitude of 4,515 m or 14,900 ft.

3 Based on personal interview with a Chinese couple and Gansser (1994: 90–111); Hedin (1990b: 89–214); Juyal et al (2011: 535–41); Simeon (2011). Also, noted by Pranavanand (1939: 73–74) as, “Thus the Kailas-Manas region engages the attention of a person of any calling or profession, whether … a pilgrim or a tourist, a hermit or a householder, a clergyman or a tradesman, a treasure-hunter or a spirit-hunter, a theist or an atheist, a scholar or a politician, young or old, man or woman.”

4 Kailas, Lapchi and Tsuri are three most important pilgrimages in Tibet. Each place is associated with a holy mountain. Kailas (Kang Rinpoche), Lapchi Gang, Takpa Shelri, are all considered places of Demchok, the wrathful emanation of the Budhha Sakyamuni. The cult of Demchok was initiated in the early 12th century by Phagmo Drupa and propagated by the Drigungpa, Drupa, and later, the Gelugpa. The three sites are identified as the “body, speech and mind” of the deity (Chan 1994: 208).

5 Mahavira, the founder of the Jainism, was considered the 24th Tirthankara (spiritual teacher).

6 The poem by Kalidasa may be the best with the highest form of poetic expression:

“Having soared upwards, be the guest of Mount Kailas (whose high table-land joints were united (were broken) by the arm of the ten faced one), the looking glass of the Goddesses, whose horn-elevation, like the water lily, stands expanding into heaven, like an accumulated burst of laughter of the three eyed one, (reacting) to every region” (Kalidasa 1868: 36).

Also see poem “Meru” by one of the great poets of English language William Butler Yeats (1996: 177).

7 The school of painting developed in Himachal and Uttarakhand principalities after the decline of the Mughal school of painting.

8 Personal observations during Humla and Kailas–Manas tour in July 2016.

9 The income/crop from the sadawart village is meant for supporting the pilgrims. Goonth lands are also dedicated to certain temples and their crop or income from crop was meant for temple purposes.

10 Personal communication with Ram Singh, who mentioned bahees (handwritten registers) of Chand period in this context.

11 Based on interviews with Bhotia traders in Dharchula, Garbyang and Taklakot in 2013, 2015 and 2016 by the author.

12 Based on interviews with Nepali traders in Darchula, Chhangru, Tinkar, Hilsa and Taklakot in 2016.

13 One Indian Swami and pilgrim, in 1930, visualised the future airports in Kailas area (Tapovanam Maharaj 1989: 288).


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Updated On : 12th Mar, 2019


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