Mountain

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High places have always symbolized the spiritual quest, probably because they seem closer to, and therefore best suited for, people's communication with heavenly beings.  In fact the English word altar means a high place.  

Elevated spots are also limnal places -- transitional locations associated with mystical experience and/or communication with the unseen realms.  For example, a mountaintop in Sinai is where the Old Testament deity communicates the Law to the Hebrews. 

Virility

People in the West, heir to both Classical mythology and to the Judeo-Christian tradition, generally think of the earth as female and the sky as male:  Gaia (cf. geo-graphy) and Ouranos (after which Herschel in the 1780's named the newly observed planet.)  However, this is not universally the case.

Sometimes, the mountain is explained as evidence of Earth's yearning for Sky.  For example, the ancient Egyptians showed the sky, Nut, as a female deity whose star-filled body arches over that of her consort, the earth.  His desire is manifest in the way his body responds to hers, and an imposing mountain can remind us of this physical attraction.  

In India, the iconic representation of the male organ is the lingam, a pillar that usually represents Shiva, the most potent of male deities.  (Shiva is worshiped in that form as a consequence of a curse by the sage, Bhrigu, whom he had slighted.)  The spires of many great temples, including the one at the site of Buddha's enlightenment, are in linga form. 

In this Shaiva symbolism, the object of worship is considered from the perspective of the interior of the surrounding space, a view that is the reversal of the usual western, sexual one.  An impressive mountain is the most imposing lingam of all, and our home is the space where the two meet.  

World Axis

Any remarkable local mountain is viewed as the center of the world.  Mount Kailash  is not one of the giants, but it stands prominently in a remote south-west corner of Tibet, an amazingly symmetrical  22,028 foot striated pyramid with a diagonal gash on one of its faces.   It was described by Julian West of UK's The Daily Telegraph (May 27, 2001) as that    " ... compelling, dome-shaped peak, rising above a desolately beautiful 13,000 ft plateau of rainbow-coloured rocks, ... ."  

Distinctively marked and dramatically centred between two smaller peaks, the 6, 714 metre peak is believed to be the actual home of Lord Shiva.  It is also the sacred seat of Rishabha (Adinath,) founder of the Jain religion and first of 24 Tirthankaras.  Buddhists believe that poet-yogi, Milarepa (11th C,) is the only human being to have stood on its peak, a feat he accomplished by flying there.

In Tibetan, Kailas is called Kang Rinpoche, or the Precious Mountain.  The Bön [pron. Peun] call it Yung-drung Gu-tzeg "9-storey swastika" because on the south face of Kailash can be seen a swastika [Skt: 'self-manifested mark'] which, until the 20th century, was purely a universal symbol of prosperity, auspiciousness, and rebirth.  

This peak is also viewed as the earthly manifestation of Mount Sumeru or Meru, as it is also known.  Sumeru is considered the actual focus -- the absolute central point -- of the mandala that is the universe.  Some scholars think that the name Sumeru is a reference to the ancient kingdom of Sumer that lay far to the west in Mesopotamia -- perhaps humanity's first city. 

Antonio Andrade, an early 17th century Jesuit missionary to the court of Akbhar, the Mogul emperor, and also to the Tibetan kingdom of Gu.ge, was the first European to record a view of the peak.  It was then forgotten by Europeans until Younghusband's British expedition came upon it in the early 19th century.

Mandara

In Indian mythology, Mount Mandara is the cosmic pivot about which the serpent was twisted in order to churn the Sea of Milk at the beginning of Time.  By alternately tugging at either end of the coil, Gods and Ashuras working together managed to extract amrita -- the Nectar of Immortality.  The process also gave rise to butter, the sun horse, and the wishing-fulfilling tree.  

This pivot that is the mountain is believed to be at the very centre of the celestial arrangement -- it marks the spot about which the equinoxes precess.  In other words, the Sea of Milk is the Milky Way, and every 20,000 years or so, the path of the entire solar system wobbles as does the handle of a top.  The point or very tip, that is, the spot about which the entire cosmos spins is Mount Meru.  

Features of Kailas

See the serpent or bow that marks one face of Kailash.  If the mark seems like a bow, then it is the weapon of Skandha, Shiva's son.  However, it is also seen as the mark left by Milarepa's falling drum.

This is a detail from a painting of Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, on the border between Nepal and Tibet.   Giuseppe Tucci, the intrepid Italian scholar, one of the first westerners to describe the temples and the tangkas of Tibetan civilization, while visiting Kailash in the 1930s wrote that it was "the navel of the world; the ladder which links Heaven and Earth; and the great rock crystal palace of 360 gods."

Kailash Parvat, as it is called in India, is in Ngari, a remote, rugged area of Western Tibet, but the terrain has been visited for thousands of years.  The journey to Kailash (or in Tibetan, Tiseh) is an important pilgrimage (Skt.: yatra)  for millions of Buddhists and Hindus, in addition to Jains, and also to Bonpos, the followers of Tibet's pre-Buddhist religion, Bon [pron. beun.]

Pilgrims have the tradition of walking along the circumference of a sacred site.  Walking the 54 km/32-mile kora (Tibetan for a circular path or ambulatory; Sanskrit parikrama) is believed to erase negative karma and/or absolve sins.  In fact, some devoted people prostrate themselves fully, so that they proceed along the rough path around Kailash in the manner of the inch worm.  This method normally takes them two weeks.

  • Leah Lawrence's pilgrimage to Kailash. (Nov. 9-10/02 "Hard Yakka,"
    The Weekend Australian.)

Kailash is a rather small member of the Himalayas.  They are the youngest of the earth's visible mountains, growing at the rate of several centimeters every year as India, the sub-continent and former island moves inexorably inland.  They are home to most of the world's tallest peaks including the two highest, K2 in the west and Everest (Sagarmatha) farther east.  The name of this stupendous range stems from Himavat, the father of Lord Shiva's bride, Parvati.  

Since Kailash is the home of Lord Shiva, for Hindu people it is the highest blessing to take darshan of the mountain -- to be in its presence; to be seen by and to see it.  Every year, several hundred Hindu pilgrims and sadhus in thin orange robes, make the arduous trek over icy 16,700 ft Lipu Lekh Pass into Tibet to begin the 32-mile walk around Kailash and its lakes.  

Arunachela, the red hill in South India, has the distinction of being considered a manifestation of Shiva, himself, and not merely his abode.  

For Buddhists, Tiseh (Kailash) or Kawa Karpo (White Pillar) is the abode of Chakrasamvara (Tibetan: Demchog) whose name is in fact, an epithet of Shiva's.  Tibetans say, however, that the Heruka vanquished the Hindu deity, and so every place that had once been sacred to the Lord of Yogis now belonged to Chemchok [an alternate transliteration.]  In the Buddhist view, the peaks framing it are sacred to Vajrapani (to the left) and Avalokitesvara, Manjughosha, Shivari and Norsung (to the right.)

Doing Kora

Some Tibetans take several years to complete their pilgrimage since they travel long distances on foot.  The most devout or the more dedicated practitioners perform a succession of outstretched full prostrations using wooden boards to ease their way. However, even those who do not make full prostrations perform the circumambulation or kora, mostly in a clockwise fashion.  According to Chan's A Pilgrimage Guide to Tibet, unlike Hindu, Jain and Buddhist pilgrims, Bon people proceed in a counter-clockwise  fashion, contrary to the others.

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, circumambulation of Kailash and lake Manasarovar in the Year of the Horse, especially during Sagadawa, brings far greater merit than at any other time.  At that time, the number of pilgrims is greater. The next Year of the Horse is 2014.

Chokhor Deuchen is the yearly festival that takes place on the 4th day of the 6th Tibetan month to commemorate Shakyamuni's first sermon or "Turning."   People visit  monasteries and stupas to do kora, but the circumambulation of mountains is the most popular practice and affords an opportunity for picnicking and singing and dancing.

Hanuman's Mountain

Mount Kailash also appears in the epic poem, RamayanaHanuman, child of the wind, Vayu, is Prince Rama's friend.  He was sent on a mission to fetch the sanjwini herb.  This panacea would be able to restore the dying and even those already dead, such as the soldiers away at battle with the rakshasas of Ravana's army in far Lanka

In desperation, frustration, or just because he could, when unable to identify the magical plant, Hanuman picked up the mountain and brought it entire to Lanka. 

When enough herbs were collected, he tossed the mountain back in the direction where he had got it, but it landed in such a way that the snow off  Tiseh (Kailash) dropped into Tibet. 

Milarepa's Mountain

"There is no place more powerful for practice, more blessed, or more marvelous than this.  May all pilgrims and practitioners be welcome!" 

~ Jetsun Milarepa (1052–1136,) about Kailash. 

Once, Jetsun Milarepa and a Bonpo priest argued over pilgrimage rights to Mt. Kailash. They agreed that whoever first reached the summit in the morning would be the acknowledged "proprietor".

At the very first glimmer of dawn, shaman Naro Bon-chung set out on his big flat drum,  beating it steadily to make it rise.  Milarepa waited until the sun's rays reached the top of Tiseh, and then slid up them as they flashed on the summit.

"When Milarepa looked down and the surprised Bonpo looked up and saw him, so disconcerted and shocked was he that he dropped his drum and it broke in two and fell.  It is said that the marks made from the falling pieces of the drum can still be seen on the mountain." ~ Ugyen Dorje of Pangboche

Not since the 11th century when the Tibetan poet and yogi was seen transported to its top on the rays of the morning sun, has any person actually set foot on the summit of Kailash.  

Kubera's Mountain

Mount Kailash is also the residence of Kubera, god of wealth who is chief among the yakshas or worldly spirits.   The offspring of Shiva and Parvati, among other deities, and also saintly and accomplished beings able to grant the wishes of those living below, reside in these supreme mountains.  The water that flows down into the sacred rivers brings blessings and benefits to all those who live below them. 

The Source of All-good

Kailash, in south-west Tibet near the Nepalese border, is not only the source of the Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Indus rivers, but it is also the mythical point of emergence of goddess Ganga -- that most sacred of all rivers, the Ganges.  Once, she only existed as a heavenly stream, but Shiva perceived that her water would benefit the earth, and he offered the cushion of his matted locks of hair when she descended in order to avert a disastrous flood.  

Tibetan thangka of the mountain and the lakes at its base.

Union of Opposites

Swami Pranavananda, the Hindu teacher, is credited with having demonstrated to Westerners in the 1940s the distinctive qualities of the environment surrounding Kailash, but local Tibetans and visiting pilgrims were well aware of them.   At the base of the Holy Mountain are two very different lakes:  One is dark while the other is light; one is  round and the other long; one is lined with white pebbles, but it is not far from the other lined with black ones.   

At the foot of the mountain at about 15, 000 feet is Lake Manasarovar (Tib. Mapham Tso), a fifteen-mile-wide circle of deep blue which is the feminine complement to the male symbol that is the mountain.  Tibetans say that when the World Emperor [Chakravartin] Nug Bam was cooking rice to feed the entire world, the hot water that was strained from the pot cooled and became the lake.

Bathing in the icy sapphire water of Lake Manasarovar is considered to remove the sins of innumerable lifetimes.

Opposite to it is the narrower Rakshasa Tal, whose waters are much darker and forbidding. 

". . . the demon-king Ravana, who was a great devotee of Lord Siva,
performed many austerities and asked a boon of the Lord.  Ravana asked that the Lord should come and reside in his kingdom, Lanka, leaving the Kailas valley. The Lord agreed and offered Himself to Ravana as a Lingam [sacred phallus] subject to one condition -- that Ravana cannot keep Him down on the earth anywhere on the way.  

The gods in the heavens were worried. How can they let the Lord leave His Abode? They instructed the God of Water, Varuna, to enter Ravana’s stomach. When he started walking with the heavy Siva Lingam, Ravana felt that he had to ease himself urgently. But how [could] he do so without putting down the heavy lingam? 

He searched for someone [to carry it for him for a] time. He spotted a young Brahmin and requested him to hold the lingam. The brahmin lad, who was none other than Lord Ganesha, agreed.  But since the God of Water himself had inhabited Ravana’s [belly] there was a continuous flow of water out of Ravana which formed this lake Raksasa Tal (also called . . . Ravana Tal).  Since Ravana [was delaying] his return, the brahmin could not hold the lingam any longer and put it down.  Thus the Holy Lingam in the form of Kailas remained in its original place." 

~ Atmeshananda Swami, a Hindu, recounts his 1999 pilgrimage.

 

Everest

More than 1, 300 climbers have scaled the mountain known as Everest since Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary first "conquered"  the 8, 848-metre (29, 028-foot) peak in May 1953.  Few realized that they were treading on sacred ground.

In a typically materialist manner, Westerners are impressed by Everest's size, not realizing that though it is visually impressive, it is not nearly considered as holy as Kailash.  It is, however, seen by Tibetans as the abode of one of the Five Long Life Sisters, sworn to Buddhism by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava.)  The name of the goddess is often given as Jomolungma, (or, Chinese pinyin: Qomolungma) but that is only a contraction; her full name is Miyo-Lang-Sangma, meaning Immovable Goddess-Protector of Bulls

Each one of the female deities that dwell on the 5 impressive peaks overlooking Tibet's southern border has the power to confer a special boon.  Miyo can bestow plentiful food, Tashi Tseringma's gift is long life, Tekar Dosangma grants luck, Chopen Dinsangma grants wealth, and Thingri Shelsangma can bestow psychic powers. 

Miyolang Sangma

In murals at Rongbuk and Tengboche, Buddhist monasteries on the north and south sides of Everest, Jomo Miyolang-sangma, is portrayed as a golden goddess riding a tiger and holding a bowl of tsampa (roasted barley flour) and a jewel-spitting mongoose.  

In the tangka reproduced in Jamling Norgay's book about his relationship with his father, she is a mature woman fully clothed in flowing garments of many colours, seated side-saddle on the tiger who faces to her right (our left) while she holds a myrobalan fruit in her right hand, and a compote-type of dish containing a pyramidal arrangement of jewels or round fruit ( or balls of tsampa, or dumplings?) in her left.  The tiger strides through space above a blue lake surrounded by eight trees of various kinds, including pines and flowering ones.  The Great Mountain is in the background, surmounted by Guru Rinpoche wearing a red pandit's hood.  Ribbon-like rainbows radiate from him in six directions.   To either side are the sun and the full moon.

Every year, at the festival of Mani Rimdu at Tengboche Monastery, the monks dedicate a yak to her that is then released to wander the mountains in freedom.  Bernbaum (Sacred Mountains of the World 1990) says that the Tengboche Rinpoche refers to Miyosangma as "mother goddess of the earth."  

In Nepal, Everest is called Sagarmatha, but Bernbaum claims this name is a recent one. Its meaning is often given as "Sky Forehead," but it seems more likely to be a corruption of the Sanskrit sagarmanthana (churn of the ocean.)  This is again a reference to the process by which the gods used a mythic mountain to extract nectar from the oceans. 

More Sacred Peaks 

Everest is not the most sacred peak in the Khumbu region.  That honor belongs to Kumbhila (Kumbu Yul-lha,) where Namche Bazaar is situated.  According to Bernbaum, Kumbhila is one of the 21 demons or nature deities that Guru Rinpoche subdued, but kumbh is the container featured in the myth of the Churning of the Sea. There is a demon associated with that Indian myth. 

The Rolwaling region includes Chomolhari, (or, Qomohari) the home of Tashi Tseringma and western Bhutan's most sacred mountain, and also Gauri Shankar, at 7134 m. once considered the world's highest peak.  Gauri is another name for Parvati, bride of Shiva (Shankar.)

Gauri Shankar

A terrible story about Mt. Gauri Shankar is told in Bhagat and Sherpa (1994):

One day, while Gauri was keeping watch over her husband the Great Yogi, who sat in profound samadhi, she noticed a group of men struggling up the slope.  She gently alerted her husband, but he became furious and threatened to destroy them by flicking his fingers to cause an avalanche.  

Gauri protected the men, saying, "Let them come a little closer so that I may see the colour of the leader's eyes. He seems so handsome." 

As the expedition got nearer, Shankar became more unsettled, threatening to blow in their direction and cause mighty winds that would sweep them away.

But Gauri said, "Let them come only a little further.  I cannot yet see the colour of his eyes."

As the expedition reached the final stretch, Gauri said, "He is so handsome, and his eyes are blue. Now, my Lord, do as you will."  

And so the climbers die. 

You CAN take it with you!

Figuratively

People are tremendously adaptable, and there are many different examples in the world where a people that has migrated to new territory applies the symbolism of the old country's geography to the new place.  This can also happen when a group convert to a new religion.  Jews can walk to Jerusalem in Montreal.  Tibetans can perform pilgrimages to the holy sites in India without leaving their own country.  Conversely, they can also name or rather, re-create, monasteries in India eg. Sera in Bylakuppe, India, [<fun link] after the ones in their homeland. 

India in China

One Buddhist "mythological" landscape that was created in China is Tai Shan,  China's most sacred mountain, but it is not solely Buddhist -- just as Kailash is not either.

"There is an expression in Chinese, san shan wu yue, that is, three peaks and five mountains. The three are Wutai  Shan (Shanxi Province,) Putuo Shan (Zhejiang Province) and Emei Shan  (Sichuan Province) are sacred Buddhist peaks.  There are in fact four sacred Buddhist peaks in China -- Jiuhua Shan (Anhui Province) is the other.  

China's five sacred Taoist peaks make up the five mountains. In the  East there is Tai Shan (Shandong Province), in the West there is Hua Shan  (Shanxi Province), to the South lies Heng Shan (Hunan Province), another  Heng Shan (Hebei Province) looms in the North, and Song Shan (Henan  Province) sits in the middle. .. ."

~M. Meyers for China Now.

Literally

"Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints."

Ryan Nakashima (AFP: Tokyo, Sept 9/01) UNESCO holds summit on sacred Asian mountains:  

Across Asia mountains such as Tibet's Mount Kailash or Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka, are revered as sacred sites, yet are strewn with garbage or have been commercialized to an unholy extent.

In order to end such desecration, experts from around the Asia Pacific region are meeting this week in Japan's mountainous Kumano prefecture to draft guidelines that would allow mountains, especially in Asia, to be recognized as World Heritage sites.

"If you go to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple in Japan, there are things you're not supposed to do there," one of the delegates, Edwin Bernbaum, a 56-year-old expert on sacred mountains and research associate from the University of California, Berkeley told AFP

"With World Heritage designation, it would give added force to management measures designed to prevent inappropriate behavior on sacred mountains."

Bernbaum suggests one good candidate is Japan's own 3, 776-meter (12,461-foot) Mount Fuji.  Though revered in national history and literature, the routes to the summit are strewn with trash -- and once there, a post office, a green payphone and an expensive coffee shop all but destroy any sense of awe or otherworldliness.

"Fuji is not on the list right now, but if it were nominated, there would be the hope that it would be cleaned up," said Bernbaum, who is also author of the book, Sacred Mountains of the World.

The world's highest peak, Mount Everest, known as Jomo Langma in Tibetan, -- short for the sister goddess "Jomo Miyo lang sangma" -- who provides wealth and long life to Tibetans, but is also renowned for its piles of used oxygen containers, dead bodies and abandoned trash.

One of the problems is that many governments do not regard their lofty peaks sacred and haven't nominated them for heritage listing, said meeting head Mechtild Rossler, chief of cultural landscapes for UNESCO's World Heritage Center.

"The problem is that some of the most sacred mountains of this earth are not considered by governments to be nominated for the World Heritage list at the present time," said Rossler.  "The main focus (of the meeting) is to encourage governments to take this into consideration and to recognize the universal values of some of these sites."

One group of sacred mountains, the Russian volcanoes of Kamchatka, in Russia's far east, is up for consideration for addition to the 690-site list this December, but many mountains that are considered sacred by millions of people have not even been nominated, Rossler said.

Other mountains that would make good candidates for the list include Adam's Peak (otherwise known as "Sri Pada" or "Glorious Footprint") in Sri Lanka; Paekdusan on the border of North Korea, South Korea and China, and Gunung Agung in Bali, Indonesia.

Japan has already nominated Mount Koya, with its ancient forested cemetery and dozens of Buddhist temples, and which serves as a seminary for priests, and the Kumano mountain pilgrimage routes.

Yet other peaks are so sacred that they are nearly impossible to assess, said Rossler.  "Some of the sacred sites are considered so sacred that people are not allowed to talk about them, which of course, makes assessment a very, very difficult thing. You can imagine."

__________________________________________________________________

limnal: descriptive of a door sill or a threshold; a border between two very different places.

Precession: The wobble causes the apparent parade of  the series of constellations called the zodiac to appear to move backwards.  That means that once (at least once -- perhaps when the Sphinx was first erected --) Leo was the astrological sign on the horizon in the springtime of the northern hemisphere.  This phenomenon is called precession of the equinoxes.

Kumbh:  This is the pot that holds the nectar, ambrosia or herb of immortality.  In the symbolism of sacred images, the pod or fruit in the pot resembles a mountain.   This  container has become one of the distinctive Hindu religious symbols.  It is often decorated with a swastika

An actual ritual pot decorated with mango leaves and a coconut features in the Hindu ceremony associated with entering a newly acquired home.  At weddings and funerals, the pot features as a reminder of the fullness of life, and filled with Ganges water, it often appears on household shrines. 

With the transit of the planet Jupiter through Aquarius once in every 12 years, a Kumbh Mela (fair) is held in Haridwar and Allahabad by the sacred Ganges, and also in Nasik and Ujjain on the banks of the Godavari and the Kashipura. These ritual bathing festivals are the largest temporary gatherings of humans in the world. 

Lanka:  Sri (Shri) Lanka was formerly called Ceylon by Europeans due to pronunciation errors.

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