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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Mount Kailash also appears in the epic poem, Ramayana. Hanuman,
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
rakshasas of Ravana's army in far 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.
"There is no place more powerful for practice, more blessed, or more marvelous than this. May all pilgrims and practitioners be welcome!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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."
And so the climbers die.
You CAN take it with you!
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
Literally"Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints."
Ryan Nakashima (AFP: Tokyo, Sept 9/01) UNESCO holds summit on sacred Asian mountains:
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.
Lanka: Sri (Shri) Lanka was formerly called Ceylon by Europeans due to pronunciation errors.