Mount Kailash is the most sacred mountain in Asia. As the tallest amongst the surrounding mountains, it stands alone deep within the Himalayas of Tibet and is only accessible through treacherous roads and hikes. Its majestic qualities lay within its unique shape; its sides point out towards each cardinal direction. The mountain’s physical appearance isn’t the only thing that makes its special. Kailash is a sacred site for many religions in the area. In Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, Mount Kailash is the earthly manifestation of Mount Semeru, which is the spiritual center of the universe. Mount Kailash holds significant power, as the very tip of the mountain is the central point of the cosmos’ rotation. In the Hindu tradition, the mountain is the throne of the great god Shiva. In Buddhism, the mountain hosts the greatest tantric meditation god, Demchong, who represents supreme bliss. Before Buddhism even took root in Tibet, the native Bon religion saw Mount Kailash as being sacred. In Bon mythology, Mount Kailash is the site where their founder Shenrab came down from heaven. Therefore, followers of the Bon religion believe that the entire region surrounding Kailash is mystical and that the mountain is a nine-story swastika that is the seat of all spiritual power. For all of these religions, Mount Kailash is the source of the four rivers that are able to give life; the Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Karnali. These four rivers divide the world into four regions.
Pilgrims from these three religions adhere to an ancient tradition that dates back thousands of years and embark on long treks through the Himalayas to reach Kailash. The pilgrims make these hugely spiritual and life-changing journeys in order to become closer to the divine, and to confirm themselves as devoted members of their religion and culture. Once they reach the mountain, pilgrims complete a 57 km circuit around it (Tibetan Review). In the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, pilgrims walk clockwise, while in the Bon tradition they move counterclockwise. One trip around the mountain wipes away all the sins in a pilgrim’s current lifetime. 108 revolutions will erase all the sins of innumerable lifetimes and reach salvation. Pilgrims can also reach salvation with only one circuit if they submerge themselves into the freezing cold waters of Lake Mansarovar, located at the base of the mountain.
One trip around the Kailash mountain can take anywhere from one day to three weeks to complete. Some pilgrims take up to a month because they do body prostrations for the entire circuit. To complete a body prostration the pilgrim bends down, kneels, prostrates full length, makes a mark with his fingers, rises to his knees, prays, and then crawls forward on hands and knees to the mark made by his fingers. Whether Hindu or Buddhist, members of the cultures acknowledge how sacred the site is and respect the land. No one is allowed to climb the mountain out of respect for the gods and the consecrated. Surrounding the mountain are several monasteries and other sacred landmarks that are often visited by the pilgrims. Many pilgrims leave offerings around the mountain, including locks of hair and teeth.
In the early 1950s Tibet was invaded by communist China and the oppression of religious freedom began. In May of 1951 the Chinese government imposed a treaty called the “17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”. Affirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the agreement was signed by the 14th Dalai Lama with extreme distress (Dhussa). Some members of the Tibetan cabinet say the delegates were coerced into signing the agreement, while others deny that it actually happened. The Chinese presence in Tibet escalated, leading to extreme repression of the indigenous people. Chinese troops attempted to crush religious beliefs by destroying many religious buildings, including six monasteries at Mount Kailash, and imprisoning monks. China dictated that Tibetan’s could have freedom of religious belief, but were not allowed to practice their religion openly. Uprisings ensued throughout the country. The largest rebellion in 1959 resulted in the death of 87,000 Tibetans and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. At this time, access to Mount Kailash was closed and pilgrims were not allowed to make their sacred journey.
A little after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government loosened its grip on Tibet. By the 1980s, Tibetans regained some of their religious freedom. Monasteries were rebuilt, many religious artifacts were returned, and access to Mount Kailash was reopened. However the struggle for the sacred land only escalated for the Buddhist, Hindu and Bon pilgrims wishing to visit the mountain. Currently, pilgrims must receive a permit before they can begin to travel. The permit is issued by the Chinese government and requires a lengthy process; some are not able to obtain permits at all due to inefficiencies and biases in the system. Indian citizens who sometimes travel to Kailash, face even more hardships imposed by China’s rule. Several thousand Indian pilgrims apply each year, but only one thousand permits are issued (Timmons).
The need for a permit is not the only thing that is creating conflict over Mount Kailash. China is currently working on making this sacred site one of the most popular tourist destinations in Tibet. The Chinese government does not acknowledge religion and is more interested in how Mount Kailash can benefit its economy. What once was nearly inaccessible is now becoming filled with roads for western and Chinese tourists. Phone lines and bridges have also been installed in the region. In 2006, China went even further in their plans and launched a campaign for a train to link Beijing to Lhasa (the town near Mount Kailash). As tourist flow increases in the region, less pilgrims are able to truly experience the peaceful journey to the sacred site. Now, chattering tourists and cars interrupt their prayers and they are no longer able to experience the remoteness of the region.
China has made a point to diminish the amount of religious activity in the small and powerless Tibet. The Dalai Lama has referred to the conflict in Tibet as “cultural genocide” because China is forcing their beliefs onto Tibet and there is only so much pressure that a country can withstand (Poriter). However, the will of the Tibetan Nation to retain their cultural identity has led to a path of recovery in recent years. Through uprisings and rebellions, the people of Tibet have gained international interest in their cause. Organizations around the world are coming together in the effort to help Tibet restore their religious practices. Becoming a UNESCO world heritage site would be the most helpful way for Mount Kailash to remain sacred. However, in order for it to achieve this status, it has to be nominated by the Chinese government (Poriter). Tibet and China are slowly making progress toward achieving peace, and hopefully with that peace will come religious freedom for all the citizens of Tibet. The Dalai Lama representatives finally met with the leaders of China in 2002, nine years after their last encounter and there have been several meeting in subsequent years. The Dalai Lama is advocating an autonomous Tibet. However, the best way for Mount Kailash to be protected is for Tibet to gain complete independence from China.
This conflict illustrates many of the topics we have discussed in class. One of these topics is the difference between the views of the indigenous culture and outsiders when it comes to physical land. In this case, the many native religions view the mountain as a spiritual center and therefore want it to exist in its natural state. Meanwhile, the outside culture sees the land as a potential profit. By destroying the land around Mount Kailash and building roadways, the Chinese government is able to increase tourism and therefore their wealth, completely disregarding the cultural and spiritual significance that exists beyond surface deep.
“Pilgrims To Jostle With Tourists As Mt Kailash ‘Developed’.” Tibetan Review: The Monthly Magazine On All Aspects Of Tibet 44.5 (2009): 5. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
“2008 Mt Kailash Pilgrimage Uncertain.” Tibetan Review: The Monthly Magazine On All Aspects Of Tibet 43.6 (2008): 27. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
Dhussa, Ramesh Chandra. “Tibet: A Nation In Exile.” American Geographical Society’s Focus On Geography 52.2 (2009): 1-6. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
Freeman, Michael. “Moving Mountain.” Geographical (Campion Interactive Publishing) 70.2 (1998): 40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
Poriter, Amberly . “Mount Kailash.” Sacred Land Film Project . N.p., 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 3 Nov. 2011. <http://www.sacredland.org/mount-kailash/>.
Timmons, Heather, and Hari Kumar. “China Blocks Thousands of Hindus From Tibet Pilgrimage.” New York Times 21 May 2008: 8. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.