Kailash Manasarovar: The Centre of the Universe

By Sunita Vazirani

It is believed that the most fortunate alone get an opportunity to journey to Kailash-Manasarovar, the abode of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.

Considered sacred by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the followers of an ancient, indigenous religion called Bon, the 21778-feet high Mount Kailash is located roughly a 100 km from the India-Nepal-Tibet tri-border. For Hindus, Kailash is the seat of Shiva, from where the sacred river Ganges descends from heaven. In Buddhism, Kailash is the mystic image of Meru, the great mountain at the center of the universe. It is believed that a single parikrama of Mount Kailash washes away the sins of a lifetime, while 108 parikramas will achieve salvation/nirvana.

The yatra is not only considered among the most sacred, but also one of the toughest. I was blessed to have undertaken this pilgrimage – an experience of a lifetime.

Traveling with a couple of friends, I took the route through Kathmandu instead of the one via Uttaranchal. The journey from Nepal is routed straight to Tibet and does not entail extensive trekking. In Tibet, travel is undertaken in Land Cruisers, with trekking limited to the three days of the Kailash parikrama/ kora.

Tibet is a fascinating land steeped in religion and tradition. Its remoteness strikes you immediately on crossing the border. One rarely encounters people. The highest plateau in the world, Tibet can be chillingly cold and oppressively hot on the same day. Sunlight is intense and scorching at this altitude, under clear skies and thin air. Add to this the dust and swirling cold winds, and the going gets difficult. As they say, when in Tibet, expect the worst and hope for the best.

Our trip began with a bus journey from Kathmandu to the Nepal-China border at Kodari. We switched to Land Cruisers for the Tibet’s leg, driving through the most breathtaking terrain, with solitude as company. The Tibetan plateau stretches to the horizon and offers amazing sights of arid land, streams, lakes, rivers, and mountains, all vying for attention. Struggling with altitude sickness, we worked our cameras overtime to capture nature at her most awe-inspiring.

The name Manasarovar derives from the Sanskrit word manas (mind) and legend has it that the lake was first created in the mind of Lord Brahma, after which it manifested on Earth. Surrounded by majestic mountains including the Gurla-Mandata range and Mount Kailash, the lake is a tranquil blue against a strikingly blue sky. We settled into tents pitched nearby.

It is believed that the Gods come down to bathe in the lake in the predawn hours. We rose early and headed for the shore in anticipation. With no visible terrestrial light, the sky blazed in all its starry glory. At some point, flashes of light appeared in the sky, slowly at first, then with increasing frequency, descending to the surface of the lake – as if a galaxy of stars had come down for a dip. It was an incredible sight!

Later in the morning, we took a dip in the sacred waters before embarking on a jeep parikrama. The lake has different hues; rich turquoise at some places, a deep peacock blue elsewhere. We then headed to Darchen, the base camp for the Kailash kora.

In the normal course, it takes three days to perform the 55-km kora. Tibetans do it anti clockwise, in the belief that you could meet the Gods, who do the kora clockwise. The first day entailed a 15-km, fairly easy trek to our campsite. To our right, the west face of Kailash loomed almost overhead, gazing down on the valley. And to the left flowed the Brahmaputra; a narrow stream at that point. The mountains stretched on either side, sometimes a little grassy, mostly brown, and slate black at times.

The second day of the kora was the toughest, when – at 19500 feet – Dolma La, had to be crossed. Negotiating the steep inclines and boulder-strewn stretches, progress was slow. Shivasthal lay on the way. Tibetans consider this place sacred and believe that if you leave behind some of your old belongings here, you actually cast off your sins. Each step was tough; however, all was forgotten on reaching the pass.

An assembly of stones adorned by colorful prayer flags, chortens are Buddhist shrines and a familiar sight in Tibet, particularly at passes. There was one at Dolma La too. As a mark of respect and to pray for a safe passage, drivers drive around them before bringing their vehicle to a halt. While crossing Dolma La, we got a view of Gauri Kund pond. It is believed that Parvati performed penance for the hand of Lord Shiva, by standing in this pond for six months.

The descent after Domla La is steep and strewn with large boulders. The harsh conditions were aggravated by a hailstorm, making progress challenging.

The third day was an even-paced walk with some strenuous climbs and descents towards the end. But there were some wonderful sights, including one of Rakshas Tal. Located west of Mansarovar but not considered sacred, pilgrims do not bathe in it, nor drink its waters. It is believed that Ravana, the king of Lanka performed penance here to please Lord Shiva.

Our pilgrimage had drawn to a close. Another four days of travel brought us back to Kathmandu. Altitude-related sickness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and breathlessness had been but a small price for the transformation we had undergone. Tibet had changed us. For a lifetime, or more!

Nepal: Travelogue

By Ritika Gupta

Early Saturday morning, two of us embarked on this journey which was extremely special to both. One was worried about kids, home and was constantly wondering if she had made the right decision. The other was contemplating how the next 8 days would turn out to be given that all she had was a list of places to go to, a few contact numbers and lots of courage – which might vanish at the slightest hint of danger. Nevertheless, both were excited to be on this journey unsure.

Day 1, we put up our bravest faces, bid farewell to folks and entered into the terminal all pepped and energetic at 6AM. In our excitement we do not fill the immigration assuming Nepal is a part of India in all respects. Result – we are sent back to go look for forms, fill them up and wait in the queue again. What followed was feasting on the duty free shops, every single moment being reminded of the trip being a “budget” one and hence no spend on luxury allowed. Within an hour and a half we land at the Tribhuvan International Airport breathing in the pristine air from the land of the Everest.

Haggling with the taxi (ages old maruti’s, with every corner creeking)  we settled for INR 300 for Thamel – the tourist hub and the most happening neighborhood in the country. There are innumerable guest houses here that range from INR 200 – INR 2100 a night. We settled in the Sunrise Cottage (INR 500/night). It is a real comfortable, cozy place behind the popular Tibet Guest House.  We threw our luggage took out the prints, maps, notes that we had collected over a week, broke our heads for minutes 30 without figuring out where to start exploring the city from and then decided to take a stroll. The vibrant alleys of Thamel are a treat, multi colored woollens, yak wool bags, accessories, trekking gears hanging in the shops are a perfect catalyst. It awakens the tourist in you and makes you want to trek right upto the summit.  Dinner at the Roadhouse Cafe was an awesome start to this vacation.

Day 2, woke up after a chilly night and decided to walk upto Swayambhunath. The greatest advantage of staying in Thamel is that the place is the liveliest till the wee hours, is close to bus stands and taxi stations. On our way to Swayambhunath we entered the Vijayshwari temple and boy what a site it was, 3 weddings in the temple complex. Beautiful ladies all dressed in the same shade of red made the dull courtyard brighter. Pandits ranting mantras, kids scurrying across the yard, pigeons feasting on the grains  – the temple was bustling with activity. After congratulating the newly weds we continued on our expedition. After having walked some 1.5kms we saw monkeys all around us. This was an indication that we are at the right place as I had read about the abundance of the apes here. Its a steep climb to the Stupa, but the breathtaking view from the top , makes it worth the while. The golden pagodas, vajras and the temple roofs are an architectural genius. Butterlamps, pigeons, monkeys, prayer bells and prayer flags are plenty. Special mention to Cafe De Stupa – they serve fresh cooked food (disclaimer that the food would not be served in less than 20 mins may make you  feel bad, but the parathas here will leave you with no regrets) only.We went exploring the place and accidently came across this easier to climb, less steep path that led to the temple. We had a good time laughing at ourselves. Right at the bottom of this is the Buddha Amideva Park, that receives a lot of devotees who go round in circles around the 3 golden statues of Sakyamuni.

Pashupatinath: From the ring road we took the bus to Gaushala(the stop for Pashupatinath). Situated on the banks of the Bagmati river, this is the most revered of the Hindu temples in the country. Lined with stalls selling puja thalis, shivlings, tikas, incense sticks , a walk up the crowded street would lead to the relatively tiny entrance to this huge temple. The golden Nandi(shivas bull) is all that is visible from here. Non Hindus are not allowed to enter and Mondays can be tough to explore the place as there hardly is space to walk. The ghats on the opposite end are an amazing site. the dead river, the yogi caves, the steep steps to the ghats and the usual site of cremation makes this place eerie.

Boudhanath:  Walking distance from here is the most famous Stupa. The place is surrounded by monasteries, shops selling Tibetan art, souvenirs, music, roof top cafes. The general direction of traffic is clockwise as thousands of devouts visit the place to perform the ritual walk around the stupa and then wait in a queue to ring the enormous bell. We recommend the desserts and the burger at the Saturday Cafe.

Day 3, we decide to experience the Kathmandu Durbar square – around 700m from Thamel. People sitting on the steps of the temples soaking in the sun, prayers being offered, pigeons being fed, children bunking school and hiding away from their parents are a common site here. This place provides an excellent experience of a day in the life of the citydwellers here.The square has the Kumari grah( the house of the Kumari of Kathmandu), the Bhairab temple, the museum. We strongly recommend the walking tours in the lonely planet guide. Next we went ahead to explore the famous Freakstreet – an Israeli settlement and the old chirpy hub, before Thamel took over. It was quite a disappointment after having stayed in Thamel for 2 days. Next on the list was the Patan square, but apparently there was some protest being held and hence it was closed. it is good to read the daily newspapers to get to know about similar such protests around the town, as they are quite common and the taxis are fairly expensive. :)Dinner at Fu ru Sato (Thamel)- the Japanese joint was heavenly. yasai cha haan (veg fried rice) and chilly tofu left us licking our cutlery.

Day 4, We packed a day bag and set out to explore Patan, Bhaktapur and Nagarkot There are buses from the Ratna park bus station (NPR 30, 30mins) to Patan. The durbar square here is ancient. There is a famous Golden Temple(a Buddhist temple) enroute to the Durbar square. It is a must visit for its courtyard temple architecture.I would like to flaunt my history a little  – just to eradicate the seeds of confusion that might have cropped up due to these multiple durbar squares. Well the kingdom had three regions Kantipur(Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur and each has a Durbar of its own. The 2 hour long walking tour in LP is awesome to know about the history, architecture and significance of the various temples here.Club sandwich and tea at the Third World Cafe with a top view of the main temple under the early morning sun in the foggy winters is a perfect start to an eventful day.Next up was the walk to the Lagankhel bus station to board a bus to Bhaktapur(25 NPR, 40mins)
Bhaktapur: We found this to be the most interesting of these squares.Rich Newari cultural legacy sets this apart. Everyday life here is fun to observe.  It has a potters square where there are a zillion pots neatly laid out in the sun to dry, wheels spinning and earthen pots being shaped from the clay.  It has a Taumoudhi square with a 5 storied temple. The durbar square here has a cluster of palatial buildings, temples and sculptures which are a visual treat. Must notice  • The Golden gate to the Taleju temple. This temple is opened to public only for 3 days during Dussehra. It has a 108kg gold deity of Goddess Taleju who is pleased by sacrificing 108 animals. The courtyard overflows with blood when this is done.• The 55 windows palace that has been restored after a devastating earthquake• The Chardham temples – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Dwarka, Rameshwar – it is believed that people who cannot visit these temples in India can visit the miniature replicas in Bhaktapur. • Cafe Nyatapola – a beautiful place to lounge, right in the middle of the square, tables lined in the balcony of the old palatial building provide a great view of the squareWalking around these towns is like time traveling into the past. The sweet dahi (ju ju dhau) is a must eat.

Nagarkot: Next we were on a bus to Nagarkot  – the viewpoint to the Kathmandu valley and the Langthang ranges. the 40mins drive through well laid curvaceous roads made us switch gears from appreciating architecture to enjoying the natural beauty that the place abounds in. The Hotel At the End of the Universe is a mesmerizing resort. Excellent hospitality, good food and fairy tale like landscapes would make you want to stay. Strongly recommend to spend a night here.

Day 5, We were determined to witness the phenomena of Bali(sacrificial ceremony to please the Gods) at the Dakshinkali temple. Saturdays, when sacrifices are made, can be a disheartening experience. You may want to keep this for the end of the trip, else the sights of dead animals may haunt you. Generally you see stalls offering puja thalis, incense sticks, flowers outside temples. Here you have all of these plus stalls that sell goats and chickens too. People wait in a queue for hours to slaughter these innocent beings trying to please the Gods and beg for personal favors  – how oxymoronic can religious practices be – you sacrifice a life to fulfill your whims and fancies.
There was this tiny little black goat kid, trying to eat flowers out of the baskets of people standing around it. It did not have the slightest idea that these people around it were praying in front of it only to brutally slaughter it  the next moment.  The kid was held and in one sharp blow was beheaded – just like that!  This instance has blotted my memory.  It makes me hate Hinduism  – where such practices are still considered holy,not that other religions are any better.
No wonder Nepal is the only Hindu country! Bali is quite a common here… huh!
We got back to Thamel – a place that felt like home by now. A Newari thali at Zaika was our pick for dinner.

Kathmandu is a hot pot of religion, culture, heritage and the base for the daredevils who wander in the Himalayas conquering peaks, abseiling in the waterfalls, bungy jumping from gorges to view the peaks upside down. A week, a fortnight, a month …. still is less time to explore this kingdom of yaks and yetis, peaks and valleys, Hinduism and Buddhism..whatever interests you.

For more travelogues  from Ritika Gupta, check her blog – https://traveloggers-phototales.com