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  • Lake Manasarovar:
    • Chui Monastery
  • Mt. Kailash
  • Guge Kingdom

Lake Manasarovar

Herd of Yaks by the lake Manasarovar in Tibet
A herd of Yaks by the lake Manasarovar

Lake Manasarovar, or Mapham Yumtso (Victorious Lake) in Tibetan, is the most venerated of Tibet’s many lakes and one of its most beautiful. With its sapphire-blue waters, sandy shoreline and snowcapped mountain backdrop, Manasarovar is immediately appealing, and a welcome change of venue from the often forbidding terrain of Mt Kailash.

Manasarovar has been circumambulated by Indian pilgrims since at least 1700 years ago when it was extolled in the sacred Sanskrit literature of the Puranas. A Hindu interpretation has it that manas refers to the mind of the supreme god Brahma, the lake being its outward manifestation. Accordingly, Indian pilgrims bathe in the waters of the lake and circumambulate its shoreline Tibetans, who are not so keen on the bathing bit, generally just walk around it. Legend has it that the mother of the Buddha, Queen Maya, was bathed at Manasarovar by the gods before giving birth to her son. It is said that some of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were sprinkled into the lake.

The Hindi poet Kalidasa once wrote that the waters of Lake Manasarovar are ‘like pearls’ and that to drink them erases the “sins of a hundred lifetimes’. Be warned, however, that the sins of a hundred lifetimes tend to make their hasty exit by way of the nearest toilet. Make sure that you thoroughly purify Manasarovar’s sacred waters before you drink them, however sacrilegious that may sound.

Manasarovar is linked to a smaller lake, Rakshas Tal (known to Tibetans as Lhanag-tso), by the channel called Ganga- chu. Most Tibetans consider Rakshas Tal to be evil, home in Hindu minds to the demon king Ravanna, though to the secular eye it’s every bit as beautiful as Manasarovar. The two bodies of water are associated with the conjoined sun and moon, a powerful symbol of Tantric Buddhism. On rare occasions, water flows through this channel from Lake Manasarovar to Rakshas Tal; this is said to augur well for the Tibetan people and most are pleased that water has indeed been flowing between the two lakes in recent years.

Chui Monastery

Chiu monastery near Manasarovar lake in Tibet
Chiu monastery near Manasarovar lake

Thirty-three kilometers south of Darchen, Chiu (Sparrow) Monastery enjoys a fabulous location atop a craggy hill overlooking Lake Manasarovar. The main chapel here contains the meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche since from eight century, who is said to have passed away here, but most people focus on the lake views, the winding stone staircases and old wooden doorframes of this fairytale-like structure. A short kora path leads to a second chapel. On a clear day, Mt Kailash looms dramatically to the north.

For a hike, walk along the ridge to the southeast of the monastery or make a half-day trek along part of the lake kora to the ruined chorten and prayer wall at Cherkip returning via the shoreline cave retreats. There are fine views and lots of nesting birds along this route, but bring repellent against the annoying shoreline flies.

Mountain Kailash

Sacred Mt Kailash in Western Tibet
Sacred mount Kailash (elevation 6638 m)

Throughout Asia, stories exist of a great mountain, the navel of the world, from which flow four great rivers that give life to the areas they pass through. The myth originates in the Hindu epics, which speak of Mt Meru home of the gods as a vast column 84,000 leagues high, its summit kissing the heavens and its flanks composed of gold, crystal, ruby and lapis lazuli. These Hindu accounts placed Mt Meru somewhere in the towering Himalaya but, with time, Meru increasingly came to be associated specifically with Mt Kailash. The confluence of the myth and the mountain is no coincidence. No-one has been to the summit to confirm whether the gods reside there (although some have come close), but Mt Kailash does indeed lie at the center of an area that is the key to the drainage system of the Tibetan plateau. Four of the great rivers of the Indian subcontinent originate here: the Karnali, which feeds into the Ganges (south); Indus (north); Sutlej (west); and Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo, east)

Mt Kailash, at 6714m, is not the mightiest of the mountains in the region, but with its distinctive shape like the handle of a millstone, according to Tibetans and its year-round snowcapped peak, it stands apart from the pack. Its four sheer walls match the cardinal points of the compass, and its southern face is famously marked by a long vertical cleft punctuated halfway down by a horizontal line of rock strata. This scarring resembles a swastika – a Buddhist symbol of spiritual strength and is a feature that has contributed to Mt Kailash’s mythical status Kailash is actually not part of the Himalaya but rather the Kangri Tise (Gangdise) range.

Mt Kailash has long been an object of worship. For Hindus, it is the domain of Shiva, the Destroyer and Transformer, and his consort Parvati. To the Buddhist faithful, Mt Kailash is the abode of Demchok (Sanskrit: samvara) and Dorje Phagmo. The Jains of India also revere the mountain as the site where the first of their Tirthankara (saints)

entered Nirvana. And in the ancient Bon religion of Tibet, Mt Kailash was the sacred Yungdrung Gutseg (Nine-Stacked-Swastika Mountain) upon which the Bonpo founder Shenrab alighted from heaven.

In May 2001 Spanish climbers gained permission to climb the peak, only to abandon their attempt in the face of international protests. Reinhold Messner also gained permission to scale the peak in the 1980s but abandoned his expedition in deference to the peak’s sanctity when he got to the mountain.

Guge Kingdom

Garuda Valley In Western Tibet
Kyunglung caves in Garuda Valley in Western Tibet

By the 10th century, the Guge kingdom was already a wealthy trade center supporting several thousand people. At that time, the great Guge king Yeshi-Woe began to nurture an exchange of ideas between India and Tibet.

The young monk Rinchen Sangpo (958-1055) was sent to study in India and returned 17 years later to become one of Tibet’s greatest translators of Sanskrit texts and a key figure in the revival of Buddhism across the Tibetan plateau. Rinchen Sangpo built 108 monasteries throughout western Tibet, Ladakh, and Spiti, including the great monastery of Tabo (Spiti) and Alchi (Ladakh).

Palace of Ali Guge ruins, Tibet
Palace of Ali Guge ruins, Tibet

Two of the most important monasteries were those at Tsaparang and Tholing. Rinchen Sangpo also invited Kashmiri artists to paint the unique murals still visible today. It was partly at Rinchen Sangpo’s behest that Atisha, a renowned Bengali scholar and another pivotal character in the revival of Tibetan Buddhism, was invited to Tibet. Atisha spent three years in Tholing before traveling on to central Tibet.

Silver Palace of Garuda Valley located southwest of Mount Kailash was the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Zhangzhung. The kingdom fell into ruin just 50years after the first Europeans arrived in Tibet in 1624, after a siege by the Ladakhis army. The center of Tibet soon became the middle of nowhere.

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