Panoramic view of Holy Brahmaputra river (Yarlung Tsangpo)
Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River

Mount Kailash is a mountain in Western Tibet. It is sacred for 4 religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bon. Kailash has four distinct sides facing four cardinal directions, associated with different animals. Additionally, four major Asian rivers have their sources on four sides of Kailash. These four rivers flow across Asia and huge population of the neighboring countries depends on the water from these rivers.

RIVERS IN TIBET

The Tibet Autonomous Region is one of the provinces with the largest number of rivers in China. According to statistics, there are more than 20 rivers with a drainage area of ​​more than 10,000 square kilometres in Tibet, more than 100 rivers larger than 2,000 square kilometres, and thousands of rivers larger than 100 square kilometres.  The Jinsha River, Lancang River, Nu River, Yarlung Tsangpo River and other major rivers flow through here, with the Nu River and the Yarlung Tsangpo River originating in Tibet. The Tibetan Plateau is also the province with the largest distribution of international rivers in China. The famous sources of the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Salween and Irrawaddy rivers in Asia are all here.  The water sources of the Tibetan rivers are mainly composed of three types of recharges: rainwater, ice-melt water and fresh groundwater. The flow is rich, the sand content is small, and the water quality is good. It is characterized by uneven distribution of runoff seasons, small inter-annual variability, low water temperature, and disparity in ice conditions. 

Tibet is the roof of the world and therefore the source of most rivers in Asia. The famous Yangtze River, Yellow River, Nu River, Mekong River, Indus River, Yarlung Tsangpo River, Dadu River, etc. 

FOUR SACRED RIVERS IN WESTERN TIBET

  • Brahmaputra River. In Tibetan: Yarlung Tsangpo/Tachok Khabub (ཡར་ཀླུངས་གཙང་པོ།/རྟ་མཆོག་ཁ་འབབ་). In Chinese: Yalujiang/Maquanhe
  • Sutlej River. In Tibetan: Langchen Khabub (གླང་ཆེན་ཁ་འབབ་). In Chinese: Xiangquanhe
  • Indus/Sindhu River. In Tibetan: Singgye Khabub (སེང་གེ་ཁ་འབབ་). In Chinese: Shiquan River
  • Karnali – tributary of Ganges/ Ganga River. In Tibetan: Macha Khabub (རྨ་བྱ་ཁ་འབབ་). In Chinese: Kongquehe

BRAHMAPUTRA RIVER

Brahmaputra River forming Yarlung Valley

The Tibetan name of the river is Yarlung Tsangpo. However, the original name was Tachok Khabub, meaning horse in Tibetan. The source of the river is on the East side of Kailash, and the East face of Kailash is also associated with a horse. Name Brahmaputra came from Indian language. The river flows along the Southern part of Tibet, to India, then to Bangladesh, where it merges with the Ganges River and finally reaches the Bay of Bengal. In Tibet, Niyang River and Lhasa River are tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. 

With the Himalayan mountain range surrounding the river, Brahmaputra flows through several gorges, including the most famous one –  Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is 5382 meters deep and is the deepest canyon on earth.  The narrowest part of the bottom of the Grand Canyon is only 74 meters, the widest part is about 200 meters, and the total length is 370 kilometers.

The valley by the Yarlung Tsangpo river became a birthplace of Tibetan civilization. The region had a suitable climate for agriculture. Here, the first Tibetan kings unified Tibet, established the government. You can still see the first agricultural field at the foot of Yumbulagang – the first fort in Tibet.

The Yarlung Tsangpo River is the mother river of the Tibetan people. It originates from the Jomo Yangzong Glacier in Zhongba County at the northern foot of the Himalayas and flows into India through the Luoyu area. It flows at an altitude of 4,500 meters at its highest point. That makes Yarlung Tsangpo the highest major river. With the total length of 2840 kilometres, it is also the 15th longest in the world. The river’s watershed area is ​​more than 240,000 square kilometres, and a huge population depends on its water. 

SUTLEJ RIVER

Old bridge over Sutlej river in Ngari

Original Tibetan name of the river is Langchen Khabub, meaning the Elephant River. The source of the river is to the West from Mount Kailash, near the lake Rakshas-Tal. The West face of Kailash is also associated with the Elephant. In Chinese Sutlej is called Xiangquan River.

Sutlej river valley in Western Tibet
Sutlej river valley in Western Tibet

The Sutlej River originates at the foot of Mount Kailash from a modern glacier near Langta.  Its source is 5,300 meters above sea level. The river is composed of 18 large and small rivers with a total length of 1450 kilometers and a drainage area of ​​400,000 square kilometers. Sutlej flows West to the Tada county in Tibet, and it is the most important river in the Ali province of the Tibet Autonomous Region. After that, it enters Himachal Pradesh in India. The section in India is called the Sutlej River (also translated as Sutre River). From there, it flows further to Pakistan.
Upstream from the Himalayas, a large dam was built in Bakra, India to generate electricity. In the middle reaches, there are barrage dams and diversion canals to irrigate the Punjab and Rajasthan plains.

The Sutlej River Basin is the most important birthplace of ancient civilization in Western Tibet. The famous Shangshong Kingdom and the Guge Kingdom centered in the river basin. Sutlej river has a wide basin, connecting Western Tibet with South and Central Asia. Western Tibet, being on a crossroad of the cultural exchange, between China and neighboring countries,  had an incredibly rich culture. It had highly valued academic achievements, and the culture of the ancient Shangshong civilization had an extremely profound and important impact on the formation and development of Tibetan culture. 

INDUS/SINDHU RIVER

Indus river valley in Western Tibet

The original name of the river in Tibetan is Singgye Khabub, meaning the Lion River. The source of the river is to the North from Kailash, and Kailash North face is also associated with the Lion. The name Indus came from Indian language. In Chinese, the river is called Shiquanhe. It is one of the major rivers in the Western Tibet. 

The Indus River is the longest river in South Asia, with a total length of 3,180 kilometres and a length of about 500 kilometres in Tibet. The river flows from the southeast to the northwest. Near the Tashigang Border Station in Tibet, it merges with another important tributary that originates in the northern foothills of the Himalayas in Tibet. After entering the Kashmir region in India, it flows further through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. In Tibet, the Indus river basin is in a semi-desert and desert zone, with a dry climate and little rain.

Source of Indus River at the North Face of Mount Kailash
Source of Indus River at the North Face of Mount Kailash

In Tibet, it originates from the glacial lake on the north of Mt Kailash. It flows from south to north to the area near a small town of Bangba and then turns to the West. It passes through Gakyi Town on the way to the Indus Basin, and flows near Tashigang Township. Below Tashigang is the downstream section about 87 kilometers long, and there is a torrent beach about 10 kilometers long.

There are 7 main tributaries of the Indus River or Singgye Khabub, and the largest one is river Gar about 155 kilometers long. Shiquanhe Town (name originating from Chinese name of the river), is located at the confluence of Indus or Singgye Khabub and Gar Tsangpo rivers. There is also an intersection of the National Lion Highway and the Tibet Highway. The city was founded in 1964 with the completion of Tibet Highway. It became the highest town in China, rising above 4,300 meters above sea level. Presently, it is the residence of Ali District Administration.

KARNALI – TRIBUTARY OF GANGES RIVER

Karnali river in Tibet

Karnali river originates near lake Manasarovar, to the South from Kailash. Its source is in a glacier to the north of Gudron-la in the Himalayas in Purang County, at an elevation of about 3,950 metres. Karnali is the tributary of the Ganges or Ganga River. This name originated in India. In Tibetan, it is called Macha Khabub, meaning Peacock River. The South face of Kailash is associated with a peacock. From Western Tibet, the river flows to Nepal (and it is the longest river in Nepal), and then further to India. The Ganges River has a total length of 2,700 kilometres.

The river basin is in Purang Town where the county seat is located. The government resident is 3850 meters above sea level and it is the lowest area on the Ali Plateau. It runs through the southern part of Purang County which is called Simicott Town (mainly Tibetan) of Nepal and enters Nepalese territory and then flows into Ganges River, flows through India and into the Indian Ocean.

The moist oceanic monsoon from the Indian Ocean creates a unique for the region warm climate with abundant rainfall. It makes the Peacock River Valley where Purang is located, to be suitable for farming, which is rare for Ali. It is known as the green zone of Ali and has a modern agricultural development in Purang County. 

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Karnali river in Tibet