Tibet's Sacred Mountain

Russell Johnson and Kerry Moran

Read May 2006

Every Hindu grows up with a memory deep within the collective consciousness of the Mount Kailas (or Kailash) and its accompanying lake, Manasarovar. A worshipper who had pilgrimaged to it earns a special reverence. This is, of course, considerably harder—as if the physical difficulties were not enough—since the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

But what is this mountain, and what is its relationship to its lake? How much is reality, and how much is rooted in myth (for instance, Kailas as the earthly embodiment of heavenly Mount Meru)?

The truth, in this instance, is almost as remarkable as the legend. Kailas is a mountain of, by Tibetan standards, moderate size (over 22,000 feet). It is not its height, however, that sets it apart. True, it stands in somewhat splendid isolation on a Tibetan plain so superlative as to deny the eye most of the benefits of visual perspective (p. 116-7). More remarkable, though, is its perfect four-sided shape, aligned with the principal compass directions, capped in a surreal blanket of snow, its striking southern face pierced by a dramatic ridge that has inspired tales of legend and magic (p. 95). Moreover, four great rivers of the region find their origin right about this mountain, explaining its location at the center of cosmogony. Its accompanying lakes, Manasarovar and Raksas Tal (one holy, the other a repository of evil), compound its place in the spiritual landscape.

All this is captured in a profoundly moving account of the traditional pilgrimage to the mountain, undertaken in the Buddhist fashion (many faiths venerate the peak) by the author and her accompanying photographer. Whereas the text can sometimes falter—here she can assume too much knowledge of Buddhist Tibetan rites, there here prose can suffer from a slight Orientalist whiff—the photography is always on secure ground, sometimes merely recording and at other times dazzling. The camera's only weakness is that we rarely ever see Manasarovar and, the few times we do, it is dark enough to be interchangeable with its figuratively dark neighbor. Perhaps this was an intentional irony, but I suspect not.

Ultimately, it is the rich, profound, personal tie the author feels toward her subject that brings this book alive. The mountain dominates the book just as it did, say, my grandmother's imagination—she would have treasured an account such as this.