My body froze and I just sat on the bed quietly in our hotel room while Selva kept talking.
“You have to understand, to Hindus that is the holiest way a person can die,” she continues. “It’s like an honour. At the same time I was so confused and angry. I decided I had to do it for myself to understand what it was all about. I’ve heard stories about the Kailash Kora my whole life.”
The only thing I could say was, “Did you say she was wearing a sari at Mt. Kailash?”
Mt. Kailash, in Western Tibet, is considered the spiritual centre of the universe in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Bonpo. As important as Jerusalem is to Christians and Jews and Mecca is to Muslims, a spiritual pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash is considered to be the highest point of a person’s life. The Kailash Kora is the act of circling the 51.5km radius of the sacred mountain. One circuit is believed to wipe away all the bad karma of this lifetime. 108 circuits will wipe away the sins of all one’s lifetimes and bring salvation.
Into the Extreme
Our trek runners, the Isha Foundation, had drilled us on the dangers of extreme weather conditions and high altitude — Mt. Kailash peaks at 6,635m — and had presented us with a comprehensive packing list of mountain clothing that excluded saris and shalwar kameez (traditional Indian clothing for women). During this time of year — August — at altitudes of 4,500m and up we could expect snow, rain and below-zero temperatures at night.
20km away and lying at a height of 4,575m, Lake Manasarovar is the highest freshwater lake in the world. Taking a bath and drinking its water is believed to absolve you of all your sins committed over 100 lifetimes. Some consider this extraordinarily beautiful blue and emerald lake to be the source of all creation — as well, it is believed to have healing properties.
Our group of 120 meditators was planning to camp at Lake Manasarovar first, then trek around the north and the south faces of Mt Kailash; Sadhguru would meet us at one of those locations. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev is a yogi, mystic and humanitarian who is the heart and soul behind Isha. Going with him on this yatra — a pilgrimage to a sacred site — was a big reason to go.
Selva and I shared a hotel room at the start of the yatra and along the way we shared beds, duffle bags and long bus rides. At a time when I was asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” her aunt’s story was like a jolt to my soul. Other pilgrims in our party were asking the same question. Some said they were following their internal voice, others that it was a something they wanted to do once in their lifetime. Still others felt mystified as to why. Our common ground was we were all seekers.
Why go on a spiritual pilgrimage? What was I hoping for? Raised as an American Jew I had no context for this. I expected to face (minimal) physical hardship. I knew we’d be in below-zero weather with hail and snow. I wanted a damn good story for myself and others. I wanted to experience personal transformation. Part of my intention was spiritual growth and another part could be what Sadhguru calls “a convoluted sense of well-being”, coming from my need or desire to be special.
Four buses overflowed with 120 meditators — mostly Indians living abroad — and a smattering of Americans and Europeans. Our route started in Kathmandu, taking us over the Friendship Bridge into Zhang Mu, Tibet. Then onto Saga, a dusty, dry military station at the junction of three main artery roads where we stayed two days to acclimatise; many people suffered altitude sickness. With bus rides of eight to 10 hours daily, punctuated by flat tyres and engine trouble, I began to feel we spent more time driving then trekking. Yet, inside I also felt the trip was forcing me to look deeper inside myself. On our long bus rides I asked myself questions that usually get buried and pushed aside in daily life. I realised I was on a pilgrimage that was pushing me towards my own inner development.
On the banks of the Brahmaputra River we spilled out of the buses for a meditative process led by one of the swamis in preparation for the journey ahead. 120 modern day pilgrims sat overlooking the waterway with closed eyes, trying to be silent. Then someone’s cell phone went off.
“Pilgrimages are voyages of faith and in most cases, enduring a little bit of hardship, making do and living with less is part of the trip,” wrote Mike Pandey in a recent article for National Geographic. “The surrender of material comforts and cutting down of daily requirements was considered part of the journey towards spiritual bliss.”
I experienced that at Lake Manasarovar. The morning we were leaving, I woke to find my sleeping bag and mattress absorbing a puddle of water. In the face of battering rain, my tent had leaked, and my camera, backpack and warm clothes were soaked. The night before, we had been told to consolidate our duffle bags and share one bag between four people. As these were already loaded on the truck (and our individual duffle bags were already on their way back to Saga), I had to make do by borrowing gloves, thermals, and a jacket, and carrying my wet clothes in my backpack to Kailash.
At the same time, Lake Manasarovar — literally ‘Lake of Consciousness’ — is one of the most beautiful places in the world; a crystal azure lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains that touch the clouds. Colours change throughout the day. I marveled at the blue reflection at dusk, the warm orange hue stretched out across the lake at sunset. The morning we woke at 5am for a meditative process with Sadhguru, there was a blanket of golden yellow as the sun rose above the lake.
The Mountain of Knowledge
Before leaving Manasarova, Sadhguru asked the group to think of one negative habit we could give up as we walked to Kailash. During a pilgrimage you not only surrender material comforts, but also part of yourself. We would consciously let go of a negative habit or even some deluded expectation. The majority of our group said ‘anger’. I decided to come up with something more realistic. I wanted to give up any ideas about spirituality, let go of my own spiritual ego.
Sadhguru sent us on our way asking that we be conscious with every step we took; as if we were tiptoeing through a silent, holy place packed with people. We should move quietly, with respect and reverence. As the valley spread out before me I chanted quietly, accompanied by my Tibetan porter on the six-hour trek around the North Face. I began to feel as if experiencing this mystical mountain was out of my reach. Each step I took felt like I was searching for something deeper within me.
On my first full view of Kailash I stopped in my tracks and stared at what has been called “a mountain of knowledge and knowing grace”. Looking back at me was tall black rock covered with white snow towering in the clouds. People on ponies rode by with tears in their eyes and I witnessed a Tibetan woman in leather aprons and hand clogs inching around the North Face in full prostration. I stood quietly realising that there was so much of life I didn’t understand. How much doesn’t make sense.
During our three-day journey back to Kathmandu, with long stretches of eight to nine-hour bus rides, I still felt I didn’t understand the Kailash experience. I didn’t get it. In the day-to-day chaos of travelling with a large group to such a reverent and mystical place, by the end I felt off-balance and tired. I began looking at the people around me with a feeling of friendliness and compassion, like we had experienced something together. There was a bonding taking place, yet inside I was feeling like I had missed something. My expectations of a mystical experience or even a ‘journey towards spiritual bliss’ had died.
As I returned home I felt subtle shifts, as if something had solidified. Like when a rock breaks open and there is crystallisation inside. Those crystals have their own energy, vibration and knowledge. Deep down inside of me something feels transformed. It seems those daily challenges of the yatra were necessary to break open another part of me.
For information about the Isha Foundation and Sacred Walks go to ishafoundation.org. Jen Baxter also writes a blog called ‘In the Wonder’ about travel and transformation. It can be found at thewanderingjen.com