Maha Shivratri 2024: On A Transformative Journey To Mount Kailash

Kailash, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, is not just a mountain of rock and snow but a repository of myth and legend. This Maha Shivratri 2024, we take you on a journey to the holy site
Mount Kailash is considered holy by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and the Bon people
Mount Kailash is considered holy by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and the Bon peoplePhoto: Shutterstock

Time stands still as I stare at the mountain. Outlined against a light blue sky, Mount Kailash rises, a gigantic pyramid. Horizontal black rock lines contrast strikingly with the white snow covering the slopes. Along the vertical groove running down the middle, narrow ledges appear like rocky steps, and I have the crazy thought that this is a staircase for giants.

An icy wind blasts my face. I pull my green jacket closer and resume walking. My cousin, Pallu, walks beside me, and our six travel companions from all over the world are already ahead. Our guide, Chirring Cap Lama, and his assistants keep a watchful eye.

Twenty-five years ago, when we were young girls, Pallu and I had planned this trip. The journey represented adventure, breaking out of the cocoons of our conventional lives. It’s hard to believe we are in places we had only dreamed about.


It’s the first day of my Kailash trek. Behind me lies Darpoche, the starting point. The flat ground in Darpoche is strewn with mani stones and yak horn offerings. Mani stones are small rocks inscribed with a prayer to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Thousands of wispy white, orange and blue Buddhist prayer flags hang on lines. I am walking in sacred spaces.

Mount Kailash is where Mahadeva, the great God Shiva, lives with his wife Parvati. Hindus consider Kailash the holiest of places. To Tibetans, Kailash is Gang Rinpoche (Precious Jewel of the Snows), the abode of the powerful Buddhist deity Demchok and his consort, Dorje Phagmo. The first Jain prophet, Rishaba, achieved enlightenment in Kailash, and Jains worship the mountain as Mount Ashtapada. To the Bon people, it is Mount Tise, a crystal snow mountain in which resides the great Lord of Tise, who rides a crystal-white lion.

Due to its extraordinary sacredness, Kailash remains unclimbed; one can only circumambulate the mountain. Hindus call this circular journey parikrama, and Buddhists call it kora. Our group is following the approximately 52 km outer parikrama. The inner parikrama, about 35 km, runs closer to Kailash but is so challenging that few dare attempt it. It is said that one must acquire the merit of completing 13 outer parikramas to qualify for the inner parikrama.

Thirteen parikramas seem as achievable as a trip to the moon. My boots crunch on the ground as I drag myself up the slope. In the oxygen-thin air, my body already feels heavy. We are above the tree line at an altitude of over 4,500 meters. Sculpted over centuries by unrelenting wind, sun, and snow, giant cliffs form rippled and complex landscapes.

Pilgrim on a kora (parikrama) around Mount Kailash
Pilgrim on a kora (parikrama) around Mount KailashPhoto: Ying from ‘Walking in Clouds’ by Kavitha Yaga Buggana

Other than the black and white of Kailash, I am engulfed in a sea of brown—the peanut-coloured earth; tawny pebbles; scraggy orange-brown grasses; the outstretched wings of the eagle flying overhead; the Tibetan gazelle perched on a distant slope. Despite this stark beauty, my eyes long for green, and my legs beg for rest.

The tea house is a large tent. Chirring warms himself at a stove and waves Pallu and me inside. Thermos flasks and teacups stand on painted wooden tables. Hindu and Tibetan pilgrims and Western adventure travellers sit on wooden chairs and benches topped with brightly coloured rugs. A Tibetan sips salty, creamy yak butter tea. After hours in silent, open spaces, I am cheered by the cosiness of the indoors and the roar of conversation.

“Hey! We’re here!” someone calls.

Chatting and laughing, Pallu and I sip steaming black tea with our group. Though this is the first day of the Kailash parikrama, our group has been travelling together for over two weeks.

Vajrayana deities in a monastery
Vajrayana deities in a monasteryPhoto: ching

We spent the first five days trekking through Nepal’s pristine and picturesque Humla Valley. When we crossed into Tibet, we set up camp at Lake Manasarovar.

Under cloudy skies, the waters of Lake Manasarovar appeared grey; patches of orange grasses covered the shore.


Manasarovar is a lake of legends. Brahma is said to have created the sarovar (lake) from his manas (consciousness), so divine beings could bathe in its waters before praying to Shiva in Kailash. It is believed that these heavenly beings descend on the lake at night as glowing lights from the sky. Manasarovar’s waters are considered so pure that one dip in them can wash away all sins.

Katy, a fellow traveller from Canada, calls Pallu and me over for a dip in the lake. We joke that if we had known our sins would be washed away, we would have sinned some more. I run into the freezing waters and stayed submerged for as long as possible before running out, shivering and laughing. I fill a bottle to take water home for my family. Late that night, I am outside my tent in the Manasarovar campsite with Prarthana, a friend and traveller. Suddenly, Prarthana points at the lake.

Trekking through Humla Valley
Trekking through Humla ValleyPhoto: Ying from ‘Walking in Clouds’ by Kavitha Yaga Buggana

She exclaims, “What’s that?” A round, vibrating light shines in the distance. Is it hovering on water like in the myths? Or is it a camp light on the opposite shore? I can’t decide. I call Pallu, but the light has disappeared. We stand and watch, but the light doesn’t shine again.


We sip the last of our tea and resume the parikrama. Kailash is always to our right, and at every angle, it looks different: a face, a man reclining, a lingam. We pass an older Tibetan woman and man prostrated on the ground. They rise, walk the length of their bodies, and then prostrate again. Their journey, Chirring tells me, will take two or three weeks. They seem to worship not just Kailash but every pebble, insect, and blade of grass in these sacred spaces.

Located north of the Himalayas, Kailash, at an altitude of 6,714 meters, is a significant peak in the Trans-Himalayan range. Formed from a darker and older stone than that of the stone of the surrounding mountains, it’s also the tallest geological deposit of its kind in the world. Four major rivers—Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Indus and Karnali—have sources that originate in this region. Throughout the journey, I’ve seen waterfalls and streams and wondered which river or lake they feed. The waters from this region keep millions of people alive.

First sight of Mount Kailash on the way to Lake Manasarovar
First sight of Mount Kailash on the way to Lake ManasarovarPhoto: Sperello di Serego Alighieri from ‘Walking in Clouds’ by Kavitha Yaga Buggana

Kailash is both a mountain of rock and snow and a mountain of myth and legend. As Mount Meru, it’s the centre of the universe. On its slopes is Kubera’s marvellous city, Alaka, which Kalidasa extols in his poem, “Meghadootam.” On Kailash, Ganesh was brought back to life with an elephant head.

Even the rocky black lines on Kailash tell a story. Ravana, the king of Lanka and Shiva’s great devotee, decided to carry Kailash to Lanka. He tied strong ropes around the mountain and lifted it. As Kailash shook, Shiva smiled. Gently, he pressed down his little toe. Under the weight of Shiva’s toe, the mountain fell back to earth. Trapped underneath, Ravana realised his folly and, overwhelmed by the compassion of Shiva (who didn’t kill him but taught him a lesson in humility), a rapturous Ravana composed and sang the rhythmic “Shiva Tandava Stotram.” He sang of Shiva’s beauty, the crescent moon in his matted locks, the garland of snakes. To worship Shiva, he proclaimed, is to put aside ego and look upon the world with equanimity.

Pleased with the song, Shiva released Ravana. The ropes fell from Kailash but left their black lines on the mountain. The marks of these ancient legends follow us around the mountain of myths.


The first camp is about 5,200 meters in altitude. Across the valley, at the base of a slope, is the orange Drira Phuk Monastery. We’re at the closest point in our journey to Kailash. When Katy suggests we trek to get closer, Pallu and I pick up our trekking poles. It’s still light. Our fatigue has faded.

We walk along a small stream with water from the melted snow of Kailash. The mountain displays its magnificent north face, which has a rounded top and is less blanketed in snow than the south face from the journey’s start. Stone and snow shimmer under the sun in stunning contrast. Moving clouds create an illusion of a moving mountain. The closer we get to Kailash, the higher it seems to loom. Faced with the enormity of the hill, I realise the minuteness of my body, the inconsequentiality of my life. In the vastness of the universe, we are nothing.

Katy, Pallu, and I drink cold water from the stream. We sit apart in silence. I close my eyes. The wind roars above, the stream gurgles by my feet, and my breath is warm. I am calm; I am elated. I am filled with silence; I can hear every sound. What will happen tomorrow ceases to matter. I’m here now, aware of my body, the stream, the wind.

Even with my eyes closed, I can see the mountain.

Kavitha Yaga Buggana is the author of “Walking in Clouds: A Journey to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar,” (HarperCollins, India, 2018). Her short story collection will be released in 2023

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