It is said that only the blessed souls get an opportunity to undertake the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage. Taking a dip in the holy lake and offering prayers to Lord Shiva in his abode of Mount Kailash is a sublime experience. The feeling of ‘union with the maker’ overwhelms all.
Pilgrimage (called yatra) is an article of faith for most Hindus. A yatra is a journey of devotion to a sacred place or shrine. The term is always used with due deference as it echoes the religious ardour of the devotees.
Many uninformed devotees mistakenly believe that Kailash-Mansarovar, being a sacred place of the Hindus, falls in India. They are unaware that it is located in the western part of Tibet and they have to obtain Chinese visa and special Tibet permit.
There are three routes of reaching Kailash-Mansarovar – two official and one private. The Ministry of External Affairs organises yatra through Lipulekh (Uttarakhand) and Nathu La (Sikkim) every year. Eighteen batches of sixty pilgrims each traverse the ancient route of Lipulekh. The yatra through the Nathu La is undertaken by ten batches of fifty pilgrims each.
The third route is managed entirely by the private tour operators. It passes through Nepal. One can travel by road from Kathmandu to Taklakot in Tibet. The other option is to fly to Simikot by small aircraft and further on to Hilsa on Nepal-China border by helicopter.
As the Lipulekh route involves trekking and is physically arduous, India had been seeking Chinese clearance for yatra by the motorable road through Nathu La. China had been unresponsive. It was during the summit meet between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi in 2014 that China consented to open the Nathu La route as a special favour to India. Prime Minister Modi thanked him profusely for this goodwill gesture while President Xi sat with his typical smile of munificence.
In 2017, China unilaterally stopped the yatra in the aftermath of the military face-off with India at Doklam, as if to punish India for its stand. Many pilgrims were put to great inconvenience as they had to return from Sikkim. The yatra remained suspended that year. However, after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj requested her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in 2018, China reopened the Nathu La route. Needless to say, there has been no yatra this year due to Covid-19.
As can be seen, the Indian government keeps pleading, while China behaves arrogantly and condescends to grant permission as a special favour.
Two visits to Tibet in the recent past have given me a fairly reasonable idea of the prevailing atmosphere. The first visit was a pilgrimage to holy Kailash-Mansarovar. The second visit was of much longer duration, covering capital Lhasa, Shigatse in the west and Nyingchi in the southeast.
The Chinese officials are arrogant and rude. On entry into Tibet, Indians are asked to disembark from the bus and spread their luggage on the roadside for inspection. Chinese soldiers and policemen rummage through each item to ensure that no paper, document, newspaper, photograph and other material concerning the Dalai Lama is carried into Tibet. Printed material is closely examined. Worse, visitors are asked to show all pictures stored on their cameras and cell-phones. It is a highly time-consuming and degrading experience.
In addition, the pilgrims are made to go through numerous other checks by immigration, custom, local police, frontier police and military. It can take hours. Chinese behaviour is apathetic – the pilgrims are forced to carry their duffel bags for close to 100 mtrs for screening in high altitude area.
Chinese functioning reeks of corruption and high-handedness. Two years back, a group of pilgrims was debarred from taking a dip in the holy lake by the Chinese officials for no apparent reason. In another case, the official at the Kodari border post sent back a group of 59 persons as some pilgrims were slow in appearing before him. Consequently, the whole group had to spend another night in Nepal. With no hotel reservations, the group went through a harrowing time.
The Chinese have made no efforts whatsoever to develop any infrastructure for the comfort of the pilgrims. Even basic minimum facilities have not been created. The quality of accommodation is pathetic and appalling. The pilgrims are lodged in cheap, filthy and unhygienic conditions. They have to use beddings that have never been washed and stink of urine and vomit.
At Mansarovar, the conditions are filthier. Everyone has to defecate in the open. The whole area is like an open latrine, with excreta lying everywhere. Imagine the most hallowed Mansarovar lake being subjected to such environmental abuse and mistreatment. It was the same scene at Darchen.
Yatra via Nepal
Yatra through Nepal is gaining popularity as anyone with cash can undertake it. Unlike the government controlled yatras, there are no quotas and no restrictions. One can fly to Kathmandu and join any of the numerous tour operators. Here are a few inputs from my first-hand experience.
The whole yatra is controlled by a Nepali-Chinese mafia network that involves officials, tour operators, hotels and the airlines. Safety, comfort and welfare of pilgrims are totally neglected. Worse, even after charging exorbitant sums up front, the mafia has invented ingenious ways to swindle helpless pilgrims. Without any prior intimation, one group was forced to shell out ₹ 30,000 for two-way heli-lift across a landslide on Kathmandu-Kodari Road. These are well-organised scams. The loot is shared by all.
Induction into high altitude areas is carried out without any acclimatization – from Nepalgunj (490 ft) to Taklakot (13,025 ft) in a single day. Nearly 30 percent pilgrims fall sick with varying degrees of high altitude effects. There is no medical aid available at all. Some pilgrims perish while others have to be evacuated to lower altitude to save their lives. The mafia ensures that such incidents are kept under wraps and never get publicised.
Air transport in Nepal is primitive, unsafe and totally disorganized. Pilgrims are made to travel on fictitious names as the tickets are purchased underhand. At Simikot, the runway does not even have a fire tender or an ambulance. From Simikot to Hilsa, pilgrims are taken by a 5-seater single-pilot helicopter. Dead bodies are also brought down by the same helicopter. It was scary to see the lone pilot flying continuously in high altitude area for 10 hours. Helipad at Hilsa is neither paved nor marked. There is no wind-sock, no smoke candle and no ground support equipment or staff.
Need to Put Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra on Hold
It is strongly recommended that the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra be put on hold for a few years. My reasons are as follows:-
Many religions have a central seat of religious authority or spiritual head. That is not the case with the Hindus. They are blessed with numerous hallowed places where they can experience celestial ecstasy. The Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra is certainly a soul-satisfying pilgrimage but it has no holy pre-eminence. There are many other equally sacred Hindu places for pilgrimage, e.g. the holy Amarnath cave and the Vaishnodevi Shrine. Therefore, the Hindus can certainly do without the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra.
Nature has blessed India with numerous areas with breathtaking beauty and awesome splendour. Hindu shrines located in these out-of-the-way, unpolluted, serene and blissful places attract hundreds of devotees every year. Unfortunately, no facilities have been created for their comfort, with the result that they have not generated the interest that they deserve. Tour operators have also paid no attention. As a result, very few outside the state are aware of their existence.
India has numerous places that possess the necessary potential for pilgrimage, treks and adventure tourism. It is for the government to identify and develop them with necessary infrastructure. With the influx of visitors, the local economy will get a huge boost. We have the example of Vaishno Devi shrine. The earlier demanding track has been transformed into a comfortable pathway with toilets, eateries and medical facilities. It was visited by a record 104.95 lakh devotees in 2012. Enormity of the beneficial effect on the region’s economy can be well appreciated.
I am citing two such places that have huge potential – Manimahesh and Kinner Kailash. There are several other areas of equal natural majesty.
Manimahesh Lake and Mount Kailash
The Manimahesh Lake is situated twenty-six kilometers from Bharmour in the Budhil valley in Himachal Pradesh. The lake is situated at an altitude of 13,000 feet at the foot of Mount Kailash peak (18,564 ft). A rock formation in the shape of a Shivling on Kailash is considered to be the manifestation of Lord Shiva. It is considered invincible as no one has so far been able to scale the peak.
According to a local legend, Manimahesh (as the name signifies) refers to a jewel (Mani) on Lord Shiva’s (Mahesh’s) crown. It imparts its holy darshans (sight) to the devotees when the moon rays reflect from it on a clear full-moon night. This is followed by another rare event when the first rays of the sun fall on the peak of the Kailash hill. It appears like a saffron tilak in its reflection in the lake. The lake and its surroundings present an imposing view. The quiet waters of the lake carry the reflection of the snow capped peaks.
The easiest route to Mani Mahesh is from Chamba and runs through Bharmaur. At present, buses ply up to Hadsar via Bharmour. Beyond Hadsar, the pilgrims have to trek for 13 kms to reach Manimahesh. Some philanthropic organisations run free kitchens during the festival period. No other facilities exist.
Mount Kinner Kailash
Considered to be one of the abodes of Lord Shiva, Mount Kinner Kailash at 21,330 feet, boasts of a 79 feet tall Shivlinga that changes its colour with each passing moment. According to popular belief, the Kinnaur Kailash is the winter abode of Lord Shiva and he holds a meeting of all gods and goddesses in January at this place. The Sutlej River rising from the slopes of Mount Kailash in Tibet, flows through the Kinnaur valley adding to its serene and picturesque charm. Owing to the valley's close proximity to Tibet, one finds a unique blend of Hinduism and Buddhism.
The Kinner Kailash Parikrama (circumbulation) starts from Chail, near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh and ends at Manali. It is a challenging trek. One has to negotiate raging water streams, climb boulders, ascend steep trails and walk through loose moraine gravel. On the way, 17,200 feet high Charang La pass has to be crossed. Only the physically fit and mentally tough can undertake it. However, one is duly compensated with the sights of unrivalled scenic beauty, mesmerising landscapes, pristine glaciers and fruit orchards.
Pilgrimage always gets supplemented with religious tourism and adventure trekking. All three flourish concurrently and collectively. Therefore, development and promotion of Indian religious places will generate enormous employment opportunities in the underdeveloped/remote hilly areas.
However, it must be ensured that the fragile ecology of the area is not disturbed. Flora and fauna must be protected. Due attention should be paid to hygiene and sanitation. No pollution of any kind should be accepted. Concrete structures should not be allowed. Instead, use of light weight prefabricated shelters of artificial/composite/synthetic wood should be encouraged. Rest places, eateries and toilets should be provided at regular distances. Safety of the pilgrims should never be compromised with medical aid being made available along the whole route.
To conclude, by eschewing Kailash-Mansarovar yatra, Indian leadership will be saved the discomfiture of pleading with China for permission; the pilgrims will not have to suffer ill-treatment and exploitation; and we, the Indians, will not be nurturing the economy of the antagonistic countries.
Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Abhiyan’ is an all encompassing clarion call. It implies self-reliance in all fields, including pilgrimage. Let us develop our own areas and put Kailash-Mansarovar yatra on hold. Nothing can take precedence over India’s self-esteem.
Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD, commanded an Engineer Regiment on the Siachen Glacier, the most hostile battlefield in the world. A highly qualified officer (B Tech, MA (Public Administration), MSc (Defence Studies) and a Doctorate in Public Administration) he was also the Task Force Commander at Pokhran and was responsible for designing and sinking shafts for the nuclear tests of May 1998.
Note: The views expressed in the article are of the author's and not of Sify.com.