John Vincent Bellezza
An Early Himalayan Spring
Spring seems to be dawning quickly in the Outer Himalaya. Due to the general scarcity of snow and rain, temperatures are steadily rising, and new plants and insects make their debut everyday. Of course this could all change and winter return. All it would take is one sustained storm (like we used to always get in the first half of March). Let’s see what happens weather-wise. It is hard to complain though; I can finally take off a couple layers of clothing while sitting at my desk. I am pleased to see all the ceremonial archaeological sites surveyed in Upper Tibet since 2001 gradually coming together in a coherent form. And then there is roving mountain paths after work. In toil and in repose, my best to you all!
A Walk Around Mount Kailas, Tibet’s Great Sacred Mountain
I began wading through a stack of my photocopied journal one early morning, quickly settling on the account of my 1992 circumambulation of Mount Kailas for the main feature in this month’s newsletter. Perhaps next month I will find the copies of journals that detail my time among the Kalash of Chitral. I have been looking for these writings for awhile now but continue to get waylaid by other compositions.
July 21, 1992
Without an alarm clock, it is not east getting up at a pre-appointed time, but still I managed to – about two hours before dawn. All I had to do was dress because I packed my daypack last evening. I started out west on the well-worn kora (circuit) trail in the light of the half moon. The trail skirts the Barga plain until it turns north into the Dralung valley. The huge prayer flag mast at Darboche is soon reached, site of festivities at Kang Rinpoche like Saka Dawa. In the dark, I missed Darboche but not Chorten Kang Nyi, which one either passes around or under. By this time it began to get light and I could make out the scenery and other pilgrim’s on the trail. Unfortunately, the spectacular views of the southwest face of Kang Rinpoche were not to be had this morning on account of the clouds. The surest bet for clear weather is either the pre-monsoonal or post-monsoonal period. This time of the year monsoon clouds often breach the Himalayan divide, especially in the last few years.
The Dralung valley or the west side of the kora is most noteworthy for its smooth, sheer rock faces and the waterfalls coming off them. Nitri Gonpa or Choku Gonpa is located on the west side of the kora on the opposite side of the valley from the trail, approximately 100 m above the valley floor in a cliff face. I did not have the opportunity to visit. When you are trying to cover 32 mountainous miles in a day, you don’t exactly have time to putter around. A legendary footprint of the Buddha below a rock cairn is encountered just before you round the north side of the kora. For the Tibetans, the footprint-like depression in the rock is a hallowed sign of Buddhism. Nearby, there is a pyramidal rock smothered in butter and covered in kattas (scarves). This is a power site of the wrathful protector Tamdin. When I arrived some boys were smoking cigarettes near the Tamdin stone, which protected them from the wind.
For sometime on the west side of the kora, I got caught between several groups of young women, both lay and nuns. I found them a distraction because they seemed to be incessantly engaged in chatter. I was relieved when they stopped for breakfast. Alone, I could concentrate on the culture and import of the kora. Devout pilgrims commonly test their endurance by completing the approximately 50 kilometer-long walk in one day. They not only do it once, but 3, 13 or more times. Many pilgrims shoot for 13 koras,which is supposed to extinguish the sins of all lifetimes in an epoch (each kora less than that is worth the liberation of one lifetime, according to a commonly held belief). If a pilgrim alternates between walking and rest days he can complete 13 circumambulations within a month…that is if he doesn’t suffer from illness, injury of exhaustion. Sonam and his Rinpoche younger brother could barely complete a kora, while men and women in their 60s and 70s smile their way through multiple ones. The Tibetans however are generally a tough people. What other country can boast of its citizens hiking 32 miles of high elevation mountainous terrain in a single day, and doing it over and over again?
One young man from Dartsedo in Sichuan reached Darchen a full three hours before me! Now that is endurance and stamina! 108 koras, a number reached by very few pilgrims, reputedly washes away the sins of all lifetimes, thereby insuring the attainment of Nirvana. While I acknowledge the tremendous faith and determination that the pilgrims have, I feel too much stress is laid on numbers. Pilgrims are racing around the mountain as quickly and painlessly as they can. They seemed preoccupied with the numerical concept of the efficacy of koras rather than enjoying the ambience and beauty. Personally, I stress quality over quantity. I feel it is better to enjoy the mountain, sit with it, appreciate its majesty, meditate, rest, relax, and sleep on the kora. In brief, take your time, and see where the spirit takes you, instead of forcing your body around the trail in one day. Of all the pilgrims today, only one group had this idea. They were carrying their gear with them, meaning they could go at whatever pace and for however long as they wanted.
The Lha Chu demarcates the north side of the kora until Diraphuk Gonpa. The Lha Chu then swings away from the kora heading north toward Testi Lachen La. Beyond the Lha Chu, Drolma Chu is the companion of the kora. I needed to ford the Lha Chu in order to reach Diraphuk, site of a small gonpa (monastery), tents and a row of adobe apartments. The lhakhang (chapel) of the gonpa enshrines a cave in which Lama Godtshangpa meditated. The gonpa belongs the Drupa Kargyu subsect. The caretaker is an obliging older man who wrote some names in Tibetan for me, and gave me a chunk of sacred clay from Kang Rinpoche. I ate breakfast next to the gonpa, hoping the weather would clear so that I could behold the magnificent black and white north face of the holy mountain. I had to settle for a partial view, better than nothing, I might add.
The north face of Mount Kailas and the ridge of like rock connected to it is the archetypal Shiva lingam (phallus). For a very long time in thousands of forms it has been replicated architecturally and as a fetish in India. Without delving into the complexities of the lingam (or the cult of Shiva), I will only state that it represents the generative urge towards enlightenment present in the entire universe. The Shiva lingam or Mount Kailas is nature perfected, and with the yoni or womb, is the oneness of phenomena or the unity of opposites. The womb and phallus symbolize opposing forces in nature, and their union, the transcendent qualities of divinity. The lore, legends, myths, and religious significance of Kang Rinpoche/Mount Kailas constitute a very fertile aspect of human culture. This has parallels in the veneration or worship of natural features the world over, but perhaps nowhere else is the bridge between nature and religion as elaborate or long lasting. When gazing at the holy mountain you might remember the Puranic Shiva and his retinue living there, or his tantric counterpart Demchok and his consort Dorje Phagmo, or the 500 Bodhisattavas whose celestial gonpa lies on the summit. Or you might recall the legendary contest between the Bonpo sorcerer and the yogin Milarepa to see who could reach the summit first. Bonpo cosmology might also come into the picture as you realize that according to the earliest creation myths, Mount Kailas was the first object to appear from the primordial egg. And when at Mount Kailas, you shouldn’t forget that you are standing at the center of the Indic religious world, the embodiment of cosmic Mount Meru, with the four quarters of the universe stretching out equally before you. This is part of the so-called chakravala cosmology, still the most commonly imagined in this part of the world. Indeed the kora is more than a geographic passage; it is a passage through the timeless world of the human psyche, where myth, materialism and consciousness meld into an inseparable entity.
After crossing the Lha Chu at Diraphuk it is a steady climb to the 18,600΄ Drolma La. Enroute, about ½ way, a pile of discarded clothes, human hair and human cuticles is passed. This is called Sepatsalkidutro and is where pilgrims discard something personal in preparation for their symbolic rebirth. By rejecting something old or worn, the pilgrim becomes susceptible to something new and better, in this case, spiritual regeneration. Above Sepatsalkidutro pilgrims have erected 100s of cairns. These cairns line the entire kora route; here it is customary for everyone to stack a few granitic stones. Near the city of cairns there is another pyramidal monolith called Milaketo. Next, one comes to a series of interconnecting rocks, which only those free from sin can pass under, and I might add, those who are small in stature. This rock passageway is called Digpakarnaktasa.
As I wended my way up to Drolma La many of the Bachen pilgrims passed me with greetings. In accordance with Bonpo custom, they make the kora in a counterclockwise direction. Bon has become so throughly assimilated to Tibetan Buddhsim that one of the Bachen pilgrims exclaimed to me the other day that, there is no difference in the religions. Orignally, Bon provided the substrate for Tibetan Buddhsim to grow on. Since then its iconography, rituals, philosophy, and soteriology have been heavily influenced by Lamaist Buddhism. The Bonpo with their lilting singing voices, smiles and red chubas, made quite a procession coming off Drolma La. All along the kora they have left copies of their scriptures. It is interesting to note that while most Tibetan religious experts consider Bon the fifth school of Tibetan religion, a certain degree of mistrust exists. A young Nyingma lama from Chimbu Gonpa I met on Drolma La didn’t have good words for the Bonpo. Nevertheless, whatever animosity does exist is muted and does not seriously affect communal relations (unlike in some other parts of the world).
The Drolma La is marked by a prodigious array of prayer flags. Some pilgrims leave their old clothes and hair on the pass. I suppose they feel that the pile below designed for that purpose is not worthy enough. All I left was an American turkey feather as tribute to the common link in aboriginal cultures. I sat on the pass for a few minutes before starting down. The Gauri Kund tarn known as Kapala Tsho in Tibetan is nestled below the pass. Swami Pranavannanda sounded it in the early part of the century. It is a small body of turquoise-tinted water, and one of Kang Rinpoche’s major power foci. The trail becomes steeper as it falls into the Dzong valley. Once in the Dzong valley it is only a matter of a long march before one reaches the Barga plain again. About 2/3 of the way, Dzutrulphuk Gonpa provides a pilgrim’s haven. The lhakang enshrines the cave where the famous 12th century yogin Milarepa meditated. Milarepa’s food, nettles, along with other herbs, grows in abundance here. The old caretaker here was also quite friendly. When I asked for sacred earth, he scraped some off the wall and gave it to me, straw and all. I got my second wind at Dzultrulphuk and sailed through the remaining eight miles of the kora, meeting the local policeman and his Lhasa girlfriends along the way. Destination: straight to my tent.
July 22, 1992
I woke up none too early this morning, and to know that the 62 year old Golokpa carrying the spear in all probability is already back on the kora. An inscrutable faith nourishes people like him as deep as the very oceans and as soaring as the peaks…