Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why Kailas?

Perhaps a little narrative would be in order too, to explain what I was doing in those far-flung places! New School's India China Institute Sacred Himalaya Initiative has been sending parties of scholars, artists and policy-makers to various parts of ICIMOD's Kailash Sacred Landscape,
which stretches across parts of India, Nepal and China (Tibet). I was part of an exploratory party which circumambulated Mount Kailash three years ago, but we drove along the new Chinese-built road from Lhasa (joining it from eastern Nepal). Since then folks have been spending time in the areas where pilgrims (almost all Saivites from India) historically passed through on their way to the Abode of Shiva. Last Fall a postdoc accompanied an Indian government-sponsored pilgrim group starting in Delhi. In January a party walked part of the way pilgrims walk from India up to the border of Tibet, and in the Spring teams of local scholars explored some parts of Southwestern Nepal, where alternate and substitute Kailashes abound.

This time, it was back to Kailas itself by way of Humla, a remote area of northwest Nepal, where pilgrims once followed the Humla-Karnali (a Ganges tributary) to its source just south of Kailas and its lakes. This part of Nepal is so rugged that there are only two ways to cover the 65 kilometers from Simikot (which has an airport) to the border town of Humla - by foot or by helicopter. I did both - the first on the way up (July 22-25), the second on the way back (Aug 4). (Most of our group, many of whom had walked up from Simikot by a different route, walked back along the Karnali.) In between, a group of about twenty Nepalis, Indians, Americans and Tibetans spent a little time in the trading center of Taklakot, capital of the Tibetan prefecture where Kailas is, drove around Lake Manasarovar (more sacred to many pilgrims than the mountain), took a turn around the sacred mount itself (July 29-Aug 1), spent a little time at other pilgrimage sites a little to the west (Tirthapuri and Gurugyam). We'd planned also to visit the ancient capital of the Guge Kingdom at Tsaparang but permission was withdrawn, perhaps because it's too close to the Indian border, so we had a little more time in Katmandu at the end to collect our thoughts.

Reflections are still trickling in, but our very interdisciplinary group seems to have gleaned a wide range of things from the adventure. Religion wasn't high on most participants' lists, though a few had a "spiritual" interest in Kailas, and a few others became obsessed with the fact that the shamans of Humla, known as dhamis, are denied permission by the Chinese authorities to bathe in Lake Manasarovar, from which they claim to get their clairvoyant powers. (One of our Indian fellows drily observed that there haven't been dhamis on the Indian side since the arrival of science and good governance.) Everyone's moved by the Tibetan circumambulators (most from the neighboring region), whether the more prominent Buddhists, who walk with Hindus clockwise, or the counterclockwise-processing Bönpos. Nobody's much impressed by the Hindus who are carried most of the kora by horseback, by the rather gaudy new monastery someone has decided to build at Dirapuk, or by the adventure-tourists who combine Kailas with visits to Everest or cycling across Tibet.

I was probably the only one intrigued by the way in which Kailas - hardly the world religious center its promoters claim but still, for several centuries now an object of devotion for two kinds of Tibetans and one kind of Hindu - is understood to be home not just of a single power but of a paired power (Demchhog/Tara, Shiva/Parvati), with a considerable retinue, all in turn symbolized by nearby lakes and other mountains, and object not just of lay circumambulation but of elaborate Tantric rituals. I'm not sure what I think about all this, but I'm feeling my way to an account of a local pluralism quite different from that presupposed (and celebrated) by the pablum about a "mountain sacred to four religions." 

No comments: