It was late summer 2015. We were walking on a trail with friends when I came across three ladies talking in an animated fashion. When we sat down later for tea, their animated conversation continued unabated. As I cocked my ear to eavesdrop, I heard "Kailash Yatra". I muttered to myself "There they go again! All talk, no action ...". How wrong I was! They later walked up to us and said "We are going on Kailash yatra this year. Do you wish to join?". I said "No!" I had heard about this holy yatra at high altitude, where a visit can be temporary— or permanent! Although I was very spiritual, I also had an acute sense of responsibility to ensure that I had delivered all my responsibilities before I embarked on something for my spiritual satiation. However, my wife Gayathri was adamant and so were our friends Mythili and Neetha Reddy. I stayed aloof as the three friends started sharing their goal with their friends and started contacting service providers for the Kailash yatra. I used to participate in some of the discussions with service providers since some of them could only converse fluently in Hindi rather than English and my knowledge of Hindi came handy. These three ladies devoured the Internet for all Kailash-related information. Each service provider left the discussion in a dazed fashion as the ladies hammered away with their Encyclopedic knowledge of Kailash yatra. Based on the advice of a friend based in the Gulf, whose team had undertaken the Kailash yatra recently, we approached ‘Karnali Excursions’ in Nepal. As we engaged in discussions with Shri Hiraji, the owner of Karnali Excursions, it was clear that he was unique. An experienced mountaineer and a genuinely spiritual Sanatana Dharmi, he was polite but firm in his communication. As we proceeded to address to the typical questions such as cost, number of days, “best -bang-for-the-buck” approach, he gradually took control of the conversation by gently focusing on the spiritual side of the yatra. Compared to other providers, who played the cut-throat dollar-based approach, Shri Hiraji educated us on everything that would be involved in making the experience a true ‘yatra’. He seemed genuinely interested in helping us make it a ‘yatra’ rather than a religious tour. The charges were slightly high compared to the other competitors, but his detailed explanation of the the quality of service they would provide whilst being firm on avoiding financial negotiations convinced us that this was a step in the right direction. His final golden advice was "Walk. Drink lots of water. Group sankalpam to complete yatra and daily prayer to Mahadev for His Grace is critical for a successful Yatra." This man knew his stuff! (Later on, he confessed that he had not met a more knowledgeable, tough but spiritual group than us. That was a great compliment).
After an initial spike in enthusiasm, the signups reduced in number to a manageable size of 17 from across Canada. An additional 40 people were joining us from the USA. I signed up as well to support Gayathri and she was really happy that I did, I must say. We proceeded to organize group meetings to prepare for the yatra. We went on long walks even in very cold weather including snow or freezing rain, drank plenty of water and organized a Rudra Ekadashi, where all the 17 yatris performed Rudrabhisekham to the chanting of Rudram by our students. We then proceeded to get a health checkup to ensure that there were no hidden health issues. We wrote our Wills and explained to our daughter, Durga, about the Yatra and what to do in case we did not return. Although this sounds grim, we believed that it was our duty to ensure that we did not ignore the practicalities of life. I believe our friends did likewise. We proceeded to shop for good hiking boots, a headlight, electrolytes, essential medicines, walking sticks, proper clothing, and a good backpack for the trip. We purchased a travel health insurance for the period of the yatra - 3 weeks. We then booked our tickets to Kathmandu in Nepal and travelled on the scheduled date. We were now at a height of 3000 feet from sea level. We were met with huge smiles and marigold garlands and saw the golden-domed 5 000-year-old Pashupathinath temple (UN world heritage site) on our way to the hotel. We met Hiraji in the evening with other yatris and he regaled us with tips on how to prepare ourselves. We were given several essential items such as plastic rain ponchos, jackets with multiple pockets, a large duffel bag with a weight limit of 20 kilos for the yatra. We were instructed to leave the duffel bag outside the hotel door and felt well-prepared for what was coming up. Plastic bags were essential to prevent items from getting wet. We segregated our belongings so that one plastic bag would have our undergarments and socks while another would have water-proof pants and tops. You get the idea now. If we reached into our bags in even when it was dark, we would be able to ‘feel’ and recognize its contents. The weighing scale of the hotel was in great demand. Some foresighted rishi in the group had brought a weighing scale too! I regretted this oversight of mine.
We took a flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which is occupied by the Chinese. Ideally the yatra would have involved a road trip in Nepal to Mt Kailash, however, this was not possible since many of the bridges had collapsed due to the massive earthquakes suffered by Nepal. Travelling via Lhasa meant that the cost of the trip had to increase but it was unavoidable. Sight-seeing in Lhasa was an added benefit of this trip. Lhasa is a big tourist attraction since it is the highest plateau in the world and a center of Buddhism. As soon as we landed in Lhasa and started walking, we could feel the difference in our breathing since we were now at an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level. Walking became a slight exertion and we were slightly out-of-breath. "Slow down, slow down" yelled Hiraji. Whether anyone heard him or not, everyone naturally slowed down! We cleared the Lhasa airport, a heavily militarized zone. 2 buses were waiting to load the passengers. After an hour drive, during which we spotted Bhrahmaputra river, we reached our hotel. Wily Hiraji had chosen the Yak hotel, which was posh but had no elevators! We had to walk up the staircase and he advised us to take one step at a time and demonstrated a breathing technique to employ during the climb. The hares who ignored his advice, stopped on the landing of the first staircase. Obedient tortoises like us merrily and in slow motion overtook the panting hares! That day, Hiraji demonstrated a special pranayam that increases 02, oxygen, count, which is so important at high altitudes. He proved the efficacy of this technique by taking 02 reading at random of a yatri and re-taking a reading after the pranayama. Those whose reading showed a pathetic 70 in the beginning were now showing a healthy 90 in a matter of minutes! Hiraji also advised everyone to cover their necks, head and feet all the time to protect themselves from cold and cough. While some found it excessive, the sound logic behind this step was to ensure that no one got sick and spoiled their once-in-a-lifetime-yatra. The next stop was the Potala palace, where the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of the Buddhists, used to live but now lives in exile in India. This palace was built over several centuries and we needed to climb up 600 winding stone steps. One step. Take a pause and deep breath. Take the next step ... keep moving ... slowly ... and believe it or not, we made it! Several young Chinese youths who were running up the steps earlier, now lay panting on the steps, as we majestically moved past them in slow motion ... one step at a time! We witnessed the largest collection of gold in one place (more than 300 tons) in the form of huge Buddhas. Well, after some time, it became a little boring, as all the Buddhas looked the same! But we were learning a valuable lesson ... walk slowly and steadily matching your breathing style. We also visited Jokhan temple, where it was amazing to see the devotees perform endless sashtanga namaskaras. Some of the team members joined in! Later on, some did shopping at the local bazaar for nice shawls, saffron and jewelry. Regular morning and evening health and 02 checks were done by the Sherpas — each one of them an uncertified doctor! Some were faring well, while some were hanging in there. We then resumed our road trip and reached Shigatse. Now and then someone would shout "Water time!" and each yatri would dutifully take a sip from their water bottle. The bus would stop at regular periods of time for the yatris to attend nature's call. Men headed to one direction while women to another. While it was awkward in the beginning, the yatris adapted quite well to attending nature calls in the open in a short period of time. The hotel in Shigatse was excellent and had intricate art work throughout. The views during the drive were splendid. Nature at its very best. As we wound through the mountain roads, the brilliant blue sky with white clouds and the colourful mountains on the sides were a joy to behold. From Shigatse, we moved to Saga where we stayed for a couple of days for acclimatization. Now we were at 16,000 ft. The next day, we were going to get our first glimpse of Kailash and Manasarovar! As we first got the glimpse of Kailash, we were speechless with emotion. The feeling as the pulse raced is indescribable. How many were blessed to visit the home of Mahadev and his family? The sheer feeling of facing Mahadev had all of us in raptures and goosebumps. The bus stopped and everyone piled out and did a shashtanga namaskaram in the direction of Kailash. It was raining on Kailash at that time and Hiraji explained "Abhisekham is going now on now!" A strange thrill ran up everyone's spine. Nature's abhisekham for Mahadev! What a divine sight! We all immediately performed a Sashtanga namaskaram to Mahadev. As we moved on, we came to Manasarovar lake! We were struck by its brilliant changing blue and emerald green colours with the twinkling of stars on its gentle waves due to the shining sun. We performed the 150 kms parikrama around the lake and then stopped at a good spot for a holy bath. It was freezing cold. We quickly took a dip and each one chanted the mantras they knew. Taking bath in Manasarovar gave an immense sense of becoming purified. The sherpas, our guides, filled our water bottles with Manasarovar's holy water so that we could bring it back home. We quickly dried ourselves and slipped into warm clothes again.
The next day, we got up early to perform a Rudra Homam. As we were performing the homam, I felt that Mahadev was smiling and blessing us. When we performed Kalashabhisekham at the end to all the Shiva lingams that the yatris had brought, an amazing thing happened. It started raining on Kailash simultaneously! We felt we were performing abhisekham to Lord Shiva directly ! Hiraji observed "All of your sincere prayers have reached Him!" and confessed that he had never experienced such a divine scene before. Later in the evening, we were then taken to Teerthapuri, which is an incredible holy place where natural rock formations in the form of Shiva Lingams abound. In one area, different spots are identified as all the holy places in Bharat and if one has had darshan of Teerthapuri, it is said that no further pilgrimage was required. We then saw the Trinetra form of Shiva on Kailash as well as the Atma lingam. The Trinetra form occurs on the South side (Aghora) of Kailash and there are 3 slits across the rock face that are not covered with snow, giving the appearance of Lord Shiva's face with 3 eyes!
We were at 18,000 feet and we ready to start our 3 day yatra which was the circumbulation or "parikrama" of Kailash mountain, the abode of Lord Shiva and his family. Early morning, the buses took us close to the spot where the yatra would commence which was at Yama-Dwar, a very small temple through which you had to walk through. The belief was that you had overcome Death itself to do perform the Kailash yatra. The Kailash face facing us was called Maha Kaal! We then had to hire horses, horsemen and porters. This was important as the horses acted as insurance against any fatigue or small mishaps like a twisted ankle etc. The horseman would lead the horse while the porter would carry our backpack. These were local Tibetan tribals who were considered as Shiva-Ganas by Hiraji, helping yatris to make their yatra. They were a loud bunch, laughing and slapping each other's back and with a big toothy grin would take ownership of you! You were their responsibility! One amazing thing that all of us discovered that they had enormous self-respect and would never ask for any tips or beg or steal. You could rely on them totally. They knew few words of English and Hindi and communication was mostly by sign language. And by the way, these folks took bath only 3 times in their lifetime — after they were born, before their wedding and after their death. But strangely, none of them smelled bad! One admirable aspect was that men and women are treated as equals and you could get a lady who would be your porter or be your horsewoman. When we see this equality, we were left wondering as to who was really primitive in their mindsets? The allotment of horses, horsemen and porters was done by a lottery system and you could not pick whom you fancied! Luckily, everyone got a decent draw and had good partners in horses, horsemen/women and porter to help. As the yatra commenced, some started walking, while some immediately took the horse. Large yaks carried our duffel bags and trotted along with their bells jangling and clanging. Soon a single file formed and the distances started growing wider between the yatris. This yatra is for the individual and those who believe they can do the yatra together as a couple or as a families must realize that you will get separated but will rejoin in the evening. As such, soak in the divine atmosphere during the yatra. Talking subsides automatically as 02 levels are low and each step is a challenge. One starts meditation on the mantras to remove the focus from the physical to the spiritual and suddenly you feel you are floating and enter a mental zone where nothing exists but just the resonance in your mind, head and soul of "Om Namah Shivaya!". On the right side was Kailash displaying the Western face of Shiva called Vamadeva. On the right hand side, you could see a huge form of Ganesha on the mountain and you wondered as to how these formations happened. On our right side was Kailash, and this was the North side (Vamadeva). After covering 6 kms or so, we came across a tent where local tribals had put up a tent as a make-shift restaurant. Some helped themselves to noodles. We tipped our horsemen and porter so that they could get a decent bite. We then continued our walk. The first day's walk is approximately 10kms and offers a gentle and undulating landscape with sometimes streams flowing on the sides offering a soothing bubbling noise. As we completed our first day, we could see the horses and the bright yellow jackets of some yatris who had already reached the guesthouse, which was a brick constructions with rooms. We were invited with hot tea, biscuits and popcorn and soon tucked into a warm meal. The team of cooks leaves earlier than the rest of the team and has the meals ready and waiting for the tired but elated yatris. During dinner time, 02 levels were checked. For some it had dropped. Some were coughing or had a slight fever. Hiraji would walk around with his team checking on every yatri and offering words of encouragement as he administered mysterious Ayurvedic medicine that works like magic at high altitudes. That night we shared a room with 4-5 yatris and lights were on till 10pm. There were regular beds with pillows and blankets. Taking off the hiking boots was an effort and some did not bother to! Headlights would be turned on as one wandered out into the wilderness to relieve themselves (this is the "3 litres of water a day" affect!) . We would scan the landscape and take note of room numbers to ensure that we headed back to the right room and not stumble upon a poor sleeping yatri in the wrong room! Next day morning, we would scramble out and head for a convenient spot for our morning ablutions with our wet wipes. I can tell you that the heavy walking offers a jolt to our digestive system and we all complete our business in less than a minute!
The 2nd day walk is the crossing of the Dolma-la pass. It as June-17 and Pradosham day. We were going to reach the highest point of the Kailash yatra at close to 20,000 ft. The route is a steep uphill climb and then a sheer climb down and the distance covered is close to 14 kms after which there is a walk again to the rest house on the other side. One cannot see Kailash from the 2nd day as mountains surrounding Kailash block its view. Most rode the horses. Some braves ones walked. The horses were clambering up the steep climb. But they would walk down on their own as so would the yatris as riding horses on the way down was not allowed. Even while riding a horse, one would be breathing hard as the 02 in the air became thinner and thinner. Silently meditating and chanting quietly "Om Namah Shivaya", one made this steepling climb. Sheer gorges sometimes on both sides, magnificent mountains on both sides, ice and glacier formations here and there, the trilling sound of the local folks singing, Buddhist mantras scrawled on the rocks, strings festooned with Buddhist paper flags fluttering in the breeze as one clung to the horse for dear life. Never has one loved a horse more! As you slumped over the horse for a break, the hard-breathing porter would smile and offer you your water bottle. A saviour — how blessed he must be to wander freely in the home of Mahadev! And soon, at the very top, as we glance down, we see a beautiful green lake called Gauri Kund, where Parvati takes her daily bath! At 20,000 feet, a natural lake?! Of course, we wanted a bottle of that water! Sherpas scramble down the sheer sides in a trice as we watch with amazement to fill the bottles with the marvellous Gauri Kund water. Hiraji warns that only those knowing Tantric use of that water should take the water. Being a Durga devotee, I smile somehow and gasp and selfishly and stubbornly say "I need a bottle of Gauri-kund water" and overcome with the exhaustion of saying those words, take a swig from my water bottle!
And friends, it was at this time, that our fellow yatra, Shri Krishnamurthy collapsed suddenly and merged into Shiva. The sherpas tried to revive him desperately. We were advised to move on and not crowd the place. As we headed down, we spotted a Sherpa, with Krishnamurthy strapped to his back, and running full tilt down Dolma-pass, where we were trying to negotiate each step carefully. I had never seen a sight like this before in my life. We were informed in the night that Krishnamurthy had passed away and his body would be flown back to Toronto. Most of the yatris were spiritually mature and took the news gracefully with the common thought prevailing that he had attained Moksham as it was Pradosham on that day. The next day's walk was similar to the first day's walk with gentle undulating landscape. We saw local devotees of the Nature faith do their circambulation in reverse order but by doing a namaskara for every step. We were stuck by their faith and felt that we had to go a long way before achieving that kind of a devotion.
As the Chinese government had issued a diktat that all foreigners needed to vacate Tibet by 18th June, we were driven to the Nepal-China border, where helicopters hired by Hiraji were waiting to take us to Nepal. This was not in the itinerary at all but Hiraji had taken full responsibility for the yatris and had made excellent arrangements even as he was guiding us on the yatra. His great leadership qualities came to the fore. At the Nepal-China border, we saw hordes of pilgrims waiting to do their yatra. One glance and it was clear that they were not well informed at all. Some were wearing chappals and none had walking sticks. There was dread in our hearts and many of us gave away our walking sticks and other gear to the eager pilgrims and shared with them valuable tips in whatever languages we knew. We learnt later that there were several rackets going on in the Kailash yatra business which included taking members only upto Manasarovar and showing Kailash from there and then announcing to the pilgrims that the yatra was not possible due to one reason or other. We were glad that we could complete our yatras properly. On returning to Kathmandu, we had a wonderful bath! After getting used to using the vast landscape as our washroom, we found the small toilets claustrophobic. With a sigh, we returned to routine life. But yes, before returning, Hiraji took us to several holy and historical places like Doleshwar, Guhyeshwari, Pashupatinath, "sleeping Narayana", Bhaktapur etc. We were all given certificates of completion for the Kailash yatra and hugged each other before taking our return flight. On our return, we got together as a team on July 18th, exactly a month after the passing away of Krishnamurthy, for a "samaradhana" where we thanked Lord Vishnu for helping us to the pilgrimage successfully. Of course, we performed a Rudrabhisekham too!
After returning, my wife sprang a surprise on me. "I want to do Kailash yatra every year!" I could only mutter in silence. But left with no choice, I called Hiraji and requested him to let me join his team. He gracefully agreed. For 2017, we were contacted by our friends in Dallas and we visited them and their friends. The entire team signed up for Kailash yatra! I was able to keep my promise to my wife and we were able to do the Kailash yatra again with the blessings of Mahadev and Devi in the summer of 2017. During this yatra, we spent an extra day in Kailash doing the steep 6km walk towards Kailash to actually touch Kailash and prostrate before Mahadev. This trip is called "charan sparsh" or "touching the feet of the Lord". This was special as we saw Mahadev appear on Kailash and give us an unbelievable darshan. We have taken videos and photos of his amazing darshan. Truly, His grace is limitless. And on the first day, after crossing Yama-Dwar, the Mahakal face of Kailash was totally covered with clouds. As we completed our morning group prayers, the clouds parted, and lo and behold, we could see Kailash smiling upon us! In a minute, the cloud screen came together to cover the Lord. Everyone was stunned and left looking at each other in amazement. Was what we saw really happened or was imagined? Words are inadequate to explain certain experiences.
Given below are YouTube video blog links of our Kailash yatra in 2016 and 2017. Hope you enjoy them! You definitely need to see the 2017 video that has the entire clipping of "charan sparsh" where Mahadev's face appeared on Kailash for an incredible darshan. Bholenath does not disappoint His bhole (innocent) bhakthas!
We are praying to Mahadev to allow us to have His darshan again in the summer of 2018. Would you like to join us? You are most welcome! We will be glad to be of service. The Kailash-Manasarovar yatra happens 8 times in a year — one each in May and September and twice in the months of June, July and August.
Om Namah Shivaya! Har Har Mahadev! Om Namah Shivaya!
Ramesh Natarajan, GRD IYERS