It is not uncommon for a landmark with religious significance to hold meaning for several faiths at once. The most famous and one of the most tragic examples is the greatly fought-over city of Jerusalem, heralded as a Holy City by both Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity, with the city’s Temple Mount in particular valued by all three. Just as these Abrahamic religions share many points of reference, the Eastern faiths also share plenty of overlap between their beliefs and holy places. One of the most striking and unusual examples of this is Mount Kailash, a focal point for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, as well as the local Tibetan religion Bön.
The mountain casts a striking image: located in western Tibet, its towering peak is formed from a deep black stone, covered year-round with ice and snow thanks to its altitude. There are many beliefs surrounding the peak, from the religious to the paranormal. It is thought by many to be the Axis Mundi – the centre of the universe, where our world and the next one meet; others say that it is the source of mystical rivers, or a milestone on the road to the mythical wonder-kingdom Shambala; Russian scientists have even theorised that it is man-man, which would make it the largest pyramid in known history by an impressive margin! Whilst the stories vary and speculation flies, the faiths that revere this site have many beliefs in common when it comes to the looming mountain.
Whilst it may look intimidating, this indomitable, unclimbed peak is actually renowned as a centre of enlightenment and spiritual bliss. Bön regards the mountain as the centre of the universe, and the home of the sky goddess Sipaimen. Hindus instead believe it is the residence of Lord Shiva, whom many Hindu groups believe is the God of all gods. Shiva, in a state of eternal peaceful meditation beside his beloved Parvati, supposedly resides on or above the mountain, making it a holy site of bliss, reflection and enlightenment, and a symbol of the meditative “Om”. As Shiva is God of Death and the afterlife, it is also a bridge between this world and the next.
Buddhism also sees this mountain as a focus-point for our world, calling it the ‘naval of the universe’. They too link the mountain with the idea of enlightenment and bliss, seeing it as the home of Buddha Demchog, who represents these ideas, similar to Shiva’s symbolic link to meditation and supreme wisdom. Amazingly, Jainism keeps the theme going, believe the site to be where the first Jain Tirthankara, Rishabhanatha, attained enlightenment.
It’s uncanny how similar these traditions are. However, despite the stories and reverence around it, the mountain is rarely visited by pilgrims compared to other holy sites. This is due to its remote location in the Tibetan Himalayas: there is a four-day hike from the nearest village in Lhasa to the sparse guesthouses at the pilgrim outpost, and from here, pilgrims traditionally attempt to walk around the mountain’s entire base – a trek of 32-miles. No one has ever been recorded as having climbed the mountain itself; this is partly because of its steep and icy footing, and partly out of respect – it is said that disturbing the gods by entering this site of bliss will bring a bad fate on those who tread there.
Whilst no-one climbs the mountain, there have been some odd reports about the effects the area has had on pilgrims and other passers-by. Although there has been no scientific explanation offered, and there is little documented evidence, it is a common rumour that hair and nails will grow faster in this region: supposedly, spending 12 hours around the mountain will result in hair and nails growing as much as they usually would over two weeks! Attempts at explanations often point to an ‘energy’ around the mountain, but without much evidence, it is probably just a story. Potentially, the rumour has been sparked by the length of the journey pilgrims take to reach the mountain, or the fact that some extend the 32-mile walk around the mountain’s base from 15 hours to four whole weeks, by performing physically demanding body-length prostrations the entire way around. To complete this, pilgrims will kneel, lay flat, rise and begin again, toes beginning where their fingers last reached. It is a painful and slow form of supplication, and plenty of time for hair and nails to grow like the rumour describes.
The mountain is even supposedly the setting of a legendary sorcerers’ battle! According to myth, around 1000AD, two magicians supposedly challenged each other to a duel at the mountain’s base, but they were equally skilled, and no victor arose. To break the tie, they instead challenged each other to a race to Kailash’s summit. Naro Bön-chung, one of the sorcerers, flew up the mountain side on a magic drum, whilst his rival, Milarepa, sat and meditated. At the last second, Milarepa suddenly overtook Naro by speeding to the top carried by sunlight.
With so many faiths and incredible tales links to this mountain, it is no surprise that it is a valued spot for pilgrims. Unfortunately, pilgrimages to the mountain from India were stopped between 1954-1978 due to border disputes, meaning that worshipers of Shiva were unable to travel to the god’s home. Today, only a limited number are permitted at a time, under the supervision of the Chinese and Indian governments. Whilst guest houses and even a small medical centre exist, it is a dangerous journey, with some traveling across the Himalayas to begin it.
Despite the potential peril, this mountain keeps drawing people back. This month will certainly be no exception: as Hindus mark Maha Shivaratri, “the Great Night of Shiva”, it is likely that as many Indian pilgrims as may pass will make the treacherous journey to this place of bliss – a safe journey and Happy Maha Shivaratri to them all.