Aparna Sharma recounts her perilous and exciting pilgrimage to Kailash braving near death and danger before returning, renewed and transformed
I have had a latent desire to undertake the challenging yet fulfilling journey to Mount Kailash since the last few years, yet when and how was not clear to me. This time I instincitively knew my time had come, and I made preparations to leave for the yatra between the last week of June to July 6th.
It was a 63-member group consisting of seekers as young as 20 yrs old, while the most spirited was a 91-year-old. The most important preparation was building physical endurance through exercise, yoga, walking on the incline, practising deep breathing and challenging my own physical limitations over six months. Exercise and rest combined with healthy eating prepared me to undertake what is known as the one of the most challenging spiritual voyages in the world. Focus and unwavering determination helped me immensely in the preparation phase.
Though we were in a large group, and I had gone with a known family from Mumbai, I came back with the strong realisation that no matter how many friends and family members you have, you have to walk the path on your own. In the end and till the end, you are alone. Each one’s life is unique and you have to experience your own journey while learning the unique lessons meant for you.
The journey begins
The journey from Mumbai to Lucknow to Nepal was covered in a single day. At the end of the day in Nepal, we were briefed about the journey from Nepal to Simikot by a small aircraft through a cloud-covered valley before embarking on a helicopter ride from Simikot to Hilsa.
After clearing immigration in China, we would travel by bus to Taklakot where we would camp for two nights to acclimatise ourselves. All of this in a day! Whoa – what a spin! From 500 mts to 8,500 mts. It was tough and exhausting, to say the least.
After arriving in Taklakot, I realised that the terrain, weather, and air had all changed. It was cold already! We were asked to walk around in the small town, rest, eat, not to bathe, and keep our windows open in the night...so we could breathe the air which was already thin compared to the places we came from.
Some members from the group fell sick at this stage itself, suffering from headache, nausea, fever and breathlessness. The next day a few more fell sick. Many started binging on food since they did not know what else to do.
I ate the bare minimum, and drank lots of fluids like warm water, tea, coffee, juice, and soup, walked around quite a bit, rested and, above all, meditated. I had promised myself to keep silence during the entire journey starting from Taklakot. However, when group members needed help or medical attention, I was ready to help. The journey within had started along with the journey towards our eternal abode.
The third day was earmarked for our journey to Mansarovar from Taklakot. We started early after breakfast, by bus, passing beautiful mountainous terrain on the way with very little or no vegetation on the sides. The first marvel was being able to catch a glimpse of the mighty Mount Kailash from Rakshastaal which was a huge blue lake, the place where Ravana did tapas to be blessed with the atma-linga. The water of this lake is absolutely blue with no flora or fauna. It holds four islands within it where the locals breed yaks.
We went close to the lake on a hillock and could see Mt. Kailash through fleeting clouds. Tears rolled down my cheeks at the sight. I have no words to express why and what I experienced. In hindsight, they were unstoppable tears of joy. I was finally there to see and experience the ultimate.
We proceeded to do a parikrama of the Manasarovar Lake in the bus and stopped mid way at a place where we could see Mt. Kailash clearly at a distance, to take a dip in the holy water and offer prayers. The water was colourless and cold. We could see the legendary swans in the lake, and spot water weeds in the lake bed, since the water was so clear. I was spellbound.
It was late evening by the time we completed the parikrama and reached the other side of the Manasarovar lake. By then the sky had become very cloudy, it had started to rain, and the weather was really cold.
We camped in temporary rooms on the bank of the Manasarovar Lake. It was pitch dark; no lights, only the sound of wild dogs barking. I was lying on some kind of a bed, longing for the sky to clear up. Post midnight, the sky did clear up and there were countless stars all over the sky, some tiny, some brighter. It was a spectacular sight. I had never seen so many stars so clearly with my naked eyes.
Fully clad in woollens and wrapped in a huge blanket, I walked towards the lake along with a few other members of the group around 2:30 am and settled on the ground pretty close by to watch the much-vaunted celestial activity so many had talked about, when deities apparently alighted on the Mansarovar lake.
I sat facing the Manasarovar lake, with my back to Kailash. Suddenly, a star split and fell into the lake and then started to dance like the sine wave. I was stunned. Pulling out my camera, I clicked a few shots. Then the star light moved in a circular manner after a few minutes as if it were revering Lord Shiva at Mt.Kailash. While this was continuing, another star split and the same actions were repeated. After a while, both stars together moved in a circular motion, as if offering prayers. I rubbed my eyes to check if it was real and not a figment of my imagination. It was truly divine. This was at about four am. Then again, a third star split and the same action was repeated by all three in tandem. It was truly unbelievable.
My understanding is that the gods in the form of stars come down to bathe in the Manasarovar lake during Brahma Muhurat, and then worship the Almighty – Lord Shiva who resides in Mt. Kailash according to Hindu scriptures. I could not believe my luck at having seen this myself firsthand. It was truly miraculous. I experienced divine power so pure and intense, that no words can do them justice. I shot as many pictures as I could before returning to my room to take shelter from the freezing cold.
Unbelievably, all the pictures that I or the others had shot were blank. All I have within me is the intense experience which my eyes saw and my soul soaked in! Something in me, changed with this experience.
The divine encounter
It was time to move from the enchanting Mansarovar Lake towards the penultimate yatra – the parikrama of Mount Kailash.
Next morning, we left from Mansarovar towards Darchen which was our base camp for the parikrama. We journeyed through beautiful mountaineous terrain inching towards the magnificent Mount Kailash.
We went straight to Yama Dwaar, since it was agreed the previous evening that not all could go for the parikrama owing to ill health, advanced age, or an inability to deal with all the challenges enroute. Most people did a parikrama in the form of a figure of 8 through the Yama dwaar. It is believed among the Buddhists that this parikrama is the equivalent of a parikrama around Mount Kailash.
Finally, only 50 per cent of the group was eligible to proceed and the much awaited yatra began. Most people had hired ponies and a porter. Along with three others, I decided to undertake this journey on foot. We had a porter each besides a mountain walking stick. In hindsight, it was a wise decision since four people fell off the horse and had to return during the first lap of the yatra.
The entire parikrama lasts three days starting from the base at Darchen through Yama Dwaar, the first night halt at Derapuk, the second day crossing Dolma Pass with a night halt at Zuthulpuk and the third day completing the parikrama and returning to the base camp at Darchen.
The first day’s trek is of 12 kms. I started with the faith and belief that the Lord was in charge and would see me through one of the most challenging spiritual yatras in this world. My mind was a blank. All I did was to constantly chant Om Namah Shivay all through the way. It was quite a trek, all the more difficult when we encountered bad weather around four kms from the starting point.
First came a hailstorm, with hailstones the size of which I had never seen or heard of before. The constant assault of the hailstones injured me especially on the head and also the upper body since they were falling with force. My raincoat was of no use in protecting me. There was no shelter to hide under either. I had the huge mount on one side and a river stream on the other. The conditions were beautiful yet very dangerous.
Once the intensity of the hailstorm reduced after about 45 minutes, it started to rain heavily. All of us got fully drenched. My inner thermal wear too was fully wet including shoes and socks. I was wearing three layers of socks inside the shoes. To top it all, my bag holding extra clothes including woollens, which the porter was carrying, also got fully wet. It was really hard to continue walking in the heavy rain and stormy winds.
The entire group got dispersed during this ordeal, and quite a few people started to have severe breathing problems. We were already at 15,000 feet above sea level. I was injured, tired, wet and breathless too.
Through the dark valley
As if the rains were not enough, soon after, it started to snow. The temperature dropped to -7.0 deg Celsius. I was frozen and shivering. It took about nine hours to reach the camp at Derapuk, by which time I had caught a chill and was turning blue. It was late evening by the time I reached the camp. I could see that quite a few fellow passengers were already serious. Their oxygen levels had dropped and they were being given first aid and oxygen. Then, it was my turn. By then I had passed out. I am told that my oxygen level had dropped below 40. The helpers tied a camphor cloth bag around my nose. I was serious, and in a semi-coma stage! I regained consciousness only early morning the next day. Lord Shiva’s miracle, I believe.
The moment I opened my eyes, I could see the huge Mount Kailash through my window staring at me (pic below). It’s difficult to explain the feeling in words. I had surrendered. If the Lord wished to take me in his care right there, I was prepared. I was fearless. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was re-born that morning. Aparna version 2.0. I had transcended the fear of death!
It had snowed all evening until early morning. so the Sherpas were unsure if we could continue with the journey or go back down to the base camp. The snow was loose, and it could be fatal if we tried going further in that kind of weather. It was decided that a few people who were serious would be airlifted or sent back in an ambulance, while those who wanted to continue would stay at Derapuk one more night and wait for the weather to improve.
I was asked to go back due to severe injury and pulmonary oedema. However, I was determined and insisted on staying. Finally, I had to give an undertaking to the Sherpas that if anything happened to me, it would be entirely at my risk and responsibility. I rested and prayed, preparing myself mentally to go further once the weather cleared up and to complete the parikrama.
The next day we started for the second day’s parikrama once the weather improved. Most people from my group had been sent back. This was the most difficult segment of the yatra, comprising 20 kms of challenging trek. Climbing up to cross Dolma Pass with soft snow beneath and then a sharp climb down, as if almost slipping down into the Gauri Kund. Even the horses have difficulty walking through this, so even those who had hired horses had to walk. The trek is dangerous and scary. Interestingly, you do not see Mount Kailash at all on Day 2.
Exhausted and cold, we halted at Zuthulpuk at the end of the day to rest and recoup. Given my condition in the first lap and considering that I was still blue, walking and crossing the most difficult pass is an absolute proof of Divine presence and blessing.
The next day was the final lap of 12 kms trek which was fairly easy, and you once again see Mount Kailash from the other side....pure, pristine, vast, immovable, infinite. Unbelievably, I spotted the Shiva’s Trinetra image inside the mountain and also Sheshnag (visible in the first picture above).
As I was coming down during the final trek, I began to breathe better. I get goose bumps each time I reminisce about the parikrama. I finally did it. Inspite of passing out, injuries! I was welcomed with open arms by my fellow pilgrims who had known of my condition and saw me firsthand. I collapsed again and was given lots of fluids to get my energy back.
Finally, we started on our journey back from Darchen to Mansarovar to Taklakot. As I moved away from Mount Kailash the next day, I could feel that I had left a part of my being there. I had just got a new lease of life. I felt different – may be renewed. I was detached.
First published in Life Positive magazine January 2017 issue.