“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Moving, Still - reflections on Kailas Yatra

The traveler reflects on the farewells given to men who travel, a little like the farewell one gives to those one will never see again. The ‘Goodbye, and good luck’, that the country girl or the tavern woman or the mule driver gives, is farewell forever, a lifelong farewell, a farewell laden with unrecognized sorrow. Their souls and all their five senses go into that ‘Goodbye and good luck’.

- Camilo Jose’ Cela : Journey into Alcarria.


There is an aquarium in the non-vegetarian refreshment room at the Kottayam Railway Station. 3 ft by 1 ft, it is a small fish tank. A solitary fish about 11/2 ft in length swims in it. Slim, silvery, with a lopsided mouth above which a pair of horn-like appendage flicker, it moves from right to left in two strokes. Twisting, it turns- then left to right, two strokes– on and on and on… Perhaps in the vast sea with whales and sharks and other huge fish, it might be so insignificant- yet, you wish this fish were in the deep and vast ocean, swimming as its graceful tail swishes, looking hither and thither, moving in freedom…

Alone, beside the Meenachil River at Thazahathangadi. Evening- the water sparkles in the slanting sunlight. The river moves, gently towards the sea…

In one’s past travels and those in future, there are three factors one cherishes most. Movement, freedom and solitude. In moving, one exults in the sense of freedom; and freedom in its purest form is felt only in solitude. The mind can be let loose and brought to stillness. Whether in a crowded bar or alone on a snowy peak, one feels absolutely in control, fine-tuned.

Movement is about freedom in solitude. Raise your left leg; there is nobody to question you why. Instead of the left, change at the last moment to the right leg; ditto. Freedom is to be free to choose one’s life. It may not last forever, but what is forever? You are like a blind ant balancing on a stretched thin thread; no turning back. The child holding the thread can anytime break it, throw it away or shoot you phut! with his forefinger. But, at the moment you raise your left or right foot, you are there, with the memories of the way you came and the dreams of the way you will go.

For the traveler, a particular journey begins in dreams. Pouring over the newspaper cuttings or photographs of earlier travels to Kailas, or the books of Swami Tapovanam or Swami Pranavananda or Asan (The late K V Surendranath), the dream take wings. To dream for 13 years is a long time. Its realization is just the physical experience of the dream.


Kailas and Manasarovar lies far away in Tibet or China. Geographic and political nomenclatures are absurd. In his perpetual sense of insecurity, man gives names and say that you or I belong to a piece of land. Yet, like the aborigines of Australia who identify their sacred land through songlines, Kailas and Manasarovar are a part of the Indian subconscious – to stand before the mountain and to submerge in the lake is to look deep within ourselves and recognize what we are…

One can visit Kailas for many reasons. Religious, as the mythical abode of Shiva and Parvati; adventurous, for to reach Kailas by foot, one has to trek through altitudes of nearly 20,000 ft in biting cold; spiritual, as Kailas and its surroundings have an uncanny atmosphere that reverberates to some unidentifiable yearnings of one’s self. It can also be for the sheer love for nature. But, please, don’t go there as a tourist.

One can choose the way one wants to go to Kailas. Either the arduous, traditional pilgrim route traversing across Himalayas on foot or in the comfort of Toyota Landcruiser via Katmandu. But the difference in the sense of achievement is enormous.


Journeys, though of your own choice, need not turn out to be exactly as you wish. Your ship may heave anchor in a calm sea, but how can you prevent the storms? One is disturbed – the pujas, mantras and the saffron-clad people – the string of Rudraksha, the saffron head band and book of Shiva purana offered to you – the incessant bhajans played inside the bus from Delhi to Dharchula near Nepal – people are confining themselves, covering themselves in a shroud. One yearns to shout to them – look, look! Look at the passing landscape, the passers-by, the mountain ranges, the lakes, the rivers! The drone of an electronic instrument that repeatedly plays ‘Om namasivayh’, kills the reflective mood. I had to pick up an uncharacteristic argument to kill the instrument.

The bus flings aside the wheat fields, tractors, trucks, roadside dhabas, and multitudes of humans, covering them in exhaust fumes and dust. As the bus slows down, I notice an old beggar squatting among the filth, gazing at the bus. Our eyes lock. Who am I to him? In the next moment, the bus surges ahead. I feel panicky. Are you telling me that there is no connection between the beggar and me? Between the pilgrims and I? Between the cigarettewallah who wishes Kailas yatra saphal ho and I who nods at him? Why do I have to say goodbye to all these people? Why can’t I be with them? I wish I could remember each and every being that I have seen and see them again and say hello. Are you saying I can’t do it? Should journeys mean to go away into the unknown? It should be about coming back – to my family, to my friends and to the familiar. One more day’s travel further is one more day closer to home. Then – am I really going anywhere?

After three days of suffocation in the bus, I am in the open with my haversack at Tawaghat. Bang in front is the first hill to climb. Gasping breath (I wished I never smoked!), straining muscles, slipping feet – yet, beyond the hill, I know, snow-capped mountains would have gathered to welcome me. My Himalayas. Mine. Mine.

From the humid Dharcula, the pilgrims traverse a cross-sectional path across Himalayas. The changing landscape is fascinating to watch. From tropical through temperate and alpine forests we climb to the dry, barren high altitudes.

A bird skips up the path. I know which. I am smug in my petty knowledge of birds. A furry dog sits in front of a house and smiles at me. I remember mine back home, and ask him, ‘Entheda, sukhamano?’ This tree has peculiar leaves. I wish Parvati were here to casually tell me its botanical name. Far away, I see a waterfall and remember how I had to pull away my little boy from the forest streams back home. I am not really alone.

Within a couple of days into the trek, the body gets adjusted quickly. There is a rhythm to the walking. Breathing is regular, despite the strain. Muscles move like well-oiled pistons. One is looking and listening all the time; all the senses are so sharp. There are several distractions- the pilgrims’ litter, the shouting and singing Gujaratis, nagging, complaining women from Mumbai, the filth and stink of the Himalayan villages – yet, gradually I cease to be irritated by all that- all I see are the mountains; all I know is that beyond the narrow, dangerous path, I will see Kailas.

Yet I am shaken at Malpa, where two years ago in 1998, Protima Bedi and nearly 300 others lost their lives. Rakesh shows me the group photo of the ill-fated pilgrims who perished – his parents were among them. I look closely at the photographs – that bearded trekker could have been me. Those girls in their twenties are very attractive. Their bodies still lay beneath the massive rocks that lie on our path. Death constantly shadows us. Beyond every curve, he lies in wait; I can see his benign smile… every step taken, every day spent, I am nearing, nearing him. I stand on a precipitous ledge and look down at Kali River. All I have to do is to lift one leg and let the other follow. I tempt fate by lifting one leg.

Somewhere on the steep climb to Budhi, I rest. I am struck by the absurdity of my life and my choices. ‘Fifty thousand rupees! You are nuts!’, said a colleague. Another huddled close and asked very confidentially: “Tell me, Balan, what exactly is your problem? Are you having any family troubles? Are you trying to get away from it all?” He is skeptical when I say that I am not escaping from anything, it is just one more travel to the Himalayas I always wanted to do. He shakes his head and says: “You were always a freak.” What is the purpose? Why is it so important to see this mountain? Do I make-believe such purposes so that I could forget the truth of the purposelessness? What difference would it make to me once I see Kailas and take a dip in the Sarovar? What am I after, some images I can retain in my memory to chew on at leisure back home? What difference is there between the flotsam in the river that runs to the sea and I? Above my head I hear a chirp. A little bird flits among the leaves and then hops on to the top of the bush and starts singing. Far away a snow-clad peaks glitter like gold in the evening sun.

“Well, my dear chap,” says the liaison officer, ex-army IAS from Delhi, “ I say, what the heck, why don’t you people drive up to Tibet in a vehicle and go wherever you want? You get a better view of Kailas from a helicopter”. Do we really believe that suffering ennobles us? I decide that I have to hone my mind more. I will sharpen it to the fineness of a rapier.

Every day the trek starts at around 0600. Makhan Singh, my porter walks beside me. He is from a village en route. He gamely tries to answer my incessant questions about his land and life. He shares his Ganja with me. I don’t smoke much because of the strenuous walk; anyway, I am on a different high. Most of the yatris ride ponies. Clinging to their animals, they look terrified at the chasms below the narrow ledge.

One has to be aware of oneself and the mountains all the time. As you walk up, you notice every brook, every rock and every patch of snow. You listen to the wind, the birds, the mountains and your breath. Every snowflake that falls on your shoulder or cling onto your beard is a gift of nature. These sensory perceptions grow inside you and gradually you become an element in the environment, like the Japanese painter who walks into Van Gogh’s paintings in Kurasowa’s ‘Dreams’. In such sharp awareness, you become that. They are, at the same time, within and without you. You become both the viewer and the viewed. In such moments that only the Himalayas can give, you realize who you are and your place in the whole system.

Passing hamlets and forests, we walk along the gorge of Kali River. Waterfalls cascade over our heads. The narrow path hardly 3 feet wide tantalizes me to the rushing river. We pass through Kharbeyang to Gunji, the ITBP (Indo-Tibet Border Police) camp where we have to face a fitness test that will determine whether we can cross over to Tibet or not. Beyond Kalapani we reach Nabhithang, the last post of ITBP. The Om Parbat, which has an Om shaped glacier, sends the pilgrims to ecstasy. “We are indeed blessed by the Lord. Very few have seen the Om Parbat with such clarity”, they say gleefully.

We pass through Lipu Lekh Pass at 17000 ft to reach over to Tibet.


In Taklakot, high on a hill, silhouetted against the sky stands the ruins of a monastery. A few decades ago, there were more than 500 Buddhist monks there. The Chinese government destroyed everything during the Cultural Revolution. One cannot imagine the anguish of the Tibetan. At home, we destroy our forests, wetlands, backwaters and sacred groves. What do I lose along with them? What is exactly my relation to all these? I remember the burnt forests near Sairandhri in Silent Valley where gallons of fuel were poured by the Electricity Board to show that there were no forests in the Hydel project area. In Kottayam, I watch the Puncha paddy fields being filled up rapidly by the flesh carved from the hills. Why do I feel this terrible pain, this tearing of my heart?

The Barkha plains are enchanting. I am among the lucky few to see a herd of Tibetan wild ass. The Plains stretch away to the horizon. Lone telegraphic poles stand like strayed travelers. En route Manasarovar, we stop at the banks of Rakshas Tal. Leave alone the myths, but one cannot help notice the absence of bird life around the Rakshas Tal. We see Mount Kailas for the first time and the pilgrims shout Kailaspathi ki jai ho or chant Om Namasivayh.

Listening to the wind beating out its perennial drums on the prayer flags at Zaidi on the banks of Manasarovar overlooking the waters that touch the horizon, I ruminate over the ecstasies and the agonies I have experienced. I am so attached to life. Over my head, flocks of Barheaded Geese fly and land in the lake. Brahminy ducks feed contently nearby. Nose quivering, a gray rabbit looks at me apprehensively. Quails or partridges tumble over a mound. Far away, across the expanse of water, the snows of Kailas glitter. I wade into the lake. Somebody from the banks shouts at me, “Is it cold?” Waist deep in the icy water, I dip my head and breathe out, watching the bubbles rising in Manasarovar. As Manasarovar embraces me gently, I am at peace. The feeling of oneness with nature – this is what I always wanted; this is what life has always gifted me. I close my eyes and remember the lush green forests back home and the rolling grasslands of Eravikulam, where I hope to breath my last. The waves of Manasarovar bring over a dead fish to my feet.

The trek around Kailas begins at Darchen. We walk westward. Sree, my friend from Trivandrum and other two friends from Tamil Nadu keep me company. There isn’t much conversation. Occasionally we sit down to rest. The altitude and the rarified atmosphere begin to tell on the trekkers. Most others lumber up on shaggy Yaks. I am slightly preoccupied by stomach upset. One has to drink a lot of fluids in such places; I am losing it faster than I should. By late afternoon we reach Deraphuk, our halt for the day. The sky is crystal clear and the north face of Kailas looms before us. Each pilgrim is awed in his/her own way by the sight of the north face. Some do pujas; some read from sacred texts. Some walk away alone. Sree and I, old friends, hug each other.

Look at the photographs of Himalayan Mountains. Unless you know the distinguishing shape of say, Everest or Nandadevi, you cannot recognize them. But Kailas! Like Shiva in Pradoshanrittam mural, Kailas stands out, with its black conical peak, unshakable and bestowing radiance on all. Past Dolma pass (19800 ft), past Zongzerbu, the second night halt, we reach back in Darchen. Our forward yatra is complete. Some go up to Ashtapad for a closer view of the south face of Kailas. We rest, waiting for the other set of yatris who have gone for the Manasarovar parikrama.

Taklakot. Everyone is busy picking up cheap Chinese souvenirs. Our return journey begins next day.

I look at myself in the mirror. Other than the beard that have grown, the lips that have cracked and the sunburnt, peeling skin, what changes have occurred to me? I have lost a few kilos; I walk lighter. What, in the beginning of my dream journey, the years of yearning, the painstaking planning and preparation and the excitement of the yatra, what had I really wanted? I am not a devotee. I didn’t want any moksha. I didn’t want to be rid of my sins. I had suffered but I persisted through all that suffering and realized a dream. Perhaps dreams should remain as dreams. Perhaps one shouldn’t have any achievements. It is a letdown.

On the way back, down, down the hills of Himalayas, I meet a group of pilgrims going to Chhota Kailas on the Indo-Tibetan border. An old man climbs up supporting himself with a stick. His eyes burn with determination. He touches my feet. “They touched Kailas”, he says. I am embarrassed. “I had applied for the yatra, but they rejected me. I am 75, but I will apply again next year. Do you think I can make it?”

In New Delhi, we say goodbye to each other and exchange addresses.
Within our hearts we know that we are only trying to stretch the memories of a shared experience, which will soon fade away. Within our hearts we know we will never see some of the others again. Yet, like Cela
1 wrote, our souls go into those goodbyes and good lucks. And we know that amidst the cacophony of our mundane life, among the debits and credits, among the anguish and strife, the images of Kailas and Manasarovar will remain sharp in our hearts. Again and again, we will go back to them, like the peacock’s feather we kept inside our schoolbook.

As Kerala Express slows down and comes to a halt at Trivandrum railway station, Parvati runs up to my compartment. Admiration, love and happiness shine in her eyes. At home, my dogs climb all over me and howl and bark and tug at my shirt. I had been away for more than a month. It is only 1530. I go to the bus stop where my 8-year old boy would get down from his school bus. The bus arrives. I move a little away. He gets down and looks around for Parvati. I am waiting. I am waiting for my son to see me.



Six years and many Himalayan yatras later, I, Balachandran V, male, 49, 5’9” 85kg, type out these words sitting alone in my 8x8 room in Kottayam. Kailas looks down at me from the two photographs pasted on the walls above the computer. I remember – and deeply bow in gratitude for the memories.


1. Jose Camilo Cela – Journey into Alcarria.

NOTE: This is the second article that I had to write about the yatra that I undertook 6 years ago (The first one will appear in a book soon to be published). I had to skip much of the details here to avoid repetition. And like the dimming photographs in the album, memories also are fading. For those genuinely interested, there are several books which are exhaustive. Below is a list of a few:

1. Himagiriviharam (Malayalam) / Wanderings in the Himalayas ( English translation) : Swami Tapovanam.

2. Kailas – Manasarovar : Swami Pranavananda

3. The Way of the White Clouds : Lama Anagarikara Govinda

4. Kailasa yatra (Malayalam): Swami Chitbhavananda

5. Himalayathinte Mukalthattil (Malayalam) :K V Surendranath.

6. Trekking in Nepal, West Tibet and Bhutan : Hugh Swift.

7. Uttarakhadiloode –Kailas Manasarovar Yatra (Malayalam)–M.K Ramachandran

8. Kailash Manasarovar- A Sacred Journey : Veena Sharma

Those who liked this may also have a look at this: http://mytravelsmylife.blogspot.com/2008/02/journeys-from-within-and-without-kailas.html



  1. Beautiful piece! Love your way of writing. So Natural!

    I am a friend of chinny's. I used to be her student, but now friend and colleague.

  2. ur post is very good. thank u.
    by sudheeptnair@gmail.com

  3. I am astonished by the verbal description of your journey Balan. Amazed by the sheer vision of that which you so easily penned. I could feel your oneness with the beauty of nature. Last of all, I am in awe of your ability to make clear your dreams, realities and perceptivenesses for the simple things.. Thank you for sharing.....


  4. Namaste,
    I am writing to you about the Kailash Mansarovar book by the legendary Swami Pranavananda whom you have referenced on your website.
    I am interested in this book and was wondering if you might be able to provide with any pertinent information on acquiring the same.
    Would please let me know the publisher of this book so that I can order the same from them.
    If you know where this book can be purchased in Mumbai or elsewhere please let me know ASAP. Any other pertinent details about this book and topic that you can share would be most welcome.
    Your prompt response would be much appreciated.
    Please post the answer on your website.

  5. @Anonymous: With all respect to your desire for privacy, I would prefer to correspond with someone who wouldn't mind revealing his/her identity. You may write to me at balanpnb@gmail.com


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