A step-by-step manual on how to prepare for (and survive) a pilgrimage to Siva’s most sacred mountain
By Dr. T.S. Mohan, Bengaluru
Read the complete article in colorful magazine style at page 18 from the pdf link below.
Here are some excerpts from the above article.
Why Do the Yatra?
Some have asked why I decided to perform this yatra. I was inspired by the image of Lord Siva as a great tapasavin, sitting and meditating in the Himalayas, blessing all, an austere Lord lost in oneness with His true Self, the Parabrahman. I asked myself, can we imbibe that degree of spiritual absorption when we sit for prayer and meditation, with our senses in cool control? Can we have that peaceful calmness in ourselves, too?
To me, Lord Siva as Pashupathinatha rules over animals, but also over our own instinctive demons. The reptilian part of the brain inside of our heads, as well as the limbic system, is animal in nature, fostering anger, jealousy, envy and attachments. With our sincere devotion to Lord Siva, we can overcome and keep in check these unconscious emotions. My quest was for Siva as Lord Dakshinamurti–calm, youthful, blissful and silent!
With such lofty aspirations and Siva enshrined in my heart, my journey began.
Preparing for the Yatra
The Kailash Manasarovar yatra can be undertaken via two routes: the Kathmandu route and the Indian one via Kumaon in Uttaranchal Pradesh. Pilgrims who have done both reported vastly greater satisfaction, more trekking and healthy acclimatization on the scenic and inspiring trails in Uttaranchal. The organization is better, and tour groups allow more time in Kailash and Manasarovar at a lesser cost. The caveat is the difficulty in getting approved. It is available only to Indian nationals. There are quotas of pilgrims every year, and there are too many competing for a chance. Only the robustly healthy and medically fit qualify through the rigourous Indian government selection. If you get approved, consider yourself lucky. Applications are invited during February or March of every year. The screening procedure will look daunting. Persist, and you may succeed.
I took the Kathmandu route. Either way, this yatra is a year-long affair, for one needs to be fully prepared even without the prod of the Indian permit. Timing is essential. Typically, the yatra is done such that one is at Lake Manasarovar on a purnima day (full moon). The most auspicious purnima is that in the month of Shravana (July-August), though heavy rains at that time often cause disruptions such as landslides, overflowing rivers and washed-out roads.
The concept is to visit Manasarovar either before or after doing the parikrama–the circumambulation of the mountain. Tour programs run from May through August every year. Early June is pretty cold; August is rainy, although relatively warm during the day. The temperatures are just about right in late July and early August. Warm days of 30oc under the sun and 18oc in the shade are pleasant, and the nights are relatively better but still cold, down to 6oc.
The Indian crew starts from New Delhi. After a overnight bus ride, the trekking formally begins at Dharchula. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police checks the medical fitness once more near the border. Escorted by Chinese officials, one reaches Darchen.
As for the yatra via Kathmandu, I will tell you all about it!
What to Expect
It was the month of Shravana in 2004 when I did my blessed pilgrimage. Taking a cue from an earlier yatri, I booked it through a travel agency in Kathmandu by phone and paid on arrival. They did what I discovered is a typical “big on talk, low on delivery” act–see the sidebar for some wisdom on getting around these perils.
At the local travel agencies I bought a package that included the service of staff to handle the cooking, the tents and even Chinese visas for the group. These agencies partner with the state-run Chinese agencies across the border, whose guides actually handle the entire tour and are ultimately responsible for your yatra experience. They manage transportation, act as interpreters, choose appropriate wayside inns to overnight in case of inclement weather, handle the yaks and horses and even do the cooking. Yatris are pretty much in their hands.
Apart from the (bossy) guides and their broken English or unintelligible Hindi, other Tibetans will not be able to communicate with you.
If an incompetent crew is assigned to your group, no amount of complaining to your Nepali travel agency can help. Fortitude, resignation and a spirit of tapas and humility do help. Smile bravely, focus and get on with your pilgrimage goals. With tact, you can get the Chinese guides to listen and help.
The fee I paid for the yatra was about USD 1,200, from Kathmandu back to Kathmandu. Items included in the costs were: a bed-and-breakfast stay for two days before the start and one day after the return at a good Kathmandu hotel; transportation by bus, truck or land cruiser when needed; permits; the help of a Chinese guide; services of a sherpa cook-guide-worker; plus food for the entire journey in Tibet. travel within Tibet was done aboard Toyota Land Cruisers, four yatris to a vehicle. We stayed overnight in tents and, sometimes, in wayside inns. The journey was on foot only around Kailash itself.
A blueprint for any pilgrimage–including the Kailash Yatra
Fifteen Spiritual Tips
- Make a firm samkalpa for the yatra. Samkalpa, a Sanskrit word, means a complete mental picture coupled with a firm intention to see it through.
- If you can find someone who has performed this pilgrimage, ask for all the details–the nitty gritty details. Read anything you can find on it.
- Ask yourself how this kind of yatra fits in with your spiritual goals and practices. You may remember that this is not just the fulfilling of a refined spiritual desire, but also a great opportunity to become closer to your Ishta Devata.
- Don’t get sidetracked by the will of the group. Try to understand each religious practice, instead of blindly following the rituals others have done during the trip.
- Start planning months in advance.
- Design a 40-day sadhana period with the yatra as the culmination. For each day, practice early morning prayers and meditations; perform the yoga arts of pranayama, dharana and dhyana. Prepare body, mind and spirit for the trip.
- Analyze your pre-yatra eating habits in a thoughtful, but joyous way: if you begin to see the preparations and cleansing process as a burden, you may lose the enthusiasm that is so necessary to the trip. Wisdom should be the guide.
- Free yourself from all addictive food: caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Cultivate moderation.
- Kindle the soul with evening chants, bhajans and satsangs. Attend pujas and abhishekams.
- Cut the gossip! Observe mauna (silence) and undertake periodic solitude.
- Eschew unnecessary and worldy reading, even news.
- Avoid non-spiritual company. Cultivate satsang, being in the presence (physical or virtual) of wise and truthful people.
- Fast mentally as well as spiritually: enjoy the purity that comes from abstaining from TV, parties and senseless internet drifting.
- Lead a conscious, goal-oriented daily life.
- Ask yourself during this process, has my bhakti for Lord Siva increased? Did I do my daily activities and work in the spirit of karma yoga? Was I compassionate toward others? Have I upheld dharma?
Six Down-to-Earth Tips
- Draw out a concrete itinerary, meticulously listing all details: transportation plans, hotels, where to eat, a list of medical establishments along the yatra. Plot all costs, timings and alternatives. Try to anticipate difficulties and create a few “plan Bs” for accidents, injuries, inclement weather and even getting robbed. Instead of being anxious, be prepared.
- Work hard on the luggage list. When badly done, a lot of unnecessary stuff is carried around and the most useful items are left out. I have laid out a sample packing list in my yatra website: www.vedanta-family.org/kailas/
- On the appointed day, start the pilgrimage with a visit to a Lord Ganesha temple. Go thank Him after the yatra, too.
- The more you are dependent on others or on material resources for your sadhana, the more the inconveniences. When circumstances are outside of your control, do mental tapas inside and observe peace outside.
- After completing your pilgrimage, set aside time to meditate on and document the lessons learned, the experiences and the blessings. Few people do this, but it is vital for your pilgrimage to not be just another trip.
- Finally, a pilgrimage destination does not have be a far and inaccessible place. It could be the nearest hill town with a shrine to a Deva or Devata. The most important aspect of the yatra is your relationship to the Divine, both inside and outside of yourself.
Guidelines To Keep You Sane and Alive
Picking the right agency is crucial: your experience on the yatra depends on who is running the show. Talk to several tour operators. Remember, most sales folks have absolutely no idea of what the yatra is like and will promise the moon at times. Here are hard-earned tips.
- Our travel agency’s managing director deliberately put a wrong mobile number in his business card, so that we would never call and complain! When cornered, he sheepishly corrected it.
- Book your air tickets early. I had to postpone my trip because getting confirmed reservations was difficult. Some airlines are unreliable; check their history of flight arrivals.
- Try to gather like-minded spiritual people to go with you, in multiples of four for the vehicles.
- Do not buy yatra accessories from the tourist agencies: you can get them cheaper elsewhere.
- State your option for a vegetarian cuisine and ask that it be cooked and served appropriately. Many times, the cook and the helper sherpas cut short their cooking chores by frying all food in the same pan with the same oil. Politely convey your requirements to the cook and others during the yatra to ensure that it happens.
- Bargain on the price up front. Year 2004 prices were around 53,000 rupees, all inclusive except the stay in Kathmandu (add another 50% for other expenses). Ensure that the standards of the trip are agreed upon in writing. Do not pay any money before reaching Kathmandu, only after visiting the travel agent’s office. Ask for receipts: “What receipt?” they will say. Insist.
Require Your travel Agency to Commit to the Following
- The stay will be in decent guest houses, inns and hotels. that include proper toilets as well as ventilated windows within the rooms. Ask for the right to inspect before selection at every place, or demand to move to another establishment.
- Extra costs due to delays in starting or in completing the itinerary will be fully borne by the agency, including costs of staying at Kathmandu. This includes incidentals, such as extra meals.
- The group and the sherpas will not be split up. The sherpa guide will accompany the group on foot during all walks.
- Good vehicles shall be provided. Ask for the new versions (less than 5 years old) of the Land Cruisers. This might add to your overall costs another INR 4000, but it is well worth it. The agency will likely promise such vehicles but not deliver! Tell them you will pay separately on return in case you do get them for the trip in Tibet.
- The guides shall have the resources to solve problems that arise, and respond to the communications with the yatris. In our case, after spending money on truck repairs, they tried to stay on budget by saving on the food they were expected to feed us.
- The Chinese drivers should: A) stop the vehicle upon request (we were all drinking lots of water); B) be courteous in their interactions with the yatris; C) respect the group’s religious sentiments; D) not smoke inside the vehicles; E) not play their pop music loud.
- Mineral water will be packed and served as part of the general package and not be charged for separately.
- The guides must take the yatris to Chuggu Gompa, Chiu Gompa and its hot springs, Rakshas Tal, Darchen Gompa, Ashtapad, Tar-po-che, Dheer Puk Gompa, Gauri kund, Zutul Puk Gompa and Thirthapuri hot springs–plus Lake Manasarovar. Many of these destinations are skipped if you are not attentive.
- The price for yak and horse rides during the parikrama will be capped up front. Many times, after reaching the mountains, pilgrims get a shock with the price tags, leading to unpleasant arguments.
- Luggage will be kept always clean and dry in the trucks. It often gets dirty and drenched, being exposed to rain and fuel.
- On the parikrama around Mt. Kailash, the sherpas shall bring the toilet tents and mineral water bottles on the yak. If you don’t ask for this, they will bring only minimal equipment.
- Any monetary tips that you will give to the sherpas or the drivers will be based on your satisfaction: there shall be no mandatory tipping! This helps ensure their good behavior and performance.
- Ask the agency what procedure would be adopted if, during the yatra, one is: a) ill with food poisoning b) ill with high altitude sickness c) down with broken limbs d) down due to flu, fever or cough.
- Every member of the group shall have a separate, rainproof tent in good condition. (Mine leaked.) You live in your private world within it, resting and meditating! In other groups, ladies and gents were packed eight members to a small tent!
- Every day’s menu will be shared upfront the previous day! Oil used once for frying will not be used again. Non-veg cooking will be separately handled with no interchange of used oils, pans or spoons.
Do’s and Don’ts of the Kailash Yatra
- Don’t get your shoes wet, ever! Walk carefully, especially across rivers and rivulets. Use a walking stick or a hiking pole. Use waterproof trekking shoes meant for cold countries. If your shoes get wet, dry them out as early as possible! A soggy boot can injure your feet in no time.
- Carry with you an ample supply of water and energy-giving food (not junk snacks). In an emergency, you might have to live on those rations, stranded for long hours before someone discovers you. Each day, take a food box with items from breakfast.
- While shopping anywhere, bargain using sign language. Start at 60 percent of the asking price. Forty percent may work, too.
- Bring a couple of small padlocks so you can lock your tent zipper.
- At many of the stops, you will encounter small children asking for gifts, or poor people begging. Carry small items with you to give away.
- You can mix lukewarm water with the cold water before drinking. This helps with coughs and cold-sensitive teeth.
- Pack a pair of sandals, in addition to your shoes. Wear them at the camp to give your feet and your shoes time to breathe.
- Ladies should bring a makeshift mini-tent to answer nature’s call when the cars stop. There is little place to hide, really.
- Pack all your clothes and belongings in plastic bags. That will help prevent dampness and possible drenching. In addition, it separates the used from the unused. No laundry service available!
- Bring your own sleeping bag if possible, one that can sustain you in -5oc.
- When sleeping in a tent, do not cover your face. Use lip balm and wear gloves. Never allow your feet to be without socks (keep a separate pair of woolen/nylon socks for sleeping only).
- Nurse any foot problems every night; they get worse fast, and cold. plus injury can result in gangrene.
- Never use candles or matches inside a tent.
- Carry a small, deodorant-size oxygen cylinder with you always.
- During the journey, report any sickness of any kind to the sherpa and Chinese guides.
- Never skip a meal and never stop drinking water, for you could weaken and dehydrate in no time. Never over-exert yourself. Breathlessness can make you dizzy, and you could trip on rocks and fall.
- Do the parikrama at a steady pace.
- The water in big flasks in the rooms of the inns are typically for washing your face, not for drinking. This is the only bathing that you will have on the road.
- Carry your own garbage bag. Bring all bottles and cans back to the cities.
- Use lip balm or vaseline for your lips and sunscreen lotion on your face and hands. The rarefied atmosphere makes for high UV exposure.
- While walking on ice use your pole to check its thickness. Beware!
- You cannot recharge batteries anywhere except Kathmandu. Take several spare charged batteries. Watch out for dust damage to your cameras.
- Never part with your passport and other vital documents except when at customs. Ask to have them back as soon as the guides are done with the paperwork.
- Practice silence. The yatra is not about the company. Soak in the grandeur of the Kailash region, the plateaus, valleys, mountains and lakes!