Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar (Photo: Alamy)
THE REPUTATION OF Mount Kailash as the most revered mountain in all Himālaya owes much to its unexpected proximity to a large body of water. Hindu temples customarily have access to a stone-lined pool, or ‘tank’, where worshippers perform their ritual ablutions. Kailash is no exception. Here, at over 4,500 metres above sea level, in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and amid the dust-blasted wastes of western Tibet, the most improbable of ‘temples’ is complemented by a glassy expanse of the clearest water. Eighty-eight kilometres in circumference, over 90 metres deep and roughly circular, Manasarovar (to Hindus) or Tso Mapham (to Buddhists) has been hailed as ‘the holiest, the most fascinating, the most inspiring, the most famous of all the lakes in the world and the most ancient that civilisation knows’. Pilgrims circumambulate it just as fervently as they do Kailash itself; it takes a few days longer but has some easy stretches along the shoreline. According to Burrard and Hayden, the 1930s superintendents of the Indian Surveys, Manasarovar is not just ‘famous in Hindu mythology’ as having been mentioned in both of the great epics but is ‘the first lake known to geography’. It has been acknowledged as sacred since ‘before the dawn of history; and as such it has remained for four millenniums’.
Other authorities have been moved to write of this ‘fairest of lakes’ in more lyrical terms. ‘She is majestically calm and dignified, like a huge bluish-green emerald or a pure turquoise set between the two mighty and equally majestic silvery mountains, the Kailash on the north and the Gurla Mandhata on the south.’ This comes from the flowery pen of Rev Swami 1108 Pranavananda Maharaj, FRGS, the holder of a record even Milarepa might have envied in that Pranavananda (for short) had been semi-resident on Manasarovar for twenty-three years. During this time he completed, in all, twenty-five circuits of the lake and a like number of Mount Kailash. The swami was unquestionably the world’s greatest authority on the region that he was the first to call Kailash-Manasarovar. A history of its exploration, which is really more a gazetteer, and a pilgrim’s guidebook were his life’s work. But he was not born to the mountains, nor did he die among them. He was called to them.
He was born Kanakadandi Venkata Somayajulu in 1896, a Telugu-speaking brahmin from what would become the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He completed his education at a college in Lahore and worked for the railways before returning home as a Congress Party worker during the non-cooperation movement against British rule. From political activism he turned to religion and the natural sciences. He had received ‘a call from the heights of the Himalayas in consequence of an internal urge for [the] search after Truth,’ he says.
The call was mediated by the man who had become his guru. This was Shri 1108 Dr Swami Jnanananda DSc, PhD etc, a contemporary and also from Andhra, who had spent some years in the Indian Himalayas as a renunciate. According to Pranavananda, Dr Jnanananda had crossed the mountains on pilgrimage to Kailash ‘wearing only a loincloth’. But Jnanananda was better known as an exponent of yogic philosophy and as one of India’s foremost nuclear physicists (the DSc was from Dresden, the PhD from Liverpool). This example of ancient wisdom in the service of modern science appealed to Pranavananda; no doubt it explains his adoption of Jnanananda’s honorifics (including that ‘1108’, a sacred number in Hindu and Buddhist thinking and a nod, perhaps, to both men’s mathematical competence).
The idea of four of South Asia’s mightiest rivers originating in the same unknown lake on the ‘roof of the world’ challenged geographical opinion. But as early as 1812 William Moorcroft had investigated the matter and apparently laid it to rest. But this only raised the question of where, then, all those rivers did originate
No doubt, too, it was his guru’s example that inspired Pranavananda to follow his example and head for the hills. In 1928, travelling as a pilgrim by way of Kashmir and Ladakh, Pranavananda made his first acquaintance with Kailash-Manasarovar. Thereafter he would return nearly every year until 1950, by which time India had gained its independence, Tibet had ceased to be a British responsibility and Hindu pilgrims were no longer welcome there. Pranavananda may have been relieved. He was by then in his mid-fifties, his hair had reached apostolic length and he must have been feeling the strain of the near-annual trans-Himalayan commute. Only twice did he pass what he calls ‘a twelve-month’ on the lake, overwintering in a nearby monastery. The lowest temperature recorded was minus 28 degrees Celsius on 18 February. ‘It was so cold’, he says, ‘that the sputum of a person standing on the balcony [of his lakeside retreat] would reach the ground as solid ice.’
Throughout the years, Pranavananda’s overriding objective remained ‘the Truth’—or sometimes ‘the Realisation of the ULTIMATE’. One can only hope he succeeded in finding it. Research has failed to reveal anything at all about his subsequent career. His pen seems to have been laid down for good in 1950; even the date of his death (in 1989) may be conjectural. His work schedule in Kailash-Manasarovar must have been demanding enough in itself. It meant compiling a record of everything that could conceivably pertain to the region, from the mystic to the mythological, geology to geography, archaeology to ornithology, mineralogy to zoology, cultivation to climate. In his published works, each of the sacred region’s dozen or so monasteries is described and its particular associations recorded; so are Kailash-Manasarovar’s several varieties of waterfowl, its four kinds of bear (including the ‘man-bear’, a possible yeti contender), the few available options in terms of fuel, and one or two interesting plants (including a creeper called thuma, ‘a marvellous specific for spermatorrhoea and an excellent aphrodisiac’). No tarn is left unvisited by the swami, no cave unexplored, no sizeable rock unexplained. The grasses prove few, the fossils plentiful. Pilgrims are advised to wrap up warm and bring with them all the drugs indispensable to life in such extreme conditions. Some thirty nostrums are listed, plus ‘an enema can or syringe’, ‘a rubber catheter’ and ‘a hot water bottle’. No mention of a spittoon.
Of particular interest to Pranavananda was the hydrography of the region. If Kailash’s fame owed much to Manasarovar, Manasarovar’s fame owed much to its being the traditional source of no less than four great rivers: the Indus, Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, Satluj and Karnali. Sometimes all were said to flow from the snows of Kailash itself. Pranavananda was not so gullible as to take any of this literally; ancient geographies invariably favoured simplicity and symmetry over precision and scale. But he realised that all these rivers could well emanate from catchment areas in the vicinity of Kailash.
Pranavananda completed twenty-five circuits of the lake and a like number of Mount Kailash. The Swami was unquestionably the world’s greatest authority on the region that he was the first to call Kailash-Manasarovar. But he was not born to the mountains
European geographers agreed. In the nineteenth century they had made river sources, most notably those of the Nile, subjects worthy of attention in the name of science. Would-be explorers rose to the challenge; august bodies like London’s Royal Geographical Society (RGS) assessed each discovery; and the wider public feted the returning travellers as celebrities. The ‘true’ source of the little-known Oxus in the remotest eastern Pamirs kept the savants arguing for the best part of a century. Even Lord Curzon, the former viceroy of India and later British foreign secretary, had lent his considerable authority to the debate.
The idea of four of South Asia’s mightiest rivers originating in the same unknown lake on the ‘roof of the world’ challenged geographical opinion even more than the source of the Oxus. But as early as 1812 the ubiquitous William Moorcroft had investigated the matter and apparently laid it to rest. Travelling in what proved a not very convincing disguise, he and Hyder Young Hearsey, an Indo-British adventurer, had set off from Saharanpur, crossed the Great Himālaya by the Niti Pass and reached Gartok (the windy settlement chosen for the remotest of Britain’s Tibetan trade agencies a century later), from where they turned south-east for Manasarovar. There, despite carefully examining most of the lake’s shoreline, Moorcroft found no rivers at all emanating from Manasarovar; ‘not a break, nor any other appearance indicated the escape of any river or even of any small stream from it’, noted Moorcroft, ‘Manasarovar sends out no rivers to South, North or West.’ In fact the lake was, as Hearsey put it, ‘perfectly insolated’.
But this only raised the question of where, then, all those rivers did originate. One possibility was Rakas Tal (Rakshas Tal, Rawan Hrud), a lesser lake just to the west of Manasarovar. Local tradition insisted that it was from this little-visited body of water that the infant Satluj flowed. But again Moorcroft drew a blank. He could find no watercourse running out of Rakas Tal and none running into it from Manasarovar. The drainage of both lakes was becoming as much a mystery as that of the rivers.
Further investigation from British India then had to wait. Interest was stalled by the first Anglo-Sikh War in the mid-1840s and the Great Rebellion (‘Indian Mutiny’) in the late 1850s. In between, the need to establish the frontiers of the new state of Kashmir (which included Ladakh) brought two border commissions to western Tibet. Henry Strachey, a British officer whom Pranavananda would consider the region’s greatest geographer, served on both of these and, like his brother Richard two years later, visited Rakas Tal to ascertain whether there was any sign of the Satluj issuing from it. There wasn’t; but to the Stracheys’ surprise there was a goodly stream gushing into Rakas Tal. It came from Manasarovar, and Moorcroft could only have missed it because it didn’t exactly flow out of Manasarovar; it percolated down from it. Invisible to anyone following the lake’s shoreline, it seeped through and beneath a wide embankment of shingle, not to emerge into its own twisting bed till some distance away. This being the case with Manasarovar, it was just possible the Satluj issued from Rakas Tal in similar fashion. Thus Manasarovar might indeed be that river’s ultimate, or ‘genetic’, source. And if there were more such subterranean seepages, the great lake could yet be the source of the Indus and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra as well. The possibilities were several, the problems far from solved.
NO ONE PAUSED to ask whether it was all worth it. Great minds were being distracted, young lives risked, local sensibilities offended, international relations endangered, and all because of an obscure geographical conundrum involving the vagaries of snow-fed rills and invisible seepings on the barely breathable heights of the Tibetan tundra. Yet somehow the absurdity of the quest only added to its appeal. Better still, its scientific plausibility afforded some welcome cover to all who chose to challenge Tibet’s closed frontiers. Sportsmen intent on bagging Tibetan trophies, mineralogists excited by reports of Tibet’s goldfields, spies on the lookout for gaps in the imperial defences, gun- runners arming distant pockets of discontent—all cheerfully professed an interest in Himālaya’s hydrography.
The absurdity of the quest only added to its appeal. Its scientific plausibility afforded cover to all who chose to challenge Tibet’s closed frontiers. All cheerfully professed an interest in Himalayas’ hydrography
In A Mountain in Tibet, Charles Allen’s classic account of this whole saga, Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese monk with a poor sense of direction, vies with an unsavoury braggart called Henry Savage Landor in attracting the unwelcome attentions of the Tibetan authorities. From time to time, like wandering albatrosses, the Survey’s long-distance Pundits pass quietly by, counting their paces as they come and go. Further north, where Tibet peters out in the empty quarter of the Changthang, a succession of international contenders files along the horizon. French expeditions like those of Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d’Orléans, or the unfortunate Dutreuil de Rhins (murdered in Jyekundo), are interspersed with swooping incursions by the unstoppable Nikolai Przhevalsky and his later Russian lieutenants.
From China in the 1880s William Woodville Rockhill, a Tibetophile member of the American legation in Beijing, had taken an interest in the Goloks when cutting across Qinghai and had named a peak that could well have been Amné Machin as Mount Caroline. The sportsmen (and sportswomen) are if anything over-represented. In 1895 Captain HHP Deasy, a entertaining Dubliner after whom a gerbil, Dipus deasyi, was named, found whole hillsides in the Changthang alive with the dainty antelopes known as chiru; his companion ‘who had experience in sheep-farming in America, was of the opinion that at least 15,000 were seen’. A year later the Liverpool Littledales—St George Littledale, his sharp-shooting wife Theresa, a lanky nephew and a fox terrier called Tammy—got to ‘within 48 or 49 miles [77-9 kilometres] of Lhasa’. Against all the odds, it was therefore this family group that drew nearer to the Tibetan capital than anyone before Younghusband, including the insufferable Landor and those unstoppable trailblazers, Nikolai Przhevalsky and Sven Hedin. Naturally none of them advertised their designs on the ultimate prize of Lhasa. Denying any such intention made it easier to concede defeat when they were forced to turn back—as they invariably were. Yet nearly all openly avowed an interest in Kailash-Manasarovar and its lakes.
For any but a devout Buddhist like Alexandra David-Néel, the Younghusband-led invasion of Tibet in 1904 dispelled the allure of Lhasa. Lord Curzon, the viceroy responsible for authorising the incursion, nearly apologised for it. ‘I am almost ashamed of having destroyed the virginity of the bride to whom you aspired, viz, Lhasa,’ he would tell Sven Hedin. But the main Younghusband expedition went nowhere near Kailash-Manasarovar and had added nothing to the mystery of the rivers. Nor, later that year, had Cecil Rawling and ‘Hatter’ Bailey in the course of their winter’s journey through western Tibet to Toling-Tsaparang and Simla. Bailey was busy stalking a black wolf when they passed within sight of Kailash. He returned, bearing the carcase, just in time for a brief inspection of the two lakes. Neither man was impressed. Strachey’s channel linking the lakes turned out to be bone dry, though ‘they were assured by local Tibetans that it filled up when the snows melted in the summer’. The same went for an old streambed leading out of Rakas Tal that might once have been the Satluj—no water.
It was beginning to look as if the source of the Satluj was lost to the Kailash-Manasarovar region. So too was that of the Karnali, which becomes the principal river of western Nepal before reaching the Ganges as the Ghaggara. Likely contenders as the remotest feeders of both these rivers descended from the Himalayan passes to the south, not from Kailash to the north, and veered away before either reached the lakes.
(This essay draws upon Himālaya: Exploring the Roof of the World | Bloomsbury | 432 pages | ₹699) by John Keay.)