Mt. Kailash, at 6714m, is not the mightiest of the mountains in the region, but with its hulking shape like the handle of a millstone, according to Tibetans and its yearlong snow-capped peak, it stands apart from the pack. Its four sheer walls match the cardinal points of the compass, and its southern face is famously marked by a long vertical cleft punctuated halfway down its traverse by a horizontal line of rock strata. This scarring resembles a swastika – a Buddhist symbol of spiritual strength – and is a feature that has contributed to Kailash’s mythical status. The mountain is known in Tibetan as Kang Rinpoche, or ‘Precious Jewel of Snow’.
Throughout Asia exist stories of a great mountain, the navel of the world, from which flow four great rivers that gave life to the areas they pass through. The myth originates in the Hindu epics, which speak of Mt. Meru – home of the gods – as a vast column 84,000 leagues high, its summit kissing the heavens and its flanks composed of gold, crystal, ruby and lapis lazuli. These Hindu accounts placed Mt. Meru somewhere in the towering Himalaya but, with time, Meru increasingly came to be associated specifically with Mt. Kailash. The confluence of the myth and the mountain is no coincidence. No-one has been to the summit to confirm whether or not the gods reside there, but Kailash does indeed lie at the centre of an area that is the key to the drainage system of the Tibetan plateau. Four of the great rivers of the Indian subcontinent originate here; the Karnali, which feeds into the Ganges (south); the Indus (north); the Sutlej (west); and the Barhmapurtra (Yarlung Tsangpo, east).
Mt. Kailash has long been an object of worship for four major religions. For the Hindus, it is the domain of Shiva, the Destroyer and Transformer. To the Buddhist faithful, Mt. Kailash is the abode of Demchok (Sanskrit: Samvara), a wrathful manifestation of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa) thought to be the equivalent of Hinduism’s Shiva. The Jains of India also revere the mountain as the site at which the first of their saints was emancipated. And in the ancient Bon religion of Tibet, Kailash was the sacred Yungdrung Gutseg (Nine-Stacked-Swastika Mountain) upon which the Bonpo founder Shenrab alighted from heaven.