Mount Kailash: Sacred Routes Making Ways for Sustainability

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Invoking visions of splendour and spiritual liberation, one of the ancient scriptures in Sanskrit, the ‘Skanda Purana’, describes the Himalaya as follows: “There are no other mountains like Himachal, for there are found Mount Kailas and Lake Manasarovar. As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of humankind by the sight of Himachal.”

Located in spectacular proximity to each other, Mount Kailash (6,714 m) and Lake Manasarovar (4,550 m) are nestled in a remote, high-altitude, windswept landscape where the Tibetan Plateau meets the western Himalayas, standing out among other numerous sacred sites in the region. Their importance spans several faiths, the adherents of which are traditionally spread over all of South and Central Asia, and today can be found around the world. The exquisite contours of Mount Kailash and turquoise blue Lake Manasarovar have, for centuries, been among the most difficult, yet highly venerated, pilgrimage sites for several religions. Bons, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain faiths revere Mount Kailash as the mystical centre of the universe. Sanctified by the spiritual practice of great sages, these sacred natural sites are celebrated as the abode of Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati, the Tibetan Buddhist deity Chakrasamvara, and the Bon Buddha Tonpa Shenrab. Tibetan Buddhist yogi Milarepa, Bon mystic Naro Bonchung, and Jain Tirthankara Rishabh. Besides its place as an important center of religious faith, the expansive landscape surrounding Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar also forms the backdrop for numerous legends and epics in local Tibetan traditions and among groups like the Shauka and Humli tribes in neighbouring India and Nepal. 

The unique geographic positioning of these two sacred sites, near the juncture of India, Nepal, and the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, has historically fostered a great transboundary fluidity of movement, linkages of trade, pastoralism, politics, culture, and religion among communities living in the landscape. 

The economy of the region was traditionally based on the transboundary salt trade, symbiotically dependent on the agro-pastoral practices of communities residing to the north and the south of the Himalaya. Several ancient trade routes, including a Silk Road Corridor across the landscape that connected the main trade highways of ancient India to those of Central Asia through western Nepal. Numerous historic, transboundary trading marts, where traditional grains, oil, sugar, and finished wool products from the Indian and Nepali plains were bartered for Tibetan salt, borax, raw wool, livestock, and gold can also be found across the sacred landscape.

Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

Within a north-south transect including the portion of the Tibetan Plateau surrounding Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar and the mountains immediately to the south in India and Nepal is an unusually rich diversity of natural resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity. 

From aerial view, Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar appear to be the pivot of a great waterwheel, with four great Asian rivers; Indus to the north, Sutlej to the west, Karnali to the south, and Brahmaputra to the east emerging as its spokes from the region’s glaciers.  These water sources are the basis of life for hundreds of millions of people living downstream in China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. 

In a stretch of just one hundred kilometres, the natural landscape transitions from the vast grasslands and tundra of the Tibetan Plateau dominated by Juniperus sp. and Caragana sp., to the temperate coniferous forests with expanses of blue pines and yews, to the variety of oaks in broadleaf forests of the Himalayan midhills at the southern edges of the landscape exhibits a startling degree of transitions in the natural landscape and ecosystems.

These ecosystems are enriched with magnanimous endemic plant species, including high-value medicinal and aromatic indigenous plants. Aromatic fragrance of blossoms of these plants play very special roles in daily rituals in almost every monastery as a bliss of nature. 

Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

The vast landscape, is a refuge for several hundred rare species of birds and animals, particularly; the black-necked crane found at altitudes as high as 4,900 metres, bar-headed goose, the paradise flycatcher, and the Himalayan monal deserve special mention. 

Witnessing Himalaya griffons and Lammergeier vultures hovering meters above the trekking trails can be a visual treat for the onlookers. These birds of prey fly majestically, their expansive wings casting remarkable shadows on solid ground. Kiang (wild ass), Tibetan gazelle, Himalayan black bear, snow leopard, wild yak, blue sheep, and musk deer can also be spotted across the landscape.

The contours of these intricately inter-connected regions of China, India, and Nepal have been dramatically altered by geopolitical changes over the last five decades. Closure of national borders has adversely affected the centuries-old systems of transboundary trade culture, and religious linkages, including the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra. Transboundary pastoralism was completely phased out by the early 1990s. Recently, border trade and the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra were reinstated, but only to a limited extent.  Along with these geo-political changes, increase in outmigration, climate change, and natural disasters have added significant pressure on the landscape and its cultural and natural resources in the recent decades. 

However, increasing instances of transboundary cooperation among the modern nations of China, India, and Nepal emerges as a silver lining on the horizon. These three neighbouring countries have jointly delineated 31,000 square kilometres of land as the transboundary Kailash Sacred Landscape, a tri-juncture that includes; the Pulan County in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, home to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, Pithoragarh district and part of Bageshwar district in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and the districts of Darchula, Baitadi, Bajhang, and Humla in western Nepal.

This process was driven forward by the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI), an initiative of inter-governmental knowledge hub, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).  Since its inception in 2012, this initiative involves respective governments, national scientific institutions, NGOs and private sector actors as a collective effort to generate knowledge about this sacred landscape and promote practices to support inclusive development of the region. It is working to achieve a sustainable flow of ecosystem conservation services with an understanding of the historical and cultural legacy of the sacred landscape while promoting responsible tourism in the region.

Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

With abundant cultural and natural treasure, the region has immense potential as a responsible tourism destination with promising possibilities to enhance income opportunities for local communities while supporting conservation of the rich heritage of this sacred landscape. In an effort to promote responsible tourism, the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative of ICIMOD has worked with its partner institutions in China to create and share illustrated guidelines to encourage more responsible and safe behaviour among visitors to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. These visual tools are designed to facilitate better communication between Tibetan yak owners and horse transportation teams and foreign clients on the ‘parikrama’ or circumambulation trail around Mount Kailash. Capacity enhancement training sessions for local Tibetans on cooking and hospitality developed specifically around demand of pilgrims for vegetarian cuisine along with training sessions on effective sanitation and waste management are helping improve sanitation and waste management in the landscape helped to enhance for visitors experience during travel to Kailash with discernible Impacts in the region. Through KSLCDI, ICIMOD has extended supports on responsible tourism practices to the tourism development policies for both Pulan County and Ngari Prefecture.  The government of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, and the Nepal Government have agreed to partake KSLCDI as an official platform to facilitate and develop transboundary tourism and trade under the ‘Kailash International Tourism Cooperation Zone’ programme of the TAR government. With support from the initiative, steps are also being taken by partner institutions in China and India to designate key sites within the landscape as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

KSLCDI facilitates direct community-to-community interaction through transboundary exposure visits and local festivals. The initiative supports research to promote a better understanding of historic and present-day transboundary linkages of trade, culture, nature, and religion in the sacred landscape. This includes a multi-layered mapping of the geography in terms of sites of sacred and natural significance, as well as ancient routes that are required for developing long-term harmonized management and environment monitoring plans. 

The unique transboundary, transcultural essence of Kailash sacred landscape need to be embraced. ICIMOD efforts to establish regional ownership by the three countries, ensures transboundary fluidity of movements of people, livelihoods, and cultures essential for long term ecological and economic sustainability for communities and heritage of this Tibetan-Himalayan interface which is a global asset worth protecting.  This ensures preservation of what Lama Anagarika Govinda surmised as the serenity of the landscape surrounding Mount Kailash, “Power so great, yet so subtle that without compulsion people are drawn to these, as if by some invisible magnet.…Nobody conferred title to these sites yet everyone recognise them as no one doubts.….No one is needed to organise their worship as we are overwhelmed by their mere presence and cannot express our feelings other than by worshipping the sacred mountain.”


Rajan Kotru is Regional Programme Manager for the Transboundary Landscapes at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Special thanks for their support and contributions to this article goes to: Abhimanyu Pandey, Marcello Notarianni, Snigdha Nanda, Swapnil A Chaudhari, and Tashi Dorji of the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) team of ICIMOD.

The Transboundary Landscapes Initiative at ICIMOD works to ensure sustainable livelihood options by enhancing opportunities for responsible heritage tourism and by supporting the Kailash Sacred Landscape as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rajan Kotru

This article was originally published in the Himalayan Travel Magazine, January 2017, Issue 31