For millennia Hindus have revered the sanctity of Mt. Kailas and Manasarovar as a heaven on earth. They are a part of the Himalayas and are situated in northwest Tibet (or Gangdesh).
The most beautiful and captivating of all the lakes in the world is Manasarovar. Formerly, in ancient India, it was known as Brahmasar. It is a fresh water lake perched at 15,000 ft. above sea level. Since Vedic times thousands of years ago, it has been revered as a holy pilgrim place and is believed to be the source of four subterranean rivers, namely, Shatdru (Sutlej), Sindhu, Brahmaputra and Saryu (Karnali).
The Hindu scriptures called the Purans describe the death of Bhasmasur, a demon, at this place. Many nearby landmarks are also related to infamous and famous people of Indian culture. Ravan, the King of Lanka, performed austerities at Ravanhrud or Rakshas Tal. The noble King Mandhata renounced his regal comforts to perform severe austerities at Mt. Mandhata.
The glory of Kailas1 and Manasarovar, where nature unleashes its fury and dons its beauty, are sung at length by the shastras of Sanatan Dharma. The Shrimad Bhagvad Gita describes Mt. Kailas as a divine form of God, "Meruhu shikharinãmaham," meaning, "I am Kailas (Meru) among all mountains."2
Once Rishi Dattatrey travelled from Vindhyachal Mountains in the south to the Himalayas and then arrived at Manasarovar. After a holy dip in its waters and seeing the royal swans (rajhansas) he asked Shiv and Parvati residing in a cave in Mt. Kailas, "Which is the holiest of holy places in the world?" Shivji replied, "The holiest of holy places is the Himalaya in which lies Kailas and Manasarovar."
The Valmiki Ramayan, in the Kishkindha Kand and Bal Kand,3 and the Bhishma Parva, Van Parva, Dron Parva and Anushashan Parva of the epic Mahabharat describe, through stories, the glory and beauty of Kailas-Manasarovar. According to the Uttar Puran, the first Tirthankar in Jain dharma, Rishabhdev, performed austerities and gave up his mortal existence at Mt. Kailas. The grandmaster of all Indian poets, Kalidas, pours his heart in penning the grandeur of Kailas and Manasarovar in his work called Meghdut.4
European explorers, trekkers and nature lovers have also been fascinated by their visits. In 1906 the renowned Swedish explorer Dr. Sven Hedin writes, "There is no finer ring on earth than which bears the names of Manasarovar, Kailas and Gurla Mandhata; it is a turquoise set between two diamonds. The grand impressive silence which reigns around the inaccessible mountains, and the inexhaustible wealth of crystal-clear water which makes the lake the mother of the holy rivers... Whoever is of a pure and enlightened mind and bathes in the waves of Manasarovar attains thereby to a knowledge of the truth concealed from other mortals."5
Dr. Sven Hedin describes his first sight of Manasarovar, "Even the first view from the hills on the shore caused us to burst into tears of joy at the wonderful, magnificent landscape and its surpassing beauty. The oval lake, somewhat narrower in the south than the north, and with a diameter of about 15.5 miles, lies like an enormous turquoise embedded between two of the finest and most famous mountain giants of the world, the Kailas in the north and Gurla Mandhata in the south, and between huge ranges, above which the two mountains uplift their crowns of bright white eternal snow. Yes, already I felt the strong fascination which held me fettered to the banks of Manasarovar, and I knew I would not willingly leave the lake before I had listened, until I was weary, to the song of its waves."6
Research scholars of the 'Survey of India' and intrepid explorers, S.G. Burrard and H.H. Hayden write about Manasarovar in their book, "Manasarovar was the first lake known to geography. Lake Manasarovar is famous in Hindu mythology; it had in fact become famous many centuries before the lake of Geneva had aroused any feeling of admiration in civilised man. Before the dawn of history Manasarovar had become the sacred lake and such it has remained for four millennium."7
In the history of humanity Manasarovar is an ancient lake. Geographically it has been lauded as the world's first lake.
Since many eras the land of Manasarovar and Kailas has been a ground for spiritual endeavours. Thousands of yogis, sadhus, sannyasis and aspirants have retreated to this icy, desolate region for austerities and meditation to realise God. Even today a visitor can experience the vibrations of divinity of their austerities and spiritual sadhanas.
Swami Pranavanandaji, who had pilgrimaged to and stayed at Manasarovar thirty-two times writes, "From the spiritual point of view, she has a most enrapturing vibration of the supreme order that can soothe and lull even the most wandering mind into sublime serenity and can transport it into involuntary ecstasies."8
Edwin T. Atkinson, a renowned researcher who wrote the Himalayan Gazetteer, writes about Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and the land of Manasarovar in 1882. In his book Religion in the Himalayas Atkinson writes about Manasarovar, "Nature in her wildest and most rugged forms bears witness to the correctness of the belief that there is the home of 'the great god'... All the aids to worship in the shape of striking scenery, temples, mystic and gorgeous ceremonial and skilled celebrants are present, and he must indeed be dull who returns from his pilgrimage unsatisfied."9
Through the corridors of time, among the thousands of ascetics, aspirants and explorers that trekked the most challenging land of Kailas and Manasarovar was a peerless pilgrim called Nilkanth Varni.
More than two centuries ago, between 1792 and 1793, an eleven-year-old child yogi called Nilkanth (later known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan) pilgrimaged to Manasarovar alone. Details of his fascinating journey, in which he faced untold challenges and furies of nature may seem difficult for ordinary people to believe. But to arrive at some description of Nilkanth's trials and tribulations we can draw parallels from the written accounts and studies of pilgrims and explorers who had bravely trudged and trod on the trails and lands that Nilkanth had walked. This research will give an inkling into Nilkanth's divine persona.
The first notable account on Manasarovar was in 1715 by a European traveller called Father Desideri.10 In 1792, when Nilkanth had embarked upon his pilgrimage to Manasarovar, a sadhu by the name of Purana Poori11 of Kashi described his experiences of his pilgrimage to Manasarovar to an English official called Jonathan Duncan. The latter's write up, 'An Account of Two Fakeers', was published in Asiatic Researches.12 The experiences of Purana Poori are fascinating. But the season in which Purana Poori and Father Desideri journeyed to Manasarovar from Kathmandu was less challenging and harsh than that of Nilkanth's.
About that time, in August 1792, a sannyasi named Purna Swantantra Brahmachari Prakashanand also narrated his experiences of his pilgrimage to Manasarovar.13 In 1796 a sadhu named Swami Harivallabh had accomplished a pilgrimage to Manasarovar and later he had been the guide of the English adventurers Dr. William Moorcroft (a veterinary surgeon) and Captain Hearsay on their journey to Manasarovar via the Niti Pass in 1812.14
In 1773 a renowned pundit, Purangir, employed as a translator by Lord Warren Hastings, the Governor of Calcutta, pilgrimaged to Kailas-Manasarovar. In 1808 Captain Wilford wrote a report of Purangir's visit to Kailas-Manasarovar in 'Essay on the Sacred Isles in the West'.15 Thereafter, at the beginning of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries many intrepid Indian and European explorers and pilgrims visited Manasarovar and published their accounts.
We will try to understand Nilkanth's epic journey through documented descriptions and factsheets of many explorers and pilgrims.
It would be pertinent to point out that Nilkanth's journey cannot be compared with the treks and efforts of other explorers and pilgrims who were partially or fully geared up for the harsh climate and terrain. The accounts of such journeys in the last 200 years are available in the archives in India. The accounts vividly portray how pilgrims and adventurers fared through the frigid temperatures, with clothes, food, guides, maps, medicines, tents, beasts of burden and porters.
In the case of Nilkanth, what did he possess? He had a mala, kamandal, a loincloth, a cloth wrapped around his waist, a bun of hair on his head, no footwear and no arrangements and materials for cooking food and setting up shelter. Nilkanth travelled alone with no maps or guides. In the chronicles of history where thousands had travelled in one of nature's harshest and pitiless terrains, Nilkanth's journey was unique and matchless. The reason simply being that he journeyed at the age of eleven, without any means or materials and wearing only a loincloth. Also, in comparison, the other pilgrims took the easier paths and in the favourable season. Dr. Sven Hedin and nearly all other European trekkers took the path conducive to ponies, yaks or Tibetan sheep which carried their supplies.
So, Nilkanth's journey to Kailas-Manasarovar was historic and unparalleled.
Even today the journey for any pilgrim, with all the necessary facilities, rations and appropriate season, is difficult and challenging. It is amazing how Nilkanth, a child yogi, must have accomplished his journey in the most formidable and forbidding terrains of the Himalayas in winter.
Nilkanth's Journey To Manasarovar
Reports and publications subscribe the months between July and September as ideal for a pilgrimage to Kailas-Manasarovar. Nilkanth embarked on his journey to Manasarovar from Joshimath on 17 October 1792.16 Prior to this, from Kedarnath (11,758 ft.), he had reached Badrinath (10,272 ft.) on 24 September 1792. He stayed here for 20 days and on Kartak sud 1 (15 October) Nilkanth wished to travel to Manasarovar directly from Badrinath. But the priest of Badrinath Mandir, Raval, insisted that he come down with him to Joshimath, which he did.17 The residents of Badrinath retreat on Kartak sud 1 for six months to Joshimath, 5,000 ft. below, to avoid the deathly cold winter and heavy snow falls. The Badrinath Mandir is closed for six months. Nilkanth acceded to the wishes of the priest, stayed for a few days in Joshimath and departed for Manasarovar, up further north in the frigid winter season.
There are twelve roads18 from India to Manasarovar. There is no reference as to which trail Nilkanth took in the scriptures of the Swaminarayan Sampraday. The Sampraday's scripture, Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar, mentions that Nilkanth, after leaving from Joshimath for Manasarovar, went to the ashram of Nar-Narayan Rishi in Badrivan. And from here he proceeded to Manasarovar.19
With reference to stories from the Purans, Badrivan is a land where Nar-Narayan Rishi performs austerities. Since it is a divine region, beyond human perception, it is impossible for a mortal to visit it. Despite this, according to descriptions in the Purans, Badrivan has been geographically identified and marked by researchers. Badrivan is a region in the Himalayas. The references given are interesting and worthy of note.
According to the publication, The Himalayan Heritage, Badrivan or Badrikashram20 is the region from Kanva Ashram (that is above Nandprayag) to Mt. Satopanth (which lies 27 km northwest of Badrinath).
In a special issue of the monthly Kalyan magazine one finds details about the location of Nar-Narayan Rishi's ashram. It says that on the mountain behind Badrinath Mandir lies the Urvashi Kund (tank of water). It is difficult and treacherous to reach this place. Further ahead lies Kurma Tirth, and beyond it lies the land of Nar-Narayan's ashram. The magazine further adds that this path is unreachable for ordinary mortals.21 Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar also describes that no ordinary human can reach the ashram of Nar-Narayan.22
At this juncture it is worthy to take note of another point regarding Badrivan. On studying the mountain range (see map next page) between Badrinath and Kedarnath, we find Mt. Satopanth, which lies northwest of Badrinath Mandir. The mountains Nar and Narayan lie near Mt. Satopanth. And behind these two mountains, to its west lies Mt. Kedarnath, rising to 22,700 ft. To reach the ashram of Nar-Narayan (or Badrikashram), the less well known and dangerous path passes near Mt. Kedarnath. The river Arva passes by this mountain towards Badrinath.23
Bearing this geographical account in mind let us see Nilkanth's pilgrimage as described in Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar.24 When Nilkanth Varni arrived at Badrivan or Badrikashram, Nar-Narayan Rishi spoke to him, "No human can reach this place. Only if Kedarnath (the human form of Mt. Kedar) brings someone can a person reach here."25
From this we can infer that there is some geographical relation or connection between Mt. Kedarnath and Nar-Narayan Rishi's ashram.
In another reference the region called 'Bharat-khand' lies 10 miles west of Mt. Satopanth in the Himalayas.26 With relation to scriptures of the Swaminarayan Sampraday and the Purans, Nar-Narayan Rishi is known as the king of 'Bharatkhand'.27 Swami Siddhanandmuni (also known as Adharanand Swami), a paramhansa of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, describes the ashram of Nar-Narayan Rishi in the chapter on Nilkanth's arrival, "There is no other ashram like this in the region of 'Bharatkhand'28."29
From all the geographical references it is clear that Nilkanth's visit to Nar-Narayan Rishi's ashram in Badrivan is the region that lies between the mountains of Nar-Narayan, which is near Mt. Satopanth that lies 23 km northwest of Badrinath. So it is in this divine, spiritual plane, unseen to mortals, that Nar-Narayan Rishi is engaged in austerities.
On leaving Joshimath, Nilkanth reached Nar-Narayan Rishi's ashram at Badrivan on 7 November 1792 (Kartak vad 8).30 The scripture, Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar, states that Nilkanth performed austerities for three months31 in the ashram of Nar-Narayan Rishi. Then in the first week of February Nilkanth departed towards Manasarovar. Now the question is which path did Nilkanth take?
Badrivan To Manasarovar
From Badrivan (near Mt. Satopanth), Nilkanth had only one path to take on his journey to Manasarovar. This path passed through Mana Ghat (Pass). Amongst all the paths to Manasarovar from India, the one through Mana Ghat (Pass) is the least used. The reason being that it is the most dangerous and difficult of them all.32 Nilkanth took this challenging mountainous path, trekking 383 km, via Mana Ghat to go to Kailas and Manasarovar.
North of Badrinath, the village of Mana (also Manibhadrapuri) is the native of the Bhotiya tribe and is the last human settlement33 on the path to Manasarovar. To the north of Mana village lies the Mana Ghat at an elevation of 18,400 ft.
James Baillie Fraser, a British writer and explorer, who visited Manasarovar in the time of Bhagwan Swaminarayan describes in his book, The Himala Mountains, published in Britain in 1820, about the snowy and desolate passes and regions to Manasarovar. He writes about the passes, "These are all so dangerous and toilsome that few but the wildest inhabitants of the most inhospitable regions choose to invade their deserts of eternal rock and snow, where no living thing is seen, and no means are to be obtained for preserving life."34
The region of Mana Ghat and its neighbouring lands are extremely turbulent and frigid. Sometimes there are violent torrential showers and sometimes severe snowfalls. One can only travel through here during the months of May to September. A British officer Mr. Trail writes, "An interval of four months without a fall of snow is rare. Snow begins to fall about the end of September and continues to accumulate to the beginning of April. It is intensely cold during this period... In open and level situations, unaffected by drifts or avalanches, the bed of snow reaches at its maximum depth from 6 to 12 feet..."35
When Nilkanth was travelling through Mana Ghat it was February. To understand the climatic conditions, a well known Indian writer, Rai Pati Ram Bahadur, in his book Garhwal, Ancient and Modern, published in 1900, states that between December and April the region is desolate, overwhelmed with snow and human-less.36
The Mana Ghat is covered with snow all the year round. In July 1929 Swami Tapovanji and Swami Krishnashramji travelled to Manasarovar through the region of Mana Ghat. From their descriptions one can infer the rigours and hardships of Nilkanth's journey. Let us once again remind ourselves that Nilkanth was only 11 years old, travelling alone, wearing only a loincloth and with no food or material provisions whatsoever. He crossed the Mana Ghat in the bitter, winter month of February.
Swami Tapovanji, in his book, Wanderings in Himalayas writes his experiences, "On the sixth night we pitched our tents five to six miles below Mana Ghat. Thereafter we made a steep ascent. There were huge rocks and glaciers. There was not an inch of land we could see. At 18,400 ft. the deficiency of oxygen in the air made our heads ache and split terribly. This was not the case for us pilgrims alone, but the Bhotiya people who travelled this region frequently also experienced the same. The three to four wild horses, belonging to some businessmen accompanying with us, were carried away by a small river. One of them died due to exhaustion and weakness. The businessmen said that this happens every year. Death comes seeking no permission and neither does it allow anyone to say their goodbyes.
"The head or tip of Mana Ghat is a sea of ice and snow. Here there is a frozen lake called Devsar, with a circumference of 10-12 furlongs. We started walking from early morning. Two miles later we arrived at a holy place on Mana Ghat. Then we walked a further five miles and descended the Ghat. Our great sages took this trail on their pilgrimage to Kailas. We saw a tiger, locally called saku. It preys upon wild horses."37
A contemporary issue of a British gazetteer describes that in the winter season (in which Nilkanth travelled) the land is covered with abundant glaciers.38 To cross such a terrain was a challenge.
In 1946 a sannyasi scholar of Uttar Kashi, Swami Prabodhanandji,39 and five more sannyasis, with a guide, crossed a glacier between Gaumukh (the origin of river Ganga) and Badrinath. Swami Prabodh-anandji describes their pains and difficulties (translated from Swami Anand's Gujarati version, "Our feet, by walking in mud and slush and jumping on rocky ground, became so numb that we all felt like lying down to sleep.
"The winter snow was frozen as it was. Our bare soles of feet were numb, sore and inflicted by deathly pain. Outside our feet were insensitive and inside throbbing with pain."
And what was it like to stay the night in such conditions? Swami Prabodhanandji writes, "It was impossible to get a wink of sleep in the bone-chilling and numbing glaciers that were like transparent glass. And yet we had no other recourse but to spend a night on the frigid, deathly surface of the glacier. Before the night would end there was a possibility that we would all freeze like a horn and by morning none of us would be able to open our eyes at all."
The glacier surface is hard but inside one may find slush and mud that act like quicksand, swallowing a person once he falls in it. The fog makes walking difficult. Prabodhanand Swami and his team, though connected with ropes, experienced a fall in a mud-slush hole. He writes, "As we were advancing, Dalipsingh, our guide, suddenly collapsed into a waist-deep pool of mud and slush. We quickly pulled him out. Then when we had progressed a little further the ice broke again and he fell into another pool. The glacier had an ankle-deep layer of snow on it. It was impossible to tell where the ice would break and plunge one into a pool of mud and slush. Furthermore, the fog was so dense that one could grab a fistful and could not know where our guide had fallen. We knew he was in grave difficulty and anxiety. Then we heard his voice, 'Don't move one step from where you are. We are all on the edge of a crevasse. I can see no bottom to it!'
"We were all fixed in a dangerous position. We were like an advancing caterpillar suddenly with its hind part anchored to the edge of a branch and its front part exploring in mid-air!
"Then we had to cross a third sea of ice. Again we came across mud and slush pools. Every step was full of adversities. In all we managed through 10 to 15 mud-slush pools without losing our patience and with great care and alertness.
"At one point Dalipsingh shouted from behind us, 'Now move to your right. Untie your ropes. Walk freely. There is no need to walk connected to each other.' We did as we were told. Dalipsingh then went up front rolling the rope together. We again came across a path laden with stones and rocks. As evening came the thick fog suddenly changed into a black cloud. We could not see the person in front. Large chunks of snow came raining down. There was a blitzkrieg of snow, glacier, mud-slush pools and thunderbolts."40
From the above narration one cannot but be left wondering as to how Nilkanth had crossed Mana Ghat in even more terrible conditions during February. Another deathly obstacle that Nilkanth must have faced were avalanches. Avalanches and landslides are common in this terrain. Travellers are in constant danger of landslides.
Edwin T. Atkinson in the Himalayan Gazetteer writes about the dangers of Mana Ghat, "The necessity of travelling for many miles over the vast accumulations of loose rock and debris brought down by ancient glaciers, or which violent atmospheric changes have thrown down into the valley from the mountains on both sides, render the Mana Pass one of the most difficult in this part of the Himalaya."41
Swami Prabodhanand and guide Dalipsingh explain their experiences of avalanches and landslides,42 "Now we have entered the region where the snow and glaciers have not melted since ages. The sides of the glacier we were walking on were touching high walls of ice and snow. Suddenly we heard loud rumbling sounds from the mountain peaks. Was it the sound of rain or was it the clouds! There was no need for an answer. Up high from the mountain slopes we saw huge boulders of snow hurtling down. The boulders of snow filled the slopes of the mountain on its way down. The snow attacked aggressively, filling the curb of the path which we had passed a few minutes before. This we saw with our naked eyes! It was an avalanche. It occurs every day.
"But before we could regain our senses from that phenomena, in a single eye blink, dark black clouds suddenly descended upon us from over the peaks. The onslaught of rain and hail temporary blinded us all. Our next camp site was only two 'farms' away. We made courageous efforts to reach it, but simply couldn't do it!
"Our silent, naked sadhu and the rest of our friends shivered as if stricken by a terrible, cold fever. Our eyes and noses leaked copiously. Our beards and moustaches turned white because of snow. The air from our mouths turned into white smoke and then immediately into ice particles. Without any other option, we set up our tent by the rock wall on the glacier, wrapping our shivering friends to sleep!
"We were terribly thirsty. But from where could we get water. Everywhere around us there was only snow and ice. There was fresh snow falling constantly. I went out to look for a small water hole. And, I soon found one. I filled the glass and started drinking. But I couldn't drink even a mouthful. So I drank a little, drop by drop. I filled it again and came to the tent.
"The cold was biting us like an attacking dog. I was worried about my friends exposed to the cold. An ice cap formed over my open head."43
It is chilling to imagine as to how Nilkanth must have travelled from Mt. Satopanth and crossed Mana Ghat through the severe winter cold, avalanches and landslides. It can be crossed only between July and September. Among all its challenging hardships is its height. The Mana Ghat lies at 18,400 ft. above sea level. While passing through at that height Swami Prabodhanand writes, "We felt tired even when we talked briefly and softly. The air at 18,000 ft. and above is so thin that even in the supine position we gasped for air while breathing. While climbing we breathed like bellows. After every third step we stopped and inhaled nine times. Our body, soul and vital airs were simply exhausted. Each step we made was accomplished with great labour and pain.
"Our mind has really been numbed. How can we travel without a compass in this vast, endless ocean of snow! Where should we turn! So we endeavoured with our last resources. The terrible fiery reflection of the afternoon sun on the snow blinded our eyes and left them in a painful state! On travelling without wearing reflective goggles for three days, our eyes pained dangerously and drained with water. We couldn't even open them enough to see the road. And as if this was less, the intense fog returned again and enveloped us. We couldn't even see each other!
"When we descended we felt our eyes had films of fog layered on it. Hence, whatever we saw it appeared double or treble. We could not even recognise whether there is a human or an animal a short distance away! The snow's bright reflection distorts or damages vision. And the distortion endures for upto two to three weeks. Permanent damage is however very rare."44 (Translated from Gujarati script.)
Nilkanth must have faced the extremes of the winter climate while crossing the Mana Ghat. Thereafter he walked at an altitude of 12,500 ft. for 20 miles, then climbed to 16,400 ft. to cross Charang Ghat.45
Nilkanth Enters The Tibetian plains
After crossing Mana Ghat, Nilkanth walked for four days to reach a Buddhist hermitage called Thhuling Math (12,200 ft.), which is 160 km of mountainous terrain from Badrinath. From here Nilkanth entered the Tibetan Plains which are at a height of 12-14,000 ft. By inference Nilkanth must have visited and stayed at the Thhuling Math.46 We don't have any information whether the inmates were staying in February or during the winter months. The reason why Nilkanth may have visited the Thhuling Math is that it was formerly the seat of Lord Badri. And Nilkanth would have never missed visiting such a historic pilgrim place.
Swami Tapovanji writes about the Thhuling Math, "The main residing murti is of Bhagwan Buddha... The lamas of this monastery say the murti of Buddha is in fact that of Badrinarayan. This is the original place, but because of its inaccessibility and harsh terrains it was changed to the present place of Badrinath that is over the mountain on a lower altitude."47
A problem that pilgrims faced while travelling to Thhuling Math was of some wild, unruly local people. They lived in mountain caves or in huts set up in the mountain valley. They were giant in size, robbing and even killing travellers and pilgrims. In 1838 these wild locals killed the famous British researcher and traveller Dr. William Moorcroft near Manasarovar.48 Swami Tapovanji writes about these wild, meat-eating people, "Sheep and cows are slaughtered unchecked in Tibet. So it is natural that the heaps of bones, hooves and horns that one finds along the way are appalling. These people eat raw meat."49 (That is why our Purans have mentioned them as pishachos - evil people.)
From Thhuling Math to Manasarovar the trail is full of ice cold winds. The boisterous rivers and channels that cross the trail are without bridges. This makes it difficult for pilgrims to cross. The only alternative left is by wading through chest-deep cold water and risking one's life.
A century ago, in 1900, Ramsharan Vidyarthi, a well-known advocate and Hindi writer of Delhi writes about his journey in this terrain, "You do not find any animals nor any lush trees here. Everywhere an extremely deathly cold wind hovers over you. And every second the fear of dacoits prevails in your heart. So the cold and the dacoits, who are like death, are the sources of constant fear. The currents of water and air are too strong. They flow unchecked and unbridled. In this lifeless, dead, terrifying, unknown 'jungle' we advanced on ponies at a very slow pace. From morning till evening we walked on in absolute silence, lost in self-introspection and half conscious in this stunningly noiseless 'forest'. In this land created by God one cannot see the trace of any human form. Everywhere there is one colour, a desolate path that rolls ahead unchanging and certain. In this semi-conscious state before my mental eye I saw in the countless rocks a lustre similar to the stars in the sky. God's light remains aflame."50
The terrain ahead of Thhuling Math is predominantly full of rocky plains. At 12,000 to 14,000 ft. this desolate terrain is subject to sudden turbulent weather changes that leaves any traveller subdued. Ramsharan Vidyarthi describes further, "When we were preparing to rest for the night the prevailing peace started taking on a deathly form. In reality this peace was an indication of a destructive storm or blizzard. We all entered and sat in our own tents, shocked and amazed. Whilst looking we saw a blue sky transform into a white sky. Quietly and peacefully it started snowing. The ground became covered by a carpet of snow. Our sight was filled with the donning of a full-fledged coat of thick white (snow). All the trees and plants were covered in snow. Even sheep, goats and cows were covered with the white fabric of snow."51
The snowfall then turns turbulent into a deathly blizzard. In 1906 and 1908 the Swedish traveller, Sven Hedin, faced many such difficulties in the course of his journey to Manasarovar. His description in his book, Trans Himalaya,52 of destructive blizzards is hair-raising (see above picture). Sven Hedin lost twelve horses and men. Sometimes when the yaks, used for transport, turn violent and attack humans, lives are lost. Sven Hedin lost his guide because of a yak attack. Despite being fully equipped with materials and men, Sven Hedin just about managed to complete his travellings. It is amazing how Nilkanth, a young, tender boy of only eleven years managed to negotiate, bear and overcome the challenges he met on his way to Manasarovar.
The path from Thhuling Math to Manasarovar is approximately at an altitude of 14,000 ft. In the mild seasons one finds small markets (mandis) of five to twenty-five tents dotted along the way. During the winter season the markets disappear, with its owners doing business on more favourable grounds.
On advancing from Thhuling Math to Manasarovar Nilkanth must have passed through various places and rivers like Mangang (11 miles), Dapa (14 miles), Nabra Mandi (market) (6.5 miles), River Gomal Chhu (5.75 miles), River Dongpu (7.5 miles), River Dongu (19.5 miles), River Tisum (3.75 miles), Shibchilam Mandi (19 miles), Manithanga (7.25 miles), Gombachen (3.5 miles), River Guni Yankti (15 miles), River Dharma Yankti (3.75 miles), Gyanima Mandi (13 miles), Chhumikshala (16.5 miles) and others.53 Having crossed the forbidding terrain Nilkanth must have also crossed the river Sutlej and arrived in Tarchhen, which lies at the foot of Mt. Kailas. With his journey in February, Nilkanth must have confronted heavy snowfalls and biting cold winds. One has to cross Tarchhen (15,100 ft.)54 while travelling from Thhuling Math towards Manasarovar. Tarchhen lies at the foot of Mt. Kailas (22,022 ft.) and northwest of Manasarovar. First one has the darshan of the beautiful, holy Mt. Kailas. The divine experience of Mt. Kailas transforms even the diehard atheist. The present day modern settlement in Tarchhen was not existent 200 years ago when Nilkanth visited it. According to the British traveller, Dr. William Moorcroft, who visited it in 1812, there were only four houses of unburnt brick or stones and about twenty-eight tents."55
Nilkanth's parikrama of Mt. Kailas
Pilgrims begin their parikrama (circumambulation) of Mt. Kailas from Tarchhen. With Nilkanth's travel route from Thhuling Math it seems that he may have embarked upon the parikrama of Mt. Kailas without first coming to Tarchhen. Though there is no information of Nilkanth's parikrama of Mt. Kailas in the scriptures or records of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, it seems that he must have performed it. The reason being that it would be easier for him to reach Manasarovar after completing the parikrama. Another reason being that people, then, considered it highly meritorious to do the parikrama, as people do today. Normally it takes three days to complete the parikrama.
Swami Tapovanji, who took the same route as Nilkanth, from Thhuling Math to Manasarovar, shares his experience of his parikrama of Mt. Kailas. He says, "In the sun's light the snow-capped peak of Mt. Kailas, which is 22,022 ft. high with a circumference of 28 to 30 miles, looked illustrious as silver. Its beauty was matchless and divine. To perform the parikrama of Kailas on rough grounds, replete with rocks, water and snow, and in the severe cold of 18,000 to 19,000 ft. altitude is truly a test of one's austerity and faith.
"On advancing six to seven miles from Tarchhen we reached Chakku Lamaserai (a Buddhist monastery). After a little rest we travelled about five miles to Dirfuk and rested for the night. It rained and snowed heavily at night. The view of Mt. Kailas from here is so clear that one does not find it anywhere else. So we did darshan of Kailas in the evening and morning. We left in the morning. In the beginning we had a very steep climb. The Dolma Ghat is at 18,600 ft. There is a beautiful lake called Gauri Kund. It is believed that Parvati swims here. We trudged through the deep snow and reached the banks of the lake. The lake had scattered heaps of ice and on its surface was a two to three inch layer of transparent ice... While doing the parikrama we had to walk on the banks of fast flowing streams and in valleys of the world's highest mountains. And so our trek was a pious austerity. It is difficult to describe it all."56
The land of Kailas-Manasarovar is freezing cold and battered by howling winds. From November to May, along with heavy snowfalls and blizzards, there are tempestuous winds. The land is also subject to the vagaries of climate; where thick, black clouds suddenly and angrily pelt the terrain with ice and snow. Narrating his experiences of Kailas parikrama, Ramsharan Vidyarthi writes, "In certain places our feet easily sank into one to one-and-a-half feet of snow. The spread of snow is so much that one has to walk continuously on it for two to three furlongs. Then before one's eyes one can see a carpet of snow. The sight is very beautiful. On this place (Kailas) lies the origin of the river Sindhu. From the snow is born the river Sindhu. While walking on the countless icy boulders to reach Kailas we place every step with great care. After some time this exercise to advance further in this manner made us feel that we may lose our lives. We knew clearly that to walk ahead would be like drowning in ice.
"In these conditions we climbed four miles and reached Gauri Kund. On the way we had to walk on snow in many places and experienced difficulties in breathing. The headaches made our hearts anxious. The climbing ends at 18,600 ft...
"On the (mountain) top, to the right is a mirror-like, shining lake covered with ice that is approximately one furlong wide and three furlongs long. Beneath the two to three feet large lid of ice is a pool of water. One can see a patch of ice-free water on one side only. To take a dip in this lake is a matter of great courage or foolishness. To dip one's hand in its waters and then take it out is very difficult. Then who would dare to take a dip and come out dead! To come out of these waters is in reality to bring out a dead body. An old pundit in our team became numb. On coming out, contrary to the warnings from the guides, he loudly hailed the name of Umapati (Shivji) and became unconscious. Due to the cold his body seemed to be lifeless."57
When the pilgrims succeed in overcoming all the severe trials and difficulties the panoramic beauty of Manasarovar redeems them from all pain and suffering. Every pore is overwhelmed with joy. Manasarovar is 20 km southeast of Mt. Kailas. Swami Tapovanji writes, "After proceeding from Kailas towards Manasarovar, we had to cross many streams... Manasarovar is at a height of 15,000 ft. All around there are no plants, and it is surrounded by snow-capped black mountains. When the winds are turbulent the lake bristles with huge waves. And when the winds die then its deep, blue waters are calm. I do not believe that the beauty of this beautiful lake lies anywhere else on earth. At the time of dusk its beauty is so unique that philosophers experience samadhi."58
Nilkanth Varni's experience after circumambulating Mt. Kailas and arriving at Manasarovar was immensely different from that of Swami Tapovanji. The reason being that the winter time in which Nilkanth was there, the entire 518 sq. km Manasarovar was frozen.
O, what beauty Manasarovar must have donned, and at the same time how harsh and callous it must have been! In the succeeding pages let us look at Nilkanth's brief stay at Manasarovar.
Kelinãm samuhah kailam tena ãsyate sthiyate iti Kailasah (Ãs Upveshane)Ð meaning, "Where Shiv (happiness) and Prakriti (nature and daughter of Himalaya) are always engrossed in a dance is Kailas."
Sugriv says to all the monkeys, "After crossing the dangerous forest, you will be very happy to see the snow laden Kailas mountain."
Tattu shrigramatikramya kãntãram romharshanam-kailsãm pãnduram prãpya hrashtã yuyam bhavushyathÐ (Kishkindha Kand: 43-20).
Further, in 43-21, Manasarovar is described in detail.
Kailãsparvate Rãm mansã nirmitam paramÐ
Brahmanã narshãrdul tenedam mãnasam sarahH (Bal Kand: 24-8).
Part 1, 60.
Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet, Vol. 3. London: MacMillan and Co. Limited, 1913: 189.
Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalayas, Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet, Vol. 2. p. 111.
Burrard, S.G. and Hayden, H.H. A Sketch of the Geography and Geology of the Himalaya Mountains and Tibet, Part-3. Delhi: Survey of India, 1934: 228.
Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar, 1st ed. Calcutta: S.P. League, Ltd., 1949: 7.
Atkinson, E.T. Religion in the Himalayas. 1974: 23.
Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 196.
He was a Kshatriya Rajput from Kanoj. He was an 'urdhvabahu' sadhu.
Duncan, Jonathan. Asiatic Researches, Vol. 5. Calcutta: Asiatic Society, 1808. Reprinted, New Delhi: Cosmo Publication, 1979: 37-52.
- ibid, Vol. 5. p. 49.
- Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 212-216.
- Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 208.
16. Dave, Harshadray T. Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Vol. 5. Amdavad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith, 1987: 567.
17. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 364.
18. Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar, 1st ed. Calcutta: S.P. League, Ltd., 1949: 111-145.
19. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 366-377.
20. Kaur, Jagdish. Badrinath: A Study in Site Character, Pilgrims Patterns and Process of Modernisation. In The Himalayan Heritage. 1st ed. Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1987: 224.
Another story about Badrivan in the Purans says that Badrivan is in the Himalayan region, north of Badrinath on the banks of the River Sutlej. Today it is known as Thhulingmath. Many millennia ago a tribe of brute people indulged in meat eating. So Narayan Rishi left that region and came to Mana Pass by the banks of river Alaknanda and settled down to perform austerities. Seeing her lord performing austerities in the open snowy terrain, Lakshmiji took the form of a Badri (berry) tree and spread her branches like a shelter above him. From thenceforth Narayan Rishi named his place as Badrikashram. Gradually the Badri trees flourished in the ashram.
In 1882, a British writer, Edwin T. Atkinson, notes in the Himalayan Gazetteer that formerly the place must have been full of berry (Badri) trees but now there weren't any.
Atkinson, Edwin T. The Himalayan Gazetteer, Vol. III Part-II. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1973: 23.
21. Poddar, Hanumanprasad. Tirthank. Gorakhpur: Gita Press 1957: 60.
22. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 2-18-18, p. 370.
23. "Both the Satopanth and Kedar peaks were scaled from Gaumukh side and the shortcut to Badrinath via Arva valley and Ghastoli was also negotiated." Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 158.
24. Nilkanth Varni, on arriving in Loj, Gujarat, had narrated his travellings to Muktanand Swami. From his notes Swami Siddhanand (Adharanandmuni) wrote this scripture in Hindi verse.
25. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 2-18-18, p. 370.
26. Bahadur, Rai Pati Ram. Garhwal, Ancient and Modern. Gurgaon: Vintage Books, 1992, p. 17.
27. Dave, Harshadray T. Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Vol. 4. Amdavad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith, 1987: 323.
28. A part of the nine khands of Bharatvarsh, Bhagvadgomandal, p. 6603.
29. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 2-17-40, p. 369.
30. Dave, Harshadray T. Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Vol. 5. Amdavad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith, p. 567.
30. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 2-19-15, p. 373.
32. Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 155-157.
33. "The Bhotiya village of Mana is the last human settlement of this region." Kaur, Jagdish. The Himalayan Heritage. p. 223.
A British Officer, Captain Raper, had visited the village of Mana in 1802. At that time there were around 150 houses.
34. Fraser, James Baillie. The Himala Mountains. Delhi: Neeraj Publishing House, Reprint 1982: 284.
35. Bahadur, Rai Pati Ram. Garhwal, Ancient and Modern. Gurgaon: Vintage Books, p. 37.
36. Bahadur, Rai Pati Ram. Garhwal, Ancient and Modern. p. 37.
37. Bhuta, Maganlal J. Uttarapath. Mumbai: Parivrajak Prakashan, 1977: 217-8 (A translation of the Gujarati script).
38. Atkinson, E.T. Himalayan Gazetteer. Vol.3, Part 2, p. 583.
39. In 1929, Swami Prabodhanandji graduated in Philosophy from Siyalkot.
40. Swami Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. Amdavad: Balgovind Prakashak, 1970: 58, 64, 74-78 (All quotes are a translation of the Gujarati script).
41. Atkinson, E. T. The Himalayan Gazeteer, Vol. 3, Part 2. p. 582.
42. Swami Anand, Baraf Raste Badarinath. p. 59-64.
43. Swami Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. p. 59-64.
44. Swami Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. p. 66, 86.
45. Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 155-157.
46. "Thhuling Gompa, classically known as Thunding, is situated on the left bank of the river Sutlej at a distance of about a mile from the edge of water. This was founded in A.D. 1030 and is the most famous monastery in Western Tibet. Turks had pillaged this monastery on more than one occasion and set fire to it when, several hundreds of valuable Sanskrit and Tibetan manuscripts were reduced to ashes. The great Acharya Deepankara Shreejnana of Nalanda University fame came here in 1042 to preach Buddhism. He sojourned here for nine months and wrote many books including translations."
- Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 156.
47. In the Van Parva of Mahabharat, Badarinath is shown to be near Kailas.
Kailãsah parvatorãjan shadyojansamuchhitah yatra devã samãyãnti vishãlã yatra Bhãrat. (Mahabharat, Van Parva, 1-24, 139-11)
Since a long time there has been a relation of give and take between the pujari of Badrinath mandir and the Lama priest of Thhuling Math.
"...Before the Mana Pass is blocked up with snow, the abbot (of the Thhuling Math) sends every year some offerings to Badrinath temple and in return gets some prasad from the pujari or Raval of Badrinath..."
Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 157.
In this context see also footnote no. 20.
48. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 216.
49. Bhuta, Maganlal J. Uttarapath. p. 219.
50. Vidyarthi, Ramsharan. Kailas-path Par. Delhi: Sharda Mandir Limited, 1902: 79.
51. Vidyarthi, Ramsharan. Kailas-path Par. p. 84.
52. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vols. 1 & 2.
53. Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 155-157.
54. Swami Pranavananda. Kailas-Manasarovar. p. 157.
55. Atkinson, E. T. Religion in the Himalays, Vol. 3, Part 2. p. 377.
56. Bhuta, Maganlal J. Uttarapath. p. 221.
- 57. Vidyarthi, Ramsharan. Kailas-path Par. p.106-108.
58. Bhuta, Maganlal J. Uttarapath. 1977: 217-8
Translation: Sadhu Amrutvijaydas