Book Talk: The Sacred Mountain by John Snelling

As apparent from the title and book-cover itself, “The Sacred Mountain” is a travel manual to the holiest of mountain regions – the Kailash Mansarovar – located in Tibet trans-Himalayas, which is regarded sacred by followers of no less than four religions of the world – Hindus, Jains, Buddhists as well as the pre-Buddhist shamanistic religion of Tibet, Bonpos. Unlike most other books belonging to the genre of travel writing, this one is not really a travel-account but a comprehensive summary of the various historical records available pertaining to travels to the holy Kailash region. The findings are presented in light of the current happenings, as regards the time when the book was first published in 1983, with reference to the unfailingly shifting religious as well as political interests.

The 2006 India reprint by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd of the second edition (1990) of the 450 page book

The 2006 reprint by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd of the second edition (1990) of the 450-page-book

Awestruck with the spirituality associated with the Himalayas, the author decided to visit the Everest Base Camp and ultimately the Kailash. “One mountain, however, stands high above the rest, a sacred mountain overtopping the ranges of lesser sacred mountains, their epitome and apogee”. “This mountain is called the Kailas”, writes John Snelling. Without digressing much into his travel accounts, the author examines the spiritual and mythological associations of the holy Kailash in the context of its historical, religious, political and geographical perspectives.

The author narrates the accounts and findings of the relatively few known Western travellers and explorers who managed to reach the remote Kailash. The interface of westerns with the locals not only brings out the cultural differences but specifically points out their individual experiences starting from Jesuit missionaries Desideri and Manuel Freyre who visited the Kailash in 1715 to Major T. S. Blackney, Strachey, Hearsey, Francis Younghusband, William Moorcraft, A.H. Savage Landor, Ryder, Rowling, Charles Sherring, mountaineering attempts of Longstaff and Sven Hedin, etcetera are of special interest. It is, however, surprising that the author gives little mention or bantam gravity to the findings of Indian visitors including the likes of Pundit Nain Singh who had non-pilgrimage exploratory interests in the region.

Justifiably so, John Snelling also delves into the accounts of pilgrims or saints who travelled into the area to satiate their religious interests. Apart from religious knowledge, such travellers including Swami Pranavananda, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Tapovan and the westerner Lama Anagarika Govinda, etcetera usually brought a plethora of cultural as well as practical information for travelling into the region. The author was particularly enamoured by Swami Pranavananda who authored multiple volumes and provided scientific data for later research. To this day the works of Swami Pranavananda, out of print now, continues to be among the best written accounts of Kailash Mansarovar travels.

It is of interest to note the accounts of various such travellers to the Kailash and understand how the spirituality associated with the sacred region and the testing, difficult as well as the dangerous journey had affected them from the exploratory point of view. The book neatly highlights the interface of travellers with Tibetan officials, who were usually hostile to Westerners, monks, dacoits in the cold and barren land as well as their exploratory and adventurous efforts both in highlighting the holy region and reaching the treacherous terrain. Finally, the author also evaluates other sacred mountains of the world with a view to bring forward the ancillary religious or semi-religious associations related to various religions of the world. The author has listed a detailed bibliography and a general set of travel information to the holy land.

Although the author has frankly accepted in the very beginning that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since I originally wrote The Sacred Mountain, the book remains to be a master compendium of Kailash Mansarovar travels. Priced at Rs 995, the India reprint of 1990 edition, comprising numerous coloured images, is readily available at most online shops including Amazon and Flipkart.

4 Comments on “Book Talk: The Sacred Mountain by John Snelling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: