After returning to the camp house at Darchen, I headed out in search of a hot water bath. The emerging village of Darchen has quite a few such setups, run on solar energy by enterprising locals, where hot water shower bath is actually a possibility. The lady charged 10 RMB for a nearly unlimited bath; a thing of luxury I’d say. The weather had totally cleared up. From a distance, the waters of Rakshastal appeared like a turquoise tray beneath the gigantic Gurla.
Our next halt, an hour’s drive from Darchen, was at Qugu monastery, also known by Trugo or Chugu, located by the Southern shore of Mansarovar. After days of travelling and trekking, we were finally going to be at the serene Mansarovar. The weather advantage was on our side as we left Darchen. Cruising on the highway, our vehicles briefly halted at Barkha where we topped up our rations and veggies. A few of us bought large-sized plastic bottles to carry the sacred water back home. Prayer flags were festooned in all directions; ancient chortens, mane stones, flagpoles et alia. Modern nomadic herders dotted the eastern shoreline. Completing a clockwise circuit of the flagpole at Hor Qu reception centre, we reached the Qugu monastery built on a raised level-ground by the sacred lake.
It was comfortably warm inside the dormitory of the Qugu camp house where the room had the most iconic vistas – the Kailash Mansarovar – right from the windowpanes itself. Outside, it was cold with the temperature dropping further; every time a cloud passed overhead. Grabbing a cup of hot tea and later having reassembled my luggage, I headed out for a walk along the shoreline. The lake is far wider and larger than I had imagined it to be from the photographs and numerous descriptions. The lake turns turquoise from dark blue as the drifting clouds make way for the sun. Shining fifty miles away in solitude, the Kailash is clearly visible. From a distance, its chiselled south face creates the illusion of a long, vertical stairway, as if for Gods to climb by. Although void of any life, as if carrying the marks of some sacred prehistory, the Mansarovar with its sapphire-blue waters, sandy shoreline against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains is wholly appealing. We seemed to have entered the holy land.
As I sit by the lake watching flocks of geese, crested grebes, mergansers, gulls and some other waders bobbing on the blue waters; in smaller groups, yatris huddle together after having completed the ritual bath; performing yagya and group poojas along the shoreline and bursting into loud holy cries. The lake contains several varieties of fish, carp and scale-less loaches on which these birds that winters in Indian plains, feed. The mythology equates these birds to Shiva’s swan that is said to nest on its shores. I revered in deep respect for the earlier travellers and adventurers who explored and surveyed this region; including the eminent ornithologist Dr Salim Ali who took a first of its kind expedition in 1945 to Mansarovar and behaviourally studied different species of this region.
Apart from its spiritual significance, the region has also been famous for its yield of gold and turquoise; though most of the mines in the surrounding hills now stand abandoned. The region brought many curious western explorers; including game lovers William Moorcraft, Hyder Hearsey, explorers Sven Hedin and the pundit surveyors. Its most famous pilgrim Swami Pranavananda visited the region more than ten times and carried out scientific surveys as well as collected data and penned multiple guidebooks. The clear blue waters of the Mansarovar, highest freshwater lake of this sheer size in the world have been associated with mythologies of different faiths and religions. Tibetans, who call it Mapam Tso, commemorate the lake to Milarepa’s victory over a Bon shaman. The followers of Buddhism are also of the view that Buddha’s mother Maya bathed in this lake before conceiving him. Hindus believe that Mansarovar was the divine imagination of Brahma; before it became a geographical reality. As also is the belief that those who bathe in the sacred waters of the lake, where Gods dip; get cleansed of all sins from past as well as future life.
I wade in about 10m from the shore and as the water reaches my knees, I take five dips. The glacial melt of Mansarovar is not as cold as I expect it to be. Not sure if it cleansed my body but it calmed my soul for sure; giving it the warmth it needed. Faith argues that there exist hot springs inside the lake, even though; it remains frozen for more than eight months of the year. For the next couple of days, our activities were simple yet most fulfilling in this quiet natural sanctuary; sky gazing, long walks, collecting pebbles, clicking photographs, counting birds, meditating and performing poojas of course.
Picking up a handful of pebbles from the shore to take home as sacred mementoes, I make for the Qugu monastery (4590m), the traditional bathing place for Hindus before 1959. Being traditional overnight halt on the Mansarovar circuit as also for the basic guesthouses built adjacently; Qugu along with Chiu gompa still continue to be the most active pilgrimage sites around the lake. Just as the seven other monasteries built equidistant around the lake, symbolising a spoke of Buddhist Wheel of Life; Qugu was also gutted in the Cultural Revolution. Even though, with the onset of international tourism, a few of these devastated monasteries have been restored but they could never be as populous.
For two days, irrespective of the weather I ramble on along the shore; with a camera in hand resting only at night or for meals. At over 4500m, with the air being light, my heart beats faster but my feet are aware where they are stepping. Up there, the sun burns with a cleansing brilliance. The sands are whitish and soft underfoot. As the cold wind would rise every now and then, the miniature waves too would respond proportionately. Fenced by snowy range, the holiest of the earth’s lakes – the Mansarovar – with its two hundred square miles of water, stretches endlessly with unfathomable azure. The rare natural colours that matter here are brown-earth, snowy white, sky and its reflection plus some occasional patches of greens. Everything else, including those of the prayer flags are a creation of mankind.
We are not bothered by the timing and quality of the food that is being served to us by the cooks. The excitement of staying so close to the sacred spectacle doesn’t let us sleep. Our gazes are ceaselessly fixed in the northern direction. At night when the clouds disperse, we are treated to the most spectacular display of stars. Many of us step outside of the dormitory to see the sky more clearly in a widest of high-altitude theatres. The faint profile of the snow-laden peaks is very much comprehensible in a moonless night. A few of us claim to have seen lights descending from the sky into the waters. Someone from the group asserts that these are deities in the form of light who descend to bathe in the lake, which is why it is sacred. Almost all of us agree with full devotion. Now whether it is St Elmo’s fire or something else, pilgrims are delighted to have seen it. I got up early in anticipation of another extraordinary view but was greeted with murky dawn and overcast sky on both mornings.
Having spent two days at the site, as per the itinerary, we wrapped up our Mansarovar yatra by completing a parikrama of the lake in a clockwise direction. As we continue circling the lake passing a few deserted monasteries or shelters, we climb a ridge and reassemble by a cairn of rocks from where a near dramatic view of the Manasarovar as well as the Rakshastal, on the other side, could be obtained. Ahead, we crossed the historic Chiu Gompa as well as the channel that connects Mansarovar with Rakshastal before we assemble at the reception centre at Hor Qu to board our buses.