Mountain at the Centre of the World
By Augusta Thomson
“Pilgrimage to the place of the wise is to find escape from the flame of separateness.”
Jalal ad-Din Rumi
When we arrived at the mountain we saw a parched path; it was hot and we were tired. After two weeks of travel across the Tibetan Plateau our eyes and ears were full of the landscape. We had heard remarkable stories, and watched the sky widen as pilgrims cut patterns across the pathways of different pilgrimage sites. We had walked with pilgrims from eastern and western Tibet, following their footsteps through Lhasa, Samye, Gyantse, and Shigatse— learning a little more and a little less each day.
When we finally began the pilgrimage around Mount Kailash we had reached a stage in the journey when everything had become the fabric of something else.
That was when the research really took off: we were no longer expecting to find anything. We were quite simply engulfed.
Kang Rinpoche, ‘Precious Jewel of the Snow’: A view of the southern face of Mount Kailash rising out of the Barga plain.
“Dakini View”: Topchen Valley is the valley of the dakinis, or Tibetan sky angels. I took this photo on our third trek around the mountain. Topchen Valley was my favorite part of the trek— the reward after climbing up to Drolma La Pass (5,660 m). Everything about the valley was fulfilling.
“Mountain Calling”: On our second trek around Mount Kailash we met female Bon pilgrims on Drolma La Pass calling to the mountain. They would sing blessings, then shake a strand of prayer flags, then sing again. This photo struck me because of the generations it captures— a Bon pilgrim, her mother, and her tiny daughter.
“Hidden Mountain”: One of the Hindu pilgrims we met called Kailash ‘the hidden mountain’; he told us, that in the past, pilgrims would search for the mountain for years without finding it. I think that this shot of the mountain, taken in Topchen Valley, captures some of the mountain’s mystique.
“Satisfaction”: This Bon pilgrim had just finished prostrating four kilometers. Her forehead was caked with dust, and her face was coated with grime. But what really struck me was her smile— deep and full and humble.
“Fuel”: This woman looks for yak dung fuel on the edge of the Lha Chu River. The bright colors of her scarf and shirt contrasted with the grey of the landscape caught my eye. I think that Tibet is a little bit like that— made of the contrast of color and the color of contrast.
I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree
translucent in brightness.
And when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden
with fruit stood there.
Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of
what happened in my sleep.
“Leavings”: These brothers had a large bag of offerings. They would stop at sacred sites and leave them in the landscape. We never had the chance to talk to them or ask them why, but there was something captivating about their routine.
“Long Journey”: This elderly pilgrim woman is the mother of the young man in Photo 10 of this essay. She was far behind her children when we met her, and she was exhausted. She told us that she and her family had traveled for Kailash to spend their vacation prostrating. That concept really struck me— the idea of taking a break to work.
“Karma”: I spotted this Buddhist pilgrim on our second trek around the mountain. She was carrying her belongings along with her— a form of ablution. Behind her is a mound of offerings, a chorten, threaded with prayer flags and mani stones.
“The Highest Pass”: In this photo the western path opens onto Drolma La Pass, the highest pass along the pilgrimage route and the site of rebirth for pilgrims. Pilgrims tie prayer flags to rocks surrounding the site to blow blessings to family, friends, and all sentient beings.
“It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.”
- Selms Lagerlof
“The longest journey
Is the journey inwards
Of him who has chosen his destiny.”
- Dag Hammarskjold
“Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.”
- Richard R. Niebuhr
“Concentration”: This photograph captures the face of a Bon pilgrim, as she stands simultaneously chanting and shaking a strand of prayer flags at Drolma La Pass.
“Reborn”: This pilgrim walks down from Drolma La after paying his respects at the top of the pass. Buddhist pilgrims believe that they are reborn at Drolma La Pass, the pass of the Buddhist deity, Tara, the Goddess of Mercy, who pardons all sins.
“Twins”: Here, two Bon pilgrims wearing the same outfit walk below a mound of offerings at Shiwatshal Cemetery, the site of Yamantaka, the Buddhist God of the Dead, and an inactive sky burial site before Drolma La Pass.
“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
– Marcel Proust