Sacred beauty
Reviewed by Khushwant S. Gill

Kailash and Mansarovar: A Quest Beyond The Himalaya
by Deb Mukharji
Niyogi Books. Pages 252. Rs 1995.

Kailash & Mansarovar passes the first test of a good coffee table book sumptuous photographs. Further, Deb Mukharji, a retired IAS officer, has an equal felicity with pen and camera, and we are treated to an inspiring spectacle. The Himalayas loom and glow in all their majesty and the accompanying prose flows and gurgles along like the countless streams and rivers of this wild and majestic area.

As the author says, "Kailash and Mansarovar have influenced and excited the imaginations of the people of India, Nepal, Tibet and lands far away." Kailash is associated with not only Lord Shiva and Parvati, but has been linked with Meru, the mythical mountain around which the Universe revolved. Also known as Kang Rinpoche and Tise to the Buddhists and Bons, this mountain is steeped in mythology and history. The nearby lake Manas, the only extant mahasarovars of mythology, is a magnet for pilgrims, both Hindu and Buddhists.

In 1981, the author conducted the first group of pilgrims to the area, after a hiatus of 20 years due to the Indo-China tension. Since then he's returned to the area a few times and writes about his experiences with reverential awe. He writes of how it is in this general area that four great rivers arise the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Karnali (which becomes a part of the Gangetic system). And of how the mount Kailash plays such a central role in the psyches of people far and wide.

Mukharji interweaves vignettes of Tibetan history with the local flora and fauna. The accompanying photographs add to the hypnotic effect of the description. "Varieties of Juniper are perhaps the most abundant of plant life. Creepers abound, and wild flowers in shades of rose, violet and yellow on the banks of streams after rains... Hundreds of yak and sheep pasture peacefully in the shadow of Kailash."

In the same manner, mythology is liberally blended in the narrative. With references to the Mahabharata, Lord Shiva and Ravana (who attempted to uproot it and take it to Lanka) on the one side, and to Buddhist lore and legend on the other, the reader is left with no doubt that this is as sacred an area on Earth as can be.

Coming to a relatively more modern era, the great Dogra general, Zorawar Singh captured the area in 1841, from the Tibetans. Unfortunately, winter set in and a combined Tibetan-Chinese army defeated and killed Zorawar Singh and virtually annihilated his army. But Zorawar's fear and awe lived on in the minds of the Tibetans and pieces of his body were buried in various chortens to be worshipped as talismans.

From a general overview, the author then moves inwards and recounts his personal travels. This humanises the narrative and elevates it to the level of a travelogue. "There was a glorious sunrise over Manas the next day. But the day itself was in shades of grey. We spent the morning taking dips in the freezing waters..." The availability of palatable food remains an issue and the author finds "it increasingly difficult to accept the lentils and vegetables, our usual nourishment, inevitably seasoned with liberal doses of fiery red chilli powder". Thankfully for him, a pilgrim from Tamil Nadu "who had a propensity for slipping off her pony now and then", offers him chatni pudi, the famed flavored chilli and lentil powder of the South. "This was to become my staple for the rest of the days".

The chapter headings are evocative too "Kailash & Manas in Faith and Mythology", "Quest for Kailash", "My Journeys", "Epics, Literature and Architecture", "Kailash Today and Forever". The book is well researched and well written. The size too is a perfect fit between photographs and the writing not too big and not too small. The panorama of the grand Himalayas comes through without overpowering the written word, as is the case in many a similar book. Deb Mukharji set out to bring us the grandeur and silent reverence he feels for this area, and he has not disappointed the reader.