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Climber Calls Off Ascent of Sacred Peak Amid Protests

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/05/30; May 30, 2001.]

Sunday Telegraph,
27 May 2001

INTERNATIONAL protests by mountaineers have halted what would have been the first ascent of Mount Kailash, a Tibetan mountain held sacred by Hindus and Buddhists.

Jesus Martinez Novas, a Spanish mountaineer, had planned to "broadcast a message of peace" from the Himalayan peak, which is believed by some to be "the navel of the world" and the abode of a pantheon of deities. Last week, however, the climber announced that he had called off his project because of "the overwhelmingly negative response".

He had sought and been given permission by the Chinese authorities to climb the mountain - despite a tradition among mountaineers to refrain from tackling Kailash because of its religious significance. In 1985, the celebrated German mountaineer Reinhold Messner set out to ascend the mountain, but was dissuaded by colleagues, one of whom said: "One should not trample in mountain boots on gods turned to stone."

Fears that Kailash faced a fresh threat of desecration from crampons and pitons provoked protests not only from Buddhists and Hindus but also from other mountaineers, who say they normally avoid sacred peaks in deference to local sentiments. Besides this, they were worried that an ascent might open the floodgates to commercial climbs.

"Not one mountaineer I've spoken to approved of this," said Doug Scott, a British climber and the president of the Alpine Club, who himself stopped short of the summit of another Himalayan peak, Kangchenjunga in 1979 because the local Sikkimese regard it as sacred.

Mr Scott said: "It's something that must never happen. It would open Kailash to all commercial groups and it would be such a kick in the teeth to the Tibetans - not to mention a billion Hindus." At 22,000ft, Kailash, in south-west Tibet, is not considered a particularly challenging climb, but has never been conquered.

It is the source of three great rivers and is also the mythical source of the Ganges. The compelling, dome-shaped peak, rising above a desolately beautiful 13,000 ft plateau of rainbow-coloured rocks, has long been one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists and Hindus, in addition to Jains and the followers of Tibet's pre-Buddhist shamanist religion, Bon Po.

As the mythical Mount Meru - the Mount Olympus of Asia - Hindus believe that Kailash is the home of the god Shiva who sits there in perpetual meditation with his consort Parvati. Bathing in the icy, sapphire waters of Lake Manasarovar at its foot is said to remove the sins of innumerable lifetimes.

Various magical powers are attributed to the mountain, including the appearance of a swastika - the ancient symbol of prosperity and eternal life - on its south side. In the 1930s and 1940s, Swami Pranavananda, an Indian holy man conducted various scientific experiments and found geological oddities, such as one small lake lined with white pebbles next to another lined with black ones.

Every year, several hundred Hindu pilgrims and sadhus, clad in flimsy orange robes, make the arduous trek over the icy 16,700ft Lipu Lekh Pass into Tibet to begin the 32-mile walk around Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. Some Tibetans take several years to journey to Kailash, making full-length prostrations with wooden boards on their arms and legs the entire way.

The first European to record seeing the peak was Father Antonio Andrade, a Jesuit missionary to the court of the Mogul emperor Akbar. He set out to preach to the Tibetan kingdom of Guge in the early 17th century. The mountain was then forgotten until a British expedition came upon it in the early 19th century.

A hundred years later, it came to prominence in the West when several explorers, including Sven Hedin and Francis Younghusband who later led a mission to Lhasa, discovered what Indians and Tibetans had known for centuries - that the Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Indus rivers have their sources in the Kailash range.

Professor Giuseppe Tucci, an Italian Tibetologist who visited Kailash in the 1930s, wrote that it was believed to be "the navel of the world; the ladder which links Heaven and Earth; and the great rock crystal palace of 360 gods".


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