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Holy Site Faces a Looming Pollution Crisis

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/07/05; July 5, 2004.]

The Age - Melbourne,
July 3, 2004

At the end of a dirt track in the Himalayas lies a holy site that is facing an onslaught from tourism. Hamish McDonald reports from Lake Manasarovar.

It is hard not to share the joy of countless Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims at first seeing the cobalt waters of Lake Manasarovar, backed by dramatic snow-capped mountains - especially after four gruelling days along a dirt track known as China's National Highway 219.

Its name means "Lake of the Mind", referring to its mythological creation in the thoughts of the Hindu supreme deity Brahma. To its north, rising like a giant icy-pole, is the sheer-sided 6700-metre Mount Kailash, reputed home of the Hindu god of creation and destruction, Shiva, whose symbol for Hindu worshippers is a stone phallus.

Indians, who sometimes call the mountain the Phallus of the World, have been taking the arduous trek across the Himalayas for at least 17 centuries to bathe in the lake and take a clockwise walk around its waters (80 kilometres) and the mountain's lower slopes (50 kilometres).

The pilgrimage is believed to wash away the sins of a lifetime, preparing the way for reincarnation into a higher form of being after death.

To Chopa, Mayor of the nearby Tibetan village of Hor, the prospect is less pleasing. "These Indian visitors have no regard for environmental care," he said over a meal in Hor's main restaurant, serving spicy food at one of its three tables. "That's why you would have seen so much rubbish at the lake."

Chopa, who like many Tibetans has only one name, is particularly irked by the Hindus' practice of throwing off their old clothes and casting them into the waters of Manasarovar once they have taken a holy dip, before putting on new clothes to symbolise their cleansed state. "Every year we have to hire people to clean up the mess," he said.

The shores of Manasarovar certainly do have the beginnings of a litter problem, with plastic water bottles and other packaging strewn along the pilgrims' route.

The air is clean, the grass is fresh and it will be a great place for relaxation.

It could be disputed, however, whether the 6000 Indians and Nepalis (also mostly Hindus) who visit each year are any worse than the 30,000 other foreigners and the uncounted numbers of Chinese and Tibetan visitors.

Chopa's own village of mud brick houses is no advertisement for environmental care. Waste water streams across the main street, and its 1634 people have to use a central patch of rubbish-strewn open ground, complete with scavenging dogs, as their toilet. Chopa, 28, a doctor, says there are lots of plans for a treatment plant and other works, but currently the village's waste flows into the holy lake.

Moreover, environmentalists and religious figures around the world are increasingly alarmed more by the possibility of ill-judged efforts by Chinese authorities to "develop" the tourist potential of the area, considering the garishly inappropriate buildings already popping up in Tibet's bigger cities and towns.

The lake and mountain also represent Tibet's position as source of most of the great rivers flowing into Asia's heavily populated lowlands. Around Manasarovar spring the headwaters of the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, which water the Indian subcontinent.

From Tibet's south-east flow the Mekong, Salween and Irrawaddy rivers of South-East Asia. From the northern region of Qinghai, now a separate Chinese province, come the Yangtze and Yellow rivers of Eastern China. A collapse of the environmental balance in Tibet could have catastrophic results for a huge portion of humanity.

Already the numbers coming into Manasarovar-Kailash by four-wheel-drive vehicles, either from the Nepal capital, Kathmandu, or Tibet's capital, Lhasa, are stressing the pristine environment much more than the thousand or so pilgrims who take the traditional pilgrim route by foot from the highest road-head on the Indian side of the Himalayas.

There are persistent rumours of a plan to build a ring road around Kailash, allowing visitors to cleanse their sins in seated comfort. Chopa says that as far as he knows, there was a plan to improve the footpath, and install waystations for the pilgrims to rest, but there would be no access for vehicles.

Chopa says his village administration wanted to help by setting up a series of visitors' camps around Manasarovar. "The air is clean, the grass is fresh and it will be a great place for relaxation," he says. "But it will be just tents, totally in Tibetan style, not permanent buildings."

So far, Chinese officialdom has shown some awareness of environmental risks. A major tree-planting program is in evidence along the Yarlung Zangbo, as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet, though talk of a super-dam just before it leaves Chinese territory worries experts downstream.

The avowedly atheist Tibet Government has also deferred to religious sentiment at Kailash. Three years ago it refused permission for a Spanish expedition to climb the mountain, after stiff protests from Hindu groups. A proposal put two weeks ago by a Nepali aviation company to run tourist flights around the peak may also be vetoed.

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