In 1949, an Indian ascetic-explorer published a book that drew on his “first-hand knowledge” of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar to render a “minute” account of these places with an “emphasis on all important details likely to be of use and interest to pilgrims and tourists”. Simply titled Kailas Manasarovar, with a foreword by Jawaharlal Nehru, the book had the kind of details that would make a geographer proud.

“240 miles from Almora in UP and 800 miles from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, stand Mount Kailas and Lake Manasarovar constituting one of the grandest of the Himalayan beauty spots,” wrote Swami Pranavanda, a former railway employee and Congress worker who had renounced the material world at age 30. The sacred mountain’s “gorgeous silvery summit,” he added, “pierces into a heavenly height of 22,028 feet above the level of the even bosom of the sea.”

Equally enamoured by Manasarovar, he said, “In order to realise and appreciate the grandeur of the Holy Lake fully, one has to actually spend a twelve-month on her shores. For those who have not paid her even a casual visit, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the diverse aspects of beauty that she presents round the different seasons of the year, to close observers.”

The sanyasi’s favourite seasons by Manasarovar were winter, when the lake froze over, and spring, when it melted. “It is only the inspired poet or the divine artist with his magic colours that can, for instance, describe and represent adequately the beauty and grandeur of sunrise and sunset on the lake,” he wrote.

Mount Kailash (also spelled Kailas) and Lake Manasarovar (also spelled Mansarovar) have been revered by Hindus, Jains, Bons and Buddhists for at least 2,000 years, becoming over this period the subject of numerous poems, stories and legends. Until the early 1920s, those attempting the pilgrimage to these places from India could choose between several routes. No passport was needed for British India subjects to enter Western Tibet, but if they wanted to visit other parts of Tibet, such as Lhasa, a passport was mandatory. The absence of bureaucratic hurdles to go to Kailash and Manasarovar was more than made up by other challenges and dangers on the routes, such as high mountain passes, extreme weather and bandits. It would take a Pranavananda to give India and the rest of the world a proper glimpse of not just the religious sites, but also the region’s physiography and geology as well as its customs and culture.

Lake Manasarovar. Credit: TorstenDietrich/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

In his book Wild Himalaya, writer Stephen Alter called Pranavananda “one of the most diligent geographers to explore” this part of the Himalayas. “The lengthy, poetic descriptions in Pranavananda’s book reflect a combination of his spiritual and scientific sensibilities for he was fascinated by both the sacred resonance and physical nature of the landscape,” Alter wrote.

Scientific interest

Born Kanakadandi Venkata Somayajulu in 1896 in modern-day Andhra Pradesh, Pranavananda assumed his new name after he was initiated into a spiritual order at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh.

Two years later, he undertook his first journey to the sacred sites, travelling from Srinagar to Ladakh to Gartok in Tibet and crossing Gyanima Mandi to reach Kailash and Manasarovar. From there, he proceeded to Taklakot (Purang), a town that was a major post for Nepalese and Indian traders and sits at an altitude of 12,975 feet above sea level. From there, Pranavananda went to Khocharnath (Khorzak), Chhakra Mandi and back to Gartok. He returned to India by crossing the Gunla Niti Pass (19,028 feet above sea level) into modern-day Uttarakhand.

It would take another seven years before Pranavnanda would make his second journey to Tibet. This time, he went through Gangotri and Nilang, crossing the Jelukhaga Pass (17,392 feet above sea level), Thuling and Mangnang, home of a 11th-century Buddhist monastery. On another journey, he crossed the 16,780-feet high Lipulekh Pass, near the tri-junction of India, Tibet and Nepal.

From 1937, the sanyasi began to visit the area every year and started staying in Tibet for periods ranging from two to six months. In 1943, he ended up staying in Thugolho on the shores of Manasarovar for 16 months. It was during this stay that he was able to properly observe the changing of the seasons by the lake and the natural phenomena that accompanied it.

Mount Kailash. Credit: Jean-Marie Hullot/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License]

Between 1928 and 1949, he did 23 parikramas or circumambulations of Kailash. He also walked around Manasarovar 25 times, including seven times in the winter. Pranavananda published his first book about the sacred places in 1939, titled Pilgrim’s Companion to the Holy Kailas and Manasarovar.

The sanyasi’s interests went well beyond the pilgrimage sites in Tibet and he made a concerted effort to explore the scientific aspects of the region, including by collecting fossils and rocks. According to Alter, Pranavananda took an inflatable rubber dinghy out on Manasarovar to make soundings of its depths. “He also hauled the dinghy up to Gauri Kund, a small pond on the northeastern side of Mount Kailas at 5,630 metres,” Alter wrote. “Later, he brought a galvanized steel boat from India with an outboard motor to continue in research.”

Eye for detail

Pranavananda’s eye for detail is clearly visible through the book, as is his adoration for the region. It would be difficult for any reader, religious or agnostic, even today to not be moved by his descriptions of Kailash and Manasarovar and have an urge to visit these still-difficult-to-access places.

“One peculiarity with the lake is that at times, when there are high waves near the shores the middle is calm and clear like a mirror reflecting the silvery dome of the Kailas if seen from the southern side, or the Mandhata’s giant heads, if seen from the northeast,” he wrote. “On full moon nights, with the full moon overhead, the scene is simply indescribable. At sunset, the whole of the Kailas range on the north, becomes a fiery region all of a sudden, throwing an observer into a spell of trance, and by the time he returns to consciousness, he sees only the silvery peak in his front.”

Despite these purple lines, Pranavananda’s book is not entirely a romanticised account of western Tibet. The cruel vicissitudes of nature feature in it too. “One cannot generally escape or get away without noticing a tragic spectacle here and there in the Manasarovar region,” he wrote. “It is, for example, a pathetic sight to see hundreds of fish frozen and crushed in the swimming posture under the transparent ice (as at the mouth of the Gyumma chhu); or a whole flock or a line of ducks with their young ones frozen to death and sandwiched on the surface of the ever-changing mysterious lake; or scores of new-born lambs and kids frozen to death in a shepherd camp on a single cold night, for winter in the yeaning season of sheep and goats.” Sometimes he would find droves of wild goats in deep snow, frozen to death on all fours.

Dispelling myths

The Kailash and Manasarovar region has been the subject of many myths, such as the existence of golden lotuses and pearls. Pranavananda was quick to dismiss their existence, calling them mythological, but added that “if someone wants to console himself by saying that they may have once existed millions of years back, there is no dispute with them.”

He also addressed articles that appeared in the 1920s and ’30s about the existence of Siddhas and Mahatmas in Tibet. “Most of the stories gaining currency here are mere exaggerations or misrepresentations, and are more of the nature of journalistic stunts than anything else,” he wrote. “It may however be mentioned that the author had visited about 50 monasteries (i.e. almost all the monasteries of Western Tibet and most of them in Ladakh) and met not less than 1,500 monks, both lamas and dabas; but he did not come across any great siddha, or a yogi worth mentioning in the whole of Western Tibet.”

He added that there were many lamas in Tibet who were well-versed in scriptures and “incantation performances”. “People in general are very superstitious, religious-minded and devotional, and mystic in temperament,” he wrote. “The author did not meet any spiritually advanced lama or yogi, nor any monk 90 to 100 years old, though some people claim to have seen sages like Vyasa and Asvatthama and other monks and Christian saints thousands of years old with corporeal bodies. Personally, he would neither accept such credulous statements nor would force others to disbelieve them but would prefer to leave the matter to individual judgement and discrimination.”

Pranavananda did, however, believe that his guru Swami Jnanananda was an advanced soul.

The Indian sanyasi-explorer, who lived till the age of 92, never went back to Tibet after 1949. After Tibet became a part of the People’s Republic of China in 1951, it anyway became difficult for Indians to visit Kailash and Manasarovar. More than seven decades on, Pranavananda’s book, which contains maps and photographs, remains one of the greatest works of non-fiction about the roof of the world.

The sanyasi summed it up best with this passage:

“‘Who can approach Manasarovar where snow falls without clouds?’ Such phenomena form sufficient material for the ecstatic outburst of a poet.

Thus the Kailas-Manas region engages the attention of any person of any calling or profession-whether he be a poet or a painter, a physicist or a chemist, a botanist or a zoologist, a geologist or a climatologist, a geographer or a historian, a hunter or a sportsman, a skater or a skier, a physiologist or a psychologist, an ethnologist or a sociologist, a pilgrim or a tourist, a hermit or a householder, a clergyman or a tradesman, a treasure-hunter or a spirit-hunter, a theist or an atheist, a scholar or a politician, young or old, man or woman.”

The book, first published in Hindi, was so well-received both in India and abroad that Swami Pranavanda was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.