Ancient Knowledge and Modern Explorations of the Phenomenon of the Holy Mt. Kailash

Wolfgang Wöllmer and Sergei Balalaev

An International Kailash conference will take place at the University of Hamburg, Germany, March 21–22, 2020, on the Phenomenon of the Holy Mt. Kailash, ‘Compilation of Traditional and New Aspects of Mt. Kailash and Surrounding Pilgrimage Sites’

Mt. Kailash in old legends

The legendary Mount Meru, already mentioned in the Vedas, Indian scriptures of the second millennium BCE, was named in the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey) as the navel of the world, the 84000 mile high upholding pillar of the world, where Lord Shiva dwells with his consort Parvati. Although Mount Meru belongs to spiritual worlds, several mountains on earth were believed to represent it. These were discussed by Alex McKay1, who confirms Mt. Kailash as the earthly representation of the legendary Mount Meru. Already in 1900, the Japanese Buddhist priest Ekai Kawaguchi described Mt. Kailash as a natural mandala and was confident that Mt. Kailash represents Mount Meru, and Lake Manasarovar the legendary Lake Anavatapta.

Mt. Kailash in Upper Tibet, the far west of Tibet, is one of the holiest mountains in the world, revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bönpo. The Bönpo were probably the first who lived in this remote landscape and experienced the holy mountain, which they called Yungdrung Gutseg, the spiritual centre of the historic kingdom Zhang Zhung, where their founder Tonpa Shenrab descended from the heavens. In the Jain religion the mountain is called Ashtapada, the ‘eightfold path’, where Rishabha, their Adinath (first lord), the first of their 24 Tirthankaras (enlightened beings), achieved enlightenment and entered Nirvana, the state of release from all suffering.

Tibetan Buddhists call the mountain Gang Tise or Gang Rinpoche, the ‘Venerable Snow Mountain’. Padmasambhava (8–9 century CE) brought Buddhism to Tibet. He is said to have hidden secret scriptures at many places in Tibet, also at the Kora of Mt. Kailash.

Padmasambhava spent the last week of his life in a cave at the northwest shore of Lake Manasarovar. The monk Gyelwa Götsangpa (1189–1258) is the first Buddhist, who explored the kora of Mt. Kailash in the years 1213–1217. In Indian cultures the parikrama or kora, the circumambulation of a sacred place, is the general action of devotion. Usually, there is more than one kora at holy sites, the ‘inner kora’ closer to the centre, for those with higher spiritual merits.

Early research by Westerners in the Mt. Kailash region

As the first Western traveller to Upper Tibet the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Antonio Freire de Andrade (1580–1634) visited the king of the flourishing kingdom Guge in the capital Tsaparang, but not Mt. Kailash. His reports in 1625 to his Provincial in Goa and in 1626 to the superior of his fraternity in Rome are the first authentic documents2 about life in Tsaparang and Upper Tibet.

During the 17th and 18th century, the influence of the British East India Company increased and was replaced by the British Crown colony in India from 1858–1947. Neighbouring countries like Nepal and Tibet blocked their borders to prevent foreign influence. Tibet was called ‘the forbidden land’. The Great Trigonometrical Survey during the 18th and 19th century resulted in the cartography of India, but the Himalayan chain and the land beyond in the north were out of reach. Educated Indians, the Pundits, were trained and equipped with hidden geographical instruments and sent to Tibet to explore the country. The veterinarian William Moorcroft (1767–1825) reached the holy Lake Manasarovar in 1812. The travel author Arnold Henry Savage Landor (1867–1924) reached Tibet in 1898 and described the Mt. Kailash region and the kora of Mt. Kailash, Lake Manasarovar and the source of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo)3.

The Swedish geographer Sven Hedin (1865–1952) reached the Mt. Kailash region in one of his expeditions from 1905 to 1908. He was the first European who described the kora of Mt. Kailash in detail and documented it with drawings. He named the chain of mountains in the north of the Himalayan chain, Transhimalaya, which today is called Gang Tise chain. Mrs Ruttledge was the first western woman, who completed the kora of Mt. Kailash, with her husband and Colonel RC Wilson in 1926. Her husband failed to climb the holy mountain on the northeast ridge. Wilson took the route of the inner kora. He did not find the path over the Serdung Chuksum la, but the southwest descent instead, which was only rediscovered by Alexey Perchukov in 2016.

The first European after Sven Hedin, who did not belong to the British colony, was the Austrian geologist and mountaineer Herbert Tichy (1912–1987), who completed the kora of Mt. Kailash in 1935, in disguise as an Indian pilgrim. Also, the Swiss geologist Augusto Gansser (1910–2012) circumambulated Mt. Kailash disguised as a Buddhist pilgrim in 1936. He discovered seafloor rocks at the foot of the south face of Mt. Kailash and interpreted the Indus-Yarlung- Tsangpo-Suture-zone as the border between the Indian and the Eurasian plate. The Indian Swami Pranavananda performed first thorough scientific research at Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar and Lake Raksas Tal during many expeditions from 1928 until 1949. He also investigated the sources of the four rivers Yarlung Tsangpo, Karnali, Sutlej and Indus. He completed many koras of Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, and documented his results4.

Captain RKM Saker (1909–1979) and the physician Gordon Terry performed the kora of Mt. Kailash in 1943. Major TS Blakeney was one of the last Europeans at Mt. Kailash in this era. On his kora of Mt. Kailash in 1945, he was rather interested in the secret Dakini path, an abbreviation of the Dölma la that Swami Pranavananda had described. The German-Bolivian lama Anagorika Govinda (1898–1985) and his Indian wife, the photographer Li Gotami (1906–1988), performed investigations of the Guge kingdom and Tsaparang in 19485 and went on the kora of Mt. Kailash.

Mt. Kailash research after the Cultural Revolution

Due to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, and during the Cultural Revolution 1966–1976 and years afterwards, there was no access to Tibet for foreigners. After 1984, some early travellers succeeded in reaching Upper Tibet. The American geographer and archaeologist John Vincent Bellezza (1957) investigated pre-Buddhist Bön monuments and archaeological features in Zhang Zhung6 and at Mt. Kailash7 since 1987. Also the Austrian photographer and author Bruno Baumann (1955) travelled to Mt. Kailash for the first time in 1987 and explored the whole Kailash region8 including the inner kora9, the sources of the four rivers and Zhang Zhung in the Sutlej valley10 in many expeditions since 1994.

From around the year 2000 increasing numbers of Westerners visited Upper Tibet and Mt. Kailash, and several of them published their experiences and pictures in books and travel guides. In terms of research, Sergei Balalaev (1963) performed many explorations at Mt. Kailash, Manasarovar and Raksas tal and the region around, including the sources of the four rivers. He was especially interested in geometrical shapes of the sacred landscape11.

The German Wolfgang Wöllmer (1947) redetected a forgotten path described by Swami Pranavananda and explored new paths at Mt. Kailash in order to define the real inner kora of the holy mountain itself, as the classical inner kora is a circumambulation of the outlier mountain Mt. Nandi, but not of Mt. Kailash. He published his findings including tantric explanations in 201412 and a proposal of a Spiral Kora of Mt. Kailash13, together with the Russian Alexey Perchukov (1972), who rediscovered the southwest descent in 2016 and succeeded to explore the third and parts of the innermost fourth of the four turns of the Spiral Kora of Mt. Kailash.

International Mt. Kailash Conferences

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The explorations of the pilgrimage sites in Upper Tibet and their results were described in detail by John Snelling14 (1943–1992). Another way of publication is presenting them at international conferences. In 2014, Sergei Balalaev, along with some Bulgarian friends, started organizing a series of International Kailash conferences, see In order to continue this series, Wolfgang Wöllmer has started organizing another International Kailash conference that will take place at the University of Hamburg, Germany, March 21–22, 2020, the 5th International Conference on the Phenomenon of the Holy Mt. Kailash, ‘Compilation of Traditional and New Aspects of Mt. Kailash and Surrounding Pilgrimage Sites’. See the conference which can also be accessed via the easier short link or via the QR code.

At this conference, traditional aspects for Tibetan and Indian pilgrims at Mt. Kailash, the religious backgrounds, legends and iconography, their interpretation and comparison with old scriptures and tantric vision will be presented. Improved infrastructure and more liberal issuing of permits let the number of Western visitors and Indian pilgrims increase greatly. In order to preserve the landscape of Mt. Kailash and neighbouring sites, new rules and regulations were needed and put into force. The aim of this conference is to introduce and systemize new data and explorations at Mt. Kailash, the sacred lakes and the whole region. Knowledge of the sacred regions of Upper Tibet will be shared, and cooperation in further scientific investigation discussed.

A short history of research and exploration of the Mt Kailash region. This is a precursor to the 5th International Conference on the Phenomenon of the Holy Mt. Kailash, ‘Compilation of Traditional and New Aspects of Mt. Kailash and Surrounding Pilgrimage Sites’ to be held in Germany in March 2020.


  1. Alex McKay: Kailas Histories—Renunciate Traditions and the Construction of Himalayan Sacred Geography. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library, Leiden, 2015
  2. Michael J. Sweet, Leonard Zwilling: More Than the Promised Land: Letters and Relations from Tibet by the Jesuit Missionary António de Andrade (1580–1634). Boston Institute of Jesuit Sources/Boston College, 2017
  3. Arnold Henry Savage Landor: In the Forbidden Land: An Account of a Journey into Tibet, Capture by the Tibetan Lamas and Soldiers. Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1899
  4. Swami Pranavananda: Kailas – Manasarovar. S. P. League, Calcutta, 1949, 2nd edition: Surya Print Process, New Delhi, 1983
  5. Lama Anagorika Govinda: The Way of the White Clouds. Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1966
  6. John Vincent Bellezza: Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. A Historical and Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Monuments, Rock Art, Texts and Oral Tradition of the Ancient Tibetan Upland. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Denkschriften, vol. 368. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008
  7. John Vincent Bellezza: KM-III Exploration Report, a Reconnaissance Mission to Locate the Sri Ashtapad Temple. University of Virginia, 2009
  8. Bruno Baumann: Kailash, Tibets heiliger Berg (Kailash-Tibet’s Holy Mountain). Piper Verlag München, 2002, in German
  9. Bruno Baumann: Der Kristallspiegel-Pilgerreise zum heiligen Berg Kailash (The Crystal Mirror—Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain Kailash). Nymphenburg Verlag, München, 2005, in German
  10. Bruno Baumann: Der Silberpalast des Garuda (The Silver Palace of the Garuda). Piper Verlag München, 2006, in German
  11. Sergei Balalaev: The Call of Kailash. Publishing House “Kodeks”, Moscow, 2010
  12. Wolfgang Wöllmer: The Inner and Outer Paths of Mt. Kailash. Vajrabooks, Kathmandu, 2014
  13. W. Wöllmer, A. Perchukov: The Spiral Kora of Mt. Kailash. The Himalayan Journal, 2017
  14. John Snelling: The Sacred Mountain: The Complete Guide to Tibet’s Mount Kailas. East-West Publications Ltd, UK, 2 Rev Ed edition 1991

About the Author

DR WOLFGANG WÖLLMER spent his professional life as a medical physicist in Germany. He performed his first Mt. Kailash pilgrimage in 2002, the horse year of the Tibetan calendar, others followed in 2006, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2017. He planned various routes and special paths to explore the whole region12 and proposed a spiral kora of Mt. Kailash13 with Alexey Perchukov.

Dr Sergei Balalaev began his professional life as physicist in Russia. In the research group of the phenomenon of Mt. Kailash since 2005, he organized regular expeditions each year to the region of Tibet and Mt. Kailash and explored various koras around Mt. Kailash, the holy lakes and remote valleys of the Mt. Kailash Mandala, as well as the geographical and traditional sources of the four rivers. The results of his expeditions were published 201011 in Russian and English.

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