The Geographical and Traditional Sources of the Indus River

Sergei Balalaev

Mt Kailash

West face Mt Kailash

According to the Tibetans, the hills in the north represent a lion (Senge); the white hills in the west symbolize its tail; the rock near the source represents the lion’s ear, and the place where the springs come out of the ground symbolizes the lion’s mouth (Senge Kabab).

Mt Kailash, situated in the west part of the Tibetan Plateau, is, perhaps, the most sacred pilgrimage site on our planet. The four sacred rivers of Asia have their origins in the area of 125 km around Mt. Kailash: the Brahmaputra, the Karnali (a tributary of the Ganges), the Indus, and the Satluj (a tributary of the Indus). It is the only region where the sources of four major river systems are so close to each other. For more than a hundred years, the study of the sources of these rivers has aroused great interest among researchers. However, for hundreds of years, Tibet was closed to foreigners due to its geographical features and political restrictions. And this has not changed much even in today’s world. Even at present, only rare groups of tourists can get the areas beyond the scope of travel site offers. All this was the reason why the sources of these rivers remain insufficiently studied and are not clearly identified. These places are the so-called ‘blank spots’ and are rarely visited by foreigners.

In many Asian traditions, the source of a river is of great significance. This is the place where a river originates and acquires some energy impulse that it carries by its water to give life to all living beings along the river. No wonder that these places are especially revered; they are described in ancient texts and have become the centres of pilgrimages.

In 2011–2018 we visited the traditional sources of all four great rivers of Asia, originating in the region of Mt. Kailash1. We completed this pilgrimage route through a circular trip across all four sources of the great rivers. Most of the way we passed through territories hardly visited by travellers but these areas were often inhabited by nomads.

‘Traditional’, means that the Tibetans consider this place as the real source of the river (in the physical and energy sense) and perform special pilgrimages here. Usually, these sources do not coincide with the geographical sources of the rivers.

About the geographical sources of rivers

Although hydrography defines the source as “the location from where a stable watercourse starts, or a location marked with a constant flow of water in the riverbed”; in a river system with a large number of feeders the main source is seen as the most distant one from the mouth, or the most abundant. The sources of the most significant rivers are sometimes the locations with attributed specific or ancient traditions. There is another definition of the river sources suggested by Russian academician V.Polevanov: “…the source of the river is deemed to be the longest path that a drop of water can go to the mouth from the highest part of the formed riverbed of the longest tributary2.” With this interpretation, one of the most important components is added to the characteristics of the river, i.e.: the maximum height of the riverbed of the longest tributary. As such, this factor determines the maximum potential energy of the river system. In my opinion, this is a more accurate and logical definition of the geographical sources of rivers allowing for unambiguous identification of their locations. We will try to apply this approach to the sources of the four great rivers of Asia rising in the Kailash region.

In this study we present the results of our research on the sources of the Indus. It should be noted that the geographical sources of this river have not been clearly designated so far, and there are no respective descriptions in the available English literature.

Study of the origins of the Indus by foreign researchers

The Indus (Tibetan—Sengge Chu, ‘Lion River’), a major river in South Asia, originates in Tibet in the Trans-Himalaya. The river flows through Tibet, India and Pakistan and about 200 million people live in the area of its drainage basin. The source is located on the Tibetan Plateau and the mouth is in the north of the Arabian Sea, near the city of Karachi. The Indus, one of the oldest rivers in the world, and one of the greatest rivers in South Asia, has a total length of about 3600 km3. It is one of the most important irrigation sources in Pakistan. The river has a total drainage area of more than 1,165,000 square kms.

Mt Kailash

North face Mt Kailash

The estimated annual discharge of the river is about 207 cubic kms which makes it the 21st largest river in the world by this indicator.

Sven Hedin (1907), Swami Pravanananda (1937) and especially J.V. Bellezza (1986) (whose toponyms—which means a place name, especially one derived from a topographical feature—were used in this article) made a big contribution to the study of the sources of the rivers originating in the Kailash region.

The first European who studied the origins of the Indus was Swedish explorer Sven Hedin who visited these places in 1907. Sven Hedin’s route to the origins of the Indus began from the monastery of Drira Phuk opposite the north face of Kailash, and went through the Tseti la and along the riverbed of the Indus. The first confluence of rivers that he reached was the junction with the Lungdhep chu: he found that the river carried more water than the Senge Tsangpo, and he was inclined to consider it as the source of the Indus. But since this river was seen by the local Tibetans as a tributary, he accepted their point of view and continued to climb up the rocky riverbed. The volume of water in the next tributary, the Munjam, flowing into the Senge Tsangpo, was very small (one-third of a cubic metre), and Sven Hedin continued his climb to a particular source which the Tibetans called the source of the Senge-Tsangpo. The source is known as the Senge Kabab, ‘a Lion’s mouth’ and located at an altitude of 5155 m4.

Mt Kailash

Mt Kailash Mandala

According to Indian explorer Swami Pranavananda:

Among the other rivers in the headwaters of the Indus such as the Tsethi chu, the Lungdhep chu, the Munjan chu, and the Bokhar chu, the Lungdhep chu is the deepest and longest of all. I reached the source of the Indus through Lhe la and returned through Topchen la; therefore I did not see the Tsethi chu, but my guide said that the Lungdhep chu is bigger than the Tsethi chu. Those are followed in size by the Munjan and the Bokhar chu, both are almost of the same size; some shepherds considered the Bokhar to be bigger than the Munjan, but my guide said that the Munjan was bigger than the Bokhar, although I am not sure about that. Anyway, the Lungdhep chu is definitely the largest and the longest river, and its source in Topchen la should be considered as the source of the Indus judging by the volume of water and length. Statements of some authors in which they confirm that the Indus rises in the northern foot of Mt. Kailash are absolutely wrong5.

In 1993, the sources of the Indus were visited by J.V. Bellezza. In his opinion, taking into account the volume of water and its behaviour, each tributary is as significant as the others6.

A Chinese scientist, Lu Shaochuang, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, visited these sites in September 2010, but there are no details of his research in available English7.

Mt Kailash

Routes to the origins of the Indus

The typical hiking route to the origins of the Indus begins from the monastery of Drira Phuk which lies on the circumambulatory path around Mt Kailash. There are three routes from Drira-Phuk to the Senge Kabab: the first goes up along the Dunglung chu via Dunglung la (the longest of the three routes), the second path goes up along the Lha chu via Tseti and Tseti-Lachen la. And the third path, leading through Lhe la, is the shortest of all. The way through Topchen la is the closest and easiest for a return trip from the Senge Kabab to Darchen. Tibetan pilgrims heading to the Senge Kabab follow this path, thus making a circumambulation (kora) around Mt. Kailash by crossing the Drolma La. From Mt. Kailash, it is better to follow a circumambulation route to pay homage to the holy site. These routes take about a week.

It is possible to reach the Senge Kabab from Darchen by jeep using one of two ways. The shortest way (106 km), begins at the intersection of the G219 and S207 highways. From here, the road goes northwards along the Gyuma riverbed, through the Gyuma pass (5420 m) and a mountain lake (5360 m). The Gyuma pass is usually covered with snow until mid-June and is mostly impossible to cross. In addition, the route is very bad, there are lots of boulders. The second way is much longer. It goes around the Kailash range from the west and reaches the source of the Senge Kabab from the north (512 km). On this route the passes are not so high and they can be overcome even in May. It should be noted that one can also reach the source of the Senge Kabab from Yakra (105 km).

Satellite image

Fig. 1: Satellite image of the Mt. Kailash region and the routes to the sources of the Indus. The yellow pins show the hiking route Drira Phuk - Tseti La - Senge Kabab - Topchen La - Zutrul Phuk. The red line marks the jeep journey from Darchen through the Gyuma pass. The blue line is the jeep journey Darchen-Ali-Senge Kabab. The green line marks the jeep journey from Yakra

From Yakra, to the west, a picturesque high-mountain route with three passes (5279, 5376 and 5516 m) leads to the origins of the Indus. The last pass is one of the highest in Tibet. Even with the relatively warm weather, sometimes you have to negotiate the passes because of the large amount of snow and ice. The distance from Yakra to the traditional sources of the Indus, Senge Kabab, is 108 km.

The traditional source of the Senge Kabab

Next to the limestone outcrops, there are some ground springs. The water forms some weedy ponds and flows to the Bokhar chu as a small stream of 800 m. At some distance from the sources there are eight chortens and more than twenty cairns. A short time ago this sacred place was enclosed with a high fence with a padlock on the gate...

According to the Tibetans, the hills in the north represent a lion (Senge), the white hills in the west symbolize its tail; the rock near the source represents the lion’s ear, and the place where the springs come out of the ground symbolizes the lion’s mouth (Senge Kabab).

Results from the analysis of remote sensing data and field studies of the Indus sources

We analyzed high resolution satellite images of this region and then continued field studies of the sources of the Indus during our expeditions in 2012 and 2018.

The Indus has three of the longest tributaries: the Munjam, the Longdhep and the Bokhar which form the headwaters of the Indus. According to remote sensing data, the distance from the sources of the Munjam to the point of its confluence with the Longdhep is 43.5 km, the distance from the sources of the Bokhar is 44.3 km, and the length of the Longdhep is 35.5 km. Thus, the Munjam and Bokhar tributaries are almost equivalent, with a slight bigger length of the Bokhar tributary. The beginning of the formed riverbed of the Bokhar, Longdhep and Munjam rivers are at altitudes of 5507, 5455 and 5477 m, respectively. From the point of view used for the definition of the geographical source, the source of Bokhar (geographic coordinate: 31° 18.7’ N. lat., 81° 48.8’ E. long) can be seen as such, since it has the greatest length, and the source itself is at the greatest altitude. It should be noted that it is located 27 km to the south-east from the traditional source of the Indus and at the distance of 55 km from Mt. Kailash.

The Bokhar originates at the northern slope of the mountain (5602 m) which looks like a huge bell. The beginning of the formed riverbed is at an altitude of 5507 m. Some wild yaks were grazing in this place. We were at this place in a relatively dry period, so the water in the riverbed was a bit lower, at about 5464 m. There are some springs here. We climbed the bell-shaped mountain, followed by three wolves. On the southern spurs of this mountain there are two stupas and more than twenty groups of mani stones (stones with embossed texts and symbols), which is a bit strange for such a deserted place. Who would have moved dozens of tons of stone tablets to this place? When?

From the Senge Kabab the route goes west and at the confluence with the Munjan turns south. The closest way to Darchen goes through the Gyuma pass (5300 m), in front of which lies a mountain lake (5360 m) of the same name. The route passes on the eastern shore of the lake for about 12 km. Here we came across wild yaks and wolves but nomads come here quite rarely. Although it was a relatively warm summer, most of the lake was covered with ice.

One of the tributaries of the Indus, the Longdhep, originates west from the lake, at the northern glacier of a snow mountain (6030 m). The beginning of the formed riverbed is at an altitude of 5455 m (geographic coordinate: 31° 7.6’ N. lat, 81° 30.3’ E. long). The Indus tributary, Munjam, rises between the two mountain ranges about 5700 m high. The beginning of the formed riverbed is at an altitude of 5477 m (geographic coordinate: 31° 12.0’ N. lat, 81° 45.3’ E. long).

It is interesting to note that the elongated, sword-shaped Gyuma lake points exactly to these sources, the distance to which from the lake is about 6.6 km. And the distance between the sources of the Munjam and Bokhara is 25.3 km. Another significant characteristic is that the geographical sources of the Munjam and Londhep are on the same line with Kailash (the direction of a compass bearing of 70 degrees).

Thus, during this expedition, we explored the geographical and traditional sources of the Indus, the flora and fauna of this hard- to-reach area, and obtained further information about the sacral geography of the Kailash region.

This article provides information on the geographical and traditional sources of the Indus river obtained from satellite remote sensing data and during the expeditions to this region in 2011–2018.


  1. S. Yu. Balalaev. 2017. Sources of four great rivers of Asia: sacral and physical geography of the Mt Kailash region (Western Tibet). Russian Himalayan Research: past, present, future. Edited by L. J. Borkin. St. Petersburg (Russia): ‘Evropeisky Dom’, pp.123–128 (in Russian).
  2. Polevanov V.P. 2010. To the Origins of the Ob River in Divine Mountains. – Science and Life, Moscow, # 12, pages 114–119 (in Russian).
  3. Scientists pinpoint sources of 4 major int’l rivers environment/2011-08/23/content_23267904.htm
  4. Hedin S. 1913. Trans-Himalaya. Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet. Volume 3. New York and London: Macmillan, 536 p.
  5. Pranavananda S. 1950. Exploration in Tibet. Calcutta: University of Сalcutta, 302 p.
  6. Bellezza J. V. 1993. Quest for the Four Fountains of Tibet, Himalayan Magazine, Jan/Feb 1993, pp.41-44.
  7. Chinese Scientist Traces Origin of Indus River to Southwest China, t20150215_139932.shtml

About the Author

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 re- gion 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 2010 in Russian and English.

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