Kailash: Abode of the Gods.
Held sacred by four religions (Bon, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism), this 6, 675 metre peak in the Transhimalayan region of western Tibet is the fountain of life for much of Asia’s population. The Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Karnali (a major Ganges tributary) all arise nearby.
The mountain is the result of an earlier phase of the continental collision, during which an arc of volcanoes formed at the edge of the Lhasa terrane of Tibet as the oceanic crust was subducting beneath Eurasia, bringing India along for the ride. They were eroded, and Kailash is made of these remnants. The rocks are a tough Paleocene conglomerate cemented by silica, in which rounded to sub-angular chunks of lava (mostly andesite, the subduction rock par excellence, with some clasts of rhyolite and obsidian). They are defined as a form of molasse, rocks eroded during the rapid early uplift of the Himalaya. As the rainfall increased due to the rising mountains forcing moist air upwards into its condensation zone, the lavas were eroded into this pudding stone.
Kailash lies on the Yarlang-Tsangpo suture, a thrust fault line that marks where the Eocene continents met, with a series of ophiolite sequences (pieces of oceanic crust shoved up onto the continent) and metamorphosed sedimentary rocks nearby. The conglomerate itself was uplifted by the compression, remaining unmetamorphosed with its bedding planes are still horizontal. These, combined with the vertical joints in the rock create a swastika outlined in snow and rock (which is a symbol of purity in all the religions that hold Kailas sacred, sadly much demeaned in more recent history).
Tibetan Buddhists know the pyramidal peak as Kang Rinpoche (Precious Snow), while to the Jains it is Ashtapada. Both Padhmasambhave, the tantric Rinpoche who brough Buddhism to Tibet and the first Jain Tirthankar are held to have reached enlightenment here. Hindus believe it is both the abode of lord Shiva (the god of creation and destruction who sits atop with his wife Parvati in eternal meditation) as well as a physical representation of Mount Meru, the world pillar that keeps the universe going. The local Tibetan Bonpo religion call it the Nine Story Swastika Mountain. All these religions hold Kailash to be the centre of the revealed world.
The peak is unglaciated, as the snow avalanches off the steep sides and melts below, contributing to the sacred rivers that arise in the area. Under its snowy dusting it shines as the only white mountain in a barren desertic region, caught in the rain shadow of the first main range of Himalaya. It has never been climbed, though millions of pilgrims have circumnambulated it for merit and a happy rebirth over the millennia, some prostrating themselves with each step on the way round over the 50km trek. Reinhold Meissner, a star of mountaineering, refused an opportunity to climb the peak offered by the Chinese government.
Kailash is a place where the geological and the mystical meet, revered since a time long lost in the mists of antiquity. Marking the death of an ocean and the rebirth of its rocks as a mountain chain, its geological meaning is perhaps not so distant from its mystical one.
Image credit: Sunciti Sundaram
geological map: http://easd.geosc.uh.edu/murphy/pdf/maps/mt_kailas_gurla.pdf