Croagh Patrick is one of many ‘sacred summits’ on the planet. Machupuchare, the magnificent ‘fish tail’ mountain of the Himalayas, is believed to be an abode of the Hindu god Shiva, while the remote Mount Kailas in eastern Tibet is a most sacred mountain to no less than four major creeds. Unlike the Reek, where a pilgrim’s objective is to reach the summit, the gatekeepers of many holy mountains dissuade the faithful from setting foot on the highest ground.
The Asian religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism (as well as the indigenous Bon of Tibet) all revere mighty peaks as places of power where masters have achieved spiritual realisation. When one sees these mountains firsthand, it is not hard to see why.
The Fishtail Mountain
My first glimpse of Machupuchare was on a crowded bus destined for the town of Pokhare in Nepal. For days since my arrival, the clouds had obscured the mountains and one was left to imagine whether or not the highest peaks in the world would ever materialise. Sitting crammed against a window, I noticed that a strong wind had started to bend the trees along a pretty suburban avenue. Just then, the clouds parted momentarily and I found myself gazing at a double summit, impossibly high above the town. I could clearly see the ‘fishtail’ that gives the mountain its name, and just as soon as it had appeared, almost five miles above my head, it vanished into the mists.
I visited Nepal on two other occasions, and saw the even higher peaks of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Everest itself, but nothing would ever eclipse that first glimpse of a most beautiful and unworldly object. It was no surprise to learn later that Machupuchare was ‘off limits’ to all climbing expeditions, and that no mere mortal was permitted to stand on its summit. The one who came closest to doing so is said to be the Englishman Wilfred Noyce, who in 1957 came within 150 feet of the summit before turning back. No one has been allowed on the mountain since, although there are rumours of illegal trespassers in more recent years (who later met untimely deaths, as is their fate).
The Abode of Many Deities
Kailas is the most sacred of all peaks in the Himalayas. Standing 6,638 metres (21,778 feet) high – small by Everest standards – it is still more than eight times higher than Croagh Patrick. Similar to Machupuchare, no one is allowed to scale Kailas. Instead pilgrims are expected to circumnavigate the entire mountain. This is a distance of 50 kilometres (32 miles), and takes place after many pilgrims have walked for days and even weeks to reach this isolated place.
Unlike Croagh Patrick, where the most devout pilgrim may climb the shale in bare feet, the pilgrim on Kailas bends down, kneels, prostrates full-length, makes a mark with his fingers, rises to his knees, prays, and then crawls forward on hands and knees to the mark made by his/her fingers before repeating the process for the entire fifty kilometres. It is said that Kailas “opens the mind to the cosmos around it, evoking a sense of infinite space that makes one aware of a vaster universe encompassing the limited world of ordinary experience”.
There are many other Himalayan peaks that inspire religious awe. The beautiful Nanda Devi in India, for example, is named for a Hindu Goddess, while Annapurna is the abode of the benevolent deity Parvati.
China’s Holy Peaks
Further east, in China, are four sacred summits of the Buddhist religion. When I visited that country first, it had just been opened to individual travellers. I was fortunate to get permission to ascend the highest of these peaks – Emei Shan – a three-thousand one hundred metres (10,167 feet) mountain in Sichuan Province. Like Croagh Patrick, this peak has a distinct ‘normal’ pilgrim’s pathway, but unlike the Reek, the entire trail has been diligently carved out of the rock.
It can take two days to scale Emei Shan. Monasteries situated on the trail and at the summit accommodate pilgrims, although today there is a cable car to facilitate the journey. These monasteries are believed to be the original training places of the Shaolin monks. At dawn, one is awoken by the sound of Buddhist drums and bells. Military style green coats are provided on the summit for warmth, as hundreds gather to witness the sun rise from the top of a mighty cliff. It is truly an awesome sight, as the mists rise from jade forests far below.
Too Many to Mention
There are many other ‘sacred summits’ on the planet. Here are a few of the others:
- Mount Ararat – alleged by some to be the site of Noah’s ark
- Mount Athos – also known as the Holy Mountain, Greece
- Mount Fuji – the most popular of Japan’s three sacred summits
- Mount Kinabalu – Known as “Aki Nabalu” which means “Revered Place of the Dead”
- Mauna Loa – an active volcano on Hawaii
- Machu Picchu – sacred to the Incas
- Mount Sinai – where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments
- Uluru – also known as Ayers Rock, Australia – sacred to the Aborigines
- Mount Vesuvius – thought by the Romans to be devoted to the demigod Hercules.
Of course, there are many more. Please share your stories of these places!