Pilgrims’ distressIt’s time to take urgent lessons from the deaths along the Mansarovar route
Mount Kailash in Tibet has for centuries been regarded as one of the holiest sites for the Hindus. And though it has been considered a major pilgrimage site for people across the Indian subcontinent for centuries, it is only in recent decades that very large numbers of Indians have started visiting the site. This has to do with the development of the tourist industry in Tibet and in Nepal, as well as the growth of the Indian middle class who are travelling far and wide.
The Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage has emerged as a major component of Nepal’s tourism industry in recent years. Typically, Indian pilgrims fly to Simikot in Humla district from Nepalgunj, and then travel across the border to Kailash on land.
This year, major problems have surfaced along this route. Heavy rains over the past few days have affected flights between the mountainous Simikot and Nepalgunj, the hub in the flat plains of the western Tarai. As a result, on Monday, around 1500 pilgrims were said to have been stranded in Simikot and across the border in Tibet. Two Indian pilgrims died over the past few days.
The causes, it appears, have to do with health complications arising from high altitude; after all, on short tours like these, many of the pilgrims from the low-lying plains don’t get to acclimatise to high-altitude conditions. This recent turn of events has been reported widely in the Indian media and the Indian Ministry for External Affairs has asked the Nepal government to take steps to help the stranded pilgrims and ensure their return to Nepalgunj. Thankfully, the weather has cleared up somewhat since Tuesday, and airline companies have been busy transporting pilgrims to Nepalgunj. Health posts have been set up to assist pilgrims. It is to be hoped that the situation will return to normalcy within a few days.
Still, these incidents along the Kailash-Mansarovar route have revealed that there are in fact significant problems that need to be rectified, both by the Nepal government and the tour operators—both in Nepal and India. Of course, given the extreme altitude and remoteness of the location, the journey will never become very easy. However, there are problems having to do with accommodation and transport that can be improved. It does appear that the infrastructure so far is not able to accommodate high numbers of pilgrims. In particular, there appears to be a lack of health facilities.
An expansion of overall facilities is of acute importance, especially since many pilgrims are elderly and easily afflicted by high-altitude ailments. Furthermore, Nepal government should also think about regulating the route so as to avoid overcrowding. The Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage mostly takes place between May and September. These are also the months of monsoon, and it is well known that the monsoon can disrupt flights in Nepal’s hill and mountain airports. The authorities could use weather forecasting reports to determine how many pilgrims should be allowed on the pilgrimage at any given time. Unless facilities are expanded and the necessary regulations imposed, the problems on the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage will continue for many years to come. If the problems in the route the past few days have quickly eased, it is because the weather has improved. It’d be unwise to assume that the weather-God will always be so kind.