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#73: PILGRIMAGES: COMPOSTELA, KAILASH. A Medieval Irish verse mocks the very idea of pilgrimage: if you do not carry a sense of the sacred within you, what makes you think you’re going to find it in Rome? Very early on the pilgrimage was derided as glorified tourism—Chaucer’s pilgrims spend most of their time telling each other rude stories, and the spiritual rent on the road to Canterbury is paid largely in lip service—and then, even as now, there was a cash cow tethered in every sacred field. But that’s the world, which it is our business to ignore. Surely the appeal of the pilgrimage—to set aside the dusty grip of self, family and career and to feel the manna of going and being someplace the sacred happened, and might still be happening—is obvious and honorable enough. In the northwest corner of Spain in the ninth century, a star guided a peasant to discover the believed relics of St. James, the site of which became, after Rome, the most heavily visited of the medieval pilgrimage sites—St. James of the Field of the Star, or Santiago de Compostela. Eventually, three major routes from Tours, Vezelay and Le Puy in France converged at Roncesvalles in Spain, the site of the climactic battle in the Chanson de Roland; a fourth route from Arles hooked up at Puente La Reina. The route crossed the north of Spain, through Burgos and Leon, into the Celtic region of Galicia and to Santiago, past tiny villages where residents still call out greetings and blessings to pilgrims on their way. The daily noontide mass at Compostela, censed by a famous, enormous and dangerously mobile silver botafumeiro, are in a church dedicated to Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor-Killer, the spiritual figure of the Reconquista; but the atmosphere there and on the trail has no odor of the church militant. Rather it seems the culmination of the sharp air of the Cantabrian mountains, the hallucinatory challenges of the Meseta, the rain-greened hills of Galicia, and the camaraderie and hospitality of the trail itself. The plateresque façade of the church of Santiago, swathed in mist, reduces many footsore pilgrims to tears; it is surely one of the glorious sights of Europe.

The literature of Santiago is plentiful, as is the literature of medieval pilgrimage. Detailed and handsomely illustrated, Millan Bravo Lozeno’s Practical Guide for Pilgrims: The Route to Santiago (Madrid, Everest, n.d.) is a terrific book both for travel and reminiscing. Of the personal accounts, my favorite is Conrad Rudolph’s Pilrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela (University of Chicago, 2004). Probably the nicest picture book I’ve seen is The Roads to Santiago: The Medieval Pilgrim Routes Through France and Spain to Santiago de Compostella (London, Frances Lincoln, 2008). If you’re going to brave The Song of Roland, Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation was the one that got me through it. The earliest work on the route, the famous twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostella, has been ably translated and annotated by William Melczer and published by Ithaca Press (1993). It’s of historic interest rather than practical or literary; it’s not practically helpful and it’s not much of a read, and one of the reasons it’s always been ascribed to a Frenchman is because it’s so unrelentingly nasty about the Spanish, down to leering remarks about the sexual habits of the Navarrese. It’s not, I’m afraid, one of the great medieval texts, but Melczer’s edition has a great introduction, excellent notes and a biographical register; I can’t imagine his work being superseded. For history and aids to preparation, there are almost innumerable websites and blogs: the Confraternity of Saint James in England has a good one (, as does American Pilgrims on the Camino (

A different pilrimage, a very different terrain, a very different book. In the western fastnesses of Tibet, Mount Kailash is considered sacred by both Buddhists and Hindus. The point is not to climb it: it takes us Westerners a long time to realize that for Tibetans climbing a holy peak is a desecrating and ludicrous egotism, rather worse than a poodle pissing on a great Sequoia. The pilgrimage is to do the several-day clockwise trek around the base, and on the north face of the mountain, Robert Thurman’s teacher told him, is a site of enormous spiritual power, where “one can plant one’s deepest wish for the world, and all the Buddhas and gods and dakini-angels would see to its accomplishment.” Circling the Sacred Mountain (Bantam, 1999) is the story of a trek to Kailash and to the neighboring holy lake, Manasrovar, told in two voices. One part of the text is the dharma talks by Robert Thurman in his role as longtime student/master of the Vajrayana. This is Tibetan kamikaze Buddhism, going at the preoccupations of the ego with a diamond-point drill, and the talks have the special vernacular efficacy of being from someone who speaks English as a first and very lively language. The narration proper is by Tad Wise, Thurman’s student/friend and the trek’s resident groundling. His tone is the candid amusement of one too well familiar with his addictions—wine, women, song, and in one case a round of billiards. Beneath that is clearly a hope of breaking the shackles these addictions have become—of receiving a crack in the skeptic, materialist viewpoint, which seems to be the special, even unique promise and gift of Tibet. From these two voices we triangulate the presence of Kailash—we circle around it, as they do. Thurman’s wish was to plant a prayer not just for the freedom of Tibet but for the releasing of its spiritual vision into “a world that has very nearly blown it.” Circling the Sacred Mountain is not so much armchair travel as a contagion of that hope: like those hidden Tibetan treasure texts, a thought-pilgrimage of its own.

For more on Kailash, the best book I’ve run across is The Sacred Mountain of Tibet: On Pilgrimage to Kailas (Park Street Press) with a solid and graceful text by Kerry Moran and, in the photographs by Russell Johnson, some of the most evocative images of Tibet I’ve seen. Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in Tibet (Harper, 2011) is a grave and moving account of his trek to Kailash; he expresses, more by indirection and tone than by effusion, the spirit of so demanding a voyage as well as any writer I know of. And read Pico Iyer’s essay “On the Ropebridge,” in his collection Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign (Vintage, 2004), which eloquently expresses the fascination and challenge of Tibet and its culture.


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