The Sacred Peaks of the Himalayas

The Himalayas are not only the world’s most extraordinary mountain range, but they are also home to hundreds of peaks considered holy. Two well-known religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) and a myriad of local religions (such as Jainism, Sikhism, and Tibet’s Bon) consider certain Himalayan peaks as crucial to their beliefs.

There is no way to touch on all the holy mountains of the Himalayas, but here are a few of them, including some that restrict climbing in acknowledgment of the central role they play in the region’s culture.

Mount Kailash is one of the world’s most sacred places, important to a number of religions. It is located in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China with an elevation of 6,638 meters (21,778 feet) and is the source of the Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers. For Hindus, it is the abode of Lord Shiva, one of the three gods of the holy triumvirate. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the Wheel of Bliss. The founder of Jainism is believed to have achieved nirvana on its summit.

Although climbing Mount Kailash is forbidden, a path around the mountain — the kora — is an extremely important pilgrimage in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The typical pilgrim will take five days — while limiting food and water — to follow the 51-kilometer (32-mile) path that circles the mountain.

Located in Nepal, the 6,993-meter (22,943-foot) Mount Machapuchare is the “fish tail.” Its unique double peaks are the source of its name and it dominates the lower-altitude area that surrounds it, serving as the entry to the remote Annapurna Sanctuary. Hindus believe it is the home of Lord Shiva and legend has it that the snow squalls that wrap the mountain are his incense. Its summit has never been reached, though a British climbing party came close in 1957, but respected the wishes of the king of Nepal and did not cover the last 150 feet to the summit so as not to step on sacred ground.

At 7,816 meters (25,643 feet), India’s Nanda Devi is the “Bliss-Giving Goddess.” Surrounded by other mountains of over 6,000 meters in the Garhwal region, it is believed to be the home of the goddesses Nanda and Sunanda. It is within the Nanda Devi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the steepest peaks in the world.

In India’s Uttarakhand region is Mount Nilkantha, measuring 6,596 meters (21,640 feet). Its two glaciers, Satopanth and Panpatia, feed the Khirao Ganga River. In Hindu legend, the mountain was created when Lord Shiva became angry with a worshipper who traveled between two temples regularly. Shiva took offense and stood to block his path, creating a mountain where none had been before.

Finally, Bhutan’s 7,570-meter (24,836-foot) Gangkhar Puensum is believed by the local population to be where their ancestors reside in the afterlife. It is widely believed that Gangkhar Puensum is the highest unclimbed peak in the world — it’s the world’s 40th highest peak — and will remain so since Bhutan has banned climbing due to its religious importance.

These are only a few of the holy mountains of the Himalayas. Any time spent in any part of the Himalayas will mean encountering mountains of religious and cultural significance.