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Manasarovar, Tibet

Also known as: Mapam Yumco, Manasa Sarovar, Lake Manas, Manasarovar Lake

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One of the most revered lakes on the Tibetan Plateau is Manasarovar Lake. Also called Mapam Yumco (in Tibetan) or Manasa Sarovar, this remote lake is considered sacred by at least three major religions in Asia. One of the five holy lakes of the Indian Panch-Sarovar, Manasarovar is difficult to get to without several days of rough transportation over marginal roads. That doesn't keep the faithful of Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism from coming here on holy pilgrimage to seek the blessings of their chosen deities. The lake is located in Tibet Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China. This sacred place was not accessible to the faithful of India for more than 30 years due to border issues, but since border security has been relaxed by the Chinese government, holy tours arrive here regularly by the busload. Some tour agencies also provide transportation via helicopter. The pilgrimages are so popular that arrangements are made by the Indian government, and space must be reserved well in advance.

Devout Buddhists associate Manasarovar with the legendary lake known as Anavatapta in Sanskrit and Anotatta in Pali, where Queen Maya is believed to have conceived Buddha. Several other myths related to Buddha are associated with the lake. In the past, eight Buddhist gompas (prayer/meditation halls) ringed the lake.

The Hindu believe the lake to have first been created in the mind of Brahma after which it was manifested on earth in this place. The name Manasarovar is a combination of the words manas (mind) and sarovara (lake). When Mahatma Gandhi died, some of his ashes were brought here and scattered on the lake. In Jainism, the faithful associate the lake with first Tirthankar Lord Shree Rishabhdev. And all three faiths associate the nearby Mount Kailash with their deities and ascribe sacred powers to the mountain. At 21,778 feet, Mount Kailash quickly imposes its presence on all lake visitors. These religions revere the area, in part, because four of Asia's longest rivers (Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Karnali-largest tributary to the Ganges) all have their headwaters within 30 miles of the mountain. The significance of this location as the source of their precious life-sustaining waters was not lost on ancient people and thus was incorporated into their religious mythology. Each religion has its own rituals which are performed upon reaching the rocky and barren shoreline.

Buddhists often pay homage at several monasteries located on the shore, particularly the ancient Chiu Gompa, built on a steep hill. Formerly, there were eight gompas located around the lake symbolizing the Wheel of Life, with the center of the lake as the hub. The devout circled the lake, stopping to pay homage at each gompa, which represented the spokes of the sacred wheel. The lake's perimeter is 54 miles, so this journey took several days to complete. The journey is still completed by the faithful who bring tents to camp along the shore.

Hindus who drink the waters and bathe in the lake believe their ascent into Lord Shiva's heaven is assured. Hindu myth talks of a giant jambu tree growing in the middle of the lake that drops fruit to feed a sacred serpent, and that some of the fruit falls to the bottom of the lake and turns to gold. Its is interesting to note that gold mining did occur for a while near the Chiu Gompa at the northwest corner of the lake. When smallpox broke out among the miners, the mining was stopped.

The land around Manasarovar is quite barren, windswept with only low brush growing. The lake is important to those who live in the area as a source of water for themselves and their cattle and for fishing. They also hunt in the alpine meadows around the lake. A short distance to the west another lake, Lake Rakshas Tal, has far less religious significance but is still an important source of sustenance for the hardy Tibetan people who live here.

These high-altitude lakes on the arid plateau draw the attention of scientists. More study is scheduled as the Chinese become more accepting of outside scientific study. Manasarovar is located at 15,060 feet, a difficult altitude for tourists to handle under strenuous exercise. Altitude sickness is often a problem. It is also very cold in winter and over 500 miles from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. Only hardy adventurers come here, and even the devout try to make the trek when they are young and in good health. Decent lodgings are located at least a hundred miles away, so camping is the only option for visiting. Even the trip by jeep from Lhasa can take several days over rough roads.

Once visitors arrive, however, they are thoroughly enchanted with the deep lake. The water changes color, with deep blue around the shore and emerald green toward the center. Migrating birds stop here, and an important marsh area offers breeding space for a variety of them, including the bar-headed goose and the brown-headed gull. The marsh areas are listed as a RAMSAR wetlands of importance, and they hope to study them more carefully in the future. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind and should be treated with all respect due religious objects. Fishing is apparently allowed in the lake, but no one has bothered to record what species will be found there. Respectful visitors are usually welcomed at the monasteries, and the ancient Chiu Gompa is sure to be a camera-pleaser. Most visitors come with a tour group and guide who will instruct tourists on proper etiquette at the monasteries.

If you ever get the chance to see Manasarovar, you will begin to understand why so many myths and religious customs revolve around the beautiful lake with Mount Kailash's snow-covered peak gleaming to the north. Come prepared for rough camping conditions and no outside amenities. Manasarovar deserves your respect, and you will come to respect the devout and determined people who visit here to pay homage to their gods. It's easy to believe their deities are close to earth here.

*Some sources list the surface area of the lake as 76,800 acres, others as 102,400 acres. We have listed the larger of the two but find no reliable official statistics to support either.


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