Skip to content
Home » Features » Cartography of Prayers: Pemako

Cartography of Prayers: Pemako

[This story first appeared in Alpinist 54 as part of a series titled “A History of Imaginary Mountains.” On November 3, the author received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Piolets d’Or-Asia ceremony held in Seoul, Korea. At age 72, Harish Kapadia is the first Indian to receive the award. Kapadia has also received the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society; the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award; the King Albert I Mountain Award; and the Indian Mountaineering Federation President’s Gold Medal, among others.–Ed.]

For centuries, Buddhist legends described a mountain of crystal surrounded by green valleys, part of Pemako, one of the beyul (hidden lands) of the Himalaya. In 1913, as British Lieutenant F.M. Bailey and Captain H.T. Morshead explored the Dibang Valley, they encountered a group of Tibetans seeking the entrance to this secret paradise. After strife with the indigenous Mishmi people, most of the Tibetans returned home, but the longing for Pemako persisted.

To Westerners, the story of the place became akin to that of Shangri-La, the imaginary utopia in the novel Lost Horizon. For Tibetans, the beyul of Pemako offered the hope of sanctuary in times of war. In 1959, when the Chinese Army subjugated Tibet, thousands of refugees reinitiated the search. The lama Kangyur Rinpoche left an account of passing through a waterfall into a valley ringed by icy peaks. Many believed he’d discovered Pemako’s inmost secret realm. Although his disciples couldn’t follow him through the portal, they settled in Tuting. A 5735-meter, snow-draped summit became associated with the legend of the crystal mountain, now named Takpa Siri.

TODAY, THE REGION CALLED PEMAKO stretches between the southern borderlands of Tibet and the Yang Sang Chu Valley of India. Originating near Mt. Kailash, the river Tsangpo flows close to Takpa Siri and enters India near the Kundu Potrang (Gathering Place of Gods). Over a 150-mile stretch, the current drops more than 8,000 feet. Waterfalls plunge in shivers of light. When you cross over the long wire bridge from Tuting, you reach a quiet valley of soft grasslands fading into thick forests. At first glance, to an outsider, this place seems no different than others. But a journey here is more of a spiritual endeavor than a geographic survey.

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

I was born in Mumbai, India. Like many mountaineers, in my youth I thought of climbing mainly as a physical expression. Later, as I visited scarcely mapped ranges, I became motivated by intellectual curiosity. By my sixties, I sought a more spiritual approach–to appreciate the unfolding beauty on an interior level. In 2009, having explored the “S” Bend of the Tsango, I ventured farther into Pemako to combine all three stages of my life: the climber, the explorer, and perhaps the reluctant pilgrim. Deep within, I was aware of mountains as divine manifestations, but I still longed to climb their geographic features, to go, as the poet James Elroy Flecker wrote, “Always a little further; it may be / Beyond that last blue mountain, barred with snow.”

An ancient trail leads to the curve in the river where the Devekota monastery sits on a hill. A solitary lama greeted my group. Under the full moon, we circumambulated the temple. Despite his age, the lama walked briskly, pausing to show us a water source with curative powers. The next day, my companions and I approached the sacred peak of Pema Siri, a station on the kora. Despite an overgrown trail, devotees find their way using a “prayer map,” following the directions of scriptures and concentrating on reaching the depths of their inmost selves.

Although I clung to a paper map, I felt increasingly conscious of a pervading divinity. On the second morning, as we traversed a ridge, the early sunlight cast our shadows onto the damp mist with colorful rainbows around the edges. This rare phenomenon, Mundama, represents the projection of souls in space. If a wind moves the clouds toward you, it simulates the merging of the shadow and self, like the union of the body and soul.

Near Singa, I later met a Tibetan yogi who had just completed his own pilgrim- age. “You have travelled wide and for many years,” he said to me. “What preparations are you now making, to meet your creator in a few decades?”

I was speechless and confused.

The yogi spoke slowly, “Maybe this was the reason why you were called to visit Pemako.”

–Harish Kapadia

Harish Kapadia with his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Piolets d'Or-Asia in Seoul, Korea, on November 3. [Photo] Harish Kapadia collection

Harish Kapadia poses with his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Piolets d’Or-Asia in Seoul, Korea, on November 3. Since his first visit to the Himalaya in 1962, he has been to the range “every year to trek and climb.” In his acceptance speech, he said, “In the past, it was difficult to organize and even find information–no equipment or maps were available, and [there were] very few willing friends to go climbing with [me]. As a rule since my younger days, I never liked to visit the same area again. This allowed me to cover the entire length and breadth of this vast range, going to different valleys every year. Climbing different mountains and peaks around 6500-meters high was a choice. From about 35 peaks that I have climbed, I have always looked into the surrounding valleys from the top and photographed many mountains….” Kapadia maintained detailed notes of his explorations, resulting in many books, and he edited the Himalayan Journal for 35 years. “I have been on many joint expeditions with people from other nationalities,” he said in his speech. “It was always a great learning experience. Language was never a barrier as mountaineers speak language of the mountains….” [Photo] Harish Kapadia collection

This story first appeared in Alpinist 54 as part of a series titled “A History of Imaginary Mountains.”