Throughout Asia, stories exist of a great mountain, the navel of the world, from which flow four great rivers that give life to the areas they pass through. The myth originates in the Hindu epics, which speak of Mt Meru – home of the gods – as a vast column 84,000 leagues high, its summit kissing the heavens and its flanks composed of gold, crystal, ruby and lapis lazuli. These Hindu accounts placed Mt Meru somewhere in the towering Himalaya but, with time, Meru increasingly came to be associated specifically with Mt Kailash. The confluence of the myth and the mountain is no coincidence. No-one has been to the summit to confirm whether the gods reside there (although some have come close), but Mt Kailash does indeed lie at the centre of an area that is the key to the drainage system of the Tibetan plateau. Four of the great rivers of the Indian subcontinent originate here: the Karnali, which feeds into the Ganges (south); Indus (north); Sutlej (west); and Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo; east).

Mt Kailash, at 6714m, is not the mightiest of the mountains in the region, but with its distinctive shape – like the handle of a millstone, according to Tibetans – and its year-round snow-capped peak, it stands apart from the pack. Its four sheer walls match the cardinal points of the compass, and its southern face is famously marked by a long vertical cleft punctuated halfway down by a horizontal line of rock strata. This scarring resembles a swastika – a Buddhist symbol of spiritual strength – and is a feature that has contributed to Mt Kailash’s mythical status. Kailash is actually not part of the Himalaya but rather the Kangri Tise (Gangdise) range.

Mt Kailash has long been an object of worship. For Hindus, it is the domain of Shiva, the Destroyer and Transformer, and his consort Parvati. To the Buddhist faithful, Mt Kailash is the abode of Demchok (Sanskrit: Samvara) and Dorje Phagmo. The Jains of India also revere the mountain as the site where the first of their tirthankara (saints) entered nirvana. And in the ancient Bön religion of Tibet, Mt Kailash was the sacred Yungdrung Gutseg (Nine-Stacked-Swastika Mountain) upon which Bönpo founder Shenrab alighted from heaven.

Numerous Western explorers wanted to summit the mountain in the early 20th century but oddly ran out of time on each occasion. Reinhold Messner gained permission to scale the peak in the 1980s, but he abandoned his expedition in deference to the peak’s sanctity when he got to the mountain. In May 2001 Spanish climbers reportedly also gained permission to climb the peak, only to abandon their attempt in the face of international protests. Since then the government has maintained that the mountain is off limits to climbers.