Khawa Karpo, in China’s Yunnan region, is one of the most sacred mountains for Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual home of a warrior god of the same name. It is visited by 20,000 pilgrims each year from throughout the Tibetan world. Many pilgrims circumambulate the peak, an arduous 240 km (150 mi) trek as part of their religious tradition. Although it is important throughout Tibetan Buddhism, it is the local Tibetans that are the day-to-day guardians and stewards of Khawa Karpo, of both its deity and the mountain itself.
The ancestral religion of the Khawa Karpo area, as in much of Tibet, was Bon, a shamanistic tradition based on the concept of a world pervaded by good and evil spirits. Bon encompassed numerous deities and spirits which are still recognized today, and are often connected with specific geographical localities and natural features. The major mountain peaks in this Hengduan range are thus all identified with specific deities. Khawa Karpo is one of these. Since its introduction, Tibetan Buddhism has been the dominant religion of the Khawa Karpo area, with followers of the Gelugpa doctrine being the most common. Tibetans believe the warrior god will leave them if humans set foot on the peak of Khawa Karpo, making the ground unholy, and that disasters would follow as they lose the God’s protection.
Our expedition to Khawa Karpo was a rigorous one, and we were among the few Westerners to have visited the region since the botanist, Joseph Rock, first arrived in 1922. The Yunnan region is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, and is where the three great rivers of Asia, the Mekong, Yangtze, and Salween, flow roughly in parallel for 300 km before branching off to their respective deltas south of Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam, Shanghai in China, and Moulmien, in Burma.