Kailas Histories

Renunciate Traditions and the Construction of Himalayan Sacred Geography


Tibet’s Mount Kailas is one of the world’s great pilgrimage centres, renowned as an ancient sacred site that embodies a universal sacrality. But Kailas Histories: Renunciate Traditions and the Construction of Himalayan Sacred Geography demonstrates that this understanding is a recent construction by British colonial, Hindu modernist, and New Age interests. Using multiple sources, including fieldwork, Alex McKay describes how the early Indic vision of a heavenly mountain named Kailas became identified with actual mountains. He emphasises renunciate agency in demonstrating how local beliefs were subsumed as Kailas developed within Hindu, Buddhist, and Bön traditions, how five mountains in the Indian Himalayan are also named Kailas, and how Kailas sacred geography constructions and a sacred Ganges source region were related.
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Biographical Note

Alex McKay, PhD (London University SOAS: South Asian History; 1995) has published around forty articles and monographs on Indo-Tibetan history, including The History of Tibet (3 vols: 2003). He is a retired SOAS, UCL, and IIAS (Leiden) Research Fellow.

Review Quote

'The book under review is a significant contribution to studies of trans-Himalayan pilgrimages and sacred places. Contrary to popular perceptions of an ancient history of mount Kailas, Alex McKay, however, unravels a rather recent history of the holy mountain that he argues evolved over the past hundred years or so.' Soumen Mukherjee, newbooks.asia 'In this formidable study, Alex McKay provides the first historical account of the development of Mt. Kailas as an iconic site of Himalayan religiosity (...) In historicizing the multiple genealogies that fed into the current construction of Kailas-Manasarovar as a sacred space, the book more than accomplishes its goals.The span of data, their analyses, and contextualisation are a feat of considerable importance, rendering it indispensible for those interested in the religions of South Asia, the Himalayas, and Tibet, as well as for scholars of sacred geography writ large. While the pervasive impact of modernity on the construction of Kailas as a site of timeless sanctity is clearly demonstrated, this interpretation relied on the staggering overlay of anterior conjunctions of divergent readings originating in multifarious cultural worlds in the Himalayan borderland. In this respect, McKay amply delivers on his initial qualification of Kailas as “a dynamic process as well as a place” (20), while reminding us of the very human agency and motivations of those involved in the construction of sanctified spaces in the Himalayas and beyond.' Arik Moran, University of Haifa, Israel, Asian Ethnology 75/2 (2016) ' Kailas Histories is, overall, an indispensable guide to the many texts and traditions that have shaped sacred Himalayan geographies over time.' Kyle Gardner, University of Chicago, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 79 (3/2016)


For all students and scholars of Indo-Tibetan religion and history - ancient and modern – and those interested in pilgrimage, renunciation, sacred geography and the European colonial encounter with Asia.