Arts Op-Ed: AIB Alum Records Final Prayers of Ancient Pilgrim Trail in Tibet, and Discovers Basic Facts of Life in the Process
“How long have pilgrims been traveling around Kailash, the holy mountain which serves as the religious center of the universe for billions of people? The answer is lost in antiquity, before the dawn of Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism.
The cosmologies and origin myths of each of these religions speak of Kailash as the mythical Mt. Meru, the Axis Mundi, the center and birthplace of the entire world. The mountain was already legendary before the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epics, were written. Indeed, Kailash is so deeply embedded in the myths of ancient Asia that perhaps it was a sacred place of another era, another civilization now long forgotten.” – adapted from Sacredsites.com
The trail around Mt. Kailash in western Tibet is the result of humans treading over the same ground going back to pre-history - a wearing away of the earth by millions of foot-falls on the land as pilgrims  circumambulate the mountain on their sacred quest. This year alone, over 60,000 pilgrims were anticipated to circle the mountain. I decided to join the pilgrimage as a way to allow the trail, a collaboration between humans and nature going back millennia, to create its own self-portrait.
Before the trip, friends and family kept asking how traveling in Tibet might influence my art-making, especially since I was going to such a spiritual place. My response was something along the lines of, "I'm sure it’ll show up in my work somehow down the road, but since I’ll have limited time and resources while I'm there, I'll have to carry out the project as I have it planned."
Well, I was only half right! The place was amazing, as I had expected; but I experienced a tragic-ness as well that found its way into the art.
Kailash, like the rest of Tibet, is in the midst of significant change as more and more people travel to the area. I had read of the possible upcoming development plans for the Kailash area (modern hotels, roads, maybe even an elevated tram), but I wasn’t prepared for how much of the outside world is already flourishing in this remote corner of the globe! Horse and yak drivers run their businesses around the mountain via cell-phone; an amazing, dug-in greenhouse is being built next to one of the guesthouses below Drirapuk Monastery to be able to grow their own vegetables at over 16,000 feet; and electric lights dot the remote valley below the north face of Kailash at night, replacing oil lamps that are so damaging to the lungs.
The tragic-ness I mention isn’t so much what is happening in Tibet, but more what I experienced inside myself. It’s about a loss of the romanticized idea I had of what Tibet should be, viewed next to the reality of Tibet in the 21st Century.
The ever-challenging questions of “What is progress?” and “Does progress always mean moving forward?” are front-and-center issues in Tibet, just listen to their hip hop music!
Until now, I have held to the image of Tibet battling to hold onto its traditions as the Chinese force change on the area. However, this way of thinking was quickly dismantled as I realized that not only are Tibetans embracing change, but there are also some very positive things being done (the greenhouse project, solar hot water systems, the electric lights replacing the lamps, new trail building, even the idea of a tram, which is appalling to me to me on principle, makes sense in that it would dramatically decrease the impact of humans on the land).
The journey to Tibet was over before I knew it, and I’ve been in Beijing for the past week at the Shangyuan Art Scene. During this time I’ve spent many a moment reflecting on my experiences in Tibet as I’ve been reviewing / editing video from the trip. As a result of this processing, the project has evolved… the place, and my experiences there, have re-shaped my thinking of the work. I’ve realized that the project was less about the trail creating its own self-portrait, and more about recording the prayers of the trail itself – its last wishes before the trail is completely resurfaced and replaced by a proper road.
As the video of the project shows, sections of the trail are already traveled by four-wheel drive trucks bringing supplies to the guesthouses and tea-tents that provide for the thousands of pilgrims circling the mountain each week (most of who are Tibetan); and other sections of the ancient trail have been rebuilt to make for safer travel and to help protect the fragile landscape. The old must give way to the new, and whether this change is good or bad is often more a position of perspective than one of absolute truth (even when nostalgia gives way to a sense of irretrievable loss).
Before leaving the States, I had re-worked the design of what has become known as the Mani Wheel to be able to put paper and different mark-making implements inside the cylinder (rocks and pieces of steel) just to see what would happen. These marks, made inside the tube, have become the record of the trail’s final prayers; while the marks made using graphite transfer paper on the outside of the tube allowed the trail to create its own self-portrait – an inner self and an outer self.
The Mani Wheel, when displayed with the accompanying video and text about the project, will be decorated to look more like a prayer wheel, while still retaining the look of a tool for paving the trail (the concepts of both such implements having influenced the design of the device, as well as the thinking behind the performative aspect of the project).
And the Mani Wheel itself will be made available for museum visitors to push around the exhibition space, allowing them to share the trail’s prayers with the world. Are these prayers for change, or for a preserving of tradition? That will be for each viewer to decide.
“The Mani Project – A Million Soles Paving the Way” will be shown as part of the upcoming 2014 International Artist Exhibition at the Shangyuan Art Museum, Beijing, China, October 1st-9th.
Aaron Lish is Artist-in-Residence at Shangyuan Art Museum, Beijing, China. He is a 2013 alumnus of the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University MFA Visual Arts Program.
 For Tibetans, pilgrimage refers to the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, from self-centeredness and materialistic preoccupations to a deep sense of the relativity and interconnectedness of all life