INDIAN mythology and the Himalaya are interwoven because both Hinduism and Buddhism deeply revere this mountain range. Himalaya means ‘abode of snow’, and is imagined as the land of Shiva, a powerful deity in the Hindu religious pantheon who embodies the aspect of the destroyer in the trinity – Brahma, Vishu, Shiva. It is believed that Shiva resides in Mount Kailash in Tibet. The Buddhist yogi, Milarepa, meditated in a cave in this mountain to attain enlightenment.
Another mythological event that is deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche is the act of Bhagiratha praying for thousands of years to expiate the sins of sixty thousand of his relatives who had perished under the curse of a great sage that they had wronged. Ganga, residing in heaven was unwilling to descend to earth. Ordered by Brahma, Ganga was compelled to descend to earth on the ‘jata’, the matted dreadlocks, of Shiva’s head. This aspect of the birth of the river that was earlier called Bhagirathi, then became Ganga. The river flows across 2500 kilometres to eventually enter the Bay of Bengal. Iconic pilgrimage centres, from times immemorial, like Hardwar and Banaras, sit on the banks of the Ganga along its course.
Blocking the monsoon winds brings precipitation to vast parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Equally, the melting glaciers in the Himalaya feed into the Indus and Ganga basins, providing water to perennial rivers. That was the basis of the prosperity along the course of rivers since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. The Himalaya shapes the destiny of India and is a natural barrier that has to be confronted by invading armies. It formed a natural barrier between mainland China and the East Asian countries. The Turks and Persians invaded the subcontinent by coming through the narrow Khyber Pass to conquer Delhi. There were other passes across this mountain range that established the Spice and Silk Routes. However, these passages were open only for short periods during the summer. In winter, heavy snowfall literally cut-off India from the world.
Before the drawing of national boundaries, borders were porous, and people moved across these mountain ranges and pastures with their livestock; for trade and communication; for socio-cultural exchanges that led to the rooting of multicultural values. The disruption of this seamless movement began in the latter part of the 20th century as colonial powers started drawing boundaries to meet the economic aspirations of the British Empire. In the postcolonial period, the concept of national boundaries across the Himalaya increasingly became rigid as territorial integrity became more important for India and China which resulted in assertions to claim their territories.
Travelling across the Himalaya reveals an astonishing diversity in topography and the natural habitat, ranging from the cold dry semi-desert of Ladakh and Lahaul-Spiti in the west, to Arunachal in the east with its high precipitation for the better part of the year nurturing the unique tropical forests. At the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar one experiences a rare view of the vast tropical forests merging with high snow-clad Himalayan peaks. Similarly, the religious, cultural and language diversity is like no other in the world.
From Mount Kailas to Mansarovar in Tibet, from the Amarnath Cave in Kashmir to the four ‘dhams’, or pilgrimage centres, of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, are all an intrinsic part of the Hindu psyche, attracting those seeking knowledge and spirituality. They have come over millennia to this snow-clad region to meditate in pristine solitude. Traditionally, devout pilgrims would follow the pastoral route and trek through these remote areas, bracing the harsh realities of life, seeking spiritual exposure along the way. For centuries men, women and children have walked these routes, enduring the many hardships. The journey encompassed a spirituality but was also a time to reflect on the wonders of nature, become one with the environment and therefore with oneself, all with a sense of reverence and gratitude towards the local people who extended their hospitality in the land of the Gods, ‘daiva bhoomi’.
Roads and modern transport transformed the pilgrim into being a ‘tourist’. Mass tourism has rampaged across this fragile region, converting spiritual spaces into commercial ventures, hijacked by the fake god-men devoid of any reverence for the mighty Himalaya. Arduous trekking has been replaced by private transport. Some who cannot complete the walk are carried on the backs of porters to reach the sanctum and earn their ‘punya’.
I have walked, on foot, to all these pilgrimage centres during my youth. The journeys were magical as I crossed the great Himalayan range and entered the Tibetan plateau. The crest line where I entered was the Lipu Lekh pass, leaving behind the snow-clad peaks. It was surreal, as the clouds dissolved into thin air, and on the other side the plateau, with luminous colours streaked under a deep blue sky, the sunlit, snow covered slopes, blinded me with their radiance. The purple hues of the mountains etched against the clear sky, transports one beyond the self, and a profound feeling of space and the cosmos unfolds. This extraordinary reality cannot be experienced or absorbed if one drives by car or chopper into the area.
My first exposure to the Kashmir Valley was in late seventies, when it was still zannat, heaven on earth, with an unspoilt landscape, snow-clad peaks, gushing rivers and sparkling springs. Hiking to Amaranth with the help of shepherds, the Bakarwals, staying with them in their tents, eating fresh milk produce from their livestock, was a lifetimes experience. Travelling beyond to Kargil, crossing the Zojila Pass perched on a petrol tanker, was a thrilling adventure for the spirit. The bare and rugged mountains with their diverse colours, the deep valleys, and then onto Leh, at a time when there were few travellers and the facilities were sparse to say the least, was memorable. I travelled to Hemis and to other gompas that hosted the various seasonal festivals.
At the time, there were no tensions across the border with China and the army was beginning to setup camp in the area. I returned to the valley four decades later in 2021 to visit zannat again. The ‘haven’ had literally been turned into ‘hell’. I could barely recognize the Srinagar of my first visit to the city. Barbed wire and military convoys were at every corner. It looked like a war zone. Exiting the airport was like leaving a military fortress. There were security personnel standing with machine guns at short intervals. Despite that, there were hordes of tourists coming to the valley for short vacations, without any understanding of the ground realities. They were there to savour the beauty of the Kashmir Valley.
The Chipko movement that originated in the Himalaya, galvanized environmental consciousness across the country and was internationally acclaimed as a grassroots, people’s movement, working to claim equitable rights over natural resources and also set an agenda to conserve and preserve the ecology of the fragile Himalaya. It raised a strong voice against the massive, unthinking technological interventions of road and dam projects.
Though it was initially a movement against the allocation of trees for industrial use, to claim rights over resources, it gradually realized the futility of the exploitative nature of forestry, even by local communities, and eventually put forth the ecological position that propagated the conservation of the soil, water and air, defined as the capital of humankind. This evolution from the economy to ecology remains the core strength of the movement that learned from the grassroots. The Chipko struggle was led by the women of the villages.
Though the moratorium on felling of green trees above 1000 metres in Uttarakhand was an achievement of the Chipko agitation, its leaders like Sunderlal Bahuguna recognized the need to spread this ecological message across the Himalayan range. This led to the historical Kashmir-Kohima padyatra, a foot march covering 4800 kms across high mountain ranges, spanning over three years, from 1979 to 1982. It was a pioneering attempt to understand the ground realities faced by local populations with larger regional agendas, to look at the Himalaya as a holistic mountain range. This long march created greater awareness among the people as well as with policy makers, on how to use the natural resources of this fragile region.
Many apprehensions of the movement were proven correct when the Kedarnath disaster in 2013 and 2021 in Chamoli took hundreds of lives and damaged gigantic man-made structures, like the dams that were washed off, downstream. It was in Reni, in the Chamoli district, that the Chipko movement was born, and where Gaura Devi heralded the call to hug the individual trees and protect the forests. By either sheer coincidence or design, the same village was wiped out during the floods. Ironically, when the villagers filed a PIL against the hydropower company, holding it responsible for the disaster, the High Court bench at Dehradun dismissed the petition calling it motivated and alleging that five of the petitioners were puppets in the hands of an unknown puppeteer. The court also questioned the bona fide of the petitioners and imposed a fine of ten thousand rupees on each of the five villagers.
Ironically, this order went against an earlier one passed by the same High Court in 2017, that had accorded the status of ‘living human entities’ to the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers, inclusive of the glaciers, streams, meadows, jungles, springs and waterfalls, in an effort to conserve them. This was a denial of the fundamental rights of the villagers to protect their environment.
Building highways across the Himalaya, in the Tibetan plateau, is easier because the terrain is plain with hard rock formations. In contrast, any attempt to construct wider roads along the border on the Indian side, has to address the problem of weak sedimentary rock as well as steep slopes that makes any structure susceptible to frequent landslides and almost impossible to repair at short notice during emergencies of war or disasters.
India is widening roads along the border, which might work against the basic purpose of providing security. Resilience is a unique characteristic of the Himalayan people. Women of the Chipko movement have successfully regenerated thousands of hectares of oak forests in the high ranges of Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand. It is mesmerizing to see vast stretches of green along the catchment of streams and rivers that produce the best mineral water in the Himalaya. The ingenuity of communities in the eastern Himalaya to cultivate diverse varieties of paddy using different water temperatures that flow down from the mountains, is unique and shows the depth of understanding that these communities have of the natural forces and also of the evolution of indigenous knowledge to husband seeds and skills in an effort to grow crops in a hostile topography. The Apatani people in Arunachal Pradesh practice sustainable agricultural and forestry that is hugely productive in the hill regions. UNESCO has recognized this as world heritage.
Diversity is a way of life in the Himalaya. It reduces the pressure on local resources, spreading the risks evenly that allows the people sustainable livelihood opportunities. There are numerous examples of this latent strength within the local communities of the Himalaya, and state governments need to recognize this strength. Food is the pillar on which local health and nutrition is built in the Himalayan region. The Wazwan, the Kashmiri range of dishes, is enriched by the ‘shah zeera’, the wild cumin, grown in Gurez Valley along the border of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Leh is famous for its apricots and millet. Similarly, apples from Kashmir and Himachal are famous for their distinct flavour and texture.
These mountain ranges are important migratory routes, like the Silk Road, and have nurtured diverse agricultural and foraging practices based on the local biodiversity. Drying, smoking, grinding, and fermenting food is integral to prolong shelf life. This has resulted in the evolution of unique food and gastronomical cultures from the western Himalaya to the eastern regions of Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Apong, poka and chaang are local drinks that are part of tribal rituals in the north-eastern region. However, in recent years the fast food culture is taking root. The demographic changes taking place are influencing what the people eat, mimicking the food cultures of mainland India, devoid of nutrition. Saffron and almonds, synonymous with Kashmir, are gradually being lost due to climate change and its impact on agriculture. The use of chemical pesticides is depleting nutrients in the soil and affecting the quality of water.
The Himalaya is home to many languages across Tibet, Nepal and India. In an attempt to establish a dominant national language, many indigenous languages are getting eroded and forgotten. Language determines culture, and this dilution has led to cultural loss, and an extinction of indigenous knowledge systems and skills that are essential to navigate the harsh hill terrain of the Himalaya.
The geopolitics of the Himalayan region stamps a huge footprint on the local economy, ecology and culture unleashing a ‘slow violence’ that could destabilize the region. The mountains, especially the snow-clad peaks, deep valleys and rugged landscape make for a perfect destination for people to unwind. The Himalaya has all these assets. Add to this the spiritual aspect of Hinduism and Buddhism that makes the region doubly potent as a place to visit. Because of its fragile nature and layered diversity, responsible tourism is essential to minimize the potential negative impact, and help in providing a sustainable pathway for the hill people.
Himalayan geopolitics, particularly since the 1990s, has accelerated the pace of militarization across the contested borders between India and China. Massive infrastructure projects including road building and dam construction have resulted in an accelerated degradation of an already fragile ecology. The Himalaya is a shared legacy of an integrated transboundary ecological system, and countries on either side need to ensure its protection through international dialogue.
With the strengthening of the economies of both China and India, and the reinforcement of their military and strategic interests, and the lingering tensions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, the ensuing political tensions in Beijing and New Delhi have negatively impacted local communities across borders resulting in the closure of traditional trade routes and highland passes. This has taken its toll on the local economies, disrupting the social and economic fabric of these people with centuries-old systems that existed uninterrupted suddenly being diluted.
For both China and India, the Himalaya is much more than just a physical mountain range. Mighty civilizations have evolved on the banks of rivers that originated from the snow-clad peaks and glaciers. The survival of millions of people in the most populated regions of China and India are linked to the stability of the Himalayan ecosystem. This is the base for the mystical and spiritual qualities attached to the Himalaya, aptly called the abode of Shiva the creator. Unfortunately, the developments in the late 20th and 21st centuries, has accelerated the pace of breaking this link, with technological interventions, inhibiting these mountains. The future of the Himalaya is closely linked to the most populous religions in the world, Hinduism and Buddhism. The land of Shiva is in control of communist China, and there is a sense of concern about the future of Tibet. Who will select the Dalai Lama and who will determine the future of Buddhism.
The Himalaya needs to be deemed as a world heritage site, the Third Pole. It has the largest deposit of ice and snow after Antarctica and the Arctic. It has 15000 glaciers, with Siachen as the longest, 72 kms in length. The fast withering away of this third pole has become a reality as these regions face the impact of climate change twice that of the global averages. The regular recurrence of floods, landslides and droughts in these fragile regions is a clear indicator of the failure of past and present polices across nations, and political ideologies. Will the concerned governments across the region initiate a dialogue to facilitate a Himalayan Convention to devise a comprehensive policy of conservation and preservation of this treasure?