Centrality of Himalaya to South Asian lives


HIMALAYA is home to a geogeographical-biological diversity and a multitude of human concerns and constructs. The ecology evolved by this mountain has become the basis for the existence of the natural as well as socio-cultural systems of South Asia. This ‘subcontinental arc’ is dynamic and active. It connects the tropical rainforests of Myanmar; Arunachal with the cold semi-desert of Ladakh, and the North Indian plains with the Tibetan Plateau making it different from other mountain systems. In this vast and diverse geography, the Himalaya is spread over eight Asian countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China-Tibet, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. The 11 (+2 partly) Indian provinces are Arunachal, Himachal, J.K., Ladakh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttarakhand (and hill districts of West Bengal and Assam).

Its rich soil and water amazingly transform the landscape and human life in the plains. Its communities and their cultures, which arrived and settled over millennia, have in turn spread out in many directions. Its geography is akin to the myriad faces of nature. Its glaciers and rivers are called the ‘water towers’ for the 21st century. Its lofty peaks make a formidable barrier for the monsoon from the southern side resulting in heavy rainfall while holding back and tempering the cold waves from the north. This mountain indeed controls the climate of South Asia.

Its vegetation and forests, like green lungs, absorb the rising atmospheric carbon. While its wilderness, a confluence of natural and spiritual energies, has given vent to a plethora of flora and fauna. Its natural beauty and tranquillity have inspired and captivated millions, including some of the greatest human beings who ever lived. The abundance of a multiplicity of raw material provides the basis for mineral, metallurgical, oil, timber, woollen and medicinal industries. The snow covered peaks and passes, glacial vistas and blue sky fascinate and beckon the adventurer and explorer.

Today the resources and potentials of the Himalaya are being extracted and destroyed at an unsustainable rate, way beyond what can be regenerated. Hydroelectric projects, unscientific road building, mining, pressure on biodiversity, out-migration of communities, rapid urbanization along with the impact of globalization, privatization, consumerism, corporatization and climate change are serious concerns, with deep implications for the future of the Himalaya.

With an avoidance of democratic debate, dilution of environmental/EIA laws marked by the state’s allergy for the recommendations of various commissions and committees (the latest being two HPCs constituted by the Supreme Court and headed by Ravi Chopra) on the Himalaya and sidelining of communities, this highest and most sacred mountain range on earth has been hijacked by an inadequate model of development fabricated by our political economy. The biggest challenge facing mountain communities is to maintain their dignity and self-respect, while retaining their right to live in their territories. The overall pressure generated by state systems and its allies is more violent towards women, children, dalits and Adivasis. Sometime the judiciary (the last hope for justice) fails itself and the Himalayan cause. Without realizing the ecological centrality of Himalaya, neither its uniqueness nor its association with our common future can be understood.

Today, the Himalaya is considered a natural-cultural heritage of all humanity, but this fact has resonated in the minds of different Asian societies for a very long time. Within the verticality and horizontality of Himalaya this vibrant rhythm belongs to thousands of peaks and glaciers, to innumerable rocks and their faults and thrusts as well as to the inherent geoenergy manifest as earthquakes, landslides and thermal springs. It belongs to the lakes, streams, flora and fauna; to the human beings representing hundreds of communities and cultures. Several faiths have been nurtured here and it has also been an ideal place for myths and dreams. Before getting bound up in the faiths and beliefs of humans, their political and economic systems, its vibrant rhythm is the expression of a highly dynamic geology, and a geography that still rises as it flows down.

By itself, this is an expression of the natural processes at work in the Himalaya; our political and economic setup, which has given rise to an indifferent, unrelenting modern civilization, has helped accelerate and multiply the contributing factors. Nonetheless, the natural beauty and splendour of the Himalaya glows unabated. Himalaya, like nature itself, is well versed in the art of self-healing and regeneration but only to an extent.

The presence of the Himalaya in the consciousness of various Asian societies has been vividly described in their myths, folklore and literatures. Its natural beauty, complexity and a rich mythic tradition has provided home to many pilgrim destinations. Various societies and cultures have settled and thrived here; while some have preferred an interactive existence, others have chosen a more isolated identity. Perhaps this is the reason why the Himalaya is unparalleled in terms of natural and human diversity.

Different stages of socioeconomic development can be seen here. While animal husbandry is actively practiced in the mountains and agriculture in the valleys, the barter system of trade spreads across the Himalaya. This has led to the creation of distinct social, cultural and economic systems in different eco-regions containing elements brought in by different constitutive communities. Being a melting pot of several ethnic groups, a conjunction of different political systems, a region where most of the linguistic families of the world exist and a region which is also geopolitically very important, it is natural that we ought to understand it deeply and comprehensively by engaging with all its aspects.



The process of habitation and migration of human groups in the Himalaya is an interesting one. It is still not clear as to how ancient communities struggled, compromised and assimilated after arriving here. During this process, each community tried to learn from and understand the others. They constructed their cultures, developed economic activities and experimented with the arts and sciences. Thus, practices such as agriculture, animal husbandry, harnessing water for milling, irrigational systems, mining and metallurgy, transportation and bridge making, vernacular architecture, sculpture and the art of mask-making among others, were developed under the special ecological and geopolitical constraints of the region.

Today, when we look at different communities of the Himalaya, their presence indicates a narrative of a variety of human contacts and rich social engagements. Here they tried to create while also absorbing different religious beliefs and myths they encountered, thus giving themselves a distinct identity in the form of folk traditions. The Hindu, Bon, Buddhist, Jain, Christian, Islamic and Sikh traditions have certainly associated themselves with the Himalaya due to its unique natural attraction. Many old and mutually disparate societies and cultures have existed here. This intense proximity between historical tradition and myths is clearly visible. Mountains like Chomolangma and Nanda Devi stand both for myth and reality. Before being embodied as peaks, the identity of both is that of local Mother Goddess.

Buddhist monasteries in the inner Himalaya spread from Afghanistan to Myanmar are markers of a living tradition. This Buddhist strip is connected to Tibet both culturally and geographically and thus present on both sides of the highest summits. Old memorials, dating back to more than a thousand years, are present there. The Bamiyan Buddha, the ruins at Takshshila, various monasteries-monuments and forts in Ladakh, Himachal, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal bear evidence of a transboundary historical past of more than a thousand years. In Uttarakhand, apart from the small Jad community, the Tibetans who came with the H.H. Dalai Lama have maintained a Buddhist presence.

Folk deities have an abiding attractive tradition independent of the pan-Asian Gods and Goddesses. In fact, the diversity of folk deities is inherently linked to the human and natural diversity of the Himalaya. The places which were constituted as pilgrim centres through practice of culture and belief systems continue to be the most beautiful places. This fact also illustrates the aesthetic sense of ancestors and their belief in the purity and power of pristine wilderness.

The compulsions of religions often divide society by branding mankind as Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Christian or Muslims. However, it has not been successful in the Himalaya and despite this psycho-religious apparatus, a specific and shared socio-cultural identity developed. The interdependence of communities is visible all over the Himalaya. In the Kailas region of western Tibet ancient Bonpos, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs along with modern tourists travel together and participate in its circumambulation (pradakshina/parikrama). This region is indeed a unique multicultural destination. Here, neither are we witness to a scene like Ayodhya nor like that of Jerusalem. In fact, it is a unique illustration of the original unity of humankind.

The Himalaya has several tribes and ethnic groups who have their own autonomous worlds comprising of a little bit of everything. This has helped them maintain their diversity, specificity and their inter-relations intact. The most surprising and important fact is that the primary concern of the Gujjars, Sherpas, Banarajis, Brokpas, Drokpas, Lepchas like that of many tribes of the northwest and northeast borders, is still with nature and not with any institutionalized religion. Close to the Vaishnavite traditions of Manipur stand the rich tribal traditions of the Nagas and Kukis. A little further are the borders of Arunachal, Tibet and Myanmar where Buddhist culture is still alive.

The transformation of the Pandavas and Kauravas into folk gods has only been possible in the Himalaya. The first Jain Tirthankar, Rishabhdev (Adinath) breathed his last at Ashtapaad near Mt. Kailas, while Adi Shankaracharya extensively toured Uttarakhand and Kashmir. Nanak travelled in Himalaya-Tibet and the tradition of Gorakhnath still thrives in many places. Buddhist preachers as well as explorers travelled back and forth many times in the Himalaya.

The various small societies and cultures are correlated despite being unknown to each other. Festivals, fairs, songs, dances, musical instruments, implements and social systems are part of this heritage. Different forms of traditional knowledge exist here and those of relationships, manners and traditions. While some communities accept polyandry, others follow polygamy. Widow re-marriage is prevalent in some communities but impossible in others. In the Naga areas the custom of ‘head hunting’ was practised till the middle of the 20th century. There are customs of burial at some places, cremation at others and feeding the corpses to birds (known as ‘sky burials’) at yet other places. Despite an east-west geo-graphical continuity of the entire Himalaya, north-south social, economic and ecological relations are strongly prevalent too.

Many layers of humanity can be read and recognized in the Himalaya; while some have been lost others remain hidden. The languages and dialects, arts (through colour, paper, cloth, clay, stone, metal, wood, and fibre) and other socio-cultural etiquettes have developed amidst these lifestyles. To understand Himalayan culture and its relations with the rest of Asia, it is necessary to understand the tradition of pilgrimage among Bonpas, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs. The old oral traditions have entered the realm of writing in the last two hundred years. Yet, oral traditions have remained dynamic. It is to be understood that oral expressions can fly while written texts only walk.

Like any mountain range, the Himalaya is home to natural resources. This ecological heritage has been in constant use by societies of hunters, nomads, pastoralists, artisans, agriculturists, non-residents and traders to the present-day, with little likelihood of its stopping in the foreseeable future. While the colonial regime had declared these ‘life resources’ to be ‘goods’, the open market economy approach of multinational corporations has turned them into ‘commodities’. In this way the resources, raw or finished, have become silent victims of a relentless institutionalized plunder. That’s why the Himalaya, like other remote regions of the country, has been plagued and tormented by an internal colonialism.

Land, forests, water, humans, animals and wilderness are the resources of the Himalaya. They are at the same time the basis of ecology. Land (soil, minerals, metals and hydrocarbons) is the mother resource and bears the pastures, forests, farms, rivers, glaciers and lakes. The Himalaya has bestowed soil, fertility and water upon northern India, but man’s short-sightedness has hastened the depletion of the soil. Soil saves us from being reduced to soil. In fact, most of the social and ecological movements of the Himalaya are centred around saving the soil. Chipko may be well known but anti-dam, anti-mining and movements for local self-government and autonomy are part of a larger narrative.

Water is other important resource. It quenches our thirst and is used for water milling and irrigation. The energy flowing in it can be captured and commoditized. The consumerist mindset or the capitalist’s guile can merely envision dams like Tehri, or the business of water packaged in plastic. They will neither dwell on the future of fish nor be concerned about the fate of ordinary humans. Meanwhile the construction of a series of dams continues throughout the Himalaya, without any ‘honest’ cost-benefit analysis and proper assessment of the geo-tectonics, seismic-gap areas, general scene of the catchments and the consequences of such interventions.

The small-scale but sustainable and successful efforts of our ancestors for the conservation and wise use of water and snow, practised for thousands of years, cannot be rejected as ‘traditional knowledge systems’ when they are as meaningful today as ever. Some are even pushing for the ‘linking of the rivers’ without knowing and respecting the right of the river to flow and what this right really mean.

The three river systems (seven others are equally important) originating in the Himalaya and Tibet are the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra, making up 4.28, 25 and 33.71 per cent respectively by volume of India’s river water and drain 9.8, 26 and 7.8 per cent respectively of India’s total area. In this way their combined basin is 43.8 per cent of India’s total surface area, and supply 63 per cent of India’s fresh water. These rivers are the lifelines of the north of the Indian subcontinent. All these lead rivers and their tributaries flow in two to four countries. The Ganga basin is spread in five ecoregions, four countries and 11 Indian states covering a large area (861404 sq km) and 79.3 per cent of this basin falls in India. Nepal is completely in its catchment area. The total population living in this large basin is around 700 million (530 million in 2011 and 448 million in 2001).

The ‘water towers’ are also linked with the forests. I call them ‘green glaciers’. Hunting and collecting, livestock and agriculture, craft and cottage industries, traditional medicines and trade are all supported by the forests. Forests are critical to the formation and retention of soil and fill the lives of people with song, music, journeys and a range of artefacts and implements. They are home to animals and birds. They make possible the extent of biological diversity, which has many dimensions to it. The rarest of flora and fauna can be found here. Some species are already extinct and many others threatened. Simply put, Himalaya occupies 0.3 per cent of the planet area, while making up to 10 per cent of its biodiversity, to which agricultural diversity is closely linked. If we have ‘baranaza’ (12 grains) system of agriculture in Uttarakhand, we still have ‘atharanaza’ (18 grains and some non-grains) method in far West Nepal. In India’s Northeast, jhoom cultivation is associated with diversity.

Humans in the Himalaya are a resource and at the same time consumers of all other resources. On the other hand, the wild animals are linked to forests, rangelands and to biodiversity while domestic animals related to agriculture, transport and food systems. They can be termed as ‘cash fauna’. If the population of the Himalayan region is estimated at over 70 million, the population of domestic animals may also be around 45-50 million. However, the resources of the Himalaya influence the lives of more than 700 million South Asians directly or indirectly.

Migration from the Himalaya must be understood, as also the tragedy behind ghost villages. For example, how should we approach and understand the concept of ‘money order economy’ today? While its meaning has changed within Uttarakhand, it remains a useful notion in understanding the out-migration in Nepal. Out migration may have some positive aspects but the darkness created by it in the Himalayan hinterland should be analysed and understood properly. Again, how to understand the forced migrations of Tibetans, Chakmas and Kashmiri Pundits (and Muslims too) from their respective lands? How should we analyse the migration of labourers from Nepal, Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh into remote and difficult areas of the Himalaya? We rarely acknowledged their contribution. Our prejudices with Kashmir and NE India are yet to be diluted.

The most special ‘niche’ resource of the Himalaya remains its ‘wilderness’, its natural beauty and tranquillity. This beauty isn’t just about the peaks, glaciers, confluences, springs, lakes, valleys of flowers, forests and rivers-lakes considered by themselves but a combined and juxtaposed whole, much greater than the sum of its parts. This endless palette endows their vision with art and poetry, fills in the blank spaces of the modern mind and deconstructs monocultures of all kinds. This immeasurable beauty cannot be manufactured by nation-states or multinational companies and is the perpetual possession of the Himalaya. Pilgrimage and tourism are very dependent on this asset. A major part of this is associated with aesthetics and visual intensity.



The present scenario of the Himalaya therefore upsets one and this sadness is not only felt by more than 70 million Himalayan people, but it is part of a larger tragedy. Enclosed in this situation people nevertheless are fighting for their forests, soil, minerals, folk culture, and in a way, for their very identity. They have been gauging the conspiracies of supporters of big dams and captive tourism, the contractors of mines and their destructive methods, and the looters of land, minerals, resin, raisins, timber and herbs. They also realize the destruction of the Himalaya in the name of defence.

Many articulate sections of society are of the opinion that the Himalaya cannot be sustained and saved separately. Its environment is linked to its economy and this ultimately leads us to the question of political will in a national and international context. The societies of the Himalaya have protected themselves for centuries, but self-defence has become increasingly difficult today. They have historically engaged in warfare to establish and protect themselves from each other as also from competitive feudal powers. There could be some difference in the degree of endurance that different societies possess, but the human capacity to protest exists among all.

There was an overall decline of feudal powers in the Himalaya by the last decades of the 18th and early 19th century. Company rule had gradually extended to some parts of the Himalaya. In response, individual and collective resistance from the communities began and over time became stronger. Most of the social movements here were led by peasants and tribes. The forms and significance of resistance can be gauged by studying different revolts in the Himalayan regions. Struggles against feudal and colonial rule can be found in all parts of the Himalaya. The movement of the Nepali Congress and later the Maoist struggle may be placed in this context. It was an era which witnessed the emergence of many leaders and revolutionary heroes.

This tradition of protest did not cease even after independence in 1947. The resistance in both parts of Kashmir and in north-eastern India has repeatedly turned violent. Movements in Uttarakhand did not stop after independence. Mass movements finally brought democracy to Nepal. Movements are going on in Tibet and Bhutan as well. In such an atmosphere, sometimes there is a lull and at other times the situation can turns explosive. Nevertheless, it must be hoped that new movements lead to a deepening of democratic foundations. Bhutan has entered an era of constitutional monarchy. The very idea of GNH (Gross National Happiness) has emerged from this small Himalayan country.

The political and social systems of the Indian subcontinent have not been able to earn complete trust of these communities. Our centralized republics have yet to understand their decentralized lifestyles and consequently failed to develop the art of governance. The colonial government had at least the good sense to recognize them as ‘non-regulation areas’, but it was a cleverly crafted safety valve. The community-governed decentralized systems have yet to make up their minds to fully accept centralized democratic government systems. The northern areas of Pakistan, Indian Kashmir, Nepal, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, among others, have continuously remained disturbed areas. In the last few years underground movements have emerged in Tripura and Meghalaya. The Kashmir issue has become more complicated after the abolition of Article 370. Despite many attempts, the powerful party has failed in giving good governance to the Himalayan states in recent years. Political corruption, purchasing of elected members, parts of the judiciary and national institutions carries on.

It must be remembered that if we thrust externally derived solutions on the issues of the Himalaya, it will only lead to more instability and unrest. In fact, such an understanding is the need of the hour. If the Himalaya and its resources are meant only for commercial exploitation, then neither the Himalaya nor the North Indian plains will remain safe. There is no dearth of people from India and elsewhere who, on the one hand, willingly declare that the Himalaya is the highest symbol of human civilization and on the other, do not hesitate at all in destroying its natural wealth and cultural prosperity. In fact, it is these people who are running (controlling) the system.

What we need now is a steady middle path with long-term goals for the overall betterment of society and the fulfilment of our needs and not hasty frenzies of development which only benefit a few. Globalization, privatization of the commons and climatic changes are bound to directly impact the Himalaya. However, despite these processes, it will maintain its presence amidst us and continue to support our existence in various ways. The use of appropriate technology and people’s participation is needed to save vanishing forests, polluted cities, and displaced people. Justice, equity and basic rights are all equally important.

Despite national and international resolutions on the Himalaya, the UN’s ‘Mountain Agenda’ and many social-environmental movements, the truth is that the Himalaya is under siege from all sides and its resources are being looted. Modern civilization is shirking from facing this fact. However, we must realize that there is but one Himalaya and we cannot afford to lose it.

It should also be remembered that wisdom or understanding is neither available in the international market nor can it be developed by
the Niti Aayog, World Bank or any multinational company. This realization and awareness already exists in the societies and communities of the Himalaya and other mountains. First, we must learn and imbibe it only from there; after that positive ideas can be taken from any corner of planet earth.