The northern yardstick
KANAK MANI DIXIT
IT is an extraordinary geological outcrop that enchants the world, but the Himalaya is not heard for what it could tell the people of Earth. East to west, the chain has geographical continuity but it’s society is riven by geopolitics, nationalisms and north-south economics.
Abode of the Gods, King of
You bound the oceans from
east to west
A northern yardstick
To measure the Earth.
– Kalidas, from Kumar Sumbhav
The above stanza adorned the masthead of Himal magazine for years until the magazine transformed from a Himalayan to Southasian periodical. Without doubt, the Himalaya is one of the most distinctive features of our Earth, for both its elevation that dwarfs all the other great mountain ranges, its length of 1550 miles from Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft) to Namcha Barwa (25,445 ft), and the effer-vescent diversity in its natural history and human population.
If you go up any one of the hilltops surrounding Kathmandu Valley, which lies more or less at the centre of the Himalayan chain, in the run of mountains east to west you can see more than a third of Nepal. On a clear day, due to their elevation, the march of the Himalaya allows you to make out the curvature of the globe on the snowline. The matter of the sheer elevation of the Himalaya is hard to grasp – on a jet airplane over the Alps you fly far above the snows, whereas here you are astride the peaks.
Besides the elevation, it is the incline from ridgeline to plain that makes the range unique. From the summit of Mountain Everest – Chomolongma or Sagarmatha – at above 29,000 ft it is less than 80 miles from the Ganga plain. The bulk of the region’s population resides in the Mahabharat midhills which make up a slender midriff, though it does widen out westwards in Nepal and beyond into Uttarakhand and Himachal.
The chain is essentially one long and narrow ridgeline, created by the crumpling of rock strata as the Eurasian tectonic plate encountered the drifting Subcontinent. The Himalaya is correctly called the Third Pole, this ‘polar region’ unique because it is inhabited. Indeed, the Mahabharat midhills are the most densely populated mountain region in the world.
For being a primary defining feature of Earth, one that is human-inhabited to the seams, clearly the Himalaya would have a thing or two to say about global processes, from economy to climate to environment. But that is not happening, primarily because of geological and historical separations, attenuated by even deeper divisions created by modern political boundaries, as well as economic forces working to distance of local communities from their own histories.
While the world, the rest of Asia and Southasia, perceive a single Himalaya, the range is made up of sub-chains separated by deep river gorges. The rivers emerged even as the geological uplift of the mountains began 50 million years ago from the seabed of Tethys, and mighty trib-utaries of the Ganga such as the Kali Gandaki and Arun continue to cut away at the bedrock as the mountains continue to rise inches a year.
Some of the pre-existing social and cultural distance between the mountain people was defined by isolation of communities separated by the rivers and ravines, which led to variegated customs, rituals and tongues. Some of it has to do with the latitudinal direction of trade and commerce which meant that the montane population invariably connected mountain-to-plain, i.e. north-to-south rather than east-west.
The people of the Himalaya are today even more separated, dissected, cut off than before – because of national frontiers that have erased fluid boundaries, and xenophobic nation-alism that does not suffer disparate identities. As majoritarian politics sweeps Southasia, the diversity and syncretism that is synonymous with the Himalaya, one which should have served as a lesson and reminder for all, is fast diluting.
There are some exceptions to the historical demographic separations: great continuity is found among the people of Tibetan dialects. When Himal magazine was contemplating a title for its September 1993 cover on the ‘Himalayan rimland’ – from Baltistan to Arunachal – the editors decided on ‘Whither the Tsampa Eaters’. Meals of pounded mountain barley represented cultural com-monalities across High Asia.
The other continuity is found among the Khas people who fanned eastward from their base in Kumaon-Garhwal and West Nepal. Over time, Khas Bhasa (Nepali/Gorkhali) be-came the link language and language of state administration of Nepal, which helped the Khas despite their thin spread to consolidate the Nepali nation-state in the mid-18th century. While the continuities of Tibetan language and culture along the High Himalaya is eroding, riding the easy transferability of the Nepali language the Khas (Brahmin, Chhetri) have got entrenched as the ruling community in Nepal.
In terms of state-building as well, the north-south orientation of political power in midhills is belied by the singular exception of the imperial Gorkhali expansion, across a land-scape that at its widest reached from the Teesta to Sutlej. This was the result of statecraft of the unifying king Prithvi Narayan Shah, who fanned out of the principality of Gorkha to subjugate principality after prin-cipality. His tools of conquest and consolidation included military prowess, logistical command, marital alliance, blockades and subterfuge.
Nepal’s elongated consoli-dation was an exception in the Himalaya, where kingdoms of any girth reached from north to south and reaching towards the plains. Even Kathmandu Valley (Nepal Valley, Nepal Mandal), before being subjugated by Prithvi Narayan, mainly maintained trade links to the north and tilted culturally towards the south.
This historical experience of ‘vertical’ governance and commerce in the Himalayan region can be seen in the modern era as well: Sikkim and Darjeeling are focused on the Doars rather than Nepal and Bhutan; Kumaon-Garhwal interact more with Punjab-Haryana than Himachal; Nepal’s people and trade connect to the rest of India mainly through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Padma Sambhav (Guru Rin-poche) was the sage from present-day Swat who traversed the Himalayan midhills from Riwalsar in Himachal to Halesi in Nepal and Bumthang in Bhutan, before penetrating Tibet spreading the Buddhist word. Like Padma Sambhav, trekkers and pilgrims in touristic or spiritual quest do travel by longitude, but the economic movements and imperatives tend to be latitudinal, between mountain-hill-plain.
The cross-connected regimes of the Tibetan Himalaya have been decisively upturned by the Beijing’s takeover of the 1950s. The Dalai Lama’s portraits cannot be hung in private altars in Tibet except in utmost secrecy. But there is extraterritoriality of Chinese diktat, and his birthday can no longer be celebrated publicly by Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu. A final departure will happen when Beijing’s authorities decide, as expec-ted, to choose the 15th incarnation of the Dalai Lama upon the parinirvan of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th incar-nation.
The pre-existing geographic and demographic distancing in the midhills is now accentuated by international borders and provincial boundaries, with the range shared between five nation states. The national boundaries, the rise of nationalisms and resultant geopolitical schisms have split the already separate peoples of the Himalaya. Today’s passport-nation-alism frowns on hybrid, inclusive identities and so syncretism and layered identities are no longer the privilege of the stratified Himalaya person.
The life of the Raja of Mustang Jigme Palbar Bista, 25th in the lineage from the founding king, represented the continuous traditions of High Asia even as the Cultural Revolution subsumed Tibet: his passing in December 2016 marked a significant break from history. Like Mustang, Tibetan dialect speakers in other parts of High Asia were once well connected through trade and pilgrimage but are today barred by borders and militarization. The sibling communities of Ladakh and Baltistan are sequestered on two sides of one of the harshest border divisions in the world.
Nepal and Tibet-China are officially separated by a closed border, but it was till recently quite porous with locals conducting trade, maintaining clan links and using pasture lands on either side. Pilgrim-refugees also took advantage of the porosity to flee Tibet and find ultimate shelter in Dharamsala. All that is a thing of the past, belying the hope that Beijing would loosen its hold on Tibet as it became more confident of its hold and administration.
Beijing’s insecurity on Tibet has resulted in the Nepal-Tibet border becoming tightly shut. Namche Bazaar, the main village of the Sherpa of Khumbu, used to be a busy market for Tibetan and Chinese goods brought over the 19,050 foot Nangpa La, but that access has been blocked since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Tibetan protests angered Beijing.
Tenzing Norgay was born in the region northeast of Everest massif in the Kharta Valley. He grew up in the Khumbu villages of Thame and Khu-mjung, went in search of portering work in Darjeeling. From there he moved on to become the front-ranking Himalayan climber. Tenzing was always exasperated by constant questions about his citizenship in the era of strict nationalism, whereas if it had to be he was Tibetan, Nepali and Indian.
The two great powers of Asia have done their bit to draw and quarter the Himalaya. China’s takeover of Tibet in 1959 resulted in progressive Han-ization of the region, weakening Tibet’s historical faith, culture, language, script, governance and international personality. Along the way, China erected barriers between Tibetan and the rest of ‘Tibetan Himalaya’, including Baltistan, Bhutan, Baltistan, Ladakh, Arunachal and northern Nepal from Humla to Mustang, Manang, Khumbu and Olangchung.
The boundaries and nation-alisms have served to separate similar peoples, cutting off clans and commu-nities. The separation between Jammu and Kashmir and Azad Kashmir is known to many, but not the division that hurt the societies of Ladakh-Kargil and Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Areas). Even within the Indian hill states, the distinctions of being Himachali or Uttarkhandi have economic implications. The state of Sikkim is coddled by New Delhi as atonement for annexation, but adja-cent Darjeeling with a similar popu-lation mix is made to wilt under the West Bengali thumb.
While ostensibly a federal republic, India’s application of centralized governance disturbed the pre-existing autonomy and sense of agency of the swathe of Indian Himalaya. Jammu and Kashmir was never allowed to flower under the special status accorded it by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and even that was wrested in the autumn of 2019 by a two-thirds majority decision in India’s Parliament. Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh emerged as union territories.
The debacle of the brief 1962 war for India made matters worse for the entire Himalayan chain – New Delhi’s geostrategic unease regarding the mountain frontier was now heightened right across the range, impacting Indian regions as well as Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. This nervous mindset contributed to Sikkim’s annexation in 1973, and has been a constant interventionist factor in New Delhi’s relationship with Thimphu and Kathmandu. No one can miss the heightened military presence in India’s eastern and western Him-alaya, as also the presence of the Indian military’s road-building arm, including in Bhutan.
The rise of China in the 2000s as a global economic and military power has rendered the Himalayan region even more vulnerable, by itself and by generating further Indian anxiety. With its extraordinary advance as a world power, Beijing has shifted its position and objectives as regards the Himalaya, seen in its growing inter-vention and outspokenness on Nepali politics, which used to be an Indian monopoly. Beijing also now shows a more aggressive military stance along the frontier with India, from Ladakh to Arunachal, as well as Bhutan.
Aksai Chin, the eastern bouffant on the official map of India, is claimed and administered by Beijing since long, and there seems little hope in India that it can be gotten back even though it remains on the maps of the Survey of India. Recent Chinese adventurism in Ladakh, however, has made India visibly agitated but curiously timid in its response to Beijing.
All in all, the activities of Beijing and New Delhi crushes the hope for a return to the porous, grey-zone frontier that would allow the mountain people and economies to rebuild syncretism and connections of the past. The ‘connectivity’ that the geo-strategists talk about these days is about linking the large economies through trade, rather addressing the myriad cross-border tears that need mending. The Himalayan people are hostage to remote power centres.
Truth be told, the Himalayan rimland need not be such a bugbear for the powers north and south. Historically, the mountain range did serve as a physical barrier protecting kingdoms and empires. But we are in the age of high-flying satellites, missiles, aircraft and drones – this is 2022, not even 1962 – and the rimland can at best be the place of skirmishes, actual wars will engulf the heartlands without reference to the Himalaya. A rational understanding of the dimin-ished role of the mountain range as a geo-strategic barrier would do a lot to ease the lot of the 50 million odd people living in these mountains, needlessly made to feel vulnerable.
With lowering of the guard, we could actually start planning com-merce across the mountain range using the infrastructure that is in the making. This prospect is linked to the arrival of China’s successful rail network in Lhasa in 2000 and Shigatse in 2006, and now moving westward on the Changtang plain. We are actually at a point where goods can flow with just a little bit of additional road-building, particularly along the low valleys of Nepal that breach the Himalaya such as that of the Arun. Indeed, we are very close to having passage of goods between the Chinese mainland and the Southasian main-land. The savings in time and cost of using the Himalayan land transit rather than the maritime route via Malacca Strait offers a tantalizing prospect of pan Asian trade. As far as the planners of the Himalayan region, they should plan for more than earning from transit duties.
The less militarized the Himalaya is, the more one can hope we can have a revival of historical commerce and age-old societal links. Indeed, the prosperity of Kathmandu Valley was largely the result of commerce with Tibet through the Kuti and Kyarung trade routes to the northeast and north-west. Harka Gurung, the scholar-administrator who tracked Himalayan geography and people, studied the natural tilt of High Himalaya commu-nities towards trade entrepreneurship, to make up for the harsh and unpro-ductive environment. He used to relate how every year intrepid Sherpa traders of Khumbu would go up into Tibet via Nangpa La, traverse the Changtang westward, come down to Punjab, travel east to Bihar and trek up and back to the Khumbu – conducting local trade along the entire route on the basis of local supply and demand.
A distant observer would have thought that the two independent states of the Himalaya, Bhutan and Nepal, would have made common cause to face their similar challenges to development and governance, as well as countenancing the over-bearing neighbours to the north and south. A very tentative discussion in the 1960s of a Himalayan confed-eration between Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim had no hope at all against the first hint of New Delhi’s displeasure.
There was always a socio-cultural distance between Thimphu and Kathmandu – besides the differ-ence in polities led by Drukpa and Gorkhali rulers, the former would also have been wary of the Gorkhali taste for expansion. However, the refugee exodus of the late 1980s and early 1990s pushed the two countries as far apart as they could go. When Druk Yul emptied a seventh of its citizenry – Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa from the southern hills, they entered India across the land border, from where they were pushed by Indian authorities into Nepal, as if language defined citizenship.
The one lakh-plus refugees were citizens of Bhutan who were being disowned by Thimphu’s autocrats. As the Lhotshampa suffered in the heat of the refugee camps of Jhapa and Morang, Kathmandu did not have the diplomatic wherewithal to push them back to Bhutan, to seek New Delhi’s good offices for the same, or to internationalize the matter. Irony be damned, even as it was busy depopulating its southern hills Thimphu began a campaign for international acceptance of the ‘gross happiness index’. It largely succeeded in putting a gloss on its image, relying on gullible western diplomats in search of a Buddhist ‘Shangri La’ to revere in place of Tibet. That partial theocracies guided by Buddhist clerics can be just as heinous as others has been highlighted in relation to Burma and Sri Lanka, but Druk Yul has thus far escaped such attention and analysis.
After nearly two decades in the refugee camps, when all hope was almost lost, happenstance related to 9/11 events in the United States led to western countries opening up their doors to the Lhotshampa refugees. All but a few thousands have now been settled in the West. But the refugee crisis gave rise to lasting frigidity between two Himalayan countries, and a lasting blot on the Bhutanese record. Whether the day of reckoning will come depends upon the activism of refugees settled overseas.
Speaking of human rights abuse and the export of refugees within the Himalayan region, the subjugation of Tibetans and Tibetan culture by the Chinese state is well known even though little has been/can be done about it. In the Himalaya-Karakoram, the lockhold of Islamabad on Azad Kashmir is not well known. It is New Delhi’s control of the larger Jammu and Kashmir that has attracted more world attention, as also the most militarized zone in the world with the highest per capita concentration of military personnel. The resolution of the Question of Kashmir will ipso facto contribute to peace between India and Pakistan, including the reunification of Kashmiri clans and a return of Kashmiri Pandit refugees. However, chances are slim given the need by political bosses in Islamabad and New Delhi to maintain Kashmir as a populist football.
A border dispute that has flared up between Nepal and India has led to a further fracturing of relationships along the mountains. Nepal has long held claims to the Limpiyadhura-Kalapani triangle in its northwest, even though the area was not included in the Nepal government’s own maps over the decades. When India put out a new official map in 2019 in the wake of the new status of Kashmir, the Kali River was shown to flow towards the ridgeline of Limpiyadhura. This was significant because the Indian side was thus conceding that this region was Nepal’s according to the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, which defined the Kali as the border river. In the meantime, New Delhi started building a road through the area to the Tibet frontier (the route of the Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrimage). Kathmandu was aroused to protest but to no avail.
Nepal’s governmental seal included in the Constitution of 2015 contains an image of Nepal’s map. Rebuffed by New Delhi, Kathmandu under Prime Minister KP Oli went ahead and amended its Constitution through Parliament, to include the pointy Limpiyadhura finger in the northwest. Earlier to 2019, Nepal and India have had some minor border issues, but Limpiyadhura now represents a major factor to distance the peoples and governments of the Himalaya. The Limpiyadhura matters seems set to continue for decades and will act as a drag on Nepal-India relations, not to mention the cultural relations between the two banks of the Kali.
Much of the world looks to the Himalaya as a pristine region, imbued with spirituality of yogis and mendi-cants, with even the ability to guide humanity past escalating crises. The Himalayan valleys evolved as beyuls, retreats with the ability to heal body and spirit for those fleeing sectarian or political violence.
But if ever the Himalaya was a beacon, it does not today serve that function because it cannot speak with strength nor in one voice. There is no unity of spirit that many expect to find here, even though there may be similarity of mountain landscape, flora-fauna and weather patterns. The beyuls have been weakened before the world at large has had time to recognize and understand them.
The fractured Himalayan polity does not today have a position of its own outside the individual certitudes of national polities: Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan. The geo-graphical and economic distinctions that have survived, added the nation state imperatives, does not allow the Himalaya to speak up even as the world regards it as unitary, exotic and elevated. The cumulative Himalayan beyul is a feeble presence amidst the nation states and provinces, even though it has wisdom, experience and perspective to share, to speak truth to global economic and geopolitical power.
There are myriad matters on which the mountain people could speak up, from nuclear disarmament to the climate crisis, plastic pollution, loss of species, natural disasters and human made ones. From societal resilience to self-government, com-munity forestry, social organizing and management of the commons, the mountain peoples can offer options, ideas, leadership. But their voice does not carry even across the mountains, much less within South-asia, Asia and the world.
The particular pain of the 50 million population of the Himalayan is great when aggregated, but the distress does not show through because it is dispersed. There is also little learning from each other, for example when the hills empty out into the plains through job migration, when families become atomized, and local traditions are lost to the invading economic behemoth. The building of roads on fragile mountains – the invasion of dozers and backhoes – is wreaking havoc with rock strata, slope stability and ground water recharge, but there is little organizing to fight a region-wide contagion. Equilibrium of the mountain slopes created over millennia are being disturbed even as debris, dust and silt are dumped downhill. But do not expect any exchanging of notes between Shimla, Kathmandu, Gang-tok and Thimphu – the Chipko move-ment flowered and subsided in Uttarakhand without being picked up elsewhere in the mountains.
The uniqueness of the Himalayan region, besides the landscape, has always been the diversity of the human communities which evolved distinctively in montane isolation. But the takeover of majoritarian languages runs apace, accompanied by loss of festivals, rituals, dress and cuisine – an accelerated version of what is underway from the Amazon to the Andes and Equa-torial Africa.
There are some heartening transformations that have not been remarked enough. The arrival of the LPG gas cylinder has greatly eased the life of the villager, as has use of cement-concrete in construction and corrugated roofing, and the need to enter the forests for firewood and lumber is greatly reduced. Even badly planned and avalanche prone roads allow people to commute by motor-cycle rather than make lengthy treks. Large parts of the Mahabharat mid-hills are today more forested than at any time over the past millennium. Sadly, on the other hand, one more bit of mountain culture is lost when the local watermill stops rumbling, the aroma of wood burning ceases to impact the human senses, village trails are overtaken by undergrowth, and when local song and dance traditions transmogrify into ‘item numbers’ in dance bars and restaurants.
There is so much that the mountains could tell the rapacious market, to go this far and no further. The Himalaya could tell the dam builders and embankment wallahs that the rivers that emerge from its womb – take Kosi with its massive inland delta in east Nepal and Bihar – are natural trans-porters of silt. This was not considered when western dam and canal technology was copy-pasted to Southasia starting in early 20th century – no wonder that the reservoirs and canals silt up and create existential problems. In the seven decades that the Kosi has been jacketed up with embankments, the river bed is more than 20 feet above the outlying areas of eastern Nepal and eastern Bihar, foretelling monumental disaster if/when the levees breach. But the embankments remain the mantra everywhere.
The Himalaya could tell the engineers and technocrats about the silt in its rivers, but the voice out of the mountains is weak. Cloudbursts are a specific phenomenon of the Himalaya, hitting parts of the chain every monsoon to create localized havoc, as was seen over the past decade from Kedarnath to Melemchi, but the scattering of experience is such that there is no lesson to be taught to those who believe Infrastructure is God. The Teesta flowing through Sikkim is no longer a river but a series of hydrower project cascades, and this is beginning to look like the fate of our rivers from the Dibang to the Jamuna.
The inadequate global response to the climate crisis can be explained, among others, by the neglect of the voice of the most proximate Himalayan witness. The mountains are a thermometer of global warming. While the Arctic and Antarctic can also tell us about the ozone hole and calving of glaciers, the Himalaya has a human voice, whose inhabitants are live witnesses to transformation of the world weather system. What terrible processes will be triggered in the mountains and plains when the Himalayan permafrost begins to give way has not yet become a subject of public enquiry. The Himalaya needs to alert the world, but how?
Unknown even to most who espouse climate science, the glaciers of the Himalaya are receding at a clip also because of the Southasian Brown Cloud – the atmospheric accumulation of dust and soot (black carbon) produced from smokestacks, vehicle exhaust, biomass burning, and dust kicked up from agriculture and infrastructure-building from Sindh to Punjab, Haryana and western UP. The Brown Cloud rises high and is pushed by the year-round westerlies (other than the easterlies of the monsoon months) unto the Himalayan snows. There, the shroud of soot and dust creates the ‘albedo effect’ resulting in faster snow- and ice-melt. This is how the mountain flanks are converting to rock-scape within half a lifetime, glaciers reced-ing up the slopes, permanent ice breaking off as massive avalanches. No one has tabulated the scale of the calamity – biological, ecological, even geological.
Him-alaya: throughout human history, the great mountain range of Asia has been the ‘abode of snow’. But for how much longer will it remain that, and who will listen to the mountain peoples who have so much to tell the people of Earth?