On the Mythologies of the Himalaya Mountains

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The Earth asked Vishnu, “Why do you come in the form of mountains and not in your own form?” Vishnu replied: “The pleasure that exists in mountains is greater than that of animate beings, for they feel no heat, nor cold, nor pain, nor anger, nor fear, nor pleasure. We three gods as mountains will reside in the earth for the benefit of mankind.”

In the late summer of 1995 I flew to India for my first experience of climbing in the Himalaya. The monsoon was still strong and in those days, a quarter of a century ago, parts of Delhi flooded more readily; many lower-lying streets were submerged in brown water. It was still raining as we drove north in a bus, stopping for a night in Rishikesh on the banks of the swollen Ganges. The Beatles studied transcendental meditation here in 1968 with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, turning on millions of young Westerners to eastern spiritual practices. “After I had taken LSD,” George Harrison recalled, “a lingering thought stayed with me, and the thought was “the yogis of the Himalayas”. . . . That was part of the reason I went to India. Ravi [Shankar] and the sitar were excuses; although they were a very important part of it, it was a search for a spiritual connection.” It occurred to me only much later that I had been lifted into the mountains on the last gasp of the same cultural tide, upstairs in my suburban bedroom in the early 1980s, listening to old Bob Dylan records and reading stories of my climbing heroes high in the faraway, mythical Himalaya.

Next day we reached the mountains, half-submerged in a torrential downpour. The roads ran with water; mist clung to rock faces that overhung the roof of the bus. Heavy cloud shrouded the peaks. A mile or so from the village of Gangotri, in what was then part of Uttar Pradesh, the bus stopped abruptly. Huge granite boulders had tumbled down from a cliff above, loosened by the rain. It would take explosives and bulldozers to clear the way. For now, this was the end of the road. We peered up at the unstable slope wondering about the next rock fall, anxious to get going and out of the way. A number of lean and eager men surrounded the bus, grinning wildly, dressed in thin cotton shorts and shirts and holding plastic sheeting around their shoulders, their only protection against the rain. A price was agreed and our gear continued into the village on their backs. We followed, sheltering under umbrellas. It was as though I’d found a door marked “adventure” and stepped through it.

The scale of the Himalaya is disorienting: not simply muscular but steroidal. On that first expedition, the intensity of the mountains felt overwhelming, even oppressive. Everything was bigger than I had experienced before: the peaks themselves, the rivers, the rock falls, the avalanches, the glaciers, the legends and myths. From the plains of India, the range was like a white wall, a castle of impossible dreams, a rampart separating South and Central Asia, China from India. The clash of their competing interests in the mountains on their respective borders has usually been at the expense of the people who live there, with China now occupying Tibet. In 1962, the world’s two most populous nations had even gone to war in the Himalaya.

Douglas Stuart at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend
Douglas Stuart at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend

The scale of the Himalaya is disorienting: not simply muscular but steroidal.

The Himalaya range itself makes up the eastern two-thirds of this region, an area of 600,000 square kilometers between the Indus in the west and the Brahmaputra in the east, at the same latitudes as the Middle East, North Africa, Texas and northern Mexico. The range is anchored at either end by two great mountains, Nanga Parbat in Pakistan and Namche Barwa where Tibet’s great river the Yarlung Tsangpo bends sharply south to become India’s Brahmaputra. The region includes part of the high plateau of Tibet, the highest and largest plateau on earth, five times the size of France and with an average altitude of 4,500 meters: the roof of the world.

The Himalaya’s diversity is astonishing and multifaceted. The western portion, including the Indian regions of Ladakh and Zanskar, are semi-desert, dry and cold for much of the year. The eastern end, the watershed of the Brahmaputra, includes some of the wettest places on earth, with precipitation in excess of ten meters a year. Nowhere is this heterogeneity more marked that in the Himalaya’s vertical relief. For every kilometer you climb, average temperatures drop by more than six degrees Celsius. Altitude in this regard mimics latitude, meaning that with a few kilometers of altitude gain, you can travel the equivalent of thousands of kilometers in latitude, from the tropics to the polar ice caps. The amount of ice locked away in the glaciers of the Himalaya and Karakoram, now melting rapidly as the climate heats up, has prompted geographers to call the region the Third Pole.

Altitude, climate and scale are only the start. Like light scattering through a crystal, the complex, three-dimensional shapes made by the mountains have immense implications for their natural diversity and the human populations that inhabit them. Many with no knowledge of the Himalaya assume the mountains are a natural wilderness, but they support a population of around fifty million, no less diverse than the landscapes they live in, a place where three of the world’s great religions—Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism—converge. Each Himalayan valley’s human history is intimately connected to its geography. Slopes that catch the sun or else are sheltered from the wind are more hospit­able to life than neighboring aspects that don’t. At a glance, you can see the difference between, for example, a shadowy gorge and a flat, sunlit piece of ground tucked in the lee of a ridgeline. The sheer scale of this landscape has an unusually intense impact on human activity, and ultimately physiology.

We had come to the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya to climb Shivling, a chipped tooth of white and gold that pierces the deepening blue of high altitude above the Gangotri glacier: ravishing and austere. For many climbers, not just me, it’s the sort of peak that provokes a yearning that’s actually physical. Since it was first climbed in the 1970s, some of the world’s best mountaineers have climbed new routes on Shivling’s steepest faces and ridges. When seen marked altogether on a photograph these lines look like spider’s silk anchored to the mountain’s fabric. Each thin strand contains stories of suffering and endurance, imagination and courage, the stuff of legend. Many of the mountains near it on the Gangotri glacier also have these lines of ascent and contain similar stories, passed on in books and films that in turn bring more climbers to this valley: pilgrims of a sort.

Yet whatever Gangotri means to climbers, it is sacred to hundreds of millions of Indians for something else. The glacier’s hollow snout, now receding quickly, is known as Gaumukh, meaning “the cow’s mouth,” from which flows a milky stream: the source of the Ganges. The towering shape of Shivling is located at the centre of a sacred geography first mapped out in the epic Sanskrit poem the Mahabharata, which lies near the heart of Hindu culture and whose origins stretch back almost three thousand years. As it starts its 2,500 km journey to the Bay of Bengal, the river is called Bhagirathi. According to the Mahabharata, the mythical figure Bhagiratha, after whom the river is named, prayed for a thousand years for its waters to flow in order to expiate the sins of sixty thousand relatives who had perished under the curse of a great sage they had wrongly accused. Yet the goddess of the river, Ganga, remained in the heavens, at the centre of the universe, “the still point of the turning world,” unwilling to leave. Only the great god Shiva had the power to make her go, so Bhagiratha followed the command of Shiva’s counterpart, Brahma, to pray for one more year, this time living only on air. Only then was Ganga forced from heaven, rushing to earth on the jata, the matted dreadlocks of Shiva’s head, bringing life-giving water to the plains of India.

Each Himalayan valley’s human history is intimately connected to its geography. Slopes that catch the sun or else are sheltered from the wind are more hospit­able to life than neighboring aspects that don’t.

This story in the Mahabharata is told to five brothers, the Pandavas, who really are on a pilgrimage. Like us, they were outsiders, spiritual explorers in an otherworldly part of India known as Devbhumi, land of the gods, far from the political frenzy of court life. Hinduism’s founding texts, the Veda, are actually centuries older still, and their geographical references, to the Himalaya or anywhere else, are thin on the ground. (In fact, their cultural focus is further west, between the Indus and Sutlej rivers.) But by the time of the Mahabharata, a poem that looks back to a lost age of heroic kings, Hinduism and the Indo-Aryan culture that produced it had firmly rooted itself around the Ganges. In the Mahabharata, the extreme landscape of the Himalaya, where the Ganges finds its source, is being drawn inside the narrative of Hinduism’s established and expanding culture.

The word “Himalaya,” Sanskrit for “abode of snow,” features regularly in the poem, although there are other names for the mountains too: Shivalaya, the “abode of Shiva,” Himachal, or “mountains of snow,” and Himavant, the “mountain king” who was father of Ganga. In India the word is used for the entire chain of mountains but in Nepal, where it is simply Himal, the name refers to a discrete group of mountains within that chain. The pronunciation of Himalaya has proved slippery, though. In Europe and North America stress now goes on the third syllable, but in Sanskrit it goes on the second. And languages that developed from Sanskrit—Hindi, Urdu, Nepali—all deal with the word slightly differently.

During the mid 1920s this vexed question troubled a senior Indian civil servant called Geoffrey Corbett. From his office window in the hill-town of Simla, looking up from government papers on India’s commerce and industry, Corbett could see the Himalaya. Corbett had been a climber since he was a boy and would spend his leave exploring the mountains. Already a member of the famous Alpine Club, the first mountaineering club founded in 1857, he thought of founding a Himalayan Club; it wasn’t a new idea, but Corbett had the contacts and became the first honorary secretary. Yet how to say their name?

Given that Corbett chaired meetings with officials from all over India, he paused in the middle of a discussion and asked them. He got a different answer from each linguistic background: Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. He put the matter to the languages adviser at army headquarters. The adviser concluded that Tibetans as well as Hindi and Urdu-speaking Indians stressed the first “a” as long, especially Urdu speakers. The other syllables were up for grabs. In Nepal, it was simply Himal. In Hindi, it was more like Himalay. For India’s Muslim population it was Himaliya, a pronunciation declared defective since “Muhammadans” were not the original inhabitants.

The adviser suggested a stress mark on the first “a” to guide English speakers: Himàlaya. Corbett also asked a friend, Brijlal Nehru, cousin of India’s first prime minister after independence. Their final conclusion was: “Hi” as in “him,” “ma” as in “father,” and “la” and “ya” as in the French word “le.” He summarized his findings in a paper published in the Himalayan Journal for 1929. “The common Anglicized pronunciation is Himalaya. But in recent years there has been a tendency among super­­­­ior folk to say Himaiiya or Himaliya.” The modern usage of “Himalayas” is jarring to my ear, despite the instinctive English habit to pluralize Hindi words that are already plural: think “pyjamas” and “chapatis.” Call it snobbery, but this book sticks with Himalaya.

The Mahabharata and the other great Sanskrit epic the Ramayana are collectively known as the Itihasa, a Sanskrit word meaning “history.” Many scholars have peered through the mythological fog and tried to snatch at concrete details. For though the Mahabharata is not really history, it’s also not not history. For the five Pandava brothers, kings from the plains, as for the Indian civil servant Sir Geoffrey Corbett, the Himalaya performed two contrasting roles: as a place of spiritual retreat and separation from the world, but also a meeting ground, where radically different cultures met and traded on a long-established network of high mountain trails. The compilers of the Mahabharata—unified into the mythological figure of Vyasa, the Homer of ancient India—not only had a considerable geographical knowledge of this part of the Himalaya but also had knowledge of its different ethnic groups. Yet even two thousand years ago, the Himalaya represented nature untamed by humans: dark forests and raging rivers, a place for wild animals, tigers and bears. They were a place for “wild men” too, who didn’t plough like the people of civilized nations.

In his monumental Himalayan Gazetteer, the Victorian-era Irish civil servant Edwin Atkinson described how Hindu migrants settling in these mountains “leavened the manners and observances of the rough indigenous population.” That process of civilizing mountain people fitted Atkinson’s narrative in which the British Empire was doing something similar, even as its wildness drew imperial adventurers to the forests and snowy wastes of the frontier. Rudyard Kipling chased that idea in his 1898 poem “The Explorer’:

Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—

Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!

Mountains have always been places for lowlanders to exercise their imaginations: full of demons or else sublime and adventurous. The abode of snow has offered a vast white screen on which to project the fantasies of all comers: exiled kings, foreign imperialists, spiritual seekers, self-important explorers, archaeologists, missionaries, spies, mapmakers, artists, hippies—and climbers. The Himalaya are shrouded in their stories, like monsoon clouds: stories of secret knowledge and new horizons, about somewhere at the end of things, somewhere beyond. These myths hardly ever recognized the complexity and richness of the cultures that developed there over millennia, as varied as the mountains that shaped them. Those cultures were either ignored or appropriated by outsiders looking to profit. That tension, between myth and reality, still tears at the Himalaya today.