Himālaya by John Keay

Reviewd by Norrie Sanders

When a titanic chunk of land the size of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ploughs into the planet’s largest continent, something has to give.  The result is a crash site that rises 8km above the earth’s surface.

The word Himālaya conjures images of improbably high peaks, huge glaciated valleys and deep river gorges, forming an east-west frontier between the Indian subcontinent and China. But that is just part of the story: “Himālaya embraces all of Tibet and six of the eight major mountain ranges” and many of the great rivers of the subcontinent originate in Tibet.

With elegant facility, John Keay describes the main elements of the geography that unite this diverse landscape:

“Heading west across Tibet and Ladakh for all of 1,500 kilometres, the Indus [river] suddenly has second thoughts. Rather than expire in the deserts of Inner Asia…..the river begins to buckle, then on entering what is now Pakistan, to plunge abruptly south”  [p1].

There is a similar arrangement in the east where the Tsangpo River in Tibet turns south and plunges through the main range to emerge as the mighty Brahmaputra in India. The intervening defiles are so resistant to penetration, that proving that these two rivers are one required decades of risky scrambling.  This extraordinary area – longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon – was not entirely explored until the late 1990s.

While those monumental landscapes appear timeless, they are dynamic in every sense. The day to day cataclysms of avalanches, monsoon rains and wind are trivial compared to the inexorable grinding of continental land masses. The same could be said of the human face of the Himālaya. Look at any physical map and the neat boundaries show places like Sikkim, Laddakh and Kashmir.  But zoom in and these are hot spots of contention. Troops stand guard and wars are fought to this day. Ethnic mixes, cultures, religions and nationalities are all in flux.

Historian John Keay‘s most recent book follows a long list of his scholarly works, including over ten books on India and the Himālayas. It is subtitled “Exploring the Roof of the World”, which is deliberately ambiguous because the 14 chapters include geology, flora and fauna, pre-history, culture, religion, economy and exploration.

Some of the explorers are revealed to us in delightful detail throughout the book. Many are British and well-known – such as Francis Younghusband – but some of the most interesting are neither.  Kintup, a tailor from Sikkim, pioneered the exploration of the Tsangpo gorges as part of the survey of India. The more elaborately named Shri Swami 1108 Pranavananda Maharaj spent 25 years becoming “the indisputable authority on the Kailas- Manasarovar region” [p189], and helped resolve the source of the Tsangpo.

Another “seeker of truth” about the river was Swedish ego-on-legs, Sven Hedlin.  Though determinedly wandering over vast tracts of the Tibetan Plateau, his exaggerations, eccentricities, errors and perhaps, his nationality, rendered him somewhat marginalised. But Keay compiles a sympathetic portrait that melds his achievements with gentle deprecation of his failings. After Tibetan authorities forbade him to continue an epic cross country journey:

“Hedlin would not have been Hedlin had he taken this lying down. He agreed to return to Ladakh if he had to, but not by retracing his route across the Changthang. Instead he would follow the Tsango-Brahmaputra west to its supposed source…….He claimed this was a more direct route (which was debatable) and that he wouldn’t deviate from it (though he would)” [p202].

Most aspects of the region have been covered before by other authors. The value of this book is the largely successful synthesis of diverse topics, to explain a disordered and unpredictable part of the world.  Yes, there are many omissions and yes, there is an almost inevitable western perspective to some of the analysis, but the quality of Himālaya is consistent with the grandeur of the subject.

There is a cyclical quality to the book – it is not always clear why things start and end when they do. We are told in the preface that “Transitioning from geology and palaeontology to mysticism and mountaineering by way of archaeology, monastic warfare and exotic commodities cannot be expected to be seamless. To provide a thread of continuity I have instead focussed on the human component in Himalayan studies, their personalities and their adventures, and I have sometimes taken liberties with the chronology” [Preface xvix].

John Keay is the master of the succinct, with an ability to create sentences that turn a few facts into nuanced stories. Himālaya is a highly readable, yet authoritative work. The detail is dense, but rarely overwhelming.  The result is sometimes a wild ride – challenging, confronting but ultimately, invigorating.

Himālaya: Exploring the Roof of the World

(January 2023)

by John Keay

Bloomsbury Publishing

ISBN: 978 140889 115 5

$54.00; 432pp

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