Mountains are often defined by their height, though the summit of a peak is nothing more than the point where it ends, giving way to clouds and sky. The true substance and structure of a mountain rests beneath, amidst the cliffs and crags that fall away into fluted snowfields and sunsculpted ice. More than elevation, other elements of a mountain help establish its presence — the contours of its ridges, the angle of its slopes, the solidity and depths of its foundations as well as the meadows and forests that grow at its feet. When we measure and calculate the complex geometry of a mountain, all its various dimensions must be taken into account, including where it stands in relation to other peaks.
The Himalaya may be the tallest mountain range on earth but to focus on altitude alone limits our perspective and lessens their significance. The splendour of these mountains exists as much in their valleys as it does on the steepest inclines. The inspiring presence of Himalayan massifs has less to do with magnitude than the subtle nuances of nature out of which they rise: The trickle of a glacial stream flowing through channels of ice; translucent crystals of quartz embedded in a granite boulder; a twisted juniper root clutching loose moraine; or a herd of wild sheep silhouetted on a distant pass.
As we approach the Himalaya and observe their physical features, our eyes trace each fretted profile, where sunlight dazzles off the snow and casts uneven shadows on the rocks. At times, these mountains seem almost alive for they are always changing. The clatter of falling stones echoes the process of erosion or the scrambling hooves of an ibex gaining purchase on a precipitous ledge. The boom and thunder of an avalanche disperse clouds of white particles that float like mist yet settle and harden as firmly as concrete, burying whatever lies beneath.
The Himalaya contains places of terrifying beauty, vertiginous terrain and extremes of weather that inspires both awe and fear. With their immense grandeur, they appear to have been around in perpetuity despite the fact that these are among the youngest mountains on earth and continue rising several millimetres every year. Constantly pushing upward, they have formed a series of arcs that stretch from the arid borderlands of Baltistan to the tropical jungles of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Himalaya span a distance of roughly 2,500 kilometres in length and between 350 and 150 kilometres in breadth, rising to a maximum height of almost 9 kilometres above the level of the sea. Altogether, fourteen of the world’s tallest summits exceed 8,000 metres and ten of these are located in the Himalaya. The other four are in the neighbouring Karakoram. More than half of the fifty highest peaks on earth lie along the Himalayan chain. Five nations—China, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan—include a portion of the Himalaya within their borders, though many of these boundaries are in dispute and the exiled government of Tibet still lays claim to much of the territory occupied by China.
Just as the spelling and pronunciation of the Himalaya has been debated for centuries, ever since the Sanskrit name was first transliterated into English, geographers have struggled to define these mountains with any coherence or consistency. While most writers, like myself, limit the Himalaya to the mountains that stand between the river Tsang Po or Brahmaputra in the east and the Indus in the west, others allow for a more flexible definition, often including parts of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush as well as some of the mountains further eastward.
Regardless of these discrepancies, the two giant peaks that bookend the Himalaya are Namche Barwa in southeastern Tibet and Nanga Parbat at the northwestern edge of Kashmir. An equally difficult question is where to draw a line for the northern and southern limits of this range. For example, Mount Kailas, the most sacred mountain of all, sometimes called the ‘keystone’ of the Himalaya, is technically situated in the trans-Himalayan region to the north. On the other hand, the Shivalik foothills to the south are considered a separate range, though they merge with the Himalaya at many points. Similarly, the Duar Range, the ‘doorway’ to higher mountains in north-eastern India, is virtually contiguous with the Himalaya. Both the Bhabar and Terai, consisting of grasslands and jungle, below an altitude of 500 metres, that skirt the central foothills, are an integral part of the Himalaya, as are the upper margins of the Tibetan Plateau, where the northern slopes of the mountains level out at 4,000 metres. Nevertheless, whatever ambiguities are found on maps, these mountains rise above the contentious and confusing boundaries of cartography and politics that divide them.
‘In a thousand ages of the gods, I cannot tell you all the glories of the Himalaya,’ exclaimed a Vedic sage, while another wrote: ‘As the sun dries the morning dew, so does the mere sight of the Himalaya dissipate the sins of man.’ However remote and ineffable the mountains may seem, nothing on earth exists in isolation and it is our story as much as theirs—whatever we choose to tell of these high places and our place amongst them.
Origin myths from different regions of the Himalaya seek to explain the formation of the mountains. According to Verrier Elwin’s Myths of the NorthEast Frontier of India, the Hruso tribe (also known as the Aka) in Arunachal Pradesh believes that the world was created out of two eggs. When these hatched, one produced the sky, which was male, and the other the earth, which was female. When the sky tried to copulate with the earth, he discovered that she was too large for him to take her in his arms, so he asked his terrestrial lover to make herself smaller. As she did, her pliable body was drawn together and folded into hills, mountains and valleys. ‘When the Sky made love to the Earth, every kind of tree and grass and all living creatures came into being.’
Excerpts from Stephen Alter’s book, ‘Wild Himalaya’ (Aleph).