Augusto Gansser and the Himalaya

Rasoul Sorkhabi

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.        
William Blake (1757-1827), Gnomic Verses

The above quotation has a special significance for geologists. ‘Great works’ in regional geology are reports of reliable data, careful interpretations, and stimulating writings that contribute considerably to the geologic understanding of a part of our planet. Augusto Gansser, the reputed Swiss geologist who died on 9 January 2012 at his home in Lugano, southern Switzerland at age 101, belonged to a generation of pioneer Himalayan geologists whose fieldworks, ideas and publications lay the foundations of our geologic knowledge of these majestic, sacred, and scientifically significant mountains. Augusto Gansser was a ‘romantic geologist.’

From the Alps to the Himalaya
Augusto Gansser, the eldest of his four siblings, was born on 28 October 1910 in Milan, Italy to a Swiss father and a German mother. In 1914, just before World War I, his family moved to Lugano where the young Augusto grew up and went to school. Fascinated by Alpine rocks and landscape, Gansser studied geology at the University of Zürich and obtained his doctorate in 1936 with a thesis on the structural geology and petrography of southeast Swiss Alps.

Augusto Gansser. (Rasoul Sorkhabi)

Augusto Gansser. (Rasoul Sorkhabi)

In 1936, Arnold Heim (1882-1965) asked Gansser to join him on the first Swiss expedition to the Himalaya. Arnold Heim was the son and student of Albert Heim, the legendary Alpine geologist at the University of Zürich. Heim’s and Gansser’s eight-month journey in 1936 to the Himalaya is narrated in a fascinating travelogue, The Throne of the Gods (1938 in the title so chosen because the Hindus and the Buddhists regard the Himalaya with such veneration. The book is profusely illustrated with ‘220 plates in photogravure, 18 sketches in the text, 11 musical items, 2 panoramas and 1 relief map’. Heim and Gansser flew on a two-winged ‘Douglas’ airplane of the Dutch KLM airlines from Italy (with a stop at Gaza, Palestine) to Delhi, India. The day of their flight, 19 and 20 March, fell on Spring Equinox. The region Heim (‘Bara Sahib’ as porters and local guides called him) and Gansser (‘Chota Sahib’) planned to map was part of the Kumaun Himalaya in India bordering Nepal and Tibet (the latter countries were not open to foreigners in those years). Heim and Gansser also climbed (solo or together) several peaks and nearly twenty mountain-passes ranging in altitude from 5000 to 6000 m (listed in the last chapter of The Throne of the Gods).

Heim and Gansser anticipated that the geologic concepts developed in the Alps would help better understand the structure and geologic history of the Himalaya. Foremost among these Alpine discoveries were thrust faults and folds which transported older and deeper rocks atop younger rocks for tens of miles, thus shaping the high mountains. A number of Swiss geologists, notably Hans Conrad Escher von der Linth and his student and successor at Zürich Albert Heim, were pioneers of mapping these thrust-folds, which geologists call ‘nappe’ in French and ‘decke’ in German (meaning a ‘sheet’ of rock moved over another rock body). Such structures formed under compressional forces acting upon mountains. Today, thanks to plate tectonics, we know that the head-on movements of tectonic plates are responsible for such compressional forces and mountain structures. However, in those years the ‘nappe theory’ was a revolutionary development in geology.

Heim and Gansser published the results of their arduous fieldwork in a monograph titled Central Himalaya: Geological Observations of the Swiss Expedition 1936 (1939). This 250-page volume, dedicated to the memory of Albert Heim (who died in 1937 at age 88), included 162 hand-drawn figures and an appendix atlas consisting of 8 structural cross-sections, 65 outcrop photographs, 21 microphotographs (of rock thin-sections), and a geological map of Central Himalaya at the scale of 1:650,000 (together with a structural cross-section). When Central Himalaya was reprinted in India in 1975, K. S. Valdiya, a geology professor at the Kumaun University of Nanital and an authority on the Kumaun Himalaya wrote a foreword to the book, in which he remarked: ‘Much work has been done in Kumaun since the publication of this memoir, but ... these investigations have by and large established the validity of the premises of Heim and Gansser and amply confirmed their tectonic deductions.’

Along the Kali valley on the Nepal-India border, Gansser worked out the lithology and structure of the High Himalaya and mapped a basement rupture, what he called the Main Central Thrust (MCT), which has brought the highly metamorphosed rocks (gneiss and schist) of the Higher Himalaya atop the less-metamorphosed sedimentary rocks of the Lesser (Lower) Himalaya. Heim and Gansser concluded that the Higher Himalaya is made up of 10-12 km thick ‘Central Crystalline Zone’ (igneous and metamorphic rocks) overlain by 10-15 km thick sedimentary rocks of Precambrian, Paleozoic and Mesozoic age to the north. On its southern boundary, the Central Crystalline Zone has moved over the Lesser (Lower) Himalayan rocks for a distance of 110 km along the MCT. This basement rupture, rooted some 30 km below the surface where rocks were partially molten (migmatites) and metamorphosed (gneiss and schist) under high temperatures and pressure conditions, was responsible for the great uplift of the Himalaya in Cenozoic times. The thrusting and folding of the Himalaya was due to horizontal compression between India and Asia as postulated by the Swiss geologist Emile Argand in his masterpiece La Tectonic de l’Asie (Tectonics of Asia) in 1924.

A Geologist’s Pilgrimage to Mount Kailash
Gansser’s bold trip in disguise of a Tibetan pilgrim to Kailash in southern Tibet, makes an important part of The Throne of the Gods and Central Himalaya. Indeed, very few Europeans, let alone geologists, had visited the holy Kailash before. Soaring to a height of 6638 m in the Trans-Himalaya, Kailash is situated close to the source of the major Himalayan rivers: Indus, Satluj, Ganges, Karnali, and Tsangpo (Brahmaputra).

Augusto Gansser in 1936. (Arnold Heim)

Augusto Gansser in 1936. (Arnold Heim)

Mingling with a group of Tibetan pilgrims, Gansser and his local guide approached Kailash from Mangshang pass (5602 m). In the Amlang-la and Jungbwa areas near the India-Tibet border, Gansser documented deep-sea sediments (flysch), ocean-floor volcanic rocks (ophiolites), and exotic (obducted) blocks of oceanic rocks (volcanics and sediments) found among very different sediments. These observations eventually led Gansser to suggest that the Indus-Tsnagpo Suture Zone (or ‘the Indus Suture Line’ as Gansser initially called it in his 1964 book) was the plate boundary along which the Tethys Ocean subducted beneath Tibet and the India-Asia continental collision took place.

Gansser circumambulated Kailash as pilgrims would do; but his geologist eye also noticed that the 2000 m uppermost part of the mountain was comprised by horizontal layers of sandstone and conglomerate of probably Eocene to Miocene age.

On his way back to India, Gansser was transformed from a lama to a shepherd and returned with a flock of sheep and rock samples. He later recalled that during that trip he could hide his camera, hammer, notebook and rock samples under his Tibetan cloak (chuba) but the only thing he could not hide was his blue eyes! The risky trip took 13 days (beginning on 28 June) but it had an enormous impact on Gansser’s professional life and spiritual thinking. Gansser wrote of his experience:

When for the first time the mighty Kailas is displayed to us in its full magnificence, Paldin, my companion, kneels and touches the ground with his forehead. Then he looks round at me questioningly, somewhat anxiously. ‘No, Paldin,’ I answer the unspoken enquiry, ‘this mountain is just as sacred to me as it is to you, for I too am a pilgrim, just as those two lamas who passed a moment ago are pilgrims. Like you, like them, I am in search of the beautiful, the sacred in this wonderful mountain.’ I wrestle with my broken Hindustani, interspersed with broken English. But Paldin understands me (The Throne of the Gods, p. 98).

In August, Gansser made another foray into Tibet – a nine-day trip from Balcha Dhura to the upper Satluj. The main purpose was to better understand the geology of the ‘exotic’ blocks of the Tethys ocean floor lying in southern Tibet. During this trip, on 13 August at an altitude of 4300 m, Gansser happened to find an ancient cave decorated with Buddhist wall paintings. There is a photograph of this in The Throne of the Gods (plate 163). Since then, abandoned Buddhist cave-towns have become an important subject to investigate the cultural history of Himalayan settlements. In June 2011, Helmut Neumann and Heidi Neumann published an article, ‘The Wall Paintings of Pang Gra Phug: Augusto Gansser’s Cave,’ in the Hong Kong-based magazine Orientations, in which they reported their visit to Gansser’s cave and suggested that the Buddhist paintings were made between the 12th-15th centuries.

The Making of the Geology of the Himalaya
Back to Switzerland in 1937, Gansser married Linda (Toti) Biaggi, a champion Swiss swimmer. The couple remained loving companions for the rest of their lives and raised six children. In the same year, Gansser joined Shell Oil Company which sent him to work in Colombia until 1946 (conducting geological studies and mapping in the Andes) and then in Trinidad for another three years. From 1951-1957, Gansser worked for the National Iranian Oil Company in Tehran.

In 1958, Gansser returned to the academic world: He accepted the joint position of professor of geology at the University of Zürich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). He proved to be a wonderful teacher and conducted geologic research in the Alps. The new position at Zürich also gave Gansser an opportunity to renew his Himalayan work. In 1964, Gansser published his best-known book, Geology of the Himalayas (Geology hereinafter), which summarised the geologic knowledge of the Himalaya drawn on the works published from 1851 through 1962 (including those by the British geologists of the Geological Survey of India) as well as Gansser’s own observations. A list of over 320 references at the end of the book testifies to the systematic and comprehensive approach and the enormous amount of time Gansser took to compile the book. He even redrew many of the figures from old photographs.

The idea to prepare the book was suggested to Gansser by the Dutch geologist Lamoraal Ulbo de Sitter (1902-1980) in 1960 when the latter was to edit a series of Regional Geology books for the Wiley- Interscience publishing company, and Gansser’s book happened to be first in the series. It came out on the occasion of the 22nd International Geological Congress held in New Delhi.

The publication of the Geology coincided with the plate tectonic revolution of the 1960s, and marks a turning point in the history of Himalayan geology. Gansser was one of the earliest geologists who applied the new theory of plate tectonics to interpret the geologic formation of the Himalaya. He made his first attempt in a 1966 paper, ‘The Indian Ocean and the Himalaya: A geologic interpretation.’ This paper was written shortly after a few benchmark papers triggering the idea of plate tectonics came out including papers by Robert Dietz in 1961, Harold Hess in 1962 and Tuzo Wilson in 1965 on sea-floor spreading and especially the paper by Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp in 1965 on the physiography of the world’s ocean floor (published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of London), which Gansser referred to in his paper. All these works discussed the opening of the oceans such as the Indian Ocean as a result of continental plates drifting away from one another at mid-ocean ridges. In his 1966 paper, Gansser described the other side of the drifting plates, that is, how the northward motion of the Indian plate, after its separation from Gondwana and across the Tethys ocean, eventually collided with Asia and this process explained the origin of the Himalaya. Gansser estimated that the tectonic compression has resulted in crustal shortening (by folding and thrusting) of at least 500 km in the Himalaya.

Over the years, as he expanded his Himalayan research and knowledge, Gansser published several papers on how the Himalayan mountains formed through the geologic time; these papers influenced generations of Himalayan geologists.

The Geology of Buddhist Himalaya: Bhutan, Ladakh and Tibet
Buddhism originated in the shadow of the Himalaya, but as it shifted from India northward over the centuries, several Buddhist kingdoms were formed in the High Himalaya and Tibet. Because of their remoteness, the geology of these Buddhist kingdoms including Bhutan, Sikkim, Mustang, Zanskar and Ladakh remained unknown for a long period of time.

From 1963 to 1977, Gansser made five expeditions to Bhutan, funded by the Swiss National Fund and the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research. Through Fritz von Schlthess, a Swiss expert on Bhutan, Gansser established contact with the country’s royal family and soon became friends. The Royal family’s support crucially helped Gansser to conduct field mapping in the remote parts of Bhutan. Gansser’s 1983 book, Geology of the Bhutan Himalaya, dedicated to the memory of HM King Dorji Wangchuck, laid the foundation of our knowledge of Bhutan’s geology. He summarised his work in a 1993 paper, and also published a colour geologic map of Bhutan (at the scale of 1:500,000) in 1994. Gansser’s fascinating photographs from Bhutan have also decorated two coffee-table books: Bhutan: Land of Hidden Treasures (1971) and The Dragon Kingdom: Image of Bhutan (1988). (‘The Dragon Kingdom’ is the English translation of Druk Yül, the Bhutanese name for their country.)

Ladakh was another Buddhist region Gansser extensively worked in. As India opened Ladakh and Zanskar in the mid-1970s to outside visitors, the region attracted geologists too. Gansser along with Wolfgang Franks and Volkmar Trommsfroff first visited Ladakh in 1977. (This was the year Gansser retired from his university position at Zürich but continued to serve as Professor Emeritus. In the following years, Gansser revisited the region along with students. Their works greatly improved our knowledge of the geology of Ladakh, which is made up of granitic and volcanic rocks (part of the Trans-Himalayan belt) formed by the subduction of the Tethys ocean floor beneath Asia prior to the emergence of the Himalaya. Gansser himself published several important papers on the geology and interpretation of the Indus Suture Zone in northwest Himalaya. (A suture zone is where two continental plates collide.)

Gansser visited Tibet in 1980 at the invitation of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to participate in an international symposium on Tibet. In 1985, he revisited Tibet on a joint British-Chinese expedition.

Final Years, Final Words
Gansser spent the last decades of his life in a quiet house with a large garden in Massagno, Lugano, taking care of his wife (who died of Alzheimer in 2000), and continuing his research and publications. For his pioneering geologic work in several mountain ranges, Gansser received a number of prestigious awards including the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London (1980), the Prix Gaudry of the Geological Society of France (1982), the Steinmann Medal of the Geological Society of West Germany (1982), and King Albert Medal of Merit (Belgium, 1998). Gansser was an honorary member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Geological Society of America, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Rome), the Himalayan Club, Geological Society of India, and the Nepal Geological Society. In 1983, the University of Peshawar (Pakistan) gave Gansser the honorary title of ‘Baba Himalaya’ (Father of the Himalaya).

Gansser loved geology; he meticulously kept all his field notebooks. He was probably the last of the generation of geologists who put field mapping and observations above theories and models. Although Gansser did not shy away from conceptual models, he believed that geologic interpretations should be based on the real data from the field. This is reflected in his 1990 William Smith lecture at the Geological Society of London titled, ‘Facts and Theories on the Himalayas.’ This intimacy with mountains is also evident from his fine sketches of landscape and geologic features that fill many pages his notebooks, books and papers. He was ambidextrous and could draw with both right and left hand.

Perhaps of all mountains in the world, the Himalaya was Gansser’s most beloved. And not only did he care about Himalayan geology but also showed genuine respect and compassionate curiosity toward Himalayan peoples and cultures. Such interests are elegantly depicted in his 1987 book Himalayas: Growing Mountains, Living Myths, Migrating Peoples, which begins with a line from the Purana, perhaps expressing the authors’ feelings as well: ‘In a hundred ages of the gods, I could not tell thee of the glories of the Himalaya.’

A Personal View
Sometimes the life and writings of a geologist captures the soul and science of a mountain. For me to read Gansser and to research his life-long work was to understand the language of the Himalaya. Although I had read some of Gansser’s works during my student years in the 1980s, it was in the 1990s that I came into contact with him. I then edited a biannual newsletter The Himalayan Notes and featured Gansser’s biography in the premier issue of the newsletter in 1993. He kindly supplied me with the necessary information about his career. An expanded version of that article was later published in the Journal of the Geological Society of India in 1996 on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of Professor Gansser’s birth. In April 1995, I was honoured to meet him in Ascona, Switzerland where the 10v Himalaya-Karakoram-Tibet Workshop was held, and Prof. Gannser was the guest of honour and gave a key-note speech titled ‘The Forgotten Trans-Himalaya.’ I was also delighted by his friendly and fascinating conversation with me about his work and life. We continued our correspondence for some time.

Selected Works of Augusto Gansser on the Himalaya

  • 1938
    (with Arnold Heim) Thron der Götter: Erlebnisse der ersten Schweizer Himalaya-Expedition. Zürich/Leipzig: Mogarten- Verlag, 270 p. [English translation by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul, 1939: The Throne of the Gods: An Expedition to the Himalayas. Macmillan, London and New York, 233 p.; Reprinted in 1994 by Book Faith India, Delhi]
  • 1939
    (with Arnold Heim) Central Himalaya: Geological Observations of the Swiss Expedition 1936. Zürich: Memoires de la Société Helvetique des Sciences Naturelles, vol. 73, no. 1, 245 p. [Reprinted in 1975 by Hindustan Publishing Corporation, Delhi, with an introduction by K.S. Valdiya.]
  • 1964
    Geology of the Himalayas. London and New York: Wiley-Interscience Publishers, 289 p.
  • 1966
    The Indian Ocean and the Himalayas: A geological interpretation. Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae, vol. 59, p. 831–848.
  • 1969
    The Alps and the Himalayas. In: Himalayan and Alpine Orogeny, New Delhi, Report of the Twenty-Second International Geological Congress, 1964, Part XI, Proceedings of Section 11, p. 387–399.
  • 1974
    Himalaya. In: Spencer, A.M. (ed.) Mesozoic-Cenozoic Orogenic Belts: Data for Orogenic Studies. Geological Society of London Special Publication 4, p. 267–278.
  • 1974
    The Himalayan Tethys. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia, Memoria, vol. 19, p. 393–411.
  • 1977
    The great suture zone between Himalaya and Tibet: A preliminary account. In: Himalaya: Sciences de la terre. Colloques Internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique 268, vol. 2, p. 181–191.
  • 1979
    Ophiolitic belts of the Himalayan and Tibetan region. In: Irwin, W.P., Dietrich, V.J., Knipper, A.L., and Gansser, A. (eds.) International Atlas of Ophiolites, (International Geological Correlation Programme, Project Ophiolites): Geological Society of America Map and Chart Series 33, p. 13–15.
  • 1980
    The division between Himalaya and Karakorum. Proceedings of the International Committee on Geodynamics Group 6 Meeting, Geological Bulletin of the University of Peshawar, vol. 13 (special issue), p. 9–22.
  • 1980
    The Peri-Indian suture zone. In: Geologie des chaines alpines issues de la Tethys—Geology of the Alpine Chains Born of the Tethys, 26th International Geological Congress, Paris, Memoires du B.R.G.M., vol. 115, p. 140–148.
  • 1980
    The significance of the Himalayan suture zone. Tectonophysics, vol. 62, p. 37–52.
  • 1981
    The geodynamic history of the Himalaya. In: Gupta, H.K., and Delany, F.M. (eds.) Zagros-Hindu Kush-Himalaya: Geodynamic Evolution. Washington, D.C.: American Geophysical Union, Geodynamic Series 3, p. 111–121.
  • 1981
    The timing and significance of orogenic events in the Himalaya. In: Geological and Ecological Studies of Qinghai-Xizang Plateau. Beijing: Science Press, vol. 1, p. 23–30.
  • 1987
    (with Olschak, B.C., Gruschke, A., and Bührer, E.M.) Himalaya: Wachsende Berge, lebendige Mythen, wandernde Menschen [in German]. Luzern: Motovun Verlagsgesellschaft. [English translation by K. Badger, J.A. Deleay, and J. Nykiel, 1987, Himalayas: Growing Mountains, Living Myths, Migrating Peoples. New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 288 p.]
  • 1991
    Facts and theories on the Himalayas. Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae, vol. 84, p. 33–59. [Reprinted in the Journal of the Geological Society of India, 1994, vol. 46, p. 487–508.]
  • 1991
    John Bicknell Auden (1903–1991). Journal of the Geological Society of India, vol. 37, p. 613–617.
  • 1993
    The Himalayas seen from Bhutan. Jahrbuch der Geologischen Bundesanstalt Wien, vol. 136, p. 335–346.
  • 1994
    Geological Map of the Bhutan Himalaya. Boston, Massachusetts: Birkhauser-Verlag, scale 1:500,000, 1 sheet.
  • 1997
    Bhutan. In: Moores, E.M., and Fairbridge, R.W. (eds.) Encyclopedia of European and Asian Regional Geology. London: Chapman & Hall, p. 83–86.

A profile of the renowned Swiss geologist Augusto Gansser (1910- 2012) and his life-long work in the Himalaya.

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