Missing Links

Himalayan ‘Borderlands’ in the Western Imagination

Mark Liechty

Especially for countercultural figures - people unhappy with the secular, rational, capitalist West - the Himalaya was the last unknown place, and therefore the last place on which they could project their hopes, dreams, and fantasies for some other, uncontaminated, place.

As someone who spent some formative years growing up in the mountains of North India and Nepal, I’ve always been fascinated, and a little perplexed by what the Himalaya means, especially to people who don’t actually live there. Over the years I came to understand the Himalaya to be a region of great beauty and grandeur, but also of real hardship and struggle for actual Himalayan peoples. But I also realized that, to my fellow westerners, the Himalaya was often loaded with all kinds of other meanings that I didn’t really understand. For them it stands for mystical Oriental exoticism, for spiritual enlightenment, healing, and for a kind of untouched, non-Westernized purity or pristineness. In short, they imagine the Himalaya to be a non-West, a place not yet dirtied by modernity, capitalism, materialism, and all kinds of other Westernisms that they don’t like.

To give you an example of what I mean, let me quote from a recent interview with the British film star Benedict Cumberbatch. This is the actor who starred in the Hollywood film called Dr Strange which tells the story of an American medical doctor who, after a crippling injury, goes to the Himalaya, and specifically Kathmandu, to be cured by a magically powerful quasi-Buddhist nun. Parts of the movie were actually filmed in Kathmandu and, as I expected, the film is full of every oriental stereotype imaginable, and then some. So when a student of mine sent me a copy of an interview Cumberbatch had given on his experiences in Nepal, I expected the actor to have some basic critical consciousness about the kinds of crazy myths that his movie was trafficking. But that was not the case. Cumberbatch found Kathmandu to be “exotic” and “incredibly spiritual and marvellous.” The film’s director then chimed in to say, “I’ve been all over the world, but there’s no place on the planet like Kathmandu. It is a city with almost no Western influence. It is a large city, so deeply mystical and religious in all operations, and in a most peaceful, beautiful, colourful way.” 1

My guess is that many of you have visited Kathmandu and I wonder how many found it to be “incredibly spiritual and marvellous,” a place with “almost no Western influence,” a “deeply mystical and religious” place, a “most peaceful” city? How could anyone go to Kathmandu and not find a chaotic, noisy, polluted, crowded, city? Of course Kathmandu has its charms and Nepalis are wonderful, gracious people. But how is it that presumably reasonable people like Benedict Cumberbatch can go to Nepal and find a place that arguably does not exist outside of their own imaginations?

In a nutshell, that is the question I have tried to answer. After a lifetime of hearing comments like these, I wanted to know how and why Westerners have constructed not just an imagined Kathmandu, but an imagined Himalayan region marked by mystical alterity? As I dug deeper into these questions I soon found that the kinds of things Cumberbatch was saying were anything but new. Rather, for most of the last 200 years Europeans and Americans have been imagining the Himalaya in similar, and sometimes almost identical, terms. Especially for countercultural figures - people unhappy with the secular, rational, capitalist West - the Himalaya was the last unknown place, and therefore the last place on which they could project their hopes, dreams, and fantasies for some other, uncontaminated, place. What this means is that for a long time, and seemingly undiminished even today, the West has looked to the Himalaya for what it imagines it has lost. What I try to do in Far Out is to explain how and why these fantasies originated, how they then materialized into various forms of tourism in Nepal after 1951, and how Nepalis learned to then sell the dreams that tourists brought with them to Nepal.

The Structure of Ideas

I’ll try not to get too theoretical here but part of this phenomenon relates to what anthropologists refer to as the structure of ideas. Humans divide the infinitely complex world into a manageable set of categories that allow us to make sense of our lived experience - however imperfectly. For example, we use maps to transform the infinite detail of geographic space into a cognitively manageable set of meaningful places. These places - towns, nations, rivers - we then plot onto maps that represent back to us a world that we can comprehend.

Yet how we imagine space often has unintended, even mystifying, consequences. That is, the ways that we chart meaningful places onto maps sets up a dynamic whereby the areas between the meaningful, known areas on the map begin to exert a magical attraction on our minds. For example, any two civilizational centres marked on a map will have, between them, an area of the seemingly unknown and uncivilized. For most people those seemingly unknown areas of the map are scary and uninviting. But to others, those seemingly uncivilized borderland peripheries are mystically, almost irresistibly, enticing.

The point I’m leading to, of course, is that because our mental maps of Asia locate two major civilizational core regions in what we know today as India and China, the area between those core zones - the Himalaya - is enchanted due to the very structure of ideas that made the mountains a periphery or liminal in-between zone. You might argue that the Himalaya, because it forms a massive physical barrier between India and China, is peripheral by its very nature. We imagine the Himalaya to be like a wall between two rooms. But I would remind you that in the world’s second largest mountain chain, the Andes of South America, it is the mountain region itself that is the civilizational centre, with the lowland deserts and jungles on either side of the range acting as the peripheries that a different structure of ideas have created as zones of mystical empowerment. Mountains are not inherently margins: they are created as such by humans.

What I hope to be conveying is that there is no inherent quality of the Himalaya that makes it magically alluring. Certainly for the people living in it this is not the case. Rather, it is outsiders whose mental maps have turned the Himalaya into a liminal borderland. Our fascination with borderlands has more to do with where humans imagine centres to be than with any inherently marginal quality of the places we call borderlands.

Therefore, since outsiders have structured their ideas so as to imagine the Himalaya as a margin, it is not surprising that what outsiders have found on that dangerous and vulnerable boundary has more to do with where they came from than with where they went to. Time and again outsiders have used the Himalaya as a land in which to find that which they imagine to have been lost in the core zones, but which they hope still lives on in the mysterious margins between known worlds. The Himalaya in particular seems to have a rich history of being the locus of projections of longing for the lost - or what I’ll call ‘missing links’.

Missing Links

In South Asia we could trace this mysticizing of the Himalaya all the way back to Vedic literature, or the Mahabharata and Ramayana, all of which imagine the Himalaya as the ‘abode of the gods’; a ‘realm of mystery, danger, and supernatural power’. In the South Asian geo- imagery the Himalaya is a zone of supernatural, exotic, even erotic anti-structure (Lutgendorf 2005).

But turning our focus on the colonial era, we see related phenomena. The British always understood the Himalaya (and especially after the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-15) to be a buffer zone between themselves and their perceived geopolitical foes, first the Chinese and later the Russians. That Nepal remained a quasi-independent state throughout the Raj is, of course, the result of British geopolitical strategizing. The British were happy to support Nepal’s isolationism as long as Nepal allowed British military recruitment along its borders. That Nepal exists today as a nation-state, and not a former princely-state province of India, is itself arguably an artifact of its historical constitution as an imagined colonial geopolitical borderland.

One of the results of this British policy is that, when European Indologists ‘discovered’ Nepal in the 19th century, Nepal was already imagined as a peripheral borderland between two already imagined zones of political coherence: India and Tibet (or China). It was in this magical ‘forbidden land’ - where ‘time stood still’ - that European Indologists re-created the Himalaya as a time-warped cultural interface. With Rana isolationism fueling the myth of Nepali timelessness, indologists imagined Nepal to be an enchanted borderland where might still be found clues to the ancient Indic past, the glorious days of India before, as the British claimed, racial decline and Muslim conquests had reduced South Asians to a pitiable state fit only for colonial rule. Similarly, indologists imagined Nepal to be the last refuge of a primeval Buddhism now lost in its homeland to the south, and corrupted in the form of Popish Lamaism to the north. In other words, for British indologists, the borderland/interface of Nepal was the imagined missing link between the glorious Indic past and its degenerate present, a place where what had been lost in India could still be found.

Of course 19 century European and American Theosophists took these colonial fantasies of the Himalaya to their (il)logical extremes. While indologists looked for dusty ancient manuscripts in Kathmandu, the founder of Theosophy, Mdm. Blavatsky, claimed to receive mystical messages sent from ‘Himalayan mahatmas’, that she called ‘Masters of the Universe’, the ‘Tibetan Brotherhood’, and even the ‘Great White Brotherhood’—that she claimed lived as immortals in the remote Himalaya. With Tibet essentially the last remaining, most isolated, and most distant terra incognita on the face of the earth by the end of the 19th century, it became the last blank screen on which to freely project Western dreams and fantasies. As such, Mdm. Blavatsky would claim that her occult knowledge came to her through mystical communication with the Himalaya, a claim that makes her ideas farfetched—in every sense of the term.

By the turn of the 20 century Theosophy had emerged as one of Euro- America’s leading countercultural movements and it is Theosophy that is largely responsible for focusing the West’s popular longing for occult or hidden meaning onto the Himalayan region.

Intriguingly, among Blavatsky’s imagined Himalayan Masters, only two were actually even Asian. In tune with Victorian race theory, the rest were spirits of white ‘Aryan’ Masters, thought to preserve in their mountain hideouts the once and future wisdom of the superior Aryan or white race. For our purposes, the point is that, in the face of extreme alienation and disenchantment brought about by rapid industrial modernization in the West, Blavatsky and Theosophy imagined the Himalaya to be the last bastion of uncorrupted Western wisdom. Once again the Himalaya serves as home of a missing link, now between nothing less than the glories of ancient Aryan wisdom lost in the lands of its origins, and the future well-being of humanity waiting to be led back to truth by the ‘Great White Brotherhood’ of the Himalaya.

Anyone familiar with the story line of James Hilton’s best-selling 1933 novel Lost Horizon will immediately recognize its resonances with the Theosophical idea of the Himalaya as a land containing a precious time capsule that will restore Western Civilization. Written during the post-WW I period of extreme anti-modernist disillusionment and countercultural angst, published during the Great Depression, and influenced by decades of Theosophical-oriented fantasies of Tibet, Lost Horizon was an instant sensation. Like Blavatsky’s Tibet, Hilton’s utopic Lamasery of Shangri-La is both Buddhist and Christian; its libraries preserving all the great works of (mainly Western) civilization against an impending global calamity, and its High Lama a Catholic priest from Luxembourg. Snug in his magical Himalayan valley, where time is mysteriously slowed, the High Lama explains:

Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their [warring] passions are all spent. We [that is, Westerners] have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. (Hilton 1988 [1933]: 191)

Once again Tibet is home to what the West imagines itself to have lost, a missing link to its own past and future frozen in the glacial timelessness of the Himalaya.

With so many other missing links thought to be hidden in the Himalaya, it was inevitable that Westerners would eventually imagine the ultimate missing link to be lurking in remote high-altitude zones of Nepal and Tibet. This, of course, is the yeti, the ‘missing link’ that would tie mankind to its evolutionary past. In Far Out I document how, in the 1950s - a decade known for its fixation on monsters, UFOs, and paranormal phenomena of all sorts - one of the most colourful fantasy figures was the abominable snowman. The Himalayan yeti first entered the West’s popular imagination in the 1920s when British mountaineers reported mysterious tracks in the Everest region. But it wasn’t until the 1950s when yeti-mania struck hard, sending numerous high-profile expeditions into the Himalayan back country. Yetis proved impossible to find in the wild but, nevertheless, they quickly began showing up in popular films and comic books - as both villains and heroes—often making appearances alongside aliens, spies, Communists, and other frightening creatures that populated the West’s imagination in the 1950s.

The yeti has a strange and complicated pedigree in the Western imagination. As we’ve seen, Tibet and the Himalaya were imagined to be the last home and holdout of things lost in the ‘civilized’ Western world. The yeti is part of this tradition of fantasy projection whereby people wanted to believe that something could exist in a still little- known place. Most Nepalis neither knew nor cared about yetis, but Westerners deeply desired their existence. Once again the mysterious Himalayan borderlands came to be the repository for a part of the Western self that it had lost.

That Western popular films, novels, and comic books often depicted yetis as interacting with Chinese Communists, points to another crucial geopolitical development for Nepal in the 1950s, namely, its re-emergence as a front line state. As in the previous version of the Great Game (though now with the US replacing Britain in the role of global hegemon), again in the 1950s Nepal’s fame suddenly rose as it was reconstituted in the Western imagination as a crucial bulwark against advancing Communism. The Soviet Union, China, India, and the US all courted Nepal for its affections, lavishing gifts upon the state to the extent that in 1960 Nepal’s King Mahendra could overthrow his democratically-elected government and set himself up as Panchayat dictator. In an interview published in Time magazine in 1961, Mahendra justified his royal coup d’état by claiming that “The [elected] government was always trying to put me in an awkward position”. As for popular plans to impose property taxes on Nepali elites, Time magazine quotes Mahendra as asking, “Why should we pay taxes when we can always get more money from the Americans?” (Time, 1961). Of course Mahendra had a point. By the early 1960s, Nepal was, in the words of one foreign expert, ‘being smothered in foreign aid’ (Wood 1987:189). With the US bankrolling Nepal’s state apparatus, why should Mahendra risk alienating his main domestic power base? For their part, the US supported Mahendra’s coup reasoning that “any anti-communist government is a good government” (Mihaly 2002 [1965]:139).

For our purposes here, the point is that Nepal rose to unprecedented levels of international attention in the context of its (re)birth as a geopolitical buffer state or borderland between great powers. To underline this point, it’s noteworthy that there were more headlined articles on Nepal in Time and Newsweek between 1950 and 1960 than in all other decades combined. But at the moment when Nepal seemed to stop being a geopolitical player, suddenly yeti expeditions abruptly stopped and Nepal dropped out of the world news. After 1960 Nepal was quickly recast from the role of relevant political actor to that of exotic curiosity. My point is that the power of the borderland myth rises and falls as powers external to Nepal need such a borderland for their own imaginative and political purposes.

Since the 1960s Nepal’s emergence as an international tourist destination has had a lot to do with the region’s ongoing role as imagined mystical borderland. As the Himalaya increasingly lost its relevance as Cold War buffer zone, another wave of countercultural angst swept the West reviving earlier images of Tibet and Nepal as liminal zones imbued with spiritual qualities lost in the West. The 1960s and ’70s saw Nepal (and India) inundated with Western youth intent on countercultural escape, many of them toting books by assorted Theosophists. Today many have embraced the Nepali state’s rebranding of its tourist product as an adventure destination, but even now most tourists view religion as one of Nepal’s primary cultural attractions and a sizable portion are explicitly ‘dharma’ tourists. Here the old Indological constructions of Nepal as a zone of Hindu-Buddhist interface are reborn making Nepal unique as a one-stop shopping destination for Eastern Religion including the flavour of the day, Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, one can arguably trace Tibetan Buddhism’s desperate exile’s embrace of Westerners to the Kathmandu tourist encounter of 1960s (as I do in the book).

Not unlike the Theosophists who imagined the Himalaya to be harbouring the hope of the West’s spiritual renewal, today’s dharma tourists are First World-ers drawn to Nepal by dreams of therapeutic restoration. At least since (the Theosophist) Carl Jung’s ‘psychologization of Tibetan Buddhism in the 1930s (Pedersen 2001), Western countercultural belief has looked to The East for treatment of the ills that have befallen industrial civilization. If - as Jung argued - Eastern religion is really psychology, then Eastern religious practices - most notably meditation - can be re-imagined as “techniques for the attainment of mental health or, in other words, psychotherapy” (Pedersen 2001:160). Jung was the first and most important of a long line of quasi-scientific figures to turn the East into a therapy with results ranging from the modern figure of the Guru/Rinpoche- as-therapist, to meditation and yoga as self-help, self-discovery, and even fitness phenomena. Cut loose from their epistemological moorings, so-called Eastern ideas and practices are harnessed to the symptoms of an ever-shifting Western spiritual malaise, once again transforming the East into a screen for Western projections. How else to account for the strange irony of today’s Western dharma tourists in Nepal, people seeking Western-style self-improvement in Buddhist teachings and practices that fundamentally deny the existence of self (Moran 2004)?

The contemporary Irish poet Cathal O’ Searcaigh begins his poem Kathmandu with this line: “Kathmandu is there to change you” (the “you” being his Western readers). For O’ Searcaigh, Kathmandu is not a place for Nepalis to live. Rather, it exists in order to transform tourists. Like O’ Searcaigh, countless Westerners have been drawn to the Himalayan periphery less to find the people who actually live there, than to find the lost selves they wished to be. According to their ‘structure of ideas’, Kathmandu exists in order to provide Westerners the missing link between alienation and their own self-discovery. It’s this logic that allows Benedict Cumberbatch and others to imagine Kathmandu as ‘incredibly spiritual and marvellous’, “a city with almost no Western influence in it”; a place “so deeply mystical and religious in all operations”. Western countercultural fantasies of the Himalaya seem to be alive and well.

Let me close by noting yet again that foreigners have been losing the strangest things in the Himalaya, or at least looking for them, for a long time. In this piece, I haven’t even touched on “the lost years of Jesus,” or “the lost years of Sherlock Holmes,” both of which - as now seems almost inevitable! - would have occurred in the Himalaya. I haven’t talked about the lost world of Shambala, or the lost heroes of Everest - the list goes on and on. But my main point is to argue that the Himalaya, for whatever it might be geo-physically, is a region heavily loaded with the imaginative projections of external powers that are largely responsible for its production and maintenance as a peripheral border zone. If, as Yi-fu Tuan argues, “peripheral location is a geographical emblem of anti-structure”, then those people most heavily invested in anti-structural, countercultural causes will inevitably be attracted to the most peripheral geographic locations. Not surprisingly, then, people on the countercultural fringes of power often conflate their own experiences of marginality with the imagined marginality of the Himalayan region. As a result, a region like the Himalaya is transformed into, as one scholar argued, a “vessel for contents defined by alien scopes and concerns” (Dodin and Rather 2001:406). Or, to quote Tibetan scholar Jamyang Norbu, “the [Himalayan region] and people come across merely as the [setting] for the personal dramas of white people…. The underlying premise is that [the Himalayan region] is only relevant if it serves the needs of the West” (2001:374-5).


Dodin, Thierry and Heinz Rather (2001) Imagining Tibet: Between Shangri-La and Feudal Oppression, Attempting a Synthesis. Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Rather, eds. Pp. 391-416. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Hilton, James (1998 [1933]) Lost Horizon. Delhi: Book Faith India.

Lutgendorf, Philip (2005) Sex in the Snows: The Himalaya as Erotic Topos in Popular Hindi Cinema. Himalaya 25(1-2):29-37.

Mihaly, Eugene Bramer (2002 [1965]) Foreign Aid and Politics in Nepal. Kathmandu: Himal Books.

Moran, Peter (2004) Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles, and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu. London: Routledge Curzon.

Norbu, Jamyang (2001) Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet. Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Rather, eds. Pp. 373-378. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

O Searcaigh, Cathal (2006) Kathmandu: Poems Selected and New. New Delhi: Nirala.

Pedersen, Poul (2001) Tibet, Theosophy, and the Psychologization of Buddhism. Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Rather, eds. Pp. 151-166. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Time (1961) King and Koirala. 77:27-8, Feb. 3.

Wood, Hugh B. (1987) Nepal Diary. Tillamook, OR: American Nepal Education Foundation.

The author in this presentation on his book Far Out, tries to explain what the Himalaya means, especially to people who don’t live there. The Himalaya is a region of great beauty and grandeur, but also of real hardship and struggle for actual Himalayan people. But for the Westerners, the Himalaya has other meanings - mystical Oriental exoticism, for spiritual enlightenment, healing, and for a kind of untouched, non-Westernized purity or pristineness.

About the Author

Mark Liechty first visited India and Nepal as a young boy in the late 1960s and studied in Woodstock school. With a PhD in anthropology he returned to the Himalaya, which he considers second home. His research focuses on modern Nepali history and culture, resulting in four books including Far Out. He is Professor of Anthropology and History at the University of Illinois. Liechty is a founding co-editor of the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (Kathmandu) and is finishing a book on the history of hydropower development in Nepal.

Note: This is the edited acceptance speech at the Kekoo Naoroji Award Ceremony on 17 February 2018. Mark Liechty received the Award for his book Far Out which he talks about in this article.



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