A few Observations and Reflections on the Himalaya

Stephen Alter

As my eyes met its gaze, I felt an affinity for this animal, a shared sense of being alive. It was as profound an experience as watching the sunrise over Everest.

In June 2019, I visited the Nicholas Roehrich Museum in New York City and was struck by the fact that so many of his Himalayan paintings are on display in Manhattan, halfway around the world from where the peaks themselves are located. This underscores the universal appeal of the mountains and their enduring beauty. Kanchenjunga, more than any other mountain, seems to have captured the Russian émigré artist’s imagination. Part of the reason for this lies in Roehrich’s fascination with the mythological and spiritual traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically stories of Shambala. Looking at his large portraits of Kangchenjunga, as seen from Darjeeling, the stark profile of this mountain rises above the clouds in a flurry of purple, blue and white brushstrokes that pay homage to its geographical stature, as well as the mysterious, mystical qualities of its physical features, chaotic and abstract as they are.

Long before Roehrich trudged up Tiger Hill with his canvas and easel, Edward Lear visited Darjeeling in 1874 and produced several paintings of Kangchenjunga. A British artist and poet, best known for his limericks and nonsense verse, Lear also painted detailed watercolours of birds and landscapes. Though he was initially impressed by the vista, his vision of the mountain quickly soured and he wrote in his journal: “Kinchinjunga is not—so it seems to me—a sympathetic mountain; it is so far off, so very godlike and stupendous, & all that world of dark opal vallies full of misty, hardly to be imagined forms—besides the all but impossibility of expressing the whole as a scene—make up a rather distracting and repelling whole!”1.

Obviously, every artist’s perspective is subjective but the question remains: What is it that makes us consider a mountain to be beautiful?

The size and dimensions of a peak may be impressive but that doesn’t mean it enchants the eye. Chomolungma, or Mt. Everest, is not a particularly alluring mountain, hidden as it is, on its southern flank, behind the intervening profile of Nuptse. While trekking to Everest Base Camp in October 2018, the few glimpses I got of the highest mountain in the world were disappointing. By far, the most dramatic view was from Kala Pathar. Watching the sun rise directly over the South Col of Everest, I was entranced by the brilliant evanescence of that moment, a blinding flash of light that made me feel as if I were staring directly into the eye of creation. Within seconds, however, it was over and the morning sunshine became defused as the summit of Everest remained half-hidden and somehow diminished, a bit like a weather-beaten chimney top on the roof of the world.

Far more beautiful and inspiring is the eastern face of Pumori, which stands immediately above Kala Pathar, to the west of Everest, and catches the early light long before it breaches the opposite ridgeline. And among the many spectacular summits that surround the Khumbu Valley, Ama Dablam is perhaps the most striking of all, its slender, monolithic shape lit up at dawn like the wick of a burning butter lamp.

The aesthetics of Himalayan landscapes are not governed by any rules of symmetry or agreeable proportions. The mountains often exhibit grotesque and contorted shapes that defy the basic principles of geometry and art. Many nineteenth century painters were obsessed with concepts of ‘the picturesque’. Among the first images of the Himalaya to be seen in the West were lithographs based on sketches by the Schlagintweit brothers, a trio of German geologists who published their Results of a Scientific Mission to India and High Asia in 1863. Though they came to the Himalaya to conduct a geomagnetic survey the Schlagintweits also produced picturesque alpine scenes of peaks like Kangchenjunga, as seen from the Singalila ridge.

Many people have asked me what I believe is the most beautiful view of the Himalaya. This is a difficult, if not impossible, question because each vista has its own particular attractions. Nevertheless, when it comes to a panorama of peaks, it is hard to beat the view from Kuari pass in Garhwal, where an unbroken line of snow-clad mountains stretches from Chaukhamba in the west to Dhunagiri in the east, with Kamet and other shapely summits in between. The only disappointment at Kuari pass, other than the inevitable arrival of clouds that obscure the view, is that Nanda Devi cannot be seen from this angle and only appears after one climbs down from the pass, on the way to Auli and Joshimath.

Of course, there are plenty of other spectacular panoramas like the view of the Annapurna group from the Peace Pagoda overlooking Pokhara. Dhaulagiri and Manaslu bookend this vast array of ice-laden summits while Machapuchare rises in the centre like an arrow pointing north. The reflection of these snowy ranges in the waters of Phewa lake only adds to the dramatic effect. Another memorable view comes from the other side of the mountains, along the route between Lhasa and Mt. Kailas, where a continuous chain of peaks and glaciers rear up to the south. On arriving at Lake Manasarovar the enormous wave-like crest of Gurla Mandhata dominates the skyline, as impressive as the striated pyramid of Kailas.

Anyone who lives within sight of the high Himalaya will insist that his or her view of the snow mountains is more beautiful than any other. As a resident of Mussoorie, I often have arguments with friends from Ranikhet, Mukteshwar or Kausani over the relative charms of the vistas we claim as our own. At the same time, it is important to recognize that though, as the saying goes, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ the Himalaya are beholden to none.

To fully appreciate the mountains we must look at them not just as bleak, sterile summits but as a living landscape, rising up in a succession of forested or grassy ridgelines that provide a fertile foundation for the frozen wasteland overhead. The many intersecting ranges that make up the Himalaya contain a diverse and complex series of biomes, inhabited by an almost infinite variety of species from microbes, lichens and mosses to ferns, flowers and trees. Millions of insects, arachnids, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals populate different altitudinal zones, each of them dependent on other forms of life for sustenance and survival. In many ways, the Himalaya are like a giant organism, interconnected on many levels.

Travelling through western Sikkim, from Yuksom to Goecha la in March 2018, my companions and I ascended through a prism of colours as we witnessed the spring bloom of rhododendrons. More than forty species of this hardy family are found in the eastern Himalaya, from the delicate white blossoms of Rhododendron dalhousiae, an epiphyte that takes root thirty or forty feet above the ground in the mossy branches of oaks, to dark red clusters of R. thomsonii, its flowers shaped like temple bells. Different species appeared at each increment in elevation. As we climbed from 1500 m to 4000 m above sea level, we could see the progressive stages of the rhododendrons’ reproductive cycle, from the blowsy blown-out petals of low-growing species like R. arboreum to the nascent buds on R. anthopogon, which would only reveal its fragrant pistils and stamens a month later on the high meadows near Dzongri.

Some of my most memorable experiences in the Himalaya have occurred while watching birds and wildlife, for it is these living creatures that animate the mountains. In June 2013, hidden within a field of boulders that marked the path of an extinct glacier on the southeastern approach to Bandarpunch, I watched a herd of more than twenty bharal, or blue sheep, work their way across cliffs and ice-fields as they descended towards me. The sheep moved cautiously, alert to the possible presence of snow leopards or other predators. Perfectly adapted to the terrain, they negotiated perpendicular surfaces with ease. Their slate grey pelage, mottled with shades of black and brown, blended into the rock face, so that when they stood still, they were perfectly camouflaged. It took the herd more than an hour and a half to come within twenty metres of my hide.

Meanwhile, a few minutes after I took up my position, a movement within the rocks to my right alerted me to another creature. Living within the crevices and hollows formed by glacial moraine, was a pika, or mouse hare. These tiny rodents are about the size of a large rat but far more attractive and minus a long tail. Like the bharal, a pika’s fur is a mix of grey, brown and black, allowing it to merge with the colours of the rocks. It has a pert, hamster-like face with whiskers, alert black eyes and rounded ears. Curiosity is a common trait amongst mouse hares, though they are wary and quickly dart for cover at the slightest hint of danger. My presence had obviously intrigued it.

While I waited for the bharal to descend, I watched the pika grow bolder and bolder. Its den was about two metres above and to my right. Aiming my camera at the opening in the rocks, I remained as still as I could. After almost half an hour the pika had gained enough confidence to emerge completely from its lair. The click of the camera made it retreat but each time it appeared again, the pika seemed less afraid. Eventually, we stared at each other for five minutes or more. As my eyes met its gaze, I felt an affinity for this animal, a shared sense of being alive. It was as profound an experience as watching the sunrise over Everest. Then all at once, a swift shadow passed over the rocks. Like a flash, the pika was gone. Glancing up, I spotted an eagle circling overhead, wings outstretched. Moments later, the aerial hunter also disappeared. Afterwards, when I checked the images on my camera, I noticed that one of the pika’s ears had a tiny v-shaped nick taken out of it, where a raptor’s beak, the year before, had almost claimed its prey.

By this time the herd of bharal were grazing nearby on the grass and other plants growing amidst the boulder field, which was like a huge rock garden, planted with wild primulas and irises. Again my camera clicked and the wild sheep raised their heads and looked in my direction, though they seemed unaware that I was watching. By now it was late in the morning and the sun had filled the valley. The herd moved down the rocky slope towards our camp, cautious but also curious of the bright yellow blisters pitched on a patch of grass a hundred metres below. While I stayed where I was, tucked into a natural seat in the rocks, the sheep scrambled down and nervously approached my tent, probably searching for salt. Soon enough, the bharal were eagerly nosing about our camp, as if trying to discern the identity of this intrusive species that needs ropes and crampons to climb where they do and whose gaudy equipment clashes with the muted pigments of the mountain.

Though human beings may not have adapted to the Himalaya in the same way as wild sheep or mouse hares, communities that settled here generations ago are attuned to vertical terrain. Unlike the level flatlands of northern India, the mountains occupy a multidimensional space, broken into many different planes, tilting up or down to varying degrees. A sloping hillside, valley or even a rolling plateau cannot be divided into a neat grid of squares like a chessboard. Even the horizon is seldom level but traces the jagged profile of layered ridges.

This complex, vertiginous topography gives mountain people a unique perspective. For example, residents of the Himalaya measure distances in different ways from people on the plains. Gains in altitude add time to a journey just as a steep decline makes for a quicker return. At the same time, no path through the mountains ever follows a straight line. Highland dwellers are usually more at ease with ambiguity, sometimes to the point of being obtuse. When asked about the number of hours it will take to reach a destination, shepherds or farmers in the Himalaya, will offer estimates that vary wildly from one informant to the next. The reason, of course, is obvious. If you walk uphill behind a herd of sheep it will take an hour to cover a kilometre, whereas a man who has cut a load of firewood and must hurry back home before nightfall, will travel at four times that speed.

Physical hardships that the inhabitants of mountains endure—fetching water from a distant spring in the valley or simply trying to stay warm in winter, not to mention limited access to medical care and education—contribute to a natural resilience and self-reliant attitude. It also engenders a level of insularity, both social and cultural, as well as political. Himalayan villages are usually situated within a terraced expanse of fields that are cut into the face of a ridge like a staircase. Retaining walls keep the meagre soil in place and fight erosion. For the rugged agriculturalists that struggle to make a living off this tiered landscape there is little time or space for leisure and no margin between survival and devastation.

Much has been written and debated about the migration of Himalayan people to the plains, seeking employment and opportunities that the mountains cannot offer. This growing exodus is a measure of the desperate isolation and poverty of Himalayan communities. But even as these men and women leave their ancestral highlands and descend to towns and cities below, they carry with them an acute awareness of home and a strong sense of Himalayan identity.

Folktales from Kumaon and other regions of the mountains contain elements of rustic humour, often told at the expense of visitors from the plains. One of these stories, collected by Tara Dutt Gairola and E.S. Oakley2, involves a wealthy merchant who came on a pilgrimage to the Himalaya. As he was riding his pony up a winding path, the merchant passed a small village where a woman was threshing wheat in the courtyard outside. Seeing two large pumpkins ripening on the thatch roof of her hut, the naïve plains dweller asked what these were.

Sensing an opportunity, the wily hill woman told the wealthy pilgrim that they were horse’s eggs, almost ready to hatch. Imagining that he could make a quick profit, the merchant insisted on purchasing the eggs. After a good deal of haggling, the woman parted with her pumpkins for a generous price. The merchant then placed them on his pony and continued up the trail. A short distance on ahead, he came to steep cliff. As the pony negotiated the treacherous path, one of its hooves slipped. The merchant was able to hold on and the pony regained its footing but the pumpkins tumbled over the side of the cliff. On the slope below, a pair of goral, or mountain goats, were startled by the falling gourds and bolted for cover. Seeing the two animals escaping into the forest the merchant assumed that the eggs had broken open and the newborn colts had escaped, taking his investment with them.

Of all the folktales in Uttarakhand that speak of differences between the hills and the plains, the most poignant and tragic is the story of Phyunli, a bright yellow flower that appears in the spring. There are several versions of this popular tale but, in essence, a young girl lives in the mountains with her elderly father, who is a mendicant. She grows up as innocent and unworldly as the birds and animals that are her companions. Wandering through the Himalayan forests, she gathers whatever food she requires and quenches her thirst from clear streams of water that flow down the mountain.

One day, a prince from the plains arrives on a hunting trip in the hills. Seeing the girl, he is entranced and asks her name. Phyunli introduces herself and inquires about the purpose of the prince’s visit. When he holds up his bow and arrows, explaining that he is here on shikar, she pleads with him to spare the lives of the wild creatures amongst whom she lives. The prince agrees, on the condition that Phyunli will consent to become his bride. Reluctantly, she accepts his offer and after taking leave of her father, they depart for the plains.

The prince carries her away to his luxurious palace, where he gives her everything she might desire—the finest clothes and jewellery, sumptuous meals, a life of comfort and leisure. But Phyunli is homesick for the Himalaya and gradually begins to waste away, pining for the hills. Though the prince calls his doctors to save her, she grows weaker and weaker then finally dies. On her deathbed, she asks the prince to carry her ashes back to the mountains and scatter them in the forest where they first met. The next spring, when the snow melts, a field of yellow flowers bursts into bloom at the place where the prince fulfilled her last wish.

Between 2007 and 2014, I had the pleasure of curating the Mussoorie Mountain Festival, which began as a literary event but quickly evolved into a gathering of writers, climbers, photographers, artists, environmentalists, musicians, folklorists and many others who share a love for the mountains. Over the course of seven years, more than 150 speakers came to Mussoorie from different parts of India and around the world. Though the audience was primarily students from Woodstock School and other educational institutions, the festival was founded for selfish reasons because it allowed me to invite an eclectic range of participants, all of whom elevated and expanded my knowledge of the Himalaya. The programme included talks, readings, exhibitions, performances and, on two occasions, a half marathon race with the turnaround point at Everest House, the ruined bungalow at the western end of Mussoorie, where George Everest once lived.

A number of elite climbers like Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Krzysztof Wielicki, Steve Swenson, M.S. Kohli, Pertemba Sherpa, Loveraj Singh Dharamshaktu, Chandraprabha Aitwal and Silvo Karo attended the festival and spoke about their high altitude adventures, as well as the mental and physical challenges of climbing the greatest peaks in the world. Explorers and historians like Harish Kapadia, Gretel Ehrlich, Bernadette McDonald and William Dalrymple shared their journeys of discovery. Filmmakers like Jim Curran and Freddie Wilkinson screened their work and spoke about the extreme conditions under which they shot the footage. A number of naturalists and conservationists such as George Schaller, Sandesh Kadur and Ulhas Karanth emphasized the threats to wildlife in the Himalaya and a need to protect the bio-diversity of the mountains. Each festival was an educational experience that celebrated our Himalayan heritage.

One year, Dr. D.R. Purohit, a professor of English at Garhwal University but also a scholar and practitioner of folk theatre, brought a troupe of more than fifty performers to stage a rendition of the Pandav Lila. This is a popular ritual in many Garhwali villages, particularly in the Kedarnath region. They put on a performance in the center of Mussoorie, choosing the famous Chakravyuh episode from the Mahabharata, in which Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, enters a fatal labyrinth constructed by his enemies the Kauravas. Garhwali musicians sang an oral narrative that accompanied the action. A large audience of townspeople and tourists gathered on the Silverton Grounds to witness this colourful folk theatre and when the gallant Abhimanyu was finally killed by his treacherous cousins and uncles most people watching had tears in their eyes.

Through the mountain festival, I began to appreciate, more than ever before, the multi-faceted nature of the Himalaya, which are not just heaps of rock and snow or sinuous contour lines on a map. Instead they harbour a vast and varied curriculum of knowledge that includes every discipline of art and science, as well as spiritual and philosophical discourse. Each speaker contributed his or her perspectives and stories. Charles Clarke, who served as team doctor on Chris Bonington’s expeditions, spoke about treating altitude sickness but also described his understanding and appreciation for traditional Tibetan medicine. Viraf Mehta, who has dedicated himself to cataloguing ancient petroglyphs in Ladakh also talked about the conditions under which people live there today. Mamang Dai, a celebrated author from Arunachal Pradesh, read passages from her novels that evoke the oral traditions of tribal people. In this way, each presentation reinforced vital links between past and present, as well as underlying narratives connecting the 2500 km expanse of the Himalayan Arc.

The mountains of High Asia have a way of remaining transfixed in our memory, possibly more than any other landscape on earth. They are impossible to forget, not only because of their scale but also because of the many stories they contain. For example, the names of certain peaks evoke the lore and mythology of the people who live within their domain. Annapurna is the mother goddess as well as the mountain itself and the sacred allegories that swirl about her snowfields and icefalls transcend the boundaries between spiritual and physical realms.

We like to think of mountains as being eternal and immutable, forgetting that they were formed through powerful forces of change and continue to evolve, shift and erode. Because we believe that they have been here forever, we often associate the Himalaya with immortality and even divinity—an abode of the Gods. But this ignores the fact that there was a time on earth when these ranges did not exist and, ultimately, some day in the far distant future, they will vanish through the process of geological entropy and decay. Change is inherent in the Himalaya, whether it be the lifecycle of an swallowtail butterfly, the seasonal migration of a rose finch or the sudden and violent upheaval of an earthquake. Human beings too have brought changes, mostly for the worse. Just as we must embrace the idea that these mountains will not be here forever, our invasive species must not hasten the pace of nature through our own impatience and irresponsibility.

Each of us experiences the Himalaya in his or her own way—as scientists, artists, raconteurs, athletes or travellers—but we all share a common sense of awe for the mountains. Like an audience at a successful concert or play, we respond with a variety of individual emotions, while appreciating the singular performance that draws us together. In this way, the Himalaya are much more than simply a geographical feature. Representing transcendent beauty, constant change and the diversity of life, they are an intimate yet infinite metaphor that brings meaning to one person alone, as well as to millions.

Stephen Alter, in a personal essay, reflects on his relationship with the Himalaya in all its diversity and greatness.

About the Author

Stephen Alter is the author of more than twenty books including the recently published Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth.

(See the review elsewhere in this Volume)

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  1. Quoted from Edward Lear’s Indian Journal in Anusua Mukherjee’s “A Mountain in the Sky” The Telegraph 03/01/2013.
  2. Oakley, E.S. and Tara Dutt Gairola. Himalayan Folklore: Kumaon and West Nepal. Kathmandu: Bibliotheca Himalayica, 1935.