K.S. Valdiya and the Himalaya

Rasoul Sorkhabi

“Guarding the northern frontier like a mighty sentinel, the Himalaya isolates the Indian subcontinent securely from the rest of Eurasia. It is the provider of life-support systems for six countries. Not only does the Himalaya control the climate of Asia, it has also moulded the lifestyles of the peoples who inhabit the lands in and around the mountain domain.”

K.S. Valdiya, Himalaya: Emergence and Evolution (2001)

K. S. Valdiya, a prominent Indian geologist who died on 29 September 2020 at age 83, used to call himself a Pahari (mountain man). Geologists usually go to mountains, for that is where they find outcrops of bedrock. Plains are flat and covered with sediments and soil. The rock record of Earth is exhibited on mountains. However, most geologists are city folks, who occasionally go to mountains for fieldwork. Valdiya was both a geologist and a mountain man, or to be precise, he grew up in the Himalaya and became a devoted Himalayan geologist. Himalayan mountains, valleys and villages were not merely fieldwork for him; they were his roots and his home.

A Sketch of Life

Khadg Singh Valdiya was born on 20 March 1937 in Kalaw in Burma (Myanmar) to Deb Singh Valdiya and Nanda Devi. The mountainous town of Kalaw in the Shan state in central Burma was a popular British station during the colonial rule. In 1947, the Valdiyas moved to their ancestral town of Pithoragarh in the Kumaun Himalaya in northern India. The young Valdiya attended schools in Pithoragarh, and then entered Lucknow University (1953– 1957) where he obtained his B.Sc. (Hons) and M.Sc. degrees in geology. For academic excellence he received the University Chancellor’s Gold Medal. Valdiya then joined the Ph.D. programme in geology at Lucknow under the supervision of Professor R.C. Misra and obtained his doctoral degree in 1963. He was a Lecturer in his alma mater until 1969. In 1964, when the 22nd International Geological Congress was held in India, Valdiya presented three papers including 'Note on the tectonic history and evolution of the Himalaya,' which for years remained an influential paper. With his base in Kumaun, Valdiya conducted extensive mapping and studies of the region, especially the structural geology and stratigraphy of the Lesser Himalaya. During 1965–1966, Valdiya was a Fulbright Fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, where he was mentored by the renowned sedimentologist Francis J. Pettijohn (1914–1999).

Khadg Singh Valdiya

In 1969–1970, Valdiya was employed as Reader at the University of Rajasthan then located in Udaipur (later moved to Jaipur). His publications on the Himalayan mineral resources drew the attention of D.N. Wadia (1883-1969), a prominent geologist and science leader in India, who recruited Valdiya to join the newly established Institute of Himalayan Geology on the campus of the University of Delhi. (The institute was renamed the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and moved to Dehra Dun in 1976.) Valdiya played a leading role in the growth of the institute. From 1970 to 1973 he served as senior scientific officer, and from 1973 to 1976, he was deputy director of the institute.

In 1976, Valdiya joined Kumaun University in Nanital, where he established the geology department and served as professor of geology until his retirement in 1995. The geology department was initially stationed in an old British building, Durham House, in Nanital, but later, Valdiya constructed a new building for the department together with a guest house for visiting scientists in this Himalayan town. From 1977 to 1980, Valdiya was the dean of science faculty, and in 1981, he served as vice-chancellor of Kumaun University. (He also served as acting vice-chancellor of the university in 1984 and then again in 1992.) Upon his retirement, Valdiya moved to Bangalore (Bengaluru) in southern India, where he joined the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) and founded its Geodynamics Unit. He served at JNCASR as professor until his passing in 2020. Valdiya was also a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai (Bombay) and Roorkee during 2008–2010.

A Life of Science and Service

Valdiya’s professional contributions may be categorized and summarized as follows:

  1. Geologic mapping of the Kumaun Himalaya. This culminated in his 1980 monograph, Geology of the Kumaun Lesser Himalaya, published by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.
  2. Synthesis of tectonic evolution of the Himalaya. In the 1980s, Valdiya embraced plate tectonics to interpret the tectonic evolution of the Himalaya, India, and surrounding regions. His 1984 Tectonophysics paper (Evolution of the Himalaya) and his book Aspects of Tectonics: Focus on South-Central Asia are noteworthy in this regard. In contrast to tectonic models which advocate the subduction of the Indian continental plate beneath Asia (to account for the double crustal thickness of the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau), Valdiya believed that the crustal thickening to produce the Himalaya was mainly accomplished by structural shortening, folding, and thrusting. He specifically wrote on domal uplifts and upwarps of the Indian crust to the south of the Indus-Tsangpo suture zone (the India-Asia plate boundary). Moreover, Valdiya believed that Quaternary uplifts, rather than Miocene events, were a more pronounced phase in the shaping and raising of the Himalayan orogen. His latest tectonic synthesis was a 900-page book titled The Making of India: Geodynamic Evolution, published by Springer in 2016.
  3. Neotectonics and natural hazards. Partly because of earthquake and landslide hazards, Valdiya paid much attention to the recent activity of the major thrust faults in the central (Kumaun- Garhwal) parts of the Himalaya. He used structural, seismic, and geomorphic mapping to illustrate this neotectonics. His book Coping with Natural Hazards: Indian Context (2004) and its Hindi version in 2008 were timely attempts to take these issues to academic circles in India and also to raise the public consciousness. He also co-authored (with J. Sanwal) Neotectonism in the Indian Subcontinent (published by Elsevier in 2017), relating tectonics to landscape evolution of India.
  4. Environmental protection. Valdiya was an outspoken geologist for protection of the environment in India, especially in the central Himalaya where thin soil, deforestation, earthquakes, landslide, and hydropower dams render the indigenous population vulnerable. His 1987 Environmental Geology: Indian Context, followed by Environmental Geology: Ecology, Resources and Hazard Management in 2013, were pioneering textbooks in India. He produced a vast body of literature on these subjects, but his care and love for the Himalayan environment and population went far beyond writings. He helped establish two environmental centres in the Himalaya: the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development in Almora and the Uttarkhand Science Education and Research Centre in Dehra Dun.
  5. Archeogeology. Valdiya’s scientific interests were not limited to geology. He was a voracious reader of books and articles— especially related to the history, geography, mythology, and culture of northern India. His studies and publications on the prehistoric river of Saraswati in northwest Himalaya (frequently mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures) drew much attention. In 2016, the Valdiya Committee sponsored by Indian Union Water Resources Ministry reported paleochannel and sedimentary evidence to support the flow of a 4000-km long ancient river in northwest Himalaya and India that the committee equated with the mythological (Vedic) river Saraswati. Valdiya’s monograph on the subject was first published in 2002 and later revised in 2017. In the field of archeogeology and prehistory, he also wrote Geography, Peoples and Geodynamics of India in Purana and Epics (2012).
  6. Popularization of earth science. Valdiya trained several generations of geology students. Being an articulate teacher and writer, he also helped popularize geology to a wider audience through his books and articles. His profusely illustrated books Dynamic Himalaya (1998) and Himalaya: Emergence and Evolution (2001) are still the most readable books on the geology of the Himalaya for the general public, and his magnum opus The Making of India (over 800 pages) was first published in India in 2010 and sold at a low price of 242 Indian rupees (with a generous subsidy from the Indian government). During the last decade of his life, Valdiya used to travel from Bangalore to remote villages in the Uttarkhand state in the Kumaun Himalaya to teach science to high school students during the summer.
  7. Earth science leadership. Valdiya served, on and off, on more than two dozens professional committees from 1973 until the last year of his life.

A Life Awarded

Valdiya was given several awards for his professional contributions, including Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India (1976), L. Rama Rao Gold Medal of the Geological Society of India (1977), National Lecturer Award by India’s University Grants Commission (1977–1978), P. Pant National Environment Fellow of India’s Department of Environment (1982–1984), National Mineral Award of India’s Ministry of Mines (1993), D.N. Wadia Medal of India’s National Science Academy (1995), Prince Mukkaram Gold Medal of the Geophysical Society of India (2000), Hindi Sevi Samman Award of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (2007), Padma Shri Award (the fourth highest civilian award) for Science from the Government of India (2007), L.N. Lakshmi Gold Medal of Geophysical Society of India (2009), G.M. Modi Foundation Award for Science and Environment (2012), the Padma Bhushan Award (the third highest civilian award) from the Government of India (2015), and the 2018 Annual Award from India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences. Valdiya was elected to the honorary fellowships of the Indian National Science Academy (1980), Indian Academy of Sciences (1980), India’s National Academy of Sciences (CSIR, 1987), the Third World Academy of Sciences (1995), Indian Geophysical Union (1998), Geological Society of America (2001), and the Geological Society of Nepal (2001). He also received honorary D.Sc. degrees from the Benares Hindu University (2003) and G.B. Pant University of Agricultural Sciences (2007). Scientific conferences and meetings occasionally took Valdiya outside of India including the USA, Russia (Soviet Union), France, and Japan.

Valdiya was a prolific author; from 1959 until his passing, spanning six decades, he produced more than 130 articles in English, 40 articles in Hindi, 15 books in English, nine edited books in English, and five books in Hindi.

Valdiya led a professionally active life until the last year of his life; his last article (Anomalous weather events in central Himalaya: real-world observations and some questions) was published in Current Science on 10 July 2020, less than three months before his death. He is survived by his wife Indira, his son Sameer (a business manager in Bangalore), daughter-in-law, a grandson, and many students and friends.

I had the pleasure of knowing and interacting with him since the 1980s. Valdiya once remarked that “walking and working in the field” was not only essential to geology but also essential to the health of the geologist. He immensely cared about the progress of geology education, research and employment. He was a well-read and an articulate teacher and writer. He trained many geologists and also educated the public about the geology and environmental issues of the Himalaya through his books, articles and lectures.

In 2020, Valdiya was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at the 36th International Geological Congress, scheduled to be held in March 2020 in India, but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Valdiya was a voice of earth science in an important part of the world; his death was a great loss to the geologic community in India, and it will not be possible to replace a man of his calibre and curiosity.

Books by K.S. Valdiya

1971 (Author) Saamaanya Bhuvigyaan: Kuchh Jvalant Samasyaayen (Hindi) [General Geology: Some Burning Questions]: Hindi Granth Akademi, Lucknow, 267 p.

1980 (Author) Geology of the Kumaun Lesser Himalaya: Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, 291 p.

1980 (Editor) [with S.B. Bhatia] Stratigraphy and Correlations of the Lesser Himalayan Formations: Hindustan Publishing Corporation, New Delhi, 330 p.

1982 (Editor) [with S.B. Bhatia and V.K. Gaur] Geology of the Vindhyachal: Hindustan Publishing Corporation, New Delhi, 231 p.

1984 (Author) Aspects of Tectonics: Focus on Southcentral Asia: Tata-McGraw Hill, New Delhi, 342 p.

1986 (Editor) The Indian Lithosphere: Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, 154 p.

1987 (Author) Environmental Geology: Indian Context: Tata-McGraw Hill, New Delhi, 583 p.

1988 (Author) Geology and Natural Environment of Nainital Hills, Kumaun Himalaya: Gyanodaya Prakashan, Nainital, 158 p.

1988 (Editor) Kumaun: Land and People: Gyanodaya Prakashan, Nainital, 351 p.

1989 (Editor) [with V.C. Tewari] Stromatolites and Stomatolitic Deposits: Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, 288 p.

1993 (Editor) Quaternary Period in India, Special issue,Current Science, v. 64, nos. 11-12, p. 781–837, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore.

1993 (Author) High Dams in the Himalaya: Environmental and Socio- Cultural Implications: Pahar Publications, Nanital, 50 p.

1996 (Editor) Uttarakhand Today: Almora Book Depot, Almora, 235 p.

1998 (Author) Dynamic Himalaya: Universities Press, Hyderabad, 186 p.

1998 (Editor) The Khulgad Project: An Experiment in Sustainable Development: Gyanodaya Prakashan, Nainital, 134 p.

2001 (Author) Himalaya: Emergence and Evolution: Universities Press, Hyderabad, 139 p.

2002 (Author) Saraswati: The River That Disappeared: Universities Press, Hyderabad, 116 p.

2004 (Editor) Coping with Natural Hazards: Indian Context: Orient Longman Blackswan, Hyderabad, 277 p.

2005 (Author) Geology, Environment and Society: Universities Press, Hyderabad, 226 p.

2008 (Author) Bhukampaur Bhuskhalan: Sankatka Saamna Kaise Karen (Hindi) [Earthquakes and Landslides: How to Face Their Risks]: Gyanodaya Prakashan, Nainital, 95 p.

2008 (Author) Facing the Hazards: Earthquakes & Landslides: Gyanodaya Prakashan, Nainital, 87 p.

2010 (Author) Ek Thi Nadi Saraswati (Hindi) [There Was a Saraswati River]: Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 111 p.

2012 (Author) Geography, Peoples and Geodynamics of India in Purans and Epics: Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 240 p.

2013 (Author) Environmental Geology: Ecology, Resources & Hazard Management, 2nd ed.:Tata McGraw-Hill, Noida, 644 p.

2015 (Author) Pathreeli Pagdandiyon Par (Hindi) [On a Rocky Path]: Pahar Publications, Nainital.

2016 (Author) The Making of India: Geodynamic Evolution, 2nd ed.: Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 924 p. (First edition: Macmillan Publishers, India, 2010.)

2017 (Author) Himalaya Mein Mahatma Gandhi ke Sipahi Sunderlal Bahuguna (Hindi) [Sunderlal Bahuguna: Mahatma Gandhi’s Soldier in the Himalaya]: Sasta Sahitya Mandal, New Delhi.

2017 (Author) Prehistoric River Saraswati, Western India: Geological Appraisal and Social Aspects: Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 151 p.

2017 (Author) [with Jaishri Sanwal] Neotectonism in the Indian Subcontinent: Landscape Evolution (Developments in Earth Surface Processes 22): Elsevier, Amsterdam, 458 p.


A brief sketch of life and contributions of Professor K.S. Valdiya (1937-2020), an eminent Himalayan geologist.

About the Author

Rasoul Sorkhabi did his Phd dissertation on the geology of Ladakh and Zanskar in 1991. He has conducted geological research in the Himalaya, Nepal, Borneo, Japan and USA. He is Professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake city, USA. He continued to write articles related is geology and geologists for THJ.


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