It has been our staple to often feature a country, a state, or a sector in the “In Focus” segment of our past issues. This time round, we are instead focusing on “a geography”, a region that spans across several countries, including India and some of its neighbours. The Pan-Himalayan Region. Our decision to focus on the fragile ecology of this region is in part tempered by the cataclysmic events that were triggered last month in the northern hill states of India, especially Uttarakhand, which apropos is still reeling and reverberating from a human tragedy of himalayan proportions, as nature chose to vent its ire on the untrammelled and unsustainable acts of man at its bosom. We bring you food for thought about this last frontier as a special feature in this cover story.

Up in the high hills to the north of the Indian subcontinent, gazing towards the horizon one would behold a wondrous sight … the towering Himalayas getting painted by the ever-changing brush-strokes of the sun’s light falling upon them, evoking a mystic feel bordering on awe. “Himalaya” in Sanskrit means “The Abode of Snow” (Hima = snow, and Alaya = abode). The Himalayas are the very stuff of life for its inhabitants, the Tibetans, Indians, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and many other Himalayans. The stark beauty and timeless expanse of the Himalayas has since time immemorial lured visitors to this region, and by virtue of being the world’s highest mountain chain, it constitutes the greatest attraction to mountaineers, climbers and trekkers from across the globe. More than anything else, the Himalayas are perforce the strongest manifestation of the awe-inspiring power, beauty, and grandeur of Mother Nature. Not allegory, but eloquence is at play when the Himalayas, where the Earth meets the Sky, are christened the “Abode of Gods” !

This mountain chain, the loftiest on earth, is located in the heart of South Asia, forming a distinct geographical divide that separates the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia. Extending from west to east in a massive arc for about 2,500 kilometres, it covers an astounding area of 6,12,021 square kilometres. The vast mountain chain passes through the Indian States of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. The Tibetan Plateau – oft called the roof of the world – forms the northern boundary of this magnificent mountain system while lower extensions of the Himalayas branch off from eastern and western frontiers of these mountains.

For a proper understanding of this pan-himalayan paradisical land, it is practical to maybe take in the vast area covered by the mountains as smaller sub-sections. The Himalayas are classifiable in a variety of ways. From south to north, the mountains may be grouped into four parallel and longitudinal mountain belts, each with its own unique features and distinctive geological history.

The Shivaliks (The Outer Himalayas): Forming the southernmost belt of the Himalayan range, the Shivaliks are also the lowest and narrowest range in the entire Himalayan system, having an average elevation of just about 900 ~ 1,200m (3,000 to 4,000 feet) and in places, a width of only 16 km. The Shivaliks rise steeply from the great northern plains of India and Pakistan and run parallel to the main ranges of the Himalayas towards the north, from which they are separated by high mountains and deep valleys. The name Shivalik in Sanskrit means “Belonging to the Lord Shiva”.

The Himachal (The Lesser Himalayas): Lying between the Himadri region to the north and the Shivaliks to the south, the Himachal range forms the middle section of the Himalayan mountain chain. Lower than the Himadri or the Greater Himalayas, this region’s altitude averages between 3,700 ~ 4,500m above sea level (12,000 to 15,000 ft). It extends south-east from Pakistan and passes through large parts of the Indian states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal and the North-Eastern Himalayas. This region has many passes and glaciers, and includes many of the 110 mountains in the Himalayas that rise upto heights of 7,300m (24,000 ft) or more above sea level.

The Himadri (The Greater Himalayas): The northernmost, longest, and the most continuous belt in the Himalayan system, the Himadri belt forms the very backbone of the Himalayas. Lying well above the snow-line with an average elevation of about 6,100m (20,000 ft), the Himadri dominates the extreme northern frontiers of India and the entire northern boundary of Nepal. It rises to its maximum height in Nepal, and is home to nine of the fourteen highest peaks in the world, all higher than the 8,000m above sea level  yardstick.

The Trans-Himalayas (The Tibetan Himalayas): The Trans Himalayan region is an ill-defined mountain region covering an area of about 1,000 km and having a width ranging from 225 km to about 32 km. Unlike the main Himalayas, the Trans Himalayan mountains are not divided by deep river gorges. On the Roof of the World (Tibet), passes average 5,330m (17,500 ft) in height, with the highest being the Chargoding Pass at a height of 5,885m (19,308 ft).

From west to east, the Himalayas may broadly be divided into three mountainous regions – the Western Himalayas, the Central Himalayas and the Eastern Himalayas. But probably the most important and sensible division of the Himalayas in the context of the present-day world would be the one that is dictated by political boundaries, if only because for anyone wanting to explore these mountains, knowledge of political boundaries is of paramount importance. Especially so as most of the habited Himalayas lie close to sensitive international borders that are oft territories in dispute between neighbours. Special permissions are often required to visit some areas close to these borders, invariably under military control due to their strategic importance. So, based upon international political boundaries, the Himalayas could be divided into:

The Indian Himalayas: The arc-shaped Himalayas extend along the entire northern boundary of India, carving through just as far across the Indian subcontinent as they do deeply into the life around them. For centuries, inhabitants of India have been fascinated by this mountain chain, their feelings toward it an admixture of admiration, awe and fear. And for the Hindus of India, the Himalayas are also “the Abode of God”. There are numerous pilgrim routes that have brought Hindu pilgrims to these mountains since time immemorial. The Indian Himalayas cover a vast area along the northern frontiers of the country and span not less than five Indian States: Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, from west to east. For the mountain people living in these states, the Himalayas continue to be the most predominant factor that is part and parcel of their lives. Having acted as a natural and political barrier for centuries, the Himalayas have been instrumental in preserving a number of communities, cultures and customs by virtue of its sheer isolation. The Indian Himalayas also mark the crossroads of Asia’s three main religions. Kashmir is largely influenced by Islam, while the foothills of Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand form the northern boundary of Hinduism. The entire Trans Himalayan region, from Ladakh (J&K) through Tibet and onto the eastern state of Sikkim is predominantly Buddhist.

The Nepalese Himalayas: Containing nine of the world’s fourteen highest peaks, Nepal is a true Himalayan kingdom. The Himalayas dominate three quarters of all land in Nepal. It is home to some of the highest, rugged, remote and most difficult terrain in the world. The world’s highest mountain peak Mount Everest, other high peaks like Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, Nuptse, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and the presence of some very beautiful trekking routes attract hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to this lovely Himalayan destination. The country of Nepal may be divided into three parallel bands running from the north-east towards the south-west. Along the north of Nepal runs the Great Himalayan Range, the highest mountain chain in the Himalayan system. This range has an average altitude of about 4,570m (about 15,000 ft) and remains permanently snow-covered. Further south runs a complex system of intermediate ranges that are at an altitude of 8,000 ~ 14,000 ft. Prominent ranges in this mountain system include the Mahabharat and Churia ranges. High mountain ranges are interspersed with broad inhabited river valleys. The third and southernmost region is the Terai, a swampy terrain which is the northern extension of the Indian plains.

The Tibetan (Chinese) Himalayas: Tibet lies in a region known as Trans Himalayas. As the term strives to suggest, the Tibetan Plateau lies beyond the main Himalayan range. This highest plateau in the world, with an average elevation of 4,875m (more than 16,000 ft), is also called the “Roof of the World”. Tibet is surrounded on three sides by vast mountain systems: the Kunlun mountains of Central Asia to the north, the Karakoram range to the west and the Himalayas to the south. Only the southern part of Tibet falls within the Himalayan region. Some of the world’s highest mountains define the southern border of Tibet, including Mt Everest (8,848m), Namcha Barwa (7,756m / 25,445 ft) – around which the Brahmaputra carves a fantastic gorge to enter India, and Gurla Mandhata (7,728m / 25,355 ft). Running north of the main Himalayan range is the Kailas Range. Between the two ranges lies the river valley region extending for about 1,000 km from west to east. The Brahmaputra (known in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo) flows from west to east through most of this region. The Tibetan plateau is the source of some of the biggest rivers in the Himalayas. The Brahmaputra, Indus and Satluj are three Trans Himalayan rivers that originate in Tibet, cut across the main Himalayas and then flow downwards to the plains.

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