Manohar Singh Gill, a former Chief Election Commissioner and currently a member of the Rajya Sabha and Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, was the first IAS officer to be trained in mountaineering by the Everest hero, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, in 1961. His book, Himalayan Wonderland runs on three essentially different lines: his acceptance of the position as Deputy Commissioner to work in the Himalayan regions; his arduous and hazardous trek capturing, nostalgically, the time and place with exacting emotional precision; and his deeply felt and keenly observed account of the customs and manners of the natives who inhabit the region.
Gill started his career as a sub-divisional magistrate in the desert district of Mahendergarh, in Punjab, bordering Rajasthan. During his training, he had a chance meeting with Tenzing who was the Director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute at Darjeeling. He opted for work in the hills and soon got the place of his choice as Deputy Commissioner of Lahaul-Spiti, a region surrounded by Tibet, Kulu and Ladakh, with high mountains, deep-cut valleys, and glaciers, and having practically no link with the capital Chandigarh. Only the most intrepid of adventurers would be drawn to such a desolate region.
The call of the mountains coupled with a curiosity to observe their varying moods was too difficult for him to resist. With the golden opportunity to combine vocation and avocation forthcoming, he decided to embark upon what would appear a dangerous project to anyone else.
Gill dwells at length on the climate (“King Lear's heath was not half as cruel and cold as the Spiti valley in winter”), religion (Buddhism) and history of the regions. Primogeniture was the accepted norm of the tradition-bound society. The sections, “The Rising of the Dead,” “Tales of the Dead” and “The Dark Ones” deal with the beliefs and rituals related to death, the life here and hereafter. Similar practices exist even now in Indian villages. The most popular method of marriage in the Lahul area was by resorting to kidnapping. “Polyandry is a rigid social custom. The people here have practised it since time immemorial and find it normal to share a wife. The custom has an economic raison d'être... It has acted as a suitable social method of birth control...The small land holdings are prevented by the custom of polyandry.” In the plains, however, it was monogamy, and divorce did hardly ever exist.
The last three sections, “Winter Vignettes,” “At Gresham's Mercy,” and “The Reason Why,” are a reader's delight. Gill often describes, with nostalgic attachment, his inexorable journey, evoking the quintessential Himalayan atmosphere all the while.
Here is a fascinating account of a haunting scene: “The Goshal peak and the other mountains look superb in the liquid light of the moon these days. Late at night, looking out of my window, I could see the lovely Goshal massif with a huge star above it... The eerie atmosphere is heightened on some evenings by the sounds of pipes and trumpets coming from the monastery high above Kyelang...What could a Coleridge have made of this?”
Travel writing, from days of yore, has sought to serve two objectives: delight and instruction. And in the hands of accomplished artists of the calibre of Swift, Goldsmith, and D.H. Lawrence, it attained the high-watermark of consummate scholarship.
Himalayan Wonders is at once a partial biography and a wonderfully woven vivid piece of travel writing, fuelled by Gill's lyrical gifts of language. The book offers a knowledgeable and prescient account of one of the greatest snow-clad wonders of the world.