Environment Reviews

‘Wild Himalaya – A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth’ review: Magic mountains in the sky

Recently, when the Union Home Ministry issued an order to open up Kanchenjunga “to foreigners desirous of mountaineering and trekking”, the Sikkimese protested vociferously, so much so that the Centre had to withdraw its decision eventually. For the Sikkimese, the mountain is sacred, and hence climbing it would amount to sacrilege. That one of the largest ethnic communities of Sikkim, the Lepchas, consider themselves to be children of the mountain, points to the way the natural landscape shapes their identity: to protect nature is to protect themselves. If we all thought like the Lepchas, the climate crisis perhaps wouldn’t have taken the form it has today.

Where’s the ‘wild’?

Ecological concern is obviously one of the thickest threads running through Wild Himalaya — after all, the ‘wild’ is gone from much of the Himalaya precisely because we lack ecological awareness. So the documentation of whatever remains gains an elegiac tone by default — even if there is no sentimentality in the way Stephen Alter writes about the breathtaking Himalayan glaciers, alpine forests, rivers, rhododendrons, brown bears, steppe eagles and butterflies, you will feel sad knowing that they all might vanish one day in the foreseeable future.

In less than 400 pages, Alter traverses (sometimes physically, sometimes through lores) the length and breadth of the Himalaya, from Nanga Parbat in Kashmir in the west to Bomphu, a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh, in the east. We see him travelling not just the Himalayan States of India but also Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. And then he keeps returning to the past to bring back naturalists, geologists, mountaineers, hunters, cartographers, holy men, writers, all of whom the mighty mountains have touched. Alter’s reading list is impressive: you think of Deborah Baker’s recent book, The Last Englishmen, when reading about John Auden surveying glaciers in the Garhwal, and you find Alter mentioning Baker; if you think Verrier Elwin when reading about tribal folklores, you chance upon him in these pages. Wild Himalaya holds written records and lived experience of the mountains in perfect balance.

It is telling that much of Wild Himalaya is about entities that are the antithesis of the wild, at least theoretically — the state and the military. And herein lies the crux of the matter that so threatens the Himalaya in India — laws framed with no regard to ecology or to the rights of forest-dwellers have given the state absolute power over forestlands, which, as a result, have been denuded systematically and the original inhabitants pushed to the margins. Political borders running through the Himalaya have arbitrarily divided the lives of local communities. And when there are borders there will be the military: hence even if you don’t chance upon a single wild animal in the Himalaya, you will surely meet the monstrous green trucks. At places the military has even been absorbed into folklore: Alter records the story of Jaswant Singh, a hero of the 1962 Indo-China War, who has a shrine to his name on Se la in Arunachal Pradesh.

Man-animal conflict

Conflicts rage across the seemingly calm mountains, not just among humans but also between humans and animals — Alter devotes a lot of space to the latter. Rampant poaching is on the verge of wiping out species and Alter expresses his reservations about trophy hunting (legal in parts of Pakistan), about ritual animal sacrifice and points to the paradox of the Buddhist creed of non-violence and a non-vegetarian diet followed by some Buddhists. The chapter, ‘Blood Harvest’, contains a nerve-racking description of animal sacrifice at the Taleju Bhawani temple in Nepal during dussehra. Alter remains objective while recording the spectacle of violence. But reading the chapter you will feel the horror and thereby question its necessity.

Elsewhere, on the topic of trophy hunting, Alter talks of the need of compassion in our relationship with other species. What niggled me in all this is the fact that in the very first chapter, Alter mentions trophies of animals he and his friend had once hunted together. Did he have a change of heart sometime down the years? Given his seeming love for creatures great and small, I was also surprised at the disgust he expresses at the greater adjutant stork, especially since an attitude akin to his has led to the near-extinction of this bird.

But the Himalaya allows for paradoxes to co-exist: the world’s youngest mountain range feels like an eternal presence; its peaks inspire both meditative calm and crass competitiveness; these high mountains throw up fossilised remains of sea creatures. At Muktinath, Alter buys an ammonite (saligram) and splits open the stone to peer at the nothingness — the shunya, the beginning and end of life — inside: it is that magic moment when he holds infinity in the palm of his hand and we see the universe in a grain of the Himalaya.

Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth; Stephen Alter, Aleph, ₹899.

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