History & Culture

A book that explores the Indian Himalayan region

Authors Vrinda and J. Ramanan

Authors Vrinda and J. Ramanan | Photo Credit: Moorthy .M

“Every mountain has a personality; what you see is not just rock and ice, but a living being,” says J. Ramanan, Tiruchi-based architect, photographer and mountaineer, who has collaborated on the glossy tome  Mountains of Our Destiny – The Himalayas, An Expedition to the Indian Range with his dancer-wife Vrinda .

Long known to readers of  The Hindu Friday Review as the writers of ‘Hidden in the Himalayas’ column, the Ramanans have showcased 40 years of their experience in the region with a full-fledged book that takes a look at the Indian side of the Himalayan biosphere that includes Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Kumaun, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Zangskar, Kashmir and Eastern Karakoram.

Ramanan’s photographs (over 300) capture the culture, lifestyle, geography, ecology and folk traditions of the region. They are accompanied by texts written by Vrinda. The volume, published by The Hindu Group, was launched in Chennai in early June.

Phuktal monastery

Phuktal monastery | Photo Credit: J. Ramanan

Impact of global warming

“When we started, we decided that the book should cater to a varied readership,” says Ramanan.

The couple has a personal link to the forbidding mountain range as well. For in 1978, this was where Vrinda, then a student of basic mountaineering at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, met Ramanan, then a guest instructor, before they became partners for life.

Sharing the lessons gleaned from decades of travelling to the Himalayas and back down south to Tiruchi, Vrinda says that the carbon footprint on the virgin Himalayan ecosystem was accelerating the impact of global warming.

“Around 20 years ago, the Ruinsara Taal was a huge lake, where our instructors would insist that we take a dip in the ice-cold water. Today the water has receded, and it looks more like a swamp. You go higher up, you can see streams blocked with water cans by the local people,” she says.

Adds Ramanan, “The base camp for Kanchenzunga, is situated in a place called ‘Green Lake’, but today there is no lake there. There are many areas where water has evaporated and there is no green cover on the ground, due to deforestation. Rainwater simply washes away now instead of replenishing the underground water table. The rivers are no longer perennial.”

Young lamas of Karsha monastery in Zanskar

Young lamas of Karsha monastery in Zanskar | Photo Credit: J. Ramanan

Opening up to technology

Thanks to a booming business in adventure tourism, the Himalayas are no longer untouched by civilisation. It is not uncommon to see busloads of ‘mountaineers’ being herded from peak to peak by travel agents, with no clear idea of the history or significance of the areas they are visiting. “In the elite mountaineering circles, climbing Everest is no big deal. People can be literally carried up to the peak. A lot of garbage has accumulated here as a result,” says Ramanan.

But technology has opened up the area in a more positive way. “Every village is well-connected through satellite communications. In places like Arunachal Pradesh, we thought we would be meeting tribal people in native dress. Instead, all the houses have flat 50-inch TV sets and the folks wear modern clothes. They are most happy to put on their traditional garb for photographs, though,” he says.

Unique challenges

The couple has always explored the region by using homestays, to support the local economy and get a more hands-on exposure to ethnic lifestyles. “The Himalayas are accessible to outsiders only for approximately three months in a year; so we had to gather information with this timeline in mind,” says Vrinda. “By staying with local families, we realised that the weather also dictates the plumbing system here — every home has a ‘summer toilet’ for the days when water can flow through the pipes and a dry ‘winter toilet’, which is designed for the months when everything freezes up. It made me conscious of how privileged we actually are in the tropical south,” says Vrinda.

Barafsar lake, the highest glacial lake in Kashmir

Barafsar lake, the highest glacial lake in Kashmir | Photo Credit: J.RAMANAN

A precarious landscape like the Himalayas tends to inspire both awe and foolhardy behaviour in the explorer. “There are certain areas in the Himalayas, where cones of ice and snow are formed, that have to be crossed carefully in near silence, because even a small sound can trigger an avalanche. If you are doing it for the bragging rights, you can get caught in a difficult terrain. If you are not technically equipped , it is better not to try it. I’d advise young people to do a mountaineering course before heading off with their backpacks and cameras,” says Ramanan.

“And people who pose for photographs at mountain summits with their shirts open, should know that the cold air could kill them, so button up please,” laughs Vrinda.

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Printable version | Jun 28, 2022 9:20:21 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-book-that-explores-the-indian-himalayan-region/article65575750.ece