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People and Groups
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Of the four principal language families in the Indian subcontinent—Indo-European, Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic, and Dravidian—the first two are well represented in the Himalayas. In ancient times, peoples speaking languages from both families mixed in varying proportions in different areas. Their distribution is the result of a long history of penetrations by Central Asian and Iranian groups from the west, Indian peoples from the south, and Asian peoples from the east and north. In Nepal, which constitutes the middle third of the Himalayas, these groups overlapped and intermingled. The penetrations of the lower Himalayas were instrumental to the migrations into and through the river-plain passageways of South Asia. Generally speaking, the Great Himalayas and the Tethys Himalayas are inhabited by Tibetans and peoples speaking other Tibeto-Burman languages, while the Lesser Himalayas are the home of Indo-European language speakers. Among the latter are the Kashmiri people of the Vale of Kashmir and the Gaddi and Gujari, who live in the hilly areas of the Lesser Himalayas. Traditionally, the Gaddi are a hill people; they possess large flocks of sheep and herds of goats and go down with them from their snowy abode in the Outer Himalayas only in winter, returning again to the highest pastures in June. The Gujari are traditionally a migrating pastoral people who live off their herds of sheep, goats, and a few cattle, for which they seek pasture at various elevations.
The Champa, Ladakhi, Balti, and Dard peoples live to the north of the Great Himalaya Range in the Kashmir Himalayas. The Dard speak Indo-European languages, while the others are Tibeto-Burman speakers. The Champa traditionally lead a nomadic pastoral life in the upper Indus valley. The Ladakhi have settled on terraces and alluvial fans that flank the Indus in the northeastern Kashmir region. The Balti have spread farther down the Indus valley and have adopted Islam.
Other Indo-European speakers are the Kanet in Himachal Pradesh and the Khasi in Uttarakhand. In Himachal Pradesh most people in the districts of Kalpa and Lahul-Spiti are the descendants of migrants from Tibet who speak Tibeto-Burman languages.
In Nepal the Pahari, speaking Indo-European languages, constitute the majority of the population, although large groups of Tibeto-Burman speakers are found throughout the country. They include the Newar, the Tamang, the Gurung, the Magar, the Sherpa and other peoples related to the Bhutia, and the Kirat. The Kirat were the earliest inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. The Newar are also one of the earliest groups in Nepal. The Tamang inhabit the high valleys to the northwest, north, and east of Kathmandu Valley. The Gurung live on the southern slopes of the Annapurna massif, pasturing their cattle as high as 12,000 feet (3,700 metres). The Magar inhabit western Nepal but migrate seasonally to other parts of the country. The Sherpa, who live to the south of Mount Everest, are famed mountaineers.
For some 200 years the Sikkim region (now a state in India) and the kingdom of Bhutan have been safety valves for the absorption of the excess population of eastern Nepal. More Sherpa now live in the Darjiling area than in the Mount Everest homeland. At present the Pahari constitute the majority who come from Nepal in both Sikkim and Bhutan. Thus, the people of Sikkim belong to three distinct ethnic groups—the Lepcha, the Bhutia, and the Pahari. Generally speaking, the Nepalese and the Lepcha live in western Bhutan and the Bhutia of Tibetan origin in eastern Bhutan.
Arunachal Pradesh is the homeland of several groups—the Abor or Adi, the Aka, the Apa Tani, the Dafla, the Khampti, the Khowa, the Mishmi, the Momba, the Miri, and the Singpho. Linguistically, they are Tibeto-Burman. Each group has its homeland in a distinct river valley, and all practice shifting cultivation (i.e., they grow crops on a different tract of land each year).
Economic conditions in the Himalayas partly depend on the limited resources available in different parts of this vast region of varied ecological zones. The principal activity is animal husbandry, but forestry, trade, and tourism are also important. The Himalayas abound in economic resources. These include pockets of rich arable land, extensive grasslands and forests, workable mineral deposits, easy-to-harness waterpower, and great natural beauty. The most productive arable lands in the western Himalayas are in the Vale of Kashmir, the Kangra valley, the Sutlej River basin, and the terraces flanking the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in Uttarakhand; these areas produce rice, corn (maize), wheat, and millet. In the central Himalayas in Nepal, two-thirds of the arable land is in the foothills and on the adjacent plains; this land yields most of the total rice production of the country. The region also produces large crops of corn, wheat, potatoes, and sugarcane.
Most of the fruit orchards of the Himalayas lie in the Vale of Kashmir and in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh. Fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, and cherries—for which there is a great demand in the cities of India—are grown extensively. On the shores of Dal Lake in Kashmir, there are rich vineyards that produce grapes used to make wine and brandy. On the hills surrounding the Vale of Kashmir grow walnut and almond trees. Bhutan also has fruit orchards and exports oranges to India.
Tea is grown in plantations mainly on the hills and on the plain at the foot of the mountains in the Darjiling district. Plantations also produce limited amounts of tea in the Kangra valley. Plantations of the spice cardamom are to be found in Sikkim, Bhutan, and the Darjiling Hills. Medicinal herbs are grown on plantations in areas of Uttarakhand.
Transhumance (the seasonal migration of livestock) is widely practiced in the Himalayan pastures. Sheep, goats, and yaks are raised on the rough grazing lands available. During summer they graze on the pastures at higher elevations, but when the weather turns cold, shepherds migrate with their flocks to lower elevations.
The explosive population growth that has occurred in the Himalayas and elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent since the 1940s has placed great stress on the forests in many areas. Deforestation to clear land for planting and to supply firewood, paper, and construction materials has progressed up steeper and higher slopes of the Lesser Himalayas, triggering environmental degradation. Only in Sikkim and Bhutan are large areas still heavily forested.
The Himalayas are rich in minerals, although exploitation is restricted to the more accessible areas. The Kashmir region has the greatest concentration of minerals. Sapphires are found in the Zaskar Mountains, and alluvial gold is recovered in the nearby bed of the Indus River. There are deposits of copper ore in Baltistan, and iron ores are found in the Vale of Kashmir. Ladakh possesses borax and sulfur deposits. Coal seams are found in the Jammu Hills. Bauxite also occurs in Kashmir. Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim have extensive deposits of coal, mica, gypsum, and graphite and ores of iron, copper, lead, and zinc.
The Himalayan rivers have a tremendous potential for hydroelectric generation, which has been harnessed intensively in India since the 1950s. A giant multipurpose project is located at Bhakra-Nangal on the Sutlej River in the Outer Himalayas; its reservoir was completed in 1963 and has a storage capacity of some 348 billion cubic feet (10 billion cubic metres) of water and a total installed generating capacity of 1,050 megawatts. Three other Himalayan rivers—the Kosi, the Gandak (Narayani), and the Jaldhaka—have been harnessed by India, which then supplies electric power to Nepal and Bhutan.
Tourism is an increasingly important source of income and employment in parts of the Himalayas, especially Nepal. Increased traffic and tourists’ heavy consumption of the region’s limited resources have further stressed the environment.
Trails and footpaths long were the only means of communication in the Himalayas. Although these continue to be important, especially in the more remote locations, road transport now has made the Himalayas accessible from both north and south. In Nepal an east-west highway stretches through the Tarai lowlands, connecting roads that penetrate into many of the country’s mountain valleys. The capital, Kathmandu, is connected to Pokhara by a low Himalayan highway, and another highway through Kodari Pass gives Nepal access to Tibet. A highway running from Kathmandu through Hetaunda and Birganj to Birauni connects Nepal to Bihar state and the rest of India. To the northwest in Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway links that country with China. The Hindustan-Tibet road, which passes through Himachal Pradesh, has been considerably improved; this 300-mile- (480-km-) highway runs through Shimla, once the summer capital of India, and crosses the Indo-Tibetan border near Shipki Pass. From Manali in the Kullu valley, a highway now crosses not only the Great Himalayas but also the Zaskar Range and reaches Leh in the upper Indus valley. Leh is also connected to India via Srinagar in the Vale of Kashmir; the road from Srinagar to Leh passes over the 17,730-foot- (5,404-metre-) high Khardung Pass—the first of the high passes on the historic caravan trail to Central Asia from India. Many other new roads have been built since 1950.
From the Indian Punjab the only direct approach to the Vale of Kashmir is by the highway from Jalandhar in Punjab state, India, to Srinagar through Pathankot, Jammu, Udhampur, Banihal, and Khahabal. It crosses the Pir Panjal Range through a tunnel at Banihal. The old road from Rawalpindi, Pak., to Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, has lost its importance since with the closing of the road at the line of control between the sectors of Kashmir administered by India and Pakistan.
The Sikkim Himalayas command the historic Kalimpang-to-Lhasa caravan trade route, which passes through Gangtok. Before the mid-1950s there was only one 30-mile (50-km) motorable highway running between Gangtok and Rangpo, on the Tista River, which then continued southward another 70 miles (110 km) to Shiliguri in West Bengal. Since then, several roads passable by four-wheel-drive vehicles have been built in the southern part of Sikkim, and the highway from Shiliguri has been extended through Lachung, in northern Sikkim, to Tibet.
Only two main railroads, both of narrow gauge, penetrate into the Lesser Himalayas from the plains of India: one in the western Himalayas, between Kalka and Shimla, and the other in the eastern Himalayas, between Shiliguri and Darjiling. Another narrow-gauge line in Nepal runs some 30 miles from Raxaul in Bihar state, India, to Amlekhganj. Two other short railroads run to the Outer Himalayas—one, the railroad of the Kullu Valley, from Pathankot to Jogindarnagar and the other from Haridwar to Dehra Dun.
There are two major airstrips in the Himalayas, one at Kathmandu and the other at Srinagarr; the airport at Kathmandu is served by international as well as regional flights. Besides these, there are also an increasing number of airstrips of local importance in Nepal and other countries in the region that can accommodate small aircraft. Improvements in both air and ground transportation have facilitated the growth of tourism in the Himalayas.
Study and Exploration
The earliest journeys through the Himalayas were undertaken by traders, shepherds, and pilgrims. The pilgrims believed that the harder the journey was, the nearer it brought them to salvation or enlightenment; the traders and shepherds, though, accepted crossing passes as high as 18,000 to 19,000 feet (5,500 to 5,800 metres) as a way of life. For all others, however, the Himalayas constituted a formidable and fearsome barrier.
The first known Himalayan sketch map of some accuracy was drawn up in 1590 by Antonio Monserrate, a Spanish missionary to the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. In 1733 a French geographer, Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Arville, compiled the first map of Tibet and the Himalayan range based on systematic exploration. In the mid-19th century the Survey of India organized a systematic program to measure correctly the heights of the Himalayan peaks. The Nepal and Uttarakhand peaks were observed and mapped between 1849 and 1855. Nanga Parbat, as well as the peaks of the Karakoram Range to the north, were surveyed between 1855 and 1859. The surveyors did not assign individual names to the innumerable peaks observed but designated them by letters and Roman numerals. Thus, at first Mount Everest was simply labeled as “H”; this had been changed to Peak XV by 1850. In 1865 Peak XV was renamed for Sir George Everest, surveyor general of India from 1830 to 1843. Not until 1852 were the computations sufficiently advanced for it to be realized that Peak XV was higher than any other peak in the world. By 1862 more than 40 peaks with elevations exceeding 18,000 feet (5,500 metres) had been climbed for surveying purposes.
In addition to the surveying expeditions, various scientific studies of the Himalayas were conducted in the 19th century. Between 1848 and 1849 the English botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker made a pioneering study of the plant life of the Sikkim Himalayas. He was followed by numerous others, including (in the early 20th century) the British naturalist Richard W.G. Hingston, who wrote valuable accounts of the natural history of animals living at high elevations in the Himalayas.
Since World War II the Survey of India has prepared some large-scale maps of the Himalayas from aerial photographs. Parts of the Himalayas also have been mapped by German geographers and cartographers, with the help of ground photogrammetry. In addition, satellite reconnaissance has been employed to produce even more accurate and detailed maps. Aerial photographs have been used in conjunction with other scientific observation methods to monitor the effects of climate change on the Himalayan environment—notably the recession of glaciers.
Himalayan mountaineering began in the 1880s with the Briton W.W. Graham, who claimed to have climbed several peaks in 1883. Though his reports were received with skepticism, they did spark interest in the Himalayas among other European climbers. In the early 20th century the number of mountaineering expeditions increased markedly to the Karakoram Range and to the Kumaun and Sikkim Himalayas. Between World Wars I and II, a certain national preference developed for the various peaks: the Germans concentrated on Nanga Parbat and Kanchenjunga, the Americans on K2 (in the Karakorams), and the British on Mount Everest. Since 1921 there have been several dozen attempts at scaling Everest; about a dozen of them were undertaken before it was first successfully scaled in May 1953 by the New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa partner Tenzing Norgay. That same year an Austro-German team led by Karl Maria Herrligkoffer reached the summit of Nanga Parbat. As the great peaks were conquered one by one, climbers began to look for greater challenges to test their skills and equipment, attempting to reach the summits by increasingly difficult routes. By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the annual number of mountaineering expeditions and tourist excursions to the Himalayas had increased so much that in some areas the participants were threatening the delicate environmental balance of the mountains by destroying plant and animal life and by leaving behind a growing quantity of refuse.
Shiba P. Chatterjee
Barry C. Bishop
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