Real and false goegraphies of the himalaya

Trans-Himalayan travel, however it might have been portrayed, was not the exclusive pastime of Western adventurers. But geographies are created according to the needs of the day.

In a recent essay on exploration in the Greater Himalaya, travel writer Stephen Venables remodels the mountains to suit the tastes of Western consumers. Venables touts the Himalaya as the "greatest mountain barrier on Earth". Over it forged the Europeans, especially the British, exploring, surveying and documenting the mountains, not for the benefit of science but for political and commercial exploitation. What is missing is any mention of the indigenous people who have long travelled the mountains. In narrating the European exploration of the Himalaya, which occurred almost entirely during the past two centuries, Venables successfully reinforces the notions not only that Himalayan travel is recent but also all travel over this perceived barrier was European or European-inspired. Venables perpetuates the idea that knowledge about the Himalaya is Western-derived: that the problems of accessibility, Lhough difficult, were solved by British imperialists from the Indian subcontinent and that the first descriptions of routes and places were recorded in the English language.
The barrier notion need not be taken very seriously for there is enough literature to successfully challenge it. Furthermore, that literature is far from European – inspired and much of it was written centuries ago. Accessibility of the South Asian mountain rimland has always been of major concern. Although now ignored by contemporary ´neo-colonialists´ — adventure travellers and the like—the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in the last century used old accounts of tians-Himalayan travel to further the aims of the British in their frontier tracts. It was the constant movement up and down and in and out of the Greater Himalaya that gave rise to its portrayal as a Highland-Lowland Interaction system. Perceptions such as Venables mountain ´barrier´, or claims of undiscovered ´refuge´ populations, are concoctions of the contemporary mind. They are not rooted in history. There is a long record of travel through the mountains by trans-Himalayan traders, pilgrims and seasonal migrants. Enhanced accessibility is the most important transformation of Himalayan habitat and society.

Most Westerner shave a conceptual problem in considering the South Asia mountain rimland because most are city folk used to relating everything to a core, the city, and a periphery. We would do well to re-re-ad Agehananda Bharati´s essays. Actual and Ideal Himalaya:

Hindu Views of the Mountains, and Mountain People and Monastics /nKwnaon, both of which help us to appreciate the huge gulf that exists between the pahari and the maidani admi. Despite claims of plains folk that they have always considered the Himalaya (the periphery) a place of adoration and sanctity, mountain people are socially and spatially far from the city. The phenomenon is not unique to the Indian subcontinent. In the West there is a similar gulf in perception between rural agricultural workers and city folk who prattle on about the ephemeral nature of ´wilderness´.

Geographical Absurdities
Instead of appreciating that mountain societies are not static and that they have floating populations, Westerners attempt to pin down these ´fuzzy´ areas. Invariably, the resulting geopolitical boundaries are made to conform to natural features such as the crest of a mountain range or a watershed divide. The facts that ridge tops are often areas of social interchange in the summer and that the major rivers divide people are ignored. A Western example would be the Swiss who earned wealth by becoming brokers between the southern and northern Europeans in an area that could be described as culturally and ecologically fuzzy. Smuggling was prominent and, even today, the Swiss have globalised this venerable mountain tradition by becoming clandestine bankers for the world´s funny money.

Many such boundaries in the Greater Himalaya are products of the "Law of Geographical Absurdity", as George H.T. Kimble put it, under which boundaries that do not exist are drawn around places that do not matter. Nepal and Baluchistan were demarcated and set off by themselves. Afghanistan, now home to only 40,000 ´real´ Afghans (as they define the elhnonym), was a surreal concoction of the British. Two of the three principal ´cores´ of the Greater Himal ay a—Peshawar-Kabul and Punch-Srinagar —- were bifurcated seasonal capitals. Only the third, Kathmandu, was fairly static, but even it has lost its gateway status as Biratnagar emerges as the Denver of Nepal. Kabul and Srinagar owed much of their prominence to the fact that they were the points for access into Central and Inner Asia. Local control took the form of licencing access to trade routes rather than dominating territory.

Britain, an island nation, never had to delineate borders and so its efforts in defining territory in South Asia were forever clouded by ethnocentric bias. One example of the limited horizon of the imperialists can be seen the far-fetched remark by Olaf Caroe that Central Asia lay beyond the Ambela Pass — a place well within the Indus watershed and with Indic languages that were known for hundreds of kilometres around it and as far west as Kabul. Because Caroe never gained access to Kabul, the western limit of South Asia, the Indian subcontinent stopped at the limits of his progress, which was in the low hills. Peter Bishop´s excellent book, The Myth of Shangri-La (University of California Press, 1989) shows how curtailed access to Tibet resulted in Europeans concocting fanciful notions of the country. Another example is Mary Louise Pratt´s recent book., Imperial Eyes; Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge, 1992), about travel in the 19th Century, an amusing account of imperialists* letters from abroad. The struggle was not for His enjoyment of travel, but to create access for the imperialists.

In an excellent essay on the history of European scientific exploration in the high Himalaya, Ken Hewitt of Wilfrid Lauricr University in Ontario, Canada, highlights the different styles of European exploration of the Karakorum. Most 19th Century Europeans, such as the three von Schlagintweit brothers, were interested in scientific discoveries whereas the British were the surveyors who measured the heights of passes and the widths of river crossings in the hope of political, military or commercial penetration.

Who were the people who gained access through the Himalaya? They were traders, pilgrims, or local folk exploiting the highly varied biophysical environment. While the popular idea of a ´refuge´ population living in a valley is plausible, most of the claims about these people arise from the fact thatmany separate languages exist in the mountains. Karl Jettmar´s remark about parts of the Himalaya being an "ethnic zoo has often been misinterpreted. The languages exist in discrete populations, but many of these people were multilingual because the bazaar languages, such as Pashto, Farsi, Hindi, Pahari and Tibetan, ere ate a veneer over the many Indie Dardic languages in the west, or subsuming the profusion of Tibeto-Burman languages in the east.

Traris-Hinialayan trading is centuries old. In addition to trading in foodstuffs and condiments, such as salt and as afelida, and Eves lock, there was also an active trade in slaves, especially between Kashmir and Central Asia. Speciality trading in certain commodities such as ´Kashmir´ wool from the Kaghan goats of the Bakkanval typify the close relationship between an ethnic group and a traded commodity. By trading surplus commodities the mountain residents could overcome the disadvantages of their marginal environment. In traditional mountain economies, the operating niche was quite small. Therefore it was necessary to maximise output from the niche and trade a product for another obtained elsewhere. These practices fit well with the notion of Highland-Lowland interaction wherein people and commodities must move seasonally in order to survive in a marginal environment.

Unfortunately, the 20th Century introduced Asia to all idea of the nation-State which resulted in the creation of boundaries around those States. These boundaries completely disrupted traditional trading patterns in the South Asian mountain rimland. Access was denied. There were no really self-sustaining mountain communities because trade was necessary to sustain them. From one end of the Himalaya to another, mountain common ides were transformed by the restriction of travel. A.C. Sinha lias documented how the swidden cultivators, Abors, Mishmi and Miri in the Sadiya Frontier Tract in Assam, traded forest products for tools obtained from Tibet. Bhutan, too, traded extensively with Tibet, not just for metal products but for horses and other livestock. The British al the end of the 19th Century realised that this trade was substantial and arranged to have an ´insider´, David Mac Donald (the offspring of a Scottish father, Sikkimese mother, and married to a Nepali), as their agent in Gyantse. By restricting trade on many trans-Himalayan routes while improving some key mule tracks that converged on British control led caravan serials, Imperial India sought to monopolise trans-border trade.

During the last century, British India saw developing trade relations with Central and Inner Asia—essentially east and west Turkestan-—as something more than an opportunity to make money. Their activities were suffused with a missionary zeal to convert local people to Christianity. This fervour was an integral part of the ´Great" Game´ that started with ´Bokhara´ Burnes and, later, Conolly´s ill-fated miss ions to Central Asia in 1842; The much -decorated Henry Rawlinson, in an address to the Royal Geographical Society in 1868, stated that the most valuable result of all the RGS-sponsored researches and exploration was the opening up of new routes for international commerce. Rawlinson believed international commerce to be the -´most important instrument in extending civilisation, in promoting peace and in raising the social condition of people who engage in it". Furthermore, when two countries stand in (he relationship of producer and consumer, their material interests become so identified that it is almost impossible for them to go to war. Pox Britannica was based on this notion. The travels of the ´pundits´, the clandestine British-trained Indian and Bhotia surveyors arose from these beliefs.

Tea for Turkestan

One widely discussed commodity was tea. Tea for Chinese east Turkestan travelled 4,800 km, via Shanghai and Canton to Bombay and Karachi, up the Indus into the Punjab and Kabul and over the Hindu Kush to be sold in the bazaars of Kokand, Yarkand and Kashgar. The British, suggested Rawlinson, could obtain tea in their newly developed estates in Assam and convey it through Tibet to Chinese Turkestan, a distance of only 800 km. The British estimated a profit margin of 50 per cent if they could identify a good route, negotiable by wheeled traffic. It was left to the RGS to find explorers who could create a geography that established such a route to Central Asia. But, as Rawlinson remarked in his 1868 address to the RGS, "there is a true and false geography of these countries." False geo graphies, like the one invented by Venables, are constantly manufactured. With their zeal for trade, the British redoubled their efforts at finding a way into Turkestan.

Invaders to South Asia invariably came from die northwest because the route supported little vegetation to hamper passage. The researches of British-trained local scouts suggested that the prospects of substantial trade between South and Central Asia were dim. What did alarm Ihe British was the conquest of Central Asia by Tsarist forces. The turning point of the Great Game occurred in the Pamirs when Grombchevski faced down Young husband—of 1904 Lhasa fame — and the British retreated back to the watershed of South Asia.

The model of Highland-Lowland interaction takes several forms. The Himalayan form focuses on exchange of goods from the Indo-Gangetic plain to the highlands of Tibet. Until the 1960s, Tibet had never been self-sufficient in grain; hence imports from the south were exchanged for salt and wool. Much trade went through princely states which exacted duty on the commodities. The Administrative Report of 1919 for Bashahr State (now part of Himachal Pradesh) gives trade statistics monitored by the trade posts at Shalkar Chang, Shipki, and Morang leading into Chinese Tibet ("Chinese Tibet" is the precise wording in the document). Bushahr State imported mainly Pasham (fine wool), raw wool, borax and horses. Imports were about four times that of exports, indicating that Bushahr State processed Tibetan goods and traded the finished goods in India. Altitude per se was not ahindrance in trading over the 5,500-metre passes. Rather it was the seasonal snow blocking the passes that hindered travel.

Too often is Nepal cited as the archetype , for Himalayan habitat and society. In fact, Nepal is entirely atypical of the general pattern of rural life in today´s Greater Himalaya because access by vehicle from the Tarai to the hills and mountains is almost negligible. Only two all-weather roads penetrate the foothills. Compare this with the major transformation of the Himalaya in the past 40 years due to the closure of trans-montane trading routes as nation-State boundaries closed, and the enhanced access from the lowlands into the mountains via motor-vehicle tracks. The 1962 imbroglio between China and India on their frontiers forced India to build an estimated 11,000 km of border roads. India, a nation with a transportation fixation on railways, built many bad roads during this period because it had not the technical experience and skill necessary to build good mountain toads and tracks.

Kachha Roads and Irrigation
When I first became involved with the Himalaya over 25 years ago, in a food-for-work programme, we always asked the cultivators what they would construct if we provided wheat in payment. The answer then was always kachha roads and small irrigation facilities. The answer today is the same. Tommy Carlstein of the University of Lund, Sweden, believes the transformation was from the pre-industrial eco-tech no logy to an adjunct of industrial economy. The success of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in northern Pakistan rests on its ability to satisfy the villagers´ (albeit male) wants. Those desires are jeep/tractor tracks with bridges and improved irrigation. Once a village has approved the basic organisation for a development project and that initial desire is satisfied, the project has the goodwill of the village which Ls a good basis for executing further projects.

In the 1960s, Will Owen, a one-time World Bank transportation economist, wrote several books relating to enhanced accessibility to villages. Distance and Development enumerated the advantages of kachha roads which, translated for mountain areas, allowed jeeps and farm tractors with trailers to substitute the need for complementary eco-niches that were exploited at different altitudes. Rapid travel allowed surpluses to be marketed, specialisation to occur and spatial inequality in access to public services ID be reduced. In a Muslim area, for example, it meant that women could seek health care because rapid travel to and from a health facility made overnight stays unnecessary.

Increased accessibility also expanded the role of government. Anyone who has worked in the mountains knows of government officials who never ventured beyond the confines of their offices in the district headquarters. Rapid travel meant that they could hot only maintain social cohesion by visiting their families, invariably in some distant town or city, but also patrol their domain and work more efficiently.

Increased road transportation into mountains h as its detractors, however. Ideal routes do not always correspond to where villages are and some villages therefore remain remote. Researchers have criticised the routes of major roads in Nepal and Indian-built roads in mountains. The roads that those scholar & criticise are major roads for five- to seven-tonne trucks. Heavy vehicle routes require much more side cut and when 1 talk about enhanced accessibility I do not have these roads in mind. That level of technology is simply inappropriate in Himalayan mountainous tenain. Jeeps , the in famous ´cargo´ jeeps with one-tonne payloads, and farm tractors pulling a two to three-tonne payload require a much narrower track than a seven-tonne truck.. Farm tractor and jeep tracks need about the same width as do many foot trails in the Himalaya, and the wire cable bridges use a design that has been around for 100 years. The environmental impact of this level of transport technology is minimal compared to that needed for large trucks.

Wilfrid Owen´s ideas about rural vehicle access also have their detractors. One set of development experts sees the controllers of an outside technology, transport vehicles, creating a decreased demand for surplus products. But if the type of transport technology is kept at the level of jeeps and tractors and not of large trucks, the investment in a motor vehicle is modest and within the grasp of Himalayan expatriates working in the Gulf states or even in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Farm tractors perform other duties besides pulling trailers in mountains. Jeff Fox, a research associate at the Environment Policy Institute of the East-West Center, Hawai, made a 10-year retrospective study of his survey village in Nepal and found that a jeep road had enhanced the condition of the local forest resources. Tractors had dispensed with the need for draught animals, and the absence of animals, in turn, resulted in fewer trees being lopped for fodder leaves. There are, of course, questions about raising foreign exchange for imported fuel, but the casual visitor to a city like Kathmandu soon realises that foreign exchange for motor vehicle fuel does not seem to be an impediment to owning and driving a vehicle.

Geographies Continually Bora
Other criticisms are levelled by outsiders at the ´destruction´ of the local culture. This school of thought believes in the preservation of ´human zoos´. The proponents of this school believe that culture is static and not dynamic. Ken Mc Donald, a researcher working with Ken Hewitt, while living in Askole, the last substantial village on the route to Concordia in the Karakorum, found that trekkers and climbers were dismayed that the jeep track would be extended to this village, thereby linking it with the rest of Pakistan, Invariably, they felt the track would have a negative effect on the village and the trip up to Concordia. Similar comments were expressed about the construct ion of a jeep road to Shims hall, the only village in north Pakistan not served by a jeep track. Modern conveniences such as molar vehicles and relatively benign conveyances such as mountain bikes often reinforce ethnicity because they expose rural people to a variety of outsiders. Geographies are created continually. A bus driver, switching the cassettes of his tape player as the bus groans up the mountain road into a different language are a, is bul one indicator that traditional cultures adapt lo modern conditions of which accessibility is a key component.

Nigel J.R. Allan coedited Human impact on Mountains and his edited book Karakorum Conquered will be published next year by Oxford University Press. 

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