It is necessary to delienate the scope of `Himalaya’. It turns out, however, that this is a subjective exercise.
The Himalaya does not stand alone in the northern reaches of South Asia. As the Indian plate was subducted into the Asiatic plate some 200 million years ago, many roughly parallel ranges arose from the Tethis seabed and surrounding landmass.
So today, there is the main Himalayan crest, often called the Great Himalaya. To its north are the parallel and lesser ranges of Ladakh, Zaskar and Kailas. From northern Kashmir, the Karakoram stretches out over the disputed borders of India with Pakistan and China. It is home to four of the 14 peaks over 8,000m. Southwest from the frontiers of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan spring the Hindu Kush and Hindu Raj, often grouped together as one range. Northwest of the main Himalayan body is the Pamir knot, mostly lying in Tadzhikistan. Besides these ranges, there are the two poor cousins of the Himalaya, Kun Lun and Tien Shan, stretching out into China.
Ad Hoc Himalaya
The question of which of these mountain chains to include under ‘Himalaya’ has never been answered to satisfaction. Confusion„ reigns supreme over the nomenclature of this profusion of ranges, which boasts of all but one of the world’s 179 peaks over 7,000m (the odd one out being being Ancohuma (7014m.) in Bolivia). Moreover, these formidable Asian belts wind through frontiers (sometimes disputed) and more often than not there are different names for the same range (Kailas is Nyenchen Tang La in Tibetan). In fact, the question of which mountains fall within a particular c ountry’ s borders attracts much more attention than the question of which mountains fail in or out of the ‘Himalaya’.
Regional blinders have been responsible, in part, for creating this confusion. Some Indian mountaineering literature would leave us in the belief that the Himalaya is limited to sections falling in Punjab, Kumaun, Sikkim and Assam—with the black hole of Nepal and Bhutan in between. Nepalis, for the most part, believe the Himalaya stretches from Kanchenjunga (8598m) on the east to the Api-Saipal range on the west.
The fuzziness is not limited to the Great Himalayan Ridgeline only. There is also the question of whether or not to include the southern contiguous systems of the Lesser or Middle Himalaya — Mahabharat Lekh and Siwalik (Churey).
The traditional, imperial description of the Himalaya usually begins with the following generic statement: “From the Pamir knot, many different ranges fan out into several directions…” After that, what to include in the Himalaya is mostly up to the individual authorities.
Some describe the Himalaya as extending between the Indus and Brahmaputra (Tsangpo) rivers. But this definition would also rope in the Zanskar range, which means we would then have to include the parallel Ladakh range across the Indus as well, but then why not the Karakoram itself, which lies further north?
The case of the Punjab Himalaya serves to further highlight the Himalayan confusion. Louis Baume, in his Sivalaya (the Veda of mountaineering), maintains that the Punjab Himalaya comprises the main Himalayan chain, plus several other ranges to its north: Ladakh, Karakoram and Aghil; although he then mentions ambiguously that doing so is “neither geographically nor geologically necessarily correct”. Others, like John Cleare in the Collins Guide to Mountains and Mountaineering, define the Punjab Himalaya as stretching from the Sutlej river to Nanga Parbat in the west, and comprising the main Himalayan watershed only.
One way of clearing the confusion has been to name the entire geosyncline (belt) as Hindu Kush-Himalaya, which nicely incorporates most of the ranges in question. But this solution tends towards simplisism and does not take into account the many topographical, geological and climatic variations.
One must also distinguish between the actual ridgeline and the region surrounding it. Social scientists, obviously, prefer to look beyond pure geography to factors such as population, politics, climate, economy and administration. As much can be seen from the map of the Himalayan region published in Himal May/Jun 1992 (‘Briefs’ section), which. because it takes the administrative unit as its basis, includes remote parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, some of which do not even contain montane elevations.
Even when we get down to the continuous body of the main Himal aya, confusion persists. Purists would have it that the Himalaya extends from Namcha Barwa (just beyond the bend of the Tsangpo) to Garhwal in the west. Thus, Adams Carter, Editor of the Alpine Journal, completely ignores the Punjab Himalaya, and Nanga Parbat along with it, in his Classification of the Himalaya.
One suggestion might be to look at how the ranges in question were formed and also at major watersheds. Geographers generaly agree that the Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and the main Himalayan watershed were all formed at around the same geological time. The Tien Shan and Kun Lun ranges, however, were acted upon by other geologicial forces and so can easily be excluded. The Pamir knot, too, can be excluded because it does not follow the Himalayan contour and also because it is separated from the main Himalayan body by the Oxus (Amu Darya) river.
As for the Karakorum and Hindu Kush, they too would fall on the outside because the great Indus watershed separates these ranges from what we may call the ‘uninterrupted Himalaya’. Besides, the rolling mountains of Hindu Kush and the jagged peaks of Karakoram also do not share a lot of topographic features with the Himalaya. Kailas, along with the smaller Ladakh and Zaskar ranges, is a “Trans-Himalayan” range. It is parallel to the Himalaya, but not a part of it.
So what are we left with? It has often been mentioned that the Himalaya sports (almost by design, according to Louis Baume) two isolated high peaks on its eastern and western ends. These are, of course, Namcha Barwa and Nanga Parbat.
In the final analysis, the “Himalaya” can be said to stretch between these two guardians peaks, Namcha Bharwa to Nanga Parbat. The range would not include the Pamir, Hindu Kush,Karakoram, Ladakh, Zanskar and Kailas The northern boundary would more or less follow the frontiers of Assam, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, where it would leave the frontier to reach up to Nanga Parbat. To the south, the range would end where the mountains give way to the hills (at 4600m), and the Lesser (Middle) Himalaya would be more properly be called the Himalayan foothills. It is best to omit the Siwalik range altogether, because, besides its altitudenal insignificance, it was formed during the last of the four stages of the Himalayan buildup, and is thus separated from the Himalaya both in geological time and geographical distance.
Some of these arguments can be turned around completely to counter the very definition this writer has given. But then, perhaps this whole exercise has been an exercise in futility. Each one of us searches for his/her own Himalaya.
Risal is Himal’s “Know Your Himal” columnist