A term developed in the Nepal Himalaya can be extended to cover the whole Himalaya.
The indifference with which the Himalayan peaks were treated by the people of the Himalayan mid-hills is clear from the fact that most of the great massifs did not have names. (Even today, only 20 percent of Nepal’s above-6000ers are thus fortunate.) Other than a source of religious folklore, no attempt was made to understand their structure geographically, to find out the peculiarity of a peak or range, or to climb and explore this snowbound environment. All this had to wait for the arrival of the European explorers and climbers.
Conditions have changed a great deal in recent years. Mountain enthusiasts, climbers or otherwise, from either side of the Himalaya have taken to climbing the mountains or exploring their lower reaches. Others are acquainting themselves with mountain literature or brushing up on their knowledge, both useful and esoteric, of the mountains. One related development is that the locals have also taken to naming the peaks.
This naming game, although far from being complete or sometimes even correct, is, however, a healthy sign after centuries of reverential aloofness. At the same time, it must be mentioned that those who would christen Himalayan massifs have contented themselves thus far with finding names for individual mountains.
As the Himalaya becomes more a subject of study, a term that applies to a cluster of peaks has become necessary. For, the Himalaya is not an unbroken line of peaks stretching from the Indus to the Brahmaputra Bend in Arunachal, but rather a range that is made up of smaller chains that are divided either by the mighty Indus, Ganga and the Brahmaputra tributaries or by lower ridges that barely qualify as mountains.
This singularity of the Himalaya—that of being a broken collection of jagged edges rather than a broad plateau—can be found in various forms. While the Ganesh Himal, seen directly north-east of Kathmandu, is bounded on either side by the Trisuli and Budi Gandaki rivers, the Kanchenjunga chain is distinct by its breaking off to the south from the main east-west march of the Himalaya; and the Nanda Devi Sanctuary by its conglomeration of peaks around glaciers heading in all directions.
It would thus seem logical that such groups, chains, clusters or mini-ranges be considered similar in that they represent part of the greater Himalaya but al so retain their own individuality. And to extend the reasoning further, a common name to denote such groupings would be but natural.
For close to three decades some writers on the Nepal Himalaya have been referring to such a group of mountains as himal. While the term is also used more simply to denote “a snow mountain” (which is also the meaning of the title of this magazine), it has come to refer to mountain clusters. The origin of this usage cannot be pinned down, but it is safe enough to surmise that it came into vogue by the two ranges north of Kathmandu being pointed out as Ganesh Himal and Jugal Himal, without particular reference to individual peaks. (Early British map above shows Ganesh separated from Langtang/Jugal.)
In both cases, while the original use was surely to denote these peaks generically as one “snow mountain” (given our ancestors’ lack of interest to detail), when it was time for modern-day mountaineers and cartographers to name the chains, the term ‘himal’ came to refer to chains and clusters, which is what both Ganesh and Jugal are.
Nepal has 28 such himals, each separate from the rest and each with its own proliferation of high peaks. For instance, the Rolwaling Himal in eastern Nepal with Gaurishanker and Menlungtse, the Byas Himal in the west with Api, and the Manaslu Himal of central Nepal with Manasulu, Himalchuli and Baudha.
This nomenclature for clusters makes a lot of sense if the alternatives are considered. ‘Range’ and ‘chain’ envision a continuous line; ‘cluster’ sounds like a jumble (and much too pedestrian to use for Himalayan peaks!); and ‘such-and-such peaks’ (for example, the Swarga-rohini peaks of Garhwal) seems to belittle the personality of the great ones; whereas himal seems to respect the individual peaks, while at the same time delivers a sense of a chain that is more than the sum of its parts. The term also somehow seems more attuned to mountain groupings, be they standing in a line or ranged about a glacial valley.
The need to suffix such Asian names as Nanga Parbat with a completely foreign term as ‘range’, when ‘Nanga Parbat Himal’ has such a natural ring to it can also be argued. Perhaps one should not stretch the argument too far, for before those mountains were known as the Nanga Parbat Range, they were probably not known at all! And while one has always to guard against regional (Himalayan) chauvinism, one must still say that ‘himal’ is better than ‘cluster’ or ‘chain’ or ‘range’.
The use of the term himal also facilitates ready identification and location of peaks, particularly the less known ones. It is more useful to say that Tukuche Peak is in the Dhaulagiri Himal than to scratch one’s head and say that it is somewhere in the mid-Nepal Himalaya. At present, lesser mountains tend to be known by their proximity to a dominant peak. For example, the relatively well-documented Garhwal Himalaya has the Trimukhi Parbat Group and the Sudarshan Parbat Area. Calling them instead the Trimukhi Parbat Himal or the Sudarshan Himal would lend consistency to the naming of mountains. And if one is to follow the Nepali example, such himals need not even depend upon the highest peak in the group. The Khumbu Himal (with the enviable Chomolongma in its line-up) is named after the region it lies in, and the Jugal Himal probably takes its name from the twin (jugal) peaks of Dorje Lakhpa.
Having said so much, perhaps one needs to look at the distinguishing features of a himal. Where the distinction is clear, as in the Annapurna Himal, interposed as it is between the Marsyangdi and Kali Gandaki rivers, it is easy enough. But nature and geology does not always allow for such clearcut demarcations, and one has to look for delineations as and where they present themselves. A definitive turn in direction from the main range, as in the case of Damodar Himal in Mustang’s east (it turns northwards) is one such. Another is the sheer rise in height from a lower ridge, like the Jugal Himal. A third is a distinctive grouping of peaks as is found in the Khumbu Himal.
Mountain clusters like the ones mentioned above can be had all over the Himalaya, and thus all the more reason to seek a more uniform terminology to differentiate one from other.
Since the usage of himal has been accepted for three decades or more in Nepal in the Central Himalaya, which houses the greatest profusion of peaks high and low, it is perhaps not illogical to propose that this term cover the whole Himalaya as well. Indian Himalayophiles may not have too much of a linguistic problem because of the Sanskrit root of the term, and the rest of the countries of South Asia and Tibet/China might also go along for the cause of regional solidarity. The sound of Panch Chuli Himal (Kumaun), Chomolhari Himal (Bhutan), or Namcha Barwa Himal (Tibet) is certainly more pleasing than what they are presently known as—this or that ‘group’.
Who knows, this might be such a good idea that ‘himal’ might soon be used in the Alps, the Dolomites, the Atlas and the Andes.