John Keay’s book on the Himalaya is an armchair explorer’s delight.

First published: https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/trends/lifestyle-trends/book-review-himalaya-exploring-the-roof-of-the-world-is-a-great-find-especially-for-armchair-travellers-9719631.html

‘Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World’ is a great find, especially for armchair travellers

The scope of John Keay’s latest work, ‘Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World’, is as vast and diverse as the Himalayas.

An early Himalayan explorer, Alexandra David-Neel is best remembered as the first European woman to have reached the Forbidden City of Lhasa in 1924. But back in the late 19th century, she is known to have led a double life, far from the dusty plains of Tibet.

Still in her 20s at the time, David-Neel immersed herself in the study of Buddhism by day, while most evenings, she took to singing opera, a skill she had trained in during her younger days. Life in the arts sated her creativity and handed her the opportunity to travel the world. But she was drawn towards spirituality, a calling that gave her a new identity – that of an itinerant wanderer in faraway lands.

In 1911, she arrived in India to continue pursuing her Buddhist studies. Then, at the age of 55, she accompanied a few pilgrims to Tibet, travelling in disguise and under the cover of darkness. Four months into the arduous journey, she finally reached Lhasa.

The Himalayan landscape has drawn all kinds of inquisitive folks, like David-Neel, over the years. Some arrived to conquer territory, others to further their own spiritual quest; a few hoped to simply understand the lay of the land, yet others wished to stand on top of some of the highest mountains in the world. This gargantuan expanse of unknown terrain is dotted with hidden clues and magical discoveries at every step of the way, promising an adventure unlike any other.

The same allure has kept author John Keay engaged for many decades now. His latest work, Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World is an exhaustive study that takes the armchair traveller on a fascinating journey across the mighty mountain range.

Keay starts at the origins of the Himalayas. The now well-documented theory of the collision between tectonic plates and subsequent orogeny was first studied by early explorers like Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen and Joseph Dalton Hooker.

Keay snaps the reader out of their scientific reverie with a key observation on the Zanskar Valley in India’s far north – on how its stunning landscape still offers geological glimpses of a period when it was a part of the African subcontinent. It makes an instant connection with anyone who has been there, giving the continental drift some visible context today.

Over time, a few hardy souls called these gorgeous yet inhospitable landscapes their home. It also drew the attention of explorers, geographers, scientists and philosophers, who each found their own reasons to pay a visit to this remote part of the world.

A few Englishmen were at the heart of these escapades, given their proximity to the region as rulers of colonial India. Army officers like Francis Younghusband and Cecil Godfrey Rawling wandered the unknown blanks on the map in an official capacity, contesting the Great Game that unfolded between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia. At stake was control over these vast swathes of land in an attempt to redefine the borders of their dominion and regulate trade.

There were others who had different intentions. The lush valleys became the domain of botanists such as Frank Kingdon-Ward, who wished to further their understanding of the region’s flora. Or John Vincent Bellezza, a cultural historian, who compiled a database of heritage sites after extensive travels in Tibet.

A lot of these ventures needed generous financial backing, more so for those who didn’t enjoy the same access to the region as the British. For instance, orientalist Giuseppe Vincenzo Tucci’s expedition was funded by various government entities in Italy, while Swedish explorer Sven Hedin was handed all the support necessary by Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, when he set out for Tibet. That said, it was no deterrent for the self-funded travels made by the likes of David-Neel or Swami 1108 Pravananda Maharaj, an authority on the Kailash-Mansarovar region, having studied the area for over 23 years.

And where there were peaks, climbers could never be too far off. Once the foothills of these mountains were explored, the next motivation was to understand the height of these remote giants and eventually find a way to get to their summit. Expeditions to mountains such as Everest, K2 and Nanga Parbat became the object of nationalistic fervour for the British, Italians and Germans, respectively. Triumphs and tragedies unfolded on the slopes of these mountains and it is what mountaineers thrive on even today.

The exploration and climbs had a direct impact on the livelihoods of people in this region. Back in the day, most turned to sustenance farming or depended on trade across the high passes. However, their comfort at altitude made them worthy companions in the world of rock and ice, and once these communities started supporting expeditions, it brought them big bucks for their backbreaking work every season.

This volatile environment though is under constant threat. Keay highlights the case of receding glaciers and the many efforts being made to create artificial water sources. He believes there is an urgent need to closely introspect every action when it comes to development in the mountains, since it is likely to affect many lives in the time ahead.

The book is a result of Keay’s keen interest in the Indian subcontinent and the many decades of research that he’s dedicated to it. He has addressed multiple aspects of palaeontology, geology, history, mythology, exploration, climbing, religion, science, culture, geography and politics. It delivers a broad picture of this landscape and its people, and the many events and characters that have added to its legend.The scope of the book is as vast and diverse as the Himalaya itself, which could make it an overwhelming narrative for newbies. But for the seasoned reader, it is guaranteed to reveal yet another layer of this enchanting world.

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