The Tribune - Spectrum

, January 13, 2002
Lead Article

Celestial peaks, divine grandeur
The Himalayas through the lens of a sadhu

Swami Sundaranand
Swami Sundaranand

FROM times immemorial, there has been a mystique, an irresistible majestic beauty, a universal magnetic appeal about the Himalaya. The many faces and many moods of the Himalaya continue to mean different things to different people and yet they have something unique for everybody. They have rugged grandeur and stretches of inhospitable, snow-covered ranges interspersed with soft, misty valleys with sparkling, tinkling streams, lakes and forests whose beauty has to be seen to be believed. The highest mountain in the world, the snow- capped, cloud- bedecked peaks of the Himalaya soar skyward - a stunning visual feast, but also a symbolic reminder, an inspiration that reaching upwards, beyond oneself can take one to new heights.


Down the ages, the Himalayas have inexorably drawn towards them a vast cross-section of humanity. For those seeking spiritual salvation, they remain the ultimate goal. Ascetics have long been a part of the Himalayan landscape. Some of the revered Hindu pilgrimage centres and the most ancient Buddhist monasteries can be found amongst the Himalayan heights along with countless fascinating legends — making them a hallowed destination for pilgrims. For mountaineers from the world over, they have long presented supreme challenges. And their soft, appealing call continues to beckon adventurers and lovers of beauty, cutting across religious barriers. Age, region, country, professions become irrelevant in the context of the magnetic power of the multi-dimensional Himalaya — they offer happiness, hope, and their wonderful range of riches interwoven with mesmerising legends to everyone. Nanda Devi Raj Jat procession is one such poignant example. Boasting a rich mythological history, the Himalaya are also the source of some of India’s greatest rivers. With a long geological past, they are a rare treasure house of bio-diversity, of a range of minerals, of a variety of wildlife, and a number of striking life styles. Ancient traditions are still alive in the Himalaya, though the majority of old trade routes which connected India, Tibet and China are no longer an economic lifeline.

Neelkamal— a rare Himalayan flower
Neelkamal— a rare Himalayan flower

Statistically, the Himalaya are not just the highest mountains in the world—they also constitute the longest mountain chain in the world and are approximately 250 to 300 Km in depth. From northern Afghanistan in the west to northern Myanmar, the Himalaya run for 2,500 kilometers covering an area of over 7,50,000 sq. km. Translated literally, the name means, "the abode of snow."

Height-wise, the Himalaya can be divided into three parts - the lower Himalaya, the middle Himalaya and the higher Himalaya. Geographically, they are described as the western, central and eastern Himalaya. It is believed that the Himalaya are younger than other mountain ranges and the process of its formation is still continuing. Ages ago, it is said, India was an island covered on all sides by the sea. The now extinct sea in the north was known as Tethys sea. Some rivers of India used to flow into this northern sea. The fossils of sea animals, sand and rounded stones discovered in the higher plains bear evidence to this. At many places in the Himalaya, deposits of non-sticking soil — the kind which is found in the deserts has been discovered and is now utilized for farming. In layman’s terms, it is claimed that due to subterranean changes, the land mass of India began moving towards the northwest and ultimately collided with the Tibetan plateau.

The Himalaya were created as a result of this collision. The movement of India towards the northwest is still continuing and as a result the height of the Himalaya increases by a few centimeters every year.

After the birth of the Himalaya, some of the older north Indian rivers became choked, changed course and started flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Later still, some rivers like the legendary Saraswati disappeared. Researchers have now discovered that the Saraswati, which used to flow as a mighty river till 3,000 BC, but disappeared around 1,500 BC ,got lost in the Himalayan regions due to the tectonic disturbances. Adored as the Ambitama, Naditama and Devitama (best of all mothers, best of all rivers and best of all goddesses) in Vedic literature, the Saraswati river used to perennially flow from the Har-ki-Doon glacier up to Somnath in Gujarat, undulating through the receding glaciers in the Himalayan region, Shivalik foothills, semi-arid desert zones in today’s Rajasthan and the marshy Rann of Kutch in Saurashtra. Researchers have reason to believe that the Saraswati was desiccated due to several geological factors, but primarily due to tectonic disturbances which might have raised the basin and beds of the flowing waters of the river in the Himalayan region. The Saraswati choked up as the flowing waters from the Har-ki-Doon glacier (Bandarpoonch massif) changed course. Such changes in the geographical features of the Himalaya continue to be an issue of deep study for the geologists. As is often the case, mythology and the historical or geological views overlap at places and are divergent at other points. For instance, in all the Puranas, India is referred to as "Bharat Khand in Jambu Dweep." Even today during worship and formal ceremonies, the priests record events as happening in "Bharat Khand in Jambu Dweep" and trace the lineage to some ancient rishi. According to common belief, the Ganga got locked in the matted hair Shiva. Jahnu rishi got it freed from the locks of Shiva and the Ganga flowing again. Therefore, the Ganga is also known by the name of Jahanavi. There is also a place in the Himalaya which goes by the name of Jahnu rishi. In course of time, the fame of Ganga’s purity spread throughout India A mere glimpse of the Ganga is considered fortunate. The opportunity to bathe in its waters is considered even more auspicious. It is said that consumption of a few drops of Ganga water is enough to expiate sins. Leaving aside the spiritual dimension, the fact is that the Ganga in its journey through the Himalaya passes over rock and mineral formations of different kinds and through areas rich in medicinal herbs. Its waters are bound to be special.

Excerpted from Himalaya by Swami Sundaranand. Published by Tapovan Kuti Prakashan