By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
Welcome to the terai – a broad stretch of grasslands, swamps and forests at the feet of the most influential range in the world. Here, possibly, the first of our pre-human ancestors lived, the little Rama Pithecus. Did this small creature evolve into modern man? There is no reason why he could not have but that would contradict the West’s “Out of Africa” theory. In fact, Indic belief hints that humans did evolve in India as expressed in our Dus Avatar allegory but that is only one of the many mysteries of this sub-Himalayan terrain so we will leave that fascinating speculation for another day.
To stick to the more beaten path, this hyper-fertile land attracted settlers, settlements that grew into villages, hamlets, and towns like Ramnagar. But the forests and their wild life never gave up their claim to the terai and human-animal conflicts continued which caused hunters like Jim Corbett to intervene. Such close encounters of the wild kind continue to this day as injured or infirm animals become unable to hunt and humans become their easy prey. Corbett was never guilty of romanticising the jungle as Kipling was. Bagheera, the protective black panther of The Jungle Book would probably have had a real life. Mowgli as a tasty breakfast snack rather than protect him from the hypnotic lure of Kaa, the python! To be cold-eyed realists, the terai is little more than the drainage ditch and sump of the Himalayas, and so our attention must shift to that incredible spine of the Indian sub-continent.
And what an amazing spine it is! It rose millions of years ago, growing millimetre by reluctant millimetre as the continental plate on which India rested burrowed under the Eurasian plate like the blade of a giant bulldozer. The ancient Tethys Sea was drained leaving only vestiges of its former glory in the Mediterranean and, possibly, some of the lakes of Tibet. In the high Himalayas, where the rhododendron trees are stunted to bushes and their flowers are purple responding to ultra-violet light we see ammonites, fossil shell-fish from the lost sea. The ancient sea-bed now stretches for 2,400 kilometres and extends through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Bhutan and Nepal. It includes the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. And the Himalayas are still rising. The width of the range varies from 350 kms to 150 kms. It is narrowest in the east.
There is far more to the Himalayas than its dimensions.
There is so much ice and snow locked up in its glaciers that geographers refer to it as the Third Pole. There is an Indic belief that if all the ice and snow trapped in the Himalayas were to melt at once, it would inundate India. The allegory, or itihas, also contends that only the tangled locks of Siva, Lord of the Mountains, is preventing this calamity by trapping the inundation in his tangled locks. Clearly that refers to the forests of the Himalayas.
So, delegates to the G20 Conference, while we deeply appreciate your visit to our green and beautiful Himalayan state, do remember that, if our Himalayas did not exist, there would have been no European Age of Discovery, no Colonial Empires and, perhaps, no Columbus, or his plundering successors. Remember that the Native Americans are still called Red Indians. That path-breaking navigator sailed out to find a new sea route to India. And when he made landfall, he thought he had found it.
The most important global role of the great range is its creation of that regular seasonal storm: the Monsoons. Vapours sucked up by the sun form clouds which float high across India. Then they meet the Himalayas and are turned back. They are forced to shed their rain on the Indian sub-continent and the population dense lands of the Global South. This is why they are called The Monsoon Lands. Moreover, these Himalayan-caused Monsoons also powered the annual winds that brought traders and colonials to the East. The exploiting colonies of the Europeans were driven by the winds deflected by the Himalayas.
Christopher Columbus sailed out to discover a new route to India. He thought he had found it and so the florid complexioned Native Americans were called Red Indians.
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)