Panoramic encyclopaedia of the Himalaya

The other-wordly beauty of Rara lake in western Nepal. Photo: Bharat Bandhu Thapa

Both a soaring celebration and a sacramental offering to the highest mountain range in the world, everything you ever wanted to know about the Himalaya is found between the covers of this magnificent, ambitious and panoramic book.

An ‘abode of snows’ love story featuring kaleidoscopic cultures, spiritual elevation, migrating peoples, epic adventures and colliding colonial conflicts, this first major history of the Himalaya tackles a vast subject, taking the reader on a rollicking journey that starts with the geological crash of tectonic plates 50 million years ago, and brings us to present day disputes about national borders and contentious commercial expeditions.

Although it spans millennia, Ed Douglas has an enviable ability to escort us through the intimidating landscape, grand peaks and steep valleys of the region’s daunting geography and shifting civilisations, introducing the individuals who shaped its past and the pressures that drove its waves of conquerors. 

He effortlessly weaves together the ebb and flow of centuries, unravelling the religious and political alliances, dispelling the myths, and sharing with us gripping tales of resilience, discovery, plunder, oppression and enlightenment on the roof of the world.

Far from being a wild and barren ‘blank on the map’, the Himalaya has throughout the ages been home to an astonishing diversity of indigenous cultures, a medley of religions and a crossroads for commerce. The idea of mysterious monarchies and forbidden cities is revealed as a largely European construct, born of explorer egos, occult fantasists or political expediency. 

Until the mid-1800s the Himalaya was at the centre of busy trade routes from all points of the compass, a crucible of cultures characterised by intellectual curiosity and crossovers with the outside world.

‘Here Jesuit missionaries exchanged technologies with Tibetan Lamas, Mongol Khans employed Nepali craftsmen, Armenian merchants exchanged musk and gold with Mughals and the East India Company grappled for dominance with China's emperors.’ 

We meet princesses married to Buddhist sages, scheming queens tormenting unhinged kings, Capuchin friars vying with the Vatican, Jang Bahadur Rana’s Parisian mistress, and the first Westerner to marry a Tibetan, the rambunctious George Bogle. 

We learn of the landscape-changing drama of cultivating tea plants from China, the circuitous arrival of the potato, the Western craze for rhododendrons, and the gardening sensation caused by the exasperatingly ungrowable blue poppy, ‘the colour of a summer day’.

A journalist and climber, Ed Douglas is a frequent visitor to Nepal. He has pulled together a swathe of recent research and the all-embracing bibliography is an accomplishment in its own right. I most admire his fresh slants on well-worn stories – the pivotal sophistication of Kathmandu’s Newars, the fusion of traditions that honour Mount Kailas, the genius Arniko’s royal Mongolian wife, Prithivi Narayan Shah’s patience, the origins of Bovril, George Everest insisting his name be pronounced ‘Eve-rest’, and a young Liz Hawley climbing an Egyptian pyramid in moonlight.

Containing magicians and nomads, scholars and tyrants, pundits and pilgrims, raiders and revolutionaries, Ed Douglas’s Himalaya is a heroic and learned investigation of the region. He deftly untangles the geology and genetics, botany and wildlife, art and exploration, lost kingdoms, forgotten skirmishes, and a comprehensive climbing chronology. 

Ed told me: “I was aiming to bridge the gap between the experts and the public who have been so long led astray by misinformation.”

The pages throng with eccentric narcissists, romantic introverts, resourceful women, dogged plant hunters, courageous spies, overlooked adventurers, and of course mountaineers. The book is both concise and lengthy, readable but dense, factual and fanciful, with all the various strands distilled into an immensely entertaining read.

I embarked on the massive 600-page tome in Pokhara as the last light of 2020 faded on the Annapurna ranges, her normally white ramparts now startlingly black with lack of snow, the triangular walls of Machapuchhre naked and bereft, the valleys drained by depleted rivers running low through their rocky roadside beds. 

Along the ridgeline before us, smoke billowed from distant forest fires, contributing to the rosy sunset but laying waste to Himalayan hillsides vulnerable to drought and climate change.

Billions of people depend on the third pole of the Himalaya for their water and weather but, as in both the Arctic and Antarctic, the impact of our carbon consuming lifestyles are now tangible and irrefutable. Melting permafrost cracks the foundations of stone homes in the high mountains, and glacial outbursts threaten the populated high valleys.

Whilst nuclear superpowers fret about boundary markers and world leaders come together at the UN climate summit COP26 in Glasgow later this year, the next critical chapter of the human history of the Himalaya is waiting to be written.

A Human History
by Ed Douglas

W.W. Norton & Company, 2021

Illustrated 581 pages $40

Lisa Choegyal