Himalaya: A Human History by Ed Douglas

In 1898, British cartographer and explorer Captain Montagu Sinclair Wellby published Through Unknown Tibet. In this travelogue, he hoped that “some future traveller may learn not so much what he ought to do, as what he ought not to do.”

The history of traversing the Himalayan region—whether for commercial exploitation, scientific research, or empire-expanding warfare—is a narrative best understood through Wellby’s cautionary hindsight. Indeed, even a passing acquaintance with the first attempts at scaling the harrowing Himalayan mountains, such as Everest, or the early excursions to conquer Tibet by a variety of outlier tribes and ethnic clans, can be rendered as lessons in hubris and costly victories—what an individual or a nation “ought not to do.” The Himalayas have long been viewed as a region where geography has dictated the failures of empires and individuals.

Physical landscapes profoundly shape the culture of the people living in them. Think of the relationship between the Inuit and the Arctic, or the Epirotes and the Pindus Mountains. Contemporary Inuit and Epirote cultures unify themselves along linguistic and religious lines, resulting in a similarity of social practices—a recognizable homogeny within a physical area. But what if the extreme environment of one place contains within itself a staggering diversity of local populations: various groups representing distinct ethnicities, languages, and religious practices? Can the people within such a region be both polyphonic in their cultural expressions and yet unified according to the terroir of the place?

Himalayan Melting Pot

Ed Douglas addresses these questions in his long-awaited book Himalaya: A Human History. Here he unravels the stories of Tibetan, Nepalese, Mongolian, Chinese, Indian, and European peoples whose cultures have been contoured by the mountainous Himalayan region. In the process, Douglas de-mythologizes much of the exoticism that colors our perception of this vast area straddling the border between the two most populous countries in the world, China and India.

The Himalayas’ past has often been told in terms of politics, colonial expansion, and invasion. The region’s history has rarely been explained in terms of the cultures and people within its borders, which is how Douglas approaches this vast place. It is through particular personalities—climbers, politicians, priests, and scientists—that Douglas leads us to understand how rich and deep the cultural landscapes of Nepal, Tibet, and the greater Himalayan region are.

The author de-mythologizes much of the exoticism that colors our perception of this vast area straddling China and India.

The best histories are travelogues, cultural journeys that position you in the immediacy of the moment, and Douglas’s is one of them.

Statues from the Tang dynasty line the wall of a Buddhist temple dug inside the ancient Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, in Dunhuang, China.

We are there when the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas is excavated, revealing one of the most important discoveries of ancient texts in the world—the Central Asian equivalent of the lost Library of Alexandria. Seamlessly, we learn how Tibetan Buddhism developed and how Tibet became “a nation governed through the prism of spiritual faith.”

We travel with Douglas to the “forbidden city” of Lhasa, to Kathmandu and Darjeeling, and to the various mountain peaks that have been the allure of this region for Europeans over centuries. We learn that joining the East India Company—the leading agent of commercial exploitation in Nepal—was like working for Goldman Sachs but with a staggering fatality rate. We witness Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summiting Everest on the 29th of May, 1953, and the abysmal consequences as thousands of climbers flock to the Himalayas every year to prove their ego by “conquering” these mountains.

We learn that joining the East India Company was like working for Goldman Sachs but with a staggering fatality rate.

If there were a story sung by outsiders about the Himalayas, it would be a graveyard litany of fallen geographers, governors, soldiers, botanists, spiritual seekers, and merchants. We are able to see the Himalayas and Tibet not only from the perspective of climbers such as Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman but also through the eyes of the Himalayan people.

Voice is especially given to how the European imagination sought a romantic context for the sublime in Tibet alongside a drive to explore through science and the values of the Enlightenment.

Tibet was viewed early on as a place to heal Westerners’ spiritual displacement. Yet the intricate social system that supported monks, monasteries, and the lamas was almost a pitch-perfect mirror of the European medieval scheme that sustained the Catholic Church and its orders. Exploitation of people and resources, both from within and from outside, is a thread that runs through our collective history. The candor of Douglas’s telling shows us that in the Western mind Utopias were “simply orientalist fantasies projected on Himalaya.” His gripping storytelling achieves a summit at a vista overlooking the Himalayas in words that no photo could conjure.

Christopher King is a Grammy-winning producer and the author of Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music