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The Himalayan Mountain range separates the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau. The name comes from Sanskrit himalaya, which means “the abode of snow.” The Himalayas stretch across five countries: Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and China. It is the highest mountain range in the world and includes all 14 of the peaks above 8,000 meters ASL (the highest peak being Mount Everest at 8,848 meters ASL) and over 110 different peaks higher than 7,300 meters ASL. The Himalaya is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, resulting from the continental collision along the convergent boundary between the IndoAustralian Plate and the Eurasian Plate. The collision started in the Upper Cretaceous period about 70 million years ago, when the Indo-Australian plate was moving about 15 centimeters/year. The plate is still moving northward at about 6.7 centimeters/year, which results in the Himalaya rising by about 5 centimeters a year.
The Himalayan range is composed of three nearly parallel ranges, arranged by elevation and geological age. In the south, the youngest of the three is called the Outer Himalayas (also known as Siwalik Range), has an elevation of about 900-1,400 meters ASL, and is about 48 kilometers wide in the west and gradually narrows toward the east, until it nearly disappears in Bhutan and eastern India. Running parallel to this is the Lesser Himalayas (also called the Lower or Middle Himalayas). With an elevation of 2,000-4,500 meters ASL, and a width of about 80 kilometers, it is made up of a mosaic of forest-covered ranges and fertile valleys. The northernmost range, and oldest of the three, is called the Great (or Higher) Himalayas. It is about 24 kilometers wide, and with an elevation of more than 6,000 meters ASL, it is perpetually covered in snow or ice. It is here that the highest peaks are found. Between the Great and Lesser Himalayas there are numerous fertile valleys.
The Himalaya range has an effect on the climate of the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau. It stops dry cold arctic winds from blowing south into the Indian subcontinent, which causes the subcontinent to be warmer than other regions of that latitude. It also prevents the monsoon winds to travel northwards, limiting rainfall north of the mountain range, and causing heavy rainfall in the Terai region. Within the Himalayas, the climatic conditions vary according to location and elevation. In the southern foothills, average summer temperatures are about 30 degrees C and average winter temperatures about 18 degrees C.
In the Middle Himalayan valleys, average summer temperatures are about 25 degrees C and winters are cooler. In the higher parts of the Middle Himalayas, average summer temperatures are 15-18 degrees C and winters are below freezing. In the Greater Himalayas, at elevations above 4,880 meters, the climate is below freezing and the area is permanently covered with snow and ice. The eastern part of the Himalayas receives heavy rainfall, while the western part is rather dry.
The Himalaya region has hundreds of lakes, the largest of which is the Pangong t’so, which is spread across the border between India and Tibet, at an altitude of 4,600 meters and is 8 kilometers wide and nearly 134 kilometers long. The large number of glaciers in the Greater Himalayas includes the Siachen Glacier, the largest in the world outside the polar region. These areas are the source of several large perennial rivers, most of which combine into two larger river systems, the Indus Basin, and the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna. The Yangtze, the Huang He (Yellow River), the Mekong, and the Salween rivers originate from parts of the Tibetan plateau, which is geologically distinct from the Himalaya mountain range, and therefore are not considered Himalayan Rivers. In recent years, glaciers in the region have retreated because of global warming. If this pattern continues, it will mean disaster for the millions of people who rely on the water from the glaciers during the dry season.
The Himalayas have been a natural barrier for people for millennia. The difficulty in traveling between the Indian subcontinent and China has prevented frequent contact, and has contributed to the significant differences in language and customs between these two regions. The Himalayas have also obstructed the development of trade routes, and limited the trade between the Indian subcontinent and its neighbors north of the Himalayas. The height and difficulty in traveling across the Himalayas range also prevented military expeditions. For example, Genghis Khan could not expand his empire south of the Himalayas.
Close to 40 million people inhabit the Himalayas, most of which are subsistence farmers with very low incomes. Agricultural land is concentrated in the Tarai plain and in the valleys of the Lesser Himalayas. Patches of agricultural land have also been carved out in the forested areas. However, cold winters and a short growing season limit the cultivation to one crop per year, most commonly potatoes, barley, or corn-except in the Tarai plain, where rice is grown in well-watered valleys. Economic changes and population growth are causing various environmental problems, such as deforestation in the foothills of the Lesser Himalayas, and overgrazing on the high pastures.
There are dozens of different ethnic groups in the Himalayas. Generally, however, the Outer Himalayas and the Lesser Himalayan valleys from eastern Kashmir to Nepal are inhabited by Hindus of Indian heritage. The Great Himalayas from Ladakh to northeast India are predominantly inhabited by Tibetan Buddhists. In the middle regions in central Nepal, at elevations between about 1,800-2,500 meters ASL, the Indian and Tibetan cultures have intermingled, resulting in different religious traditions with combinations of Indian and Tibetan traits.
- M. Bauer, High Frontiers: Dolpo and the Changing World of Himalayan Pastoralists (Columbia University Press, 2003);
- Guha, The Unquiet Woods (University of California Press, 2000);
- E.L. McHugh, Honor in the Himalayas: Coming to Know Another Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001);
- Rao, Autonomy: Life Cycle, Gender, and Status among Himalayan Pastoralists (Berghahn, 1999);
- Zurick and P.P. Karan, Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).