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What the Himalaya Covers

Edited by Chetan Singh
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011, pp. 254, Rs.675.00


What are the common aspects, the distinguishing features of the Himalaya range when taken as a whole? Geographers usually emphasize the mountainous structure, physiography, climate and biological conditions, which obviously distinguish these regions from the lowlands. The Himalaya in this sense certainly stands apart as a large identifiable region. Geographers also associate these mountains with other ranges in the world, in particular the Alps in Western Europe and the Andes in Latin America. Interestingly enough, these three mountain ranges display striking similarities in various domains: agro-pastoral transhumance, pastoral economy, existence of fragmented holdings at different altitudinal levels and difficulties in communication. Most often, the impact of the natural environment is highlighted as a major trend entailing more or less similar consequences. Yet, human responses differ greatly from one zone to another one, due to cultural values, religions and society's many choices. It must also be remembered that the southern slopes of the Himalayan range, the most densely populated, are mainly located in tropical zones, contrary to the two other vast ranges mentioned above. Sociologists and anthropologists, for their part, lay emphasis on societies and cultures. They are inclined to stress sociological and cultural features which set Himalayan societies apart from those in the adjacent lowlands of South Asia. Admittedly, lowland populations tend to consider mountain people as distinct. But these views are often mere stereotypes of no particular value. Do South Asian lowland people markedly differ in culture from those living in the highlands? Do Himalayan people share some common cultural ground? If so, in what way? The presence of Tibetans at higher altitudes and Hindus in the neighbouring lowlands throughout the range, from West to East, may also be highlighted. This is clearly a common feature. But what else? Himalayan populations follow a number of different religions and are influenced by dissimilar values. From a more general point of view, do mountain people across the world present relevant similarities and can they readily be compared? Does their peripheral location imply, for instance, heterodox cultures and special non-conformist practices as is sometimes asserted? Given the present state of our knowledge, these questions all lack a proper, comprehensive answer. One other position is to differentiate regions within the range itself and to illustrate the diversity within them. This is precisely what the collection of essays under review intends to do here. Any generalization about the Himalaya obviously conceals a multiplicity of ...

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