By Nikita Bhat | Illustration by Smita Kaushik

Listen along to an audio version of this article on our YouTube Channel: Click HERE to listen!

Chances are that you have heard of the mighty ‘Himalayas,’ because this range hosts several of the world’s high mountain peaks, including the highest one in the world – Mount Everest! Or maybe you know it as the birthplace of the network of rivers that gave rise to human civilization in South Asia. Perhaps you have also heard that it is the snowy abode of Lord Shiva and a setting for various other stories in Hindu mythology. As you can see, the Himalayas hold a very important place in the history, geography and culture of India, and to understand how this came to be, we must travel back to the very beginning – the formation of this mountain range!

The Birth of The Himalayas

The Himalayas seem ancient to us, but this is actually one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world that came into existence 40 – 50 million years ago. Think of tectonic plates under the ocean that are well known for being the cause of earthquakes and tsunamis when they shift. Two such tectonic plates, called the Indo-Australian plate and the Eurasian plate, collided and pushed up the land to give birth to what we now call the Himalayas. The Himalayas are made up of ‘sedimentary’ and ‘metamorphic’ rocks. Sedimentary rocks are formed by the buildup of smaller particles and metamorphic rocks are formed when older rocks face high temperature and pressure, which transforms them. An amazing thing to know is that the Himalayas are actually still growing as the tectonic plates are still shifting beneath our feet! But we do not notice it as the movement is very slow and occurs over thousands of years.

Rivers and Glaciers

The Himalayas give rise to a number of rivers that flow into mainland India and other neighbouring countries. These are the life-giving rivers that millions of people have depended on since our civilization was established. The rivers also form many beautiful lakes and streams which are visited by migratory birds, where they stop and rest along their journeys. The higher parts of the Himalayas are always covered in snow and contain the third highest deposit of snow and ice in the world after Antarctica and the Arctic. There are also glaciers in the Himalayas which are slowly melting and moving due to the increase in Earth’s temperature, a concept we now know as global warming. This can be dangerous, for if the glaciers melt completely, there will no longer be a source of fresh water for the rivers that we all depend on!

Cultural Importance

As the Himalayas span several countries and regions, they are home to many people who have developed unique cultures and practices. Given that the Himalayas were the life giving force necessary for the survival of our ancestors, it is no wonder that they worshipped these mountains and everything that they provide to us. Due to this, several religions that worship nature and animals were developed here. There are many sacred sites in the Himalayas, often associated with stories of Gods, monks and sages, which are visited mainly by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as a part of pilgrimages. Today, there is another reason that people from around the world visit the Himalayas. It is to climb these mountains for adventure and thrill, an accomplishment that many people hold with pride!

Tibetan prayer flags adorn the trees of Uttarakhand’s lower Himalayan ranges (Image: Priya Ranganathan)

Services that the Himalayas Provide

We already know how the rivers arising from the Himalayas are not only important but essential to our existence! What else do the Himalayas do for us? The list is endless but let us look at some of the more prominent services. The Himalayas house dense forests in the lower regions with diverse flora (plants) and fauna (animals). The plants and trees here have been used in traditional medicine for many centuries. Different parts of various plants and trees, including flowers, bark, stems and roots can be used to make pastes, ointments, creams, potions etc. which are used in the treatment of many diseases and illnesses. Apart from medicines, the trees provide timbre (wood that we can use to make paper, firewood, furniture etc.). The plants and fruits are also a source of food for the people who live in that region. When the soils in these forests are dug up, we can find many precious metals like gold, silver, and copper as well as coal which is used to make fuel for cars, aeroplanes and other modes of transportation as well as other widely used products like plastic. These forests are also the home of many wonderful and unique animals and birds. They are all dependent on one another, as well as the plants and trees, to create an ‘ecosystem’ or bubble in which life exists in a harmonious balance.

The Current Dangers Faced by the Himalayas

The harmonious balance in the Himalayan ecosystem has unfortunately been threatened for many years now by human activity. As the population of India increases, more resources (like food, water, medicine etc.) are needed by people. As the Himalayas are such a rich source of these resources, we have carelessly destroyed the forests and, in turn, killed many animals and plants that used to safely live there before. We have also polluted the rivers and lakes and killed all the life forms that resided there. Not only that, but we have also taken away the chance for the local people of these areas to have a livelihood. Previously, they would only take how much they needed from the rivers and forests, but now that everything is being destroyed, they no longer have access to natural resources even for their survival.

As a result, the current destruction of the Himalayas and threat of global warming will make life not only difficult but also impossible for millions of plants, animals and human beings, including ourselves! We must keep learning about these grand mountains, raising awareness about protecting them and save the Himalayas so it can continue to exist for thousands of years to come!

About the Author:

Nikita Bhat is an environmentalist from Bangalore who is currently in Canada, completing a Master’s program in Environmental Assessment. She is particularly interested in issues of environmental justice and building resilience in social-ecological systems. She is looking forward to hiking, camping and travelling to far and distant lands in a post-COVID world.

About the Artist:

Based in Bangalore, Smita Kaushik is an artist looking to collaborate on various projects related to nature and wildlife. She has created educational material for Nature Conservation Foundation. One of her recent projects was “Hampi and the Sun Jewel”, which released this February.