Book Review: Himalaya—A Human History By Ed Douglas

This is an enjoyable, interesting and thoroughly dangerous book of 528 pages, published in 2020 and according to Ed Douglas 25 years in the gestation. I was given a copy as a gift at a recent “significant” birthday. 

Dangerous? I thought my final trip to the area would be a planned trek last summer 2020 up the Baltoro glacier, but then postponed. Now, after reading this I’ve added to that list: treks to Shivling, Nanda Dev and the Singalila Ridge in Sikkim. Each of those can be tackled late in the year as the nights draw in here and the clocks change. So, in effect extending the year. And dangerous also, because my reading has led me to order three more books for follow up certain aspects and people.

Many of the characters and incidents it describes  were either simply new to me or perhaps with better explanations than I’d had previously. Just a few which stuck in my mind are: George Bogle, the first “Westerner” to go to Tibet in 1774. The British/Nepali war of 1814-16 and it’s historically important settlement. The Gurkhas. The bloody history of the Nepali Royal families. Taking tea from China to grow in Assam and Darjeeling. The visit of the Nepal Royal family to Queen Victoria in the UK. Mummery’s untimely death on Nanga Parbat in 1895. Younghusband’s brutal assault on Tibet in 1904. That George Everest never saw the mountain. Alex Kellas, the little known mountaineer and forerunner to Bill Tilman who died in tough circumstances. How the current Dalai Lama was chosen aged 4 in 1939 and the position of the Panchen Lama. The Indo/China war of 1962 and Ngawang Sangdrol and the human rights injustices by China in Tibet. A thorough list really would be endless. 

The book is good describing the ongoing political machinations over the centuries between Tibet, Nepal, China and the East India Company and then the British and India. And explains why Nepal managed to maintain it’s sovereignty despite at one stage in 1791/92 the Chinese at war coming within 35kms of Kathmandu. As would be expected from Ed Douglas, there is plenty of mountaineering history too. 
I do have to say though that I would have expected more on Bhutan and it’s history, both ancient and more modern given especially that the famous Bird’s Nest Temple in Paro is on the cover.  There is very little of the British war against Bhutan—the Duar War—in 1864. And, nothing about the Lhotshampa expulsion of the Nepalese into refugee camps in the 1990s. (NB interestingly the US has taken some 80,000+ Bhutanese refugees and the UK just a few hundred). Nor, the coming of democracy there from 2007 on. 

My only other slight criticism is that some of material, particularly the descriptions of ancient Buddhist sects or the various members of temples or royal families, is somewhat dense and needed reading more than once. To be fair, that’s probably a reflection on me!

An excellent tome, helpful maps and thoroughly recommended to get an overall understanding of the history of the Himalaya high mountain area. 

Keith Gaines, Baslow (February 2021)

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