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Himalaya: Exploring the roof of the world by John Keay

25 November 2022

A wonderful book about an extraordinary place, says Peter Stanford

THE bleak and elevated range of granite and gneiss mountains which stretches from Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the west to Burma and China in the east, known “for want of any other accepted designation” as Himalaya, or the Himalayas, the veteran historian and explorer John Keay argues, should be treated more carefully. For millennia, it has been coveted and crossed by great armies, and often the battleground where they clash.

Today, in this age of climate change, the planet’s only high-altitude ecozone is threatened by rising world powers in India and China, is the stage for hotspots of conflict in Afghanistan and China’s western provinces, and is receiving a new generation of visitors, some of them claiming to be pilgrims walking in the footsteps of the gods, who trash with a casual abandon an area regarded by Hinduism and Buddhism alike as the foothills of eternity.

The sacred circuit (or kora) of Kailas, western Tibet’s most revered mountain, is “littered with rubbish”, he reports, while streams of holy water, worshipped as maternal deities, “are defiled with untreated sewage from ‘Vedic resorts’ . . . [and] the eternal silence of Himalaya echoes with digitised hymns set to a Bollywood beat.”

Himalaya is a beguiling combination of geology and geography, geo-politics and spirituality, interspersed with accounts of those explorers who, down the ages, have sought to “open up” this inaccessible region 10,000 feet above sea level (including Captain Francis Younghusband, whose 1904 trek to get to the heart of the previously hidden kingdom of Tibet is the subject of the prologue).

Keay’s own undertaking in print is as vast in its scope as is the area it seeks to squeeze between the covers of this single, handsomely illustrated volume. It can at times feel a little breathless, at others to move too rapidly for those who are simply dazed and dazzled by all the veils being drawn back under dragon’s-back skylines that snag the clouds above them.

There is an ever-changing exploration of palaeontology, culture, archaeology, mysticism, flora and fauna, man and beast, forever struggling to live side by side. What keeps it together and on track is Keay’s skill as a storyteller, and the details that he highlights in the belief systems that take Himalaya as their bedrock, such as the kalpa, found in the Sanskrit Mahabharata epic of ancient India as a measurement of time equivalent to how long it would take to flatten the Himalayas at the rate of one grain of sand a day.

This is truly a place of wonder, wonderfully caught.


Peter Stanford is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster. He is the author of Pilgrimage: Journeys of meaning (Thames & Hudson, 2022).


Himalaya: Exploring the roof of the world
John Keay
Bloomsbury £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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