THIS book is about my journey across landscapes renowned not only for their beauty but also for their cultures and religions. I went to Nepal because I was encouraged by friends to go on a group trek, and I found myself in love with learning. That is, with learning about the interrelations between nature and the peoples who had come to depend on their local environments, whether historically or in modern times.
The discoveries of diversity within the natural environment, cultural heritage and religions that I made during my trip around the Himalayan region were surprising and inspiring.
I learnt that growing and cultivating rice is one of the oldest forms of farming in the world. I visited Buddhist and Hindu temples — the latter the temples of the oldest major religion in the modern world, a religion that dates back even to the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation in the
I saw old traditions practised alongside modern ones. I visited Buddhist temples and monuments and saw how each culture brings a different element to bear. To me, it was more than just seeing these beautiful mountains up close or even walking through them, which is no easy feat. It was also about the people that live in their shadows, the cultures and ethnic groups that wake up and see them every day.
The discovery of trails, temples, jaw-dropping scenery and new cultures all went hand in hand when I visited the Himalayan mountains and surrounding areas.
I’d like to give a brief history, here, of the Himalayan region, and some of the relationships between the countries that are joined together by the mountains.
Asia is by far the biggest continent in the world. Migrations out of Asia led to the settlement of various areas, including the Pacific Islands, Hawaii and even New Zealand. Inter-continent migrations led to the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms, cultures and languages.
The Himalayan mountain ranges are among the most majestic I have ever seen. There are more than 110 peaks above 7,200 metres in elevation in the Himalayas, including the world’s giant, Mt Everest. The Himalayas run for over 2,400 kilometres from Pakistan, where they merge into the Hindu Kush, through the disputed territory of Kashmir and the northernmost states of India, through Tibet (China), Nepal, Sikkim (India) and Bhutan, to the vicinity of Darjeeling in India’s far north-east.
The countries that the Himalayas traverse vary in their cultural practices and religions, but I also saw similarities between them all.
When I went to Nepal, my aim was to do the base-camp trek on Mt Everest. It was almost like stepping back in time. Some of the people I saw on my trek still lived in nomad-like conditions in freezing temperatures in the foothills of the mountain. I was amazed at the lack of technology — they simply didn’t need it with the reliance on animals as transport and the adherence to traditional ways of life. It was not as if I was surprised, but to see things firsthand gives you a whole new view on it all.
It got me interested in travelling through more of Asia and seeing as much as I could, getting my own insights on the people who live throughout.
Nepalese culture is a beautiful example of tolerance. The Kathmandu Valley area was a concentration of a mixture of religious monuments from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religions — a group of religions that have existed side by side for hundreds of years. The wider culture of the area dates back thousands of years.
Over 80% of Nepalese follow the Hindu faith, 9% are Buddhist, four and a half per cent are Muslim and 3% are Kirat Mundhum, a minority religion which worships Mother Nature.
There are over 29 million people in Nepal, nearly all of whom are ethnically related to Indian populations on the other side of Nepal’s southern border and speak a similar language.
Even though most foreigners probably think of the Sherpas as the most distinctively ‘Nepalese’ people, amazingly enough, less than a quarter of a million of Nepal’s citizens are Sherpas; a small and hitherto almost invisible minority of mountain-dwellers, which was thrust into the world spotlight by the rise of Himalayan climbing in the twentieth century.
The Sherpas aren’t related to the inhabitants of India, being relatives of the Tibetans instead.
There are many major Hindu and Buddhist temples and other sacred structures within the Kathmandu Valley alone, some of them damaged or destroyed in Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake, but many still standing. The sacred Bagmati River also runs through the Kathmandu Valley, bringing another element of historical and cultural value to the area.
Nepal, also known as the Kingdom of Gorkha, was the only Hindu kingdom in the world, and existed for over 240 years as a monarchy. In 2001, the royal family was murdered in a massacre carried out by the heir to the throne. He killed nine members of his family and then himself. The monarchy was abolished in 2008.
Nepal has always struggled for independence, from China and India, and even from Britain after Nepal lost the Anglo-Nepalese War in the nineteenth century. When the monarchy was abolished in 2008, so too was the official status of the Hindu religion. Nepal is now a secular state, although Hinduism remains the main religion.
Religion across is Asia is something I did not know much about. I thought I knew a lot until I got there and began to see it all for myself and to take in the details.
Without the Himalayas, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Northern India would all be a desert region with a comparatively small population, like Arabia, the Sahara, or the south-western USA and northern Mexico.
Being a desert is the norm in these latitudes. It is only the melting of huge amounts of ice and snow in the Himalayas and neighbouring mountain chains that keeps the rivers of northern India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and most of Pakistan flowing during the hottest and driest times of the year, just before the monsoon. And the monsoon is, itself, largely a by-product of the existence of the Himalayas.
A particularly well-watered area in lowland Nepal, which borders India and forms a national park within the foothills of the Himalayas — the Chitwan National Park — is one of the last wild areas where Bengal tigers can be found. This area shows the dependence of the wildlife, too, on the environments created and manipulated by the Himalayas. The rivers that are fed by the snow on the mountains flow through this area bringing water and therefore life and sustainability. The Chitwan National Park is one of the many national parks that depend on the Himalayas for survival and nourishment. I describe a visit to Chitwan in the last chapter of this book. An abundance of rivers nourishes wildlife in the Chitwan area, wildlife is protected from poachers by roughly a thousand soldiers of the Nepalese Army. The animals protected in Chitwan include the rare Indian Rhinoceros, whose skin folds in a way that makes it look like the animal is covered in separate plates of armour, as opposed to the more normal-looking hide of the various African rhino species.
People who’ve only seen African rhinos in wildlife documentaries sometimes think that the plates of armour in the Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1515 depiction of a rhinoceros are a totally fanciful, made-up detail.
Well, actually, the rhinos of Chitwan do rather look like Dürer’s fabulous beast. Dürer was sketching an Indian rhino that had lately turned up in Lisbon, a gift of the Sultan of Gujarat to the King of Portugal, and based his sketch on the descriptions by people who’d just seen it. In the circumstances, he did a pretty good job.
The point is that the Indian rhinoceros is so rare and exotic, that even today most people don’t even know there is such a thing.
When I visited Nepal, I found that the people harboured no bad feelings towards other cultures, not even the British who were once so dominant in the region. The varieties of religions are interwoven into everyday society, and it was a brilliant place to meet Buddhist and Hindu people.
Islam and Christianity are minority religions here. The very first Christian missionary to Nepal was recorded in 1628. Missionaries were not allowed into Nepal during Prithvi Narayan Shah’s rule in the 1700s, and so Hinduism flourished. Christians now make up just 1.4% of the population in Nepal.
Before I got there, I had imagined that Buddhism would be the major religion of Nepal. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama, who lived and preached in and around the fifth century BCE, was the son of a chief of the Shakya clan, which was at the time based in and around the ancient (and modern) city of Lumbini in Nepal, just west of today’s Chitwan National Park and just north of the present-day Indian border.
Siddhārtha Gautama — the Buddha or Lord Buddha — is reliably attested to have been born at Lumbini, which is now called Lumbini Sanskritik Municipality to give it its full name, Lumbini the cultural city. The Buddha is attested with equal reliability to have died at an advanced age (eighty, by one account) in Kushinagar, a town on the Ganges plain in India. Kushinagar is only a hundred kilometres from Lumbini, though the Buddha travelled much further afield during his most active days.
Buddhism has at least 500 million adherents in the world today, possibly more than a billion, though a precise number is impossible to come by. This is partly because of past discouragement of overt religious practice in China and other Communist countries in Asia, when sites of worship were not being more violently closed down. And partly also, because Buddhist worship is often fairly informal and may be combined with other faiths. So, it is likely that the lowest estimates of the number of Buddhists in the world are under-estimates, though nobody knows by how much.
The monks in their saffron robes and the smiling faces of the Buddha statues were a welcome sight in many of the countries I visited. I learnt that India and Nepal share a few similarities in their culture besides their main religions, like how they dress and that at some point they were both invaded by the Mughals, Muslim rulers of central Asian origin and with a strong Persian cultural influence, who built the Taj Mahal. Both countries were also under British control after the reign of the Mughals. India seems to have a longer recorded history than Nepal, but that is because Nepal was considered part of Northern India many years ago.
Since ancient times, the history of Nepal has been intimately bound up with that of India: the site of. one of the world’s first major civilisations, the Indus Valley Civilisation, which peaked from 3,300 to 1,300 BCE. The Indus Valley Civilisation was a fascinating culture that was advanced in the sciences and arts, and which merged with other groups to create the Indian culture as it is today. The Indus Valley Civilisation covered an area that was not in only modern-day India, but also neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan.
India also saw more of Islam than Nepal. Muslim cultures from central Asia invaded frequently, bringing their religion with them.
The Himalayas created a barrier for India from invasions from the north (although this didn’t stop the Mongolians in the 12th century). The ranges run through 10 states of Northern India, including Sikkim and Uttar Pradesh — some of the places I went to.
Hindu beliefs are thought to have begun during the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Hindu religion is also historically bound up with the caste system in the Hindu-majority nations of India and Nepal. While modern governments have tried to abolish the deeply founded idea of caste, in India in particular, I found it still very prevalent among the Hindu populations of India. Ironically, in Nepal, I had more to do with Buddhist Sherpa minorities, as most Western trekkers would, and thus did not see so much of the Hindu side of Nepal.
Christianity constitutes the third-largest Indian religion, followed by 2.3 per cent of the population or in other words almost one per cent more than in Nepal.
India was one of the first countries in Asia to receive Christian missionaries. It is said that the faith was brought to India as early as 52 CE by Thomas the Apostle. By the sixth century it was an established religion, and quite strong to this day in the southern part of India. The Dalits (‘broken people’), also historically known as Untouchables, at the bottom of the caste system in India and Nepal, also swell the ranks of Christian converts.
Roughly the same percentage of Nepal’s population falls into the Dalit category as in India: about a sixth or a seventh.
Incidentally, the preferred legal and bureaucratic term for Dalits / Untouchables in Nepal and India is ‘Scheduled Castes’.
Islam, the second-largest religion in India, arrived through Arab traders in the seventh century. There is evidence that that Indians and Arabs had extensive trade relations, possibly even before the founding of Islam. The Muslim influence was then reinforced by way of central Asian invaders.
Buddhism is another of the religions that shaped the Indian culture early on in history. Buddhism flourished in India during the fourth century and made its way further afield to China, Japan, Korea, and Southern Asia, by traders along the famed Silk Road.
Some of the earliest Buddhist schools can be found in India, spreading there from what is now Nepal into the northern and southern states. Buddhism spread particularly rapidly through the central areas of Asia, including Afghanistan, under the Kushan Empire of the first centuries CE. Wanderers spread the religion further to Southeast Asia, as far as Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
A Chinese Buddhist monk was one of the first recorded to make a religious pilgrimage to India. His name was Faxian and he travelled through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal visiting sacred Buddhist sites. The popularity of Buddhism and its transmission via the Silk Road began to decline as Hinduism became re-established as the core religion of India around the 700s CE.
This is a curious fact: that Buddhism arose in India and Nepal but enjoyed greatest success in East Asia. But anyhow, this explains what the colossal ‘Bamyan Buddhas’ that the Taliban so notoriously blew up some years ago were doing in Afghanistan, such a long way from the main centres of Buddhism today.
Sikkim was an interesting part of India. It became the 22nd state of India in 1975 so its merger with the larger country is fairly recent; it was independent before that. Sikkim sits high up in the Himalayas and shares a border with Nepal, with which it also shares a history of wars and invasions.
Along with nearby Bhutan, Sikkim remains an important Buddhist area. In the eighth century CE the patron Buddhist saint of Sikkim, Padmasambhava (one of the most famous historical figures in Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Guru Rinpoche), visited the area and prophesied a great Sikkim monarchy, which eventuated in the form of the Buddhist Chogyal rulers, who reigned over Sikkim from 1642 CE to 1975 CE. But in any case, the Rumtek Monastery remains of high importance and is one of the most sacred sites within Sikkim.
Close to Sikkim is the famous Indian hill city of Darjeeling. Until the beginning of the 1950s, Darjeeling, not Nepal, was the centre of Sherpa mountaineering. Tenzing Norgay, who conquered the mountain known to Westerners as Everest alongside Edmund Hillary in 1953, came from Darjeeling.
In the first half of the twentieth century Nepal was what was known as a ‘hermit kingdom’, suspicious of outsiders; on the other hand, it was quite easy for foreigners to get into Tibet. So, climbers set out from Darjeeling and approached the Himalayas from Tibet. However, at the start of the 1950s all this reversed, with the opening of Nepal’s borders and the practically simultaneous closure of Tibet to Westerners after its invasion by the Chinese Communists, who were still in the militant stage of their revolution at that time. Thereafter, Nepal became the go-to place for Himalayan mountaineers and trekkers. The 1953 Everest expedition was one of the very first to approach the Himalayas through Nepalese territory.
The most significant river in all India, the river Ganges, has its source from the snow melt high in the Western Himalaya ranges. The Ganges is culturally and environmentally significant as it is the largest freshwater source in Northern India. It is also one of the most sacred sites for Hindu religious practices and burials. Bathing in the Ganges is done for purification and religious rituals. I passed by areas of the Ganges and found a fascinating quality to it. The Ganges has been sacred in Hinduism for many centuries, with a number of individually holy sites along it of which perhaps the best-known worldwide is the city of Varanasi (Benares).
The Valley of Flowers is an Indian national park that is nestled high in the Himalayas. A showcase of rare alpine plants and animals, it is an area that highlights the variety of environments in the Himalayas. The Valley of Flowers is also a common spot for mountaineers and animal lovers. It is home to the Asiatic black bear (found across Asia), one more thing the countries around the Himalayas share.
The Partition of India in 1947 was one of the largest human migrations in history. Today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh were carved out of a British India which incorporated the territory of all three modern nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (part of Pakistan until 1971). Fourteen million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus had to leave their countries of residence and move either eastward or westward. Sanctioned by the British in their last days as rulers of the Indian sub-continent, the partition was accompanied by mass riots and the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, possibly as many as two million.
One area where the conflict around the time of partition was particularly intense was in the once-autonomous state of Kashmir. The Hindu king who ruled the area, Hari Singh, joined his realm to India on 26 October 1947 even though the area was mostly inhabited by Muslims. This sparked the first Indo-Pakistan War.
In earlier times, the ancient Macedonian-Greek conqueror Alaxander, who is conventionally styled as ‘Alexander the Great’, invaded both India and northern Pakistan.
Alexander’s Macedonian army invaded Northern India in 327–326 BCE. He wove his way through the surrounding areas of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, including the Indus Valley. Some of his forces stayed behind and founded new cities.
Another key site I would like to visit in the future is the city of Amritsar. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a significant temple for Sikhs in the Punjab area. It was near Amritsar where Alexander the Great’s army finally began to collapse and be pushed back towards Europe.
Pakistan is officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and has a rich history, with interactions and influences stemming as far back as ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.
Pakistan has been ruled and conquered by many different rulers and cultures all influencing the country to be what it is today. There has been a major shift in religious groups within the country since the Partition of India in 1947, when millions of Hindus fled Pakistan to go back to India. Pakistan is unique among Muslim nations as the only one to have been founded specifically as in the name of Islam as such. Although the territory of today’s Pakistan was long a Muslim-majority region, the majority is closer to 100% today than in the past. Christians and Hindus combined now make up less than four per cent of the population.
Until 1971, the country known today as Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. Today’s Bangladesh was known in those days as East Pakistan, while today’s Pakistan was known as West Pakistan. The Muslims of East Pakistan were nearly all ethnically Bengali, a group also widespread in eastern India and in fact one of the most numerous of India’s ethnic groups, but not noticeably present in West Pakistan. Comparatively small and dark, the Bengalis looked quite different to the peoples of West Pakistan, who looked more European, and were thus very often the victims of racial discrimination.
These prejudices were little different to those of the British colonisers, who had tended to favour the populations that looked most like themselves, such as the comparatively light-skinned inhabitants of the future West Pakistan. Thus, the independence that came after 1947 was incomplete as far as the inhabitants of East Pakistan were concerned. Now, they were in a colonial dependency of West Pakistan, a country ruled by tall, light-skinned people who had been mates with the British. Or so it appeared to many Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim alike. Religion didn’t really come into it.
As such, the union of the Muslims of the east and the west in post-independence Pakistan was literally pious and destined for trouble in the real world. Even if the two parts of the country had been inhabited by the same sorts of people, the great distance between them would still have made the country hard to govern.
East Pakistan finally became independent of the western part of the country after a bloody civil war, in which India intervened.
Since the Partition of India, and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh, there has been a steady decline in people claiming Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism in Pakistan. Persecution of these groups by extremists and hard-liners has pushed the decline along. Furthermore, in spite of repeated attempts at homogenisation, there seems to be plenty of evidence of ongoing ethnic and religious tensions within today’s Pakistan, including factionalism among its otherwise overwhelming Muslim majority. Bomb explosions and other forms of terrorism are endemic, most of it directed against fellow-Pakistanis held to be of the wrong sort in some way or another.
I found this quite sad, as these amazing countries have such long histories that are intertwined not just for their location under the majestic Himalayas, but also in the development of each culture.
Although Pakistan is no longer divided into West and East, today’s Pakistan, the former West Pakistan, still contains a number of distinct ethnic groups, speaking distinct languages of their own in addition to the official language, Urdu, which is similar to India’s Hindi but written in an Arabic / Persian script as opposed to Hindi’s distinctive Devanagari script.
The four most numerous ethnic groups in today’s Pakistan are the Punjabi (of whom many millions also live in India), Pashtun (who are also widespread in Afghanistan), Baloch (who also live in Iran and Afghanistan), and the Sindhi. There are other ethnic groups as well, especially in the more mountainous parts of the country where there are many small minorities. The most numerous groups all live on the plains.
The largest ethno-linguistic group in Pakistan is the Punjabi, to which about 90 million Pakistanis belong, and the smallest is the Kalash, who live in the mountainous Chitral region near Aghanistan’s eastern extremity and only number a few thousand.
For a trekker, interacting with mountain minorities such as the Sherpas, and the even less numerous Kalash, can indeed result in a misleading view of the actual ethnic make-up of countries such as Nepal and Pakistan.
The Hindu Kush is a significant mountain range in northern Pakistan, which is classed as the western part of the Himalaya chain. The Hindu Kush is only 800 km long but is still a wondrous landscape and terrain. I found this out first-hand when I visited there to do some trails. I stayed with local people and went trekking with a company named Terichmir Travel, run by a man named Abdur Razaq, who I got to know quite well but who was tragically killed on a mountain road in bad weather in 2017.
The people in this area often speak three languages and are just as often well-educated, including the girls; whose education has been put at risk by the Taliban wherever they have managed to take over, of course.
While I was trekking in the Hindu Kush, I met the Kalash, long said to be the lost children of Alexander the Great’s army though this isn’t scientifically established. Alexander’s Macedonian-Greek army invaded northern Pakistan in the fourth century and settled there. Alexander was one of the most significant military commanders of ancient Greece. His lands stretched from as far east as the Punjab in India, via Persia, which is the old name for modern-day Iran.
The Macedonian Empire that Alexander created was vast and widespread, bringing his armies into direct contact with people of Asia and the Middle East. He ruled what is now Iraq and Kurdistan after the Macedonian Army’s victory in 331 BCE at the Battle of Gaugamela. There is apparently even a mention of Alexander in the Qur’an (strictly, Qur’ān)— historians believe that the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn may be a reference to Alexander.
There are many areas of cultural significance that show how diverse the area has long been. The ruins of a Buddhist monastery established in the first century sit in the hilly and rocky area of Takht-i-Bahi. It is one of the most well-preserved examples of Pakistani Buddhist history. Another area of cultural significance is Thatta, where structures built by the Muslim Mughal empire lie within the older Makli complex of monuments, which includes a necropolis.
There was a surprisingly large Greek influence in India and central Asia during the centuries after Alexander, centred on such areas as Bactria, comprising the Ferghana Valley in modern Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, along with parts of modern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, and also extending into India proper. (It’s after Bactria that the two-humped Bactrian camel is named.)
Greek culture was even influential on Buddhism, at that time still a primarily Indian religion, lately extended into Bactria. It seems to have been the Greeks who first persuaded the Buddhists that making images of the Buddha would not be disrespectful or vain. The realistic statutes of the Buddha that were erected all over Asia during the subsequent Buddhist diaspora often include specifically Greek-invented features, such as skilfully carved representations of draped togas (‘himation’, after the Greek word for toga).
Here are photos of two sides of a coin minted by the Kushan, that is to say, Bactrian, Emperor Kanishka I, a Buddhist ruler who reigned from approximately 127–150 CE from a city known then as Purusapura and today as Peshawar, in Pakistan. The writing on the coin is in a local form of the Greek alphabet. On one side there is an image of the emperor styling himself as ‘Shaonashao’ or ‘King of Kings’ in the Persian fashion, just like the last Shah of Iran in the 1970s. On the other side is an image of the Buddha in the flowing robes of classical statuary beside a caption reading BODDO, which requires no translation!
So, there seems to have been a bit of everything in the central Asian kingdoms of that era. They displayed a hybrid vigour, which contains real lessons for those preoccupied with notions of cultural purity. The famous line that East is East, and West is West, and the two will never meet, is simply nonsense.
The central Asian melting-pot explains why a Japanese Buddha today is draped in a similar fashion to a statue of Julius Caesar or Cicero.
I find it just fascinating the hundreds of connections we have to each other: many we just simply do not know about or are lost in the overlapping histories.
My map of the diffusion of Buddhism shows a part of the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a series of trading routes that brought with it easier ways to share ideas and religions, extending for thousands of kilometres across China, India and central Asia into the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and parts of Africa. Antioch, once of the most important cities of the classical Mediterranean, located just north of Syria in the modern Turkish provinces of Hatay (itself once part of Syria), was the Western terminus of the part of the Silk Road that ran through Persia. Another branch of the Silk Road extended southward to seaports on what is now the coast of Pakistan, for goods that were destined for the Red Sea and the cities of Egypt.
Buddhism, amongst other religions, was carried by traders and other travellers who followed the Silk Road east to China. The Silk Road developed during the Chinese Han Dynasty and was already fully established by the time of the Caesars. The Silk Road became not only a historically significant means of trade for economies but also for cultural ideas. The sharing of ideas, philosophies and religions made the Silk Road one of the most important means of communication in the ancient world. The Chinese government is currently investing in transport infrastructure that it terms the ‘New Silk Road’.
These days, the Silk Road is also metaphor for East-West interaction. The metaphor is, of course, based in solid reality, as solid as the coins of Kanishka.
I have discussed my pilgrim walks across Europe in my book A Maverick Pilgrim Way, which describes my love of discovery and exploration of historical trails. In fact, there are many pilgrim trails in and around the Himalayas created by conquerors, invaders, missionaries and trade routes — but that’s a story for another book!
I suppose we all like to think we are so very different, and in some respects we are. But if we look closer, we can see great similarities as well — we are not so different after all.
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