Himalaya: Mountains Of Life
By Kamal Bawa and Sandesh Kadur
Rs. 3,500 PP 308
It was providential. I had just finished reading the lovely Wildlife Of The Himalayas And The Terai Region, published by BNHS, that depicts the natural wonders of the Himalayas. The content of the book is of archival value, the editors having put together a remarkable collection of excerpts from old travelogues and records of naturalists and hunters supplemented with a treasury of lithographs by pioneering artist-naturalists like John Gould, J Forbes Royle and JD Hooker. I had been lamenting that the fauna of the Himalayas wasn't getting its due when, in what is the natural progression of things, another treasure, aptly titled Himalaya: Mountains Of Life appeared. Here, the intricate lithos of a bygone era have evolved into spectacular photographs. There is no comparing the two. Yet both, in their own way, capture the spirit of the Himalayas. The text varies too - the lazy musings of the old naturalists are now crisply presented in a compact form. This review is not meant to be a comparison of the two books but it does seem like one takes up where the other left off. Taken together, they show that once 'tolerably abundant' species, such as the Javan rhino, have now vanished from the pages... and the region.
…Mountains Of Life, a very weighty affair, is almost decadent in its scope as it takes the reader on an incredible pictorial journey through the Himalayas - Sanskrit for 'Abode of Snow'. The book focuses on the eastern Himalayas through Bhutan, India and Nepal, putting the spotlight on the region's landscapes, ancient cultures and biodiversity. It is not just the charismatic species that get their due. Flora such as rhubarb and rhododendrons, delicately beautiful parasites (pedicularis) found in the higher altitudes and alpine pastures, the 'Kingdom of Fungi', fish, amphibians, butterflies and invertebrates are all well-represented, and the authors have managed to get stunning images of camera-shy animals including the clouded leopard and the slow loris. The book also depicts the vanishing ancient cultures of the region. I never imagined that the spectacular beauty of the Himalayas and the vast assemblage of life it nurtures could be captured and complied into one unit. Himalaya: Mountains Of Life is the closest you can get to achieving that near-impossible task.
No one puts it better than the legendary wildlife biologist Dr George Schaller in his foreword: "From the plains of the Brahmaputra River, the home of the Great Indian Rhinoceros, up through the evergreen and coniferous forests to the alpine meadows, and finally to the sublime peaks and glaciers, this book celebrates scenic splendor and the glorious variety of plants and animals."
Much as the photographs portray the glory of the Himalayas, this stands in stark contrast to the devastation wrought on the great mountains that has been equally well documented by the authors. Climate change and a booming human population with its needs and demands on resources, and rapid economic development are imperiling the ecosystems that sustain us. Intensive hunting is driving species to near extinction. The eastern Himalayas face an immediate threat as the exploitation of rivers for hydro-electric power will inundate large tracts, still river flow and impact livelihoods of fishermen and farmers downstream.
In 2005, ATREE had brought out the equally lavish Sahyadris, India's Western Ghats. This book is a sequel that focuses on the region's other great recognised biodiversity hotspot. This celebration of the 'Mountains of Life' is a fitting tribute to the grandeur of the Himalayas, and a grim reminder of their fragile future that should serve to inspire a commitment to conserve. For some inexplicable reason, as I read this book, I was reminded of the song Ae mere watan ke logon - Lata Mangeshkar's tribute to Indian soldiers battling China's forces in the lofty realms of these mountains during the Indo-China War of 1962. She sang eloquently of how the Himalaya - a metaphor for India - is wounded. Then, it was another country that had waged war. Today, we are the ones ravaging the Himalayas. Surely, we must heal too, for in the preservation of these mountains, Asia's water towers, is our preservation too.
Prerna Bindra is a member of the National Board for Wildlife