Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World by John Keay - review by C P W Gammell

C P W Gammell

How to Mate a Glacier

Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World


Bloomsbury 432pp £30

John Keay has devoted a lifetime to the study of the Himalayas, India and China, demonstrating in his writings and broadcasts both a wide-ranging curiosity and a searching intellect. In his new book, Himalaya, in prose that feels as effortless as it is entertaining, Keay paints a quite fascinating picture of this magical region, covering everything from geology, glaciers, tectonic plates and botany to the spiritual and religious evolution of humans. Tibetan history is set alongside Western interactions with the mountains and all that they contain. This is also a history of science and of man’s desire to codify, possess and control through knowledge. Empire looms large, the imperial powers converging on Tibet and suffocating its independence and customs.

On the infamous 1903–4 Francis Younghusband expedition to Lhasa, a British military mission to establish diplomatic relations in the region and resolve a border dispute between Tibet and Sikkim, the journalist Edmund Candler observed, ‘Perhaps before we turn our backs on the mystery of Tibet we will realise that the lamas despise us as gross materialists and philistines – we who are always groping and grasping after the particular, while they are absorbed in the sublime and the universal.’ Among the many themes of this book, perhaps this one struck me most forcibly: the face-off between different traditions, one characterised by a desire for knowledge and control, power and authority, and the other by a desire for transcendence, connectedness and universality.

Yet scientific discoveries have, in their way, underscored such ideas of connectedness and universality. What was once underwater is now above ground: the Himalayas contain tropical fossils from the ocean floor. In the 19th-century, British botanists and explorers, chief among them Joseph Dalton Hooker and Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen,

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