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The Himalayas: An Encyclopedia of Geography, History, and Culture
Pagexiii(14 of 359)
Preface Travel often goes hand in hand with the desire to record new or unfamiliar experiences—verbally or visually. Put differently, travel becomes a larger mode of seeing and revealing the world beyond our comfort zone and, thereafter, allows us to recall such experiences. In this sense, Western encounters with the Himalayas might be expected to reveal previously unknown worlds in depictions of remote places, foreign people, and entirely unfamiliar objects. But that would only be half of the story, because over an extended period of time—over at least three millennia of intercultural encounters—our understandings of the region have become wholly consistent—if wildly inaccurate. Iterations have framed and recorded every aspect of our movements and experiences of (re)location. Rarely, however, have our encounters with the Himalayas taken into account larger issues of identity, gender, race, and class that we might expect to be expressed through the interlac- ing of words and images in our travelogues. Nor do prevailing representations or narrations of personal and collective experiences of travel provoke and encourage new ways of seeing and being. Instead, I contend, our understanding of the region is flat. It remains ill- informed—without precision or sophistication—and wildly inaccurate. We need only look at the linguistic explanation for the term “Himalayas” to understand how such misrepresentations are perpetuated. The name itself derives from the Sanskrit Hima¯-laya, often rendered as “Abode of Snow.” The very act of naming, on the one hand, reduces the region to himá, “snow,” and a¯-laya, “dwelling.” On the other hand, it obfuscates all else: the immense ecological and geological diversity of the Himalayas. A closer examination of the linguistic diversity of the region bears this out. Indo-Aryan languages and Tibeto-Burman languages have no direct genetic rela- tionship whatsoever, and any recognizable correspondences they share are readily explained by contact and borrowing. It is also clear that there are at least some hunter-gatherer languages—the Kusunda language spoken in Nepal, for example— that are so-called language isolates, believed in principle to have descended from those aboriginal groups of the Himalayas, prior to the arrival and spread of Indo- Aryans and Sino-Tibetans. Complicating matters but further illustrating my point, when we think of “the Himalayas,” we naturally think of snow but in fact, the majority of those people who inhabit the more topographically varied elevations—that is, south of the Tibetan plateau—do not actually have much to do with snow. The absence of a variety of terms for snow bears this out. The river valleys in the region are so very deep that most people, living at elevations of below 1,000 feet above sea level,