The pasts in our present

This piece has appeared in the May issue of Terrascape

A quest for those mountains where a true seeker of truth can find solace and solitude – and a lesson in geology

I had grown up being told, as were most children who grew up in the times when I did, about great spiritual seekers, sanyasis, sufis and such like who had chosen to seek truth and to give up everything that tied them to the mundane concerns and attachments of this world. The stories of all these seekers of truth invariably ended with many of them finding what they sought in the mountains.

The mountains they visited were not the mundane, run-of-the-mill mountains, that ordinary mortals like us visit. They went in search of mountains that gave meaning to words like desolate, forsaken, remote, impassive, distant and words that created similar impressions. It was mountains such as these that the gods had chosen as their abodes, it were these that invited the seeker of truth within their folds. The seekers immersed themselves completely in the contemplation of the unknown and the unknowable, and emerged years later wiser and all-knowing.

As I and other children of my age grew up, we were drawn away from the spiritual and into the thick of the knowledge of the ‘this worldly’. We studied the secular sciences and gradually came to acquire a totally different understanding of  the mountains.


The mountains were no longer abodes of the gods, in fact gods did not exist and the mountains were nothing more than aggregation of rocks. Rocks could either be sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous and mountains could be a combination of these different kinds of rocks. We also learnt how the mountains came into existence. That great forces, only physical and never divine, had thrown up, pushed, creased, folded, turned, twisted, cracked, broken and fashioned these mountains from the crust of the earth at times even pulling out the stuffing, I jest of course, of the earth and fashioning it into mountains. We also learnt how the same forces in combination with wind, water, dust and the play of high and low temperatures were constantly breaking up these mountains.

And so all of us grew up totally confused, the romance of the mountains, the tales of the truth seeker, and the images that they helped create in the mind’s eye had no resonance in the sciences of geology, geomorphology and geography. While the fascinating story of how unseen geological forces operating within the womb of the earth had unleased this stupendous energy that pushed the continents around, creating mountains, drowning oceans, tilting-up huge lakes and throwing the whole world out of gear, was no less fascinating.

The mountains thus came to simultaneously symbolise great peace and great turmoil, and it was this dissonance that we carried with us every time we went to the mountains. The images of the truth seeking seer were now only a fading memory, and yet the romance of seeking the unfathomable remained. However the mountains my friends and I saw in Kashmir, in Himachal, in Garhwal, in Sikkim and in Darjeeling did not somehow seem remote, distant and unreachable and one could therefore never associate them with the unfathomable, the unknowable and the inconceivable.

These were mountains that one could associate with. Upon their slopes, farmers grew rice in terraces, planted plums, peaches, apples, cherries, apricots along the edges of the terraces or in orchards and reared the silk moth on lush mulberry trees. These activities went on till ice and snow prevented the growth of anything. In time winter made way for spring, the snows melted and lush green grass and a myriad of flowers covered the ground and sheep and mountain goats and mules and horses and donkeys clambered up these slopes.

The fact that human beings laboured on these slopes somehow made them appear less formidable. Humans had marked them with their presence, a cattle pen here, a broken lamp-post there and thus transformed them into something that we began to associate with. They seemed to come near, become more accessible, almost our own.

No, these could not have been the mountains where the sufis, the sages, the seers, the sanyasis and the monks would have flocked; they were too busy, too crowded and did not afford any privacy. Where were the mountains where a true seeker of truth could find solace and solitude?

I loved these mountains and kept going back to them. Some places I must have visited scores of times, and others too more than a few times. Yet I sought and longed for that one missing element, the sense of awe that a mountain was supposed to invoke in you. None of these mountains managed to do that; at times flying into Sikkim, Kanchenjunga looked like a mountain that could do it. The memories of my first view of Kanchenjunga at sunrise from Tiger Hill in Darjeeling almost 44 years ago, or the first impression, 41 years ago, of the Nanga Parbat at Kangan can still send a shiver of excitement down my spine – the freezing chill of an early winter morning, split seconds after the false morning light and an instant before it turned white from red to orange to yellow to cream – looked like good candidates to provide that ephemeral quality. But they were too far away, unreachable at least for me and so the dream stayed.

And then, last June I went to Spiti, in November to Leh and then on to Nubra across the Khardungla, and there I found them. I found those mountains I had been seeking for decades, mountains that made all my geology, geomorphology and geography lessons become real.

Strangely the mountains that in one fell swoop had smashed all my existing ideas of what mountains looked like, were actually the mountains that had answers to both my questions. These mountains are different; they have nothing that you can relate to. There isn’t a tree that you know, well almost. How will you find trees when the ibex spend hours looking for elusive blades of grass. There are no colours, sans the grey, brown, or rust of the rocks, the white of the snow, rarely more than a fine dusting of talcum powder almost like dry ice, and the blue – the stunning, breath-taking, magical, ethereal blue of the skies. A blue that is unimaginable in the fog, smog, smoke laden skies of our cities.

So these are the colours, the mountains are there all around you, you stretch your hand and you can touch them, yet they are unreachable, arrogant, aloof, forbidding. These are the mountains that must have attracted the seekers of truth. Is it any wonder that there are monasteries that go back centuries, some almost a thousand years, tenaciously clinging on to spurs jutting over deep gorges. These must be the places where someone had meditated and had found peace. So across centuries, others have tried to retrace the same path in search of that illusive peace. These mountains – I speak essentially of Spiti not having absorbed the Nubra Valley fully – have hardly any vegetation and there is nothing in their dimensions that we can relate to as humans.

The human field of vision is almost 180 degrees. What do you do when all you can see is one single feature, one monolith, one jumble of rock – twisted, curved, wrenched, gouged-out, pushed, pulled and thrust up, down and sideways – or one massive heap of scree, loose debris apparently holding on to a slope in a gravity defying feat and ready to slip down at the least provocation.

There isn’t anything that you can do but gape, open mouthed, at any of these or similar features that overwhelm you visually and emotionally, spanning your entire field of vision from left to right and bottom to top. You suddenly realise that things are happening on a scale that you cannot fathom. This is something that you have never seen before, not even in your wildest dreams, not even through the widest lens at its maximum zoom out.

You suddenly realise that it is only the human eye that can take in this scale. No camera can come close enough to capture this scale. And then, comprehension dawns slowly, that across all that you can take in, there is perhaps nothing that has been touched, moved, disturbed or changed through human intervention!

It is this, the almost total absence of human intervention and the absolute lack of anything that you can relate to, that gives these mountains the quality that the seekers of truth sought. It must have been in a place like this that human beings came to the realisation that, in this vast universe of unending expanse, they were not even as significant as specks of dust, because the specks of dust were probably millions of years older. It must have been in places like this, in a desert, a hot desert or a cold desert, where the idea of an all-encompassing creator might have been born and the search for eternal truth joined in real earnest. But all this is speculation. There is something else that occurred here and the evidence was all around us, in the same mountains that I have been talking about all this while.

We will go back in time, a long way back to understand what actually happened. Almost 200 million years ago a part of what is now known as the Australian plate, one of the eight gigantic pieces that comprise the crust of the earth broke away and began to move in a north westerly direction at a speed of almost 15 centimetres per year.

In geological notions of speed, this mass of land was moving at break-neck speed. When this mass, collided with what geologists call the Eurasian plate, many things happened simultaneously. The Tethys Sea that used to exist where the Indo-Gangetic plains now exist was pushed out, the soft continental shelf along the southern edges of the Eurasian plate and the northern edge of the break-away part of the Australian plate came in contact, pushing against the alluvial soils forming the edges of the continental shelf of the Tethys Sea.

To the north of the alluvial plains was the hard basaltic Tibetan Plateau that refused to budge and so the alluvial plain and the sea floor, was thrown up, twisted, turned, folded and pushed up into massive synclines and anticlines, at times unbroken for miles, at others fractured because of the tremendous pulls and pressures that were being exerted on the entire region. At times, huge layers of strata  hundreds of feet thick were folded up like tooth paste into ‘S’ shape folds known as recumbent folds and at others they were torn asunder, pushed up or down as the folded strata was acted upon by geological forces that we can only imagine.

The evidence of this great geological upheaval lay before us, frozen in rock. An activity that gave birth to a chain of mountains that runs across 2,500 km and contains nine out of the ten highest mountain peaks in the world. It was the same movement that tilted up to its north-east a huge lake and drained out all its waters towards the south-west, the valley that remained is known to us today as the Kashmir Valley. The remains of that once mammoth primordial lake that must have looked like an ocean are the famous lakes of Kashmir – the Dal, the Nageen and the Wular.

The northward movement of the Indian sub-continent has not ceased and the Himalayas continue to rise a few millimetres every year. The implications of that we will discuss on some other occasion. Today we leave you with some images from a long road trip that will give you an idea of the kind of forces that were at work in this region beginning about 60 million years ago.


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