The Himalayas are an enigma! The mountain range is extensive and stretches for 2500 km. straddling five countries – India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and China. Nine of the world’s ten highest peaks are in the Himalayas. Climate experts and environmental scientists also refer to it with the nickname – “The Third Pole”, for being one of the world’s most intense depository of ice and snow.

However, as a Travel Writer born in the foothills of the Himalayas, let me be honest in my confession that many of us get so carried away by the vast expanse and sheer magnitude of the powdery peaks, that we kind of miss out on one of the most beautiful features of the Himalayas – the indigenous folks.

Just as the peaks are astonishing, so are the native inhabitants – the Monpas, Nagas, Magars, Gurungs, Bhutiyas, and Tharus. It awes me to the brink when I delve deeper into how these sturdy, innocent, and warm-hearted Himalayan folks have managed to preserve their past – culture, traditions, and belief systems in place, defying the onslaught of modernity!

Having traveled extensively in the Indian Himalayas, Bhutan, and some portions of Nepal, I can vouch for the fact that you as a traveler will be amazed to know that each tribe and valley has its own set of social norms to counter the challenges that life throws at them. Anthropologists think that due to the Himalayas being landlocked and mountainous, they are splendidly isolated, which has come as a blessing of sorts when it comes to the question of preserving their centuries-old socio-cultural moorings.

The sheer stretch and magnitude of the Himalayas don’t permit writing about the stupendous tribal diversity in one single travelogue form, what with close to 500 tribes dwelling in the Himalayas! Nevertheless, let me take you on a rendezvous of the Eastern Himalayas, a region where I was born and raised, covering India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet.

Talking about Eastern Himalayas, particularly Nepal, I have witnessed firsthand, how Ang Tshering Lama, one of the world's last breed of "Classical Mountaineer" and 7 times Everest summitter has been highlighting Nepal's incredible Indigenous diversity through his camera skills, clicking images of extraordinary natives at extraordinary heights of 8000+ feet above sea level.

It is with a great sense of pride that the people of Nepal showcase their culture and like a true Sherpa, Ang Tshering Lama has been generous enough to share some stunning images of Indigenous Nepal he has clicked en route to Everest, a place he often visits, that reflects the region’s rich cultural tapestry.

The Eastern Himalayas

The Eastern Himalayas cover the stretch from Nepal’s east and extend all the way to Bhutan, Tibet, the remote northeast of India, Myanmar’s north, and China’s Yunnan province.

The landscape is jaw-dropping; from dense sub-tropical forests to high alpine pastures. The region is blessed with the Terai region – a 50,000 sq. Kms. of sylvan grasslands, with numerous National Parks and Protected Areas like Chitwan National Park, Corbett National Park, Kaziranga National Park, Dudhwa, Rajaji and Valmiki National Parks.

Due to the presence of snow-capped peaks and glaciers, some of Asia’s greatest rivers like the Yangtze, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, and the Ganges rivers originate from the Eastern Himalayas.

People and culture

The Eastern Himalayas is a cultural hotspot and is the birthplace of major religions. Lord Buddha was born in 623 BC in Nepal’s Lumbini in the Terai region and attained enlightenment/Nirvana in India’s Bodh Gaya.
The quintessential feature of the tribal indigenous folks who inhabit the Eastern Himalayas is their reverence for Mother Nature. They treat mountains as their protectors and preservers. Simplicity is a way of life for the folks. Many travelers from the outside world have been bewitched by the remarkable trait of friendship, love, and warmth of the Himalayan folks; no wonder, some of them have decided to call the Himalayas their home. It is an enigma how these hardy Himalayan folks, despite the harsh Himalayan climate and terrain, continue to be nice, hospitable, and warm-hearted to the visitors.

The lure of the Himalayas is so intoxicating that many find the pull irresistible. Consider for instance the Tiger Tops (Nepal) story. Tiger Tops was set up by two Texans - Toddy Lee Wynne and Herb Klein way back in 1964 as a petite hunting lodge and in 1971 it was sold to Jim Edwards, the renowned British wildlife adventurer, who transformed Tiger Tops into one of Asia’s best managed Wilderness Lodge. Today, they are pioneers in high-end sustainable tourism in the Himalayas and set a benchmark for others to emulate.

Indigenous diversity

Anthropologists worldwide are guided by the vision of Augustine

Man wonders over the restless sea, the flowing waters, and the sight of the sky and forgets that of all wonders man himself is the most wonderful.

This is the overwhelming feeling that strikes you as you enter the world of the mysterious Eastern Himalayas. Since Anthropology deals with human beings and their behaviour or, even better, a study of human beings in groups and their adaptation to their environment, it isn’t surprising that the Eastern Himalayas has emerged as the world’s Anthropological hotspot. It is blessed with close to 500 tribes, each one with its own distinct culture, traditions, rituals, and ancestry.

In places like Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, which is where some of the highest snow-clad peaks are positioned, standing like sentinels, the tribal people like the Monpas and Bhutias’ belief in Buddhism is rock solid and if you can strike up a conversation with an elderly Monpa, you will be mesmerized with their discourse on “Reincarnation of the soul”.

For instance, legend has it that the Old Monastery in Ralang in Sikkim, dating back to 1768 AD, was blessed by the 9th Karmapa with grains of rice brought from Tibet. One of the greatest festivals of the Kagyupa Buddhists, Pang Lhabsol, which involves worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga, is celebrated with great zest and fanfare.

The Mizo tribes worship spirits; both ancestor spirits as well as the deities of the village. They believe that the destiny of the universe is in the hands of one god – Khazangpa. He lives in the sky, punishes evildoers, and gives handsome rewards for good deeds. Their age-old tradition of offering water to the holy spirit in their small-sized cups and the ethereal scene of lighting butter lamps have captivated the hearts of a million tourists.

So fascinating is their lifestyle that the Ao Nagas, after marriage, the bride and the groom leave their family of orientation and establish a new family. The Ao Nagas do not practice polygamy. As a family unit, they live in complete harmony. If a younger member of the family quarrels with a senior person in the family, it is believed to be ominous not only to the family but also to the village as such.

The Morung or Bachelor’s Dormitory plays a vital role in the social life of the Ao Naga village. Most Morungs are fine works of craftsmanship. It serves both as a guardhouse as well as a clubhouse. The women are forbidden to enter inside a Morung. The young boys are admitted into the Morung every three years to get trained practically in order to become perfect men in all spheres.

In Nepal there is a profound Tibeto-Mongoloid and Indo-Aryan cultural combo which finds expression through the staggering 125 tribal ethnic groups; their distinctly vibrant and colourful lifestyle is reflected through art and craft, folklore, and festivals. Ethnic groups like the Chettri, Brahman, Magar, Tharu, Tamang, Newar, and Sherpas have contributed significantly in shaping the Himalayan people’s cultural contours.

From the bewildering number of ethnic groups, it is the indomitable Sherpas who have brought Nepal name, fame, and glory through their stellar mountaineering skills and high altitude resilience. Even though they are a small minuscule mountain tribe from the ominously high Solu Khumbu/Helambu region, they have built up an enviable reputation as one of the world’s most admired mountaineers. No expedition in the Nepal Himalayas is ever complete without a Sherpa!

The world of tourism is changing and the demand for authenticity is the prime driving force for today’s discerning traveler. Gone are the days of hotel sightseeing. In today’s evolving tourism marketplace, travelers are keen to purchase an experience, not a product. India has to learn how to present the country and culture in all its diversity.

Ultimately the Eastern Himalayas are a full package of adventure, diverse culture, and lovable people. The global tourism industry needs the Eastern Himalayas to prosper and bloom. The prospect of being surrounded by the “Mountain People”, the quintessential tea estates spread like a finely woven carpet along the hillsides, breathtaking views of the snowy Himalayas and down to the swollen rivers in the valley bottoms is something that the discerning world traveler aspires for!

The Eastern Himalayas are a story with a purpose, a commitment as well as an ode to humanity to be aware, to see more, to seek more, and ultimately to transform from within the never-ending rat race of today’s contemporary civilization.

Nothing compares to that ethereal sense of escaping to the Eastern Himalayas from the heat, humidity, and hassle of the plains!