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The Himalayas: how geography has shaped the history of the Indian Sub-continent – five online talks by Raaja Bhasin

posted on 06/06/23


‘In a thousand ages of the Gods, I could not tell you of the wonders of the Himalaya,’ declares one of the ancient Indian texts of the Puranas. Arguably the world’s greatest mountain system and also its youngest, the Himalayas pass through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. They brush by Bangladesh and tentatively touch Myanmar. A glorious crown placed over the Indian Sub-continent and a formidable frontier between this and the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas extend for over 2,500 kilometres, covering an area the size of half of Europe. This formidable range has shaped the climate of most of the Indian Sub-continent and has been an arbiter of much of the region’s history. As a natural frontier, this immense wall has shielded India and over the centuries, incursions were through narrow and dangerous passes. Tucked within this enormous mass, are peaks that still remain unclimbed and communities that shun the outer world. The Himalayas have challenged explorers and armies; they have drawn scientists and poets; they have provided both refuge and solace, as this richly illustrated series of five talks will show.

They take place every Tuesday from 8 August–5 September at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (31st October 2023).

Register for the webinar series for £65


The talks 

1. Before Humans – Forming the Mountains (8th August 2023)

The birth of the Himalaya mountains remains one of the grandest geological dramas of our planet. This was a process that began millions of years ago and is one that is still not over. A vast sea vanished and left behind the world’s highest mountain range, glaciers, rivers racing through deep gorges and azure salt-water lakes. The gentler aspects of nature arrived bringing to the terrain magnificent forests and rare herbs. This lecture traces these origins and brings us to the present.

2. Cradled Within – Exploring Buddhism, and the Living Deities of the Hills (15th August 2023)

Vajrayana Buddhism, the ‘Thunderbolt Vehicle’ form of Tantric Buddhism that took shape within and along the fringes of the Himalaya Mountains, is today one of most recognisable forms of the religion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is generally accepted as its spiritual head. Numerous monasteries and sacred places dot the Himalayan ranges. Somewhat in contrast, pockets of the mid-hills have ‘local deities’ that may be worshipped in one village but shunned in another; practices and forms of worship draw heavily from nature. This lecture is interspersed with iconography, legends and folklore.

3. Through the High Passes – Invaders and Settlers (22nd August 2023)

Down the centuries, invaders in search of wealth or conquest have poured into India through the high passes that border today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many have returned with considerable treasures that have included precious metals and stones, slaves and animals. A few have come from passes that lie in the northeast and border Tibet and Myanmar. Many invaders made India their home and created a diverse pool of ancestry. There have been a few, invariably unsuccessful military excursions, that have gone from India to the North – the best-known being the first major war of Queen Victoria’s reign, ‘The First Afghan War’.

4. The Human Landscape – Villages and Towns, and Farmers and Traders (29th August 2023)

Seen from outside, it seems that there was no human activity in these ranges. But along valley floors and in the mid-hills, despite the geographic isolation, there were numerous villages and small towns. Traders moved from one market fair to another. In this pastoral setting, the rhythm of life was largely focused around a subsistence agricultural economy. An immense change took place in the early 19th century when the British began building a chain of ‘hill stations’ all across the Himalaya. This lecture examines the traditional and the colonial landscape.

5. Into the Unknown – Exploring, Mapping and Climbing the High Mountains (5th September 2023)

It was 70 years ago that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. Yet, the Himalayas have drawn Indian pilgrims, sages and seers for centuries, but there was very little codified information that was passed down about the mountains and what lay within. The invasion of Alexander of Macedon and the travels of the Chinese monk-scholar, Hsuan Tsang bring us some of the early writings. Then from the 18th century onwards, comes the time of explorers, climbers, scientists and spies. This lecture traces this fascinating movement of people and information.

Image: Seran (Sarahan), the Raja's Palace, c. 1820.

The speaker

Raaja Bhasin

Award winning author, historian and journalist. He has published 15 books of history, travel, fiction and poetry and is a recognised authority on the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and its capital, Shimla. He has handled assignments for television, including for the BBC, and for the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and various departments of the Indian Government. He writes regularly for magazines and papers in India and elsewhere. He is the state Co-convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

Register for the webinar series for £65

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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