Whose Shangri-La is It Anyway?

From HIMAL, Volume 3, Issue 1 (JAN/FEB 1990)

Is life in the Himalaya on a spiritually higher plane than it is in the rest of the world? Even if it is not, does it do any harm if people across the oceans think of our mountains and its people as somehow exalted? Instead of pointing to the material poverty which forms a counterfoil to the Himalaya’s perceived romance, should we just turn up the hype if that will bring more foreign-exchange-laden tourists? How can it hurt if others fantasize about the unremarkable and sometimes harsh living up in Tibet’s beleaguered plains, Kathmandu’s gullies, the deep gorges of Bhutan, or the extremes of climate in Ladakh’s high desert?

Exotic and “cool”

These are questions that have yet to be considered seriously in a region where the focus has been either on willy-nilly maximising tourism income (as in Nepal) or protecting one’s heritage while maximising tourist income (Bhutan). The impact of perceived exoticism on the host population is a murky area that has been neglected so far by sociologists and psychologists. Perhaps there is nothing intrinsically superior about this place.

Mostly, Himalayans like to bask in the world’s overwhelming admiration of their region. If it doesn’t bring tangible benefits, there would seem to be psychological rewards. And yet, it is bound to hurt somewhere, sometime, in some way, when people begin to believe an outsider’s well-meaning fantasy. It has been said that members of the Third World intelligentsia are all suckers for what the saheb says and does: we follow his scholarship and also his myth-making. In the particular instance, do we tend to internalize what others perceive is our allure and glamour, just as discriminated minorities in developed countries internalize negative images of themselves? The saheb, of course, will go back to Kansas, Kensington or Kew, but we have to descend from the borrowed clouds and return to the squelch of our marketplaces.


The ancient fascination with the Himalaya is understandable and obvious. The religious and spiritual myths of the Indo-Gangetic plains people and of the Tibetans that were associated with these mountains emerged during eras when the mysteries of nature and geography were overwhelming — and a Shambhala, a Meru or an Olmolungring was essential to an ordering of one’s cosmos. The modern world, with its scientific faculties and inherited and developed logical methods, should be able to take a broader view.

Whereas Himalayan mountain tops used to be regarded as sacred, today these same summits have been trampled under mountaineers’ boots and crampons, and “defiled” by expedition refuse, national flags, ropes, pitons and even an occasional bust of Chairman Mao. So what is one to make of Himalayan exoticism? Can the same mountain mysticism that developed in isolation and amidst restricted scientific knowledge be given credence and lived by in today’s world?

The response of some to such “positivist” arguments tends to be an exasperated sigh, followed by the admonition: ”Tch, Tch, don’t make the same mistakes we did. Do try to maintain your mystic beliefs: they are really so nice.” Bursting a few bubbles, it might be in order to point out that socio-economic realities drive the human mind, even in the Himalaya. The Tibetan who craves a time-piece is as much a materialist as the tourist pondering whether to unstrap his watch and hand it over in order to accrue some dharma points. Himalayan materialism is in full display at Chungking Mansion, the Hong Kong marketplace where Nepalis flying in on Royal Nepal Airlines’ “Porter Express” congregate to buy up the island. A Sony Walkman is a Sony Walkman in Taipei, perhaps more so in Lhasa or Ladakh.


Perhaps the mountains inspire simply because they stand up while the plains lie down, and there is nothing more to it than that. But surely it is not this purely geophysical distinction that leads to the “higher thinking” among highlanders? Some do not doubt that it does. One commentator insisted that ‘Tibet is a land so close to the sky that the natural inclination of her people is to pray.” A Buddhist scholar wrote in 1951 that: “The physical conditions of Tibet lend themselves to religious thinking, The great spaces, the height of the mountain ranges which surround them, the rarefied air…the silence where men are scarce and wildlife is rarer still, all lend themselves to introverted thought…”

But if mysticism is a journey into the self, aren’t mountains just props? Why shouldn’t the blazing summer heat of Muzzarfarpur be just as conducive to spiritual fulfillment as the numbing cold of Gangotri? Could it be that there is nothing intrinsically holy about the Himalaya and that they are glorified only because they are “different:” unexplored, mysterious and mostly under-populated? If Kipling 83 never made it to Kathmandu in spite of singing its odes, is it possible that Kalidasa, too, was writing of the eternal snows, sight unseen, when he wrote about the “King of Mountains, Himalaya” in his epic Kumarasarnbhava?

Of course, not all observers, Western or otherwise, accept the hyperbole and romantic simplification, glorification and distortion. There are those who try to understand the Himalaya for what it is, to empathize with its humanity, and to study its cultural institutions in their own terms without an overlay of expectations. And there are even a few “realists” who profess to know that life in the Himalaya is just as pedestrian as anywhere else in the world. Some of them are decidedly negative about the Himalaya, or parts thereof. One such is Eliot Weinburger, an American writer who took a particularly jaundiced view of Tibet in an article that appeared in the April 1980 issue of the journal The Nation. Under the title “Dharma Demagogy,” he wrote: “Because we don’t know, because we like to imagine another civilization as wiser than this pale and plastic swamp, we have invented a spiritual paradise in the Himalaya: a Shangri-La of other-worldliness, of chanting, meditation, telepathy, astral projection. But the true history of Tibet is as violent and depressing as anywhere else. The continual rise and fall of warring monasteries and sects, each connected with a noble family; the forging and breaking of alliances; endless vendettas; holy squanderers supported by a miserable majority of landless serfs — and a few great teachers struggling against the worldly excesses of their contemporaries.” Which Westerner was closer to the truth: VVeinburger or James Hilton?


Himalayan mythologizing is but one branch of the larger “discipline” of “Orientalism” — the study of or fascination with everything east of Europe. The Occident, after all, has always romanticized the Orient. Edward Said, the Arab-American man of letters, goes as far as to claim that ‘The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” This “seductive degradation of knowledge continues to this day,” says Said.

In 1975, the Asia Society in New York conducted a study of how Asia was depicted in American textbooks. The Society found that the textbooks were full of condescending terms such as “the friendly, fun-loving Filipinos” and “happy, gentle Thais.” The suggestion was that Asians were childlike and “in need of guidance, if not domination.”

The Asians themselves participate in stereotyping the Orient, and are often quite chauvinistic in their views of themselves, their mountains, or their continent. As Said has stated, “The modem Orient participates in its Orientalizing.”

Among Himalayan scholars, there is an unscientific tendency to take the “inherent holiness” of the Himalaya for granted. Take Ecology, Economy and Religion of Himalayas (1986, Orient Publications), an otherwise serious book on the socio-economic pressures in today’s In¬dian Himalaya. Many contributors get carried away in singing simplistic praise of the Himalaya even when they are presenting social-scientific papers. How does one react when a Calcutta University anthropologist writes that, “From the long hoary past the towering majestic Himalayas offer an awe-inspiring attractive and scenic beauty, that have drawn to its bosom millions and millions of people of varied interests and needs, from age to age.” A work on mountain-to-plains migration begins with,”Once an abode of Gods, the eight hill districts of Uttar Pradesh are today a land of mass exodus.” To begin a sociological study with the premise that mountains used to be inhabited by gods is perhaps stretching the very outer limits of social science.


While the pragmatic use of Himalayan mythology and perceived exoticism might be a smart idea, especially for increasing tourism income, there is a fine line between peddling romance and imbibing it as the rightful Himalayan state of being. In the latter case, could there be possible social, psychological — and even political — dangers?

Upon finding that American textbooks characterized Asians as inscrutable and exotic, the Asia Society concluded that “presenting Asia as exotic also fails to reflect the full humanity of its people by making them seem alien,” However, it does not stop there. While Western perceptions of the East have been well studied, the East’s reaction to such perception has hardly been delved into.

Some might consider it harmless that the whole world comes to regard the Himalaya as a romantic wonderland where the people march to the beat of a mystical drummer. But it becomes worrisome if the population of the Himalaya, educated or not, the rulers and the ruled alike, start internalizing the idea of their own other-worldliness.

The power of the West to define the East is even more evident at the non-academic level. A once-every-three-year cursory report in Time magazine will be ascribed more authenticity and wisdom than the work of a lifelong writer in a local weekly. You snuggle up to the image that has been created for you. A Sherpa gets stuck in his role as “high altitude porter” while an equally adept Tamang might never aspire to be an expedition sardar — all because the saheb has said it shall be so.

It is a mark of their own failing that third world elites often have their culture defined for them by western anthropologists or political scientists. They then pass this understanding, or its ramifications, to the rest of society. Indigenous scholarship in South Asia is probably at its weakest in the Himalayan region, so that Western definitions tend to be those accepted.

Siddiq Wahid, a Ladakhi divinity scholar, maintains that the claim by outside scholars that Ladakh is primarily a Buddhist society became so insistent that it brought rifts within Ladakhi society (see Himal Sep’Oct ’89). Animus was aroused as Ladakhis perceived themselves as Muslim and Buddhist, rather than as Ladakhis who evolved a culture in a shared environment. While Ladakh’s Tibetan Buddhism was tantalizingly novel to scholars, Islam was – ho-hum – why? Because it extended all the way from Turkey eastward!


The fascination with Buddhist cultures is perhaps one reason why the forest dwelling communities of the Assam Himalaya are not regarded as romantically as, say, Ladakhis, Sherpas or Tibetans. The scholarly and popular focus on exotic pockets of the high-Himalaya might even have affected development emphasis and aid giving. Could this partly explain why some highland communities are coddled while others –such as the southern rim of Kathmandu Valley, the mountain monotony of far-West Nepal, or parts of the Nepali Terai — today suffer in quiet neglect?

The point is confirmed by American political scientist Linda Richter, who writes, “Aid tends to flow disproportionately to nations with high tourist arrivals as compared to other countries of similar size and political importance.” Which leads to the question: Not considering for a moment the geo-political factors that make Nepal the foreign aid recipient par excellence, would it receive the same amount of external assistance it does today if it were located as an independent country, say bordering Bihar and Madhya Pradesh to the south?

In the early 1980s, Bhutan suddenly became the darling of the international development set. Thimphu, it seemed, could do no wrong: its development priorities were right, the people were enigmatic yet charming, the Government was firm yet benevolent. Thimphu’s policies were compared to Kathmandu’s and consistently given higher grades. Bhutan was said to have “learned from Nepal’s mistakes.”

While some of this is doubtless true, has the craving for forbidden exoticism once again clouded judgement? The foreign analysts might have overlooked that Bhutan was an easier country to “manage,” with only three major communities in contrast to Nepal’s cacophony of voices. In extolling the present, they might have failed to peer into the future, and the conflicts that inevitably lie ahead as “modernity” seeps in, much as they did in Nepal and elsewhere. As a DANIDA (Denmark’s aid agency) brochure cautions, modern development in Bhutan has “given rise to a certain tendency towards social polarization” and that “such unbalanced development might lead to the growth of new, dissatisfied social groups.”

Those who would put the Himalaya on a mystical pedestal believe that the region is above the animosity and violence that mars other parts of the world and South Asia. “The Himalaya is different,” we are reminded; or we reassure ourselves, “It can never happen in Nepal.” Belief in such utopianism may be one reason why, while we bask in a false idyll, urgent tasks of socio- economic development are left unfinished and why the pressing agenda for equity and integration is neglected. Going back over the tourist brochures and even the ethnographic literature of the past, one finds that the same Pollyanaish images were attached to Kampuchea and Sri Lanka as are today to Nepal or Bhutan: gentle people, hospitable, in tune with their environment. “Oh, it can’t happen here”, they said, until it did.


Can misrepresentation of a culture — even by glorifying it — do violence to its people? Why, for example, are the Samoans angry at Margaret Mead?

In 1926, as an anthropology student in her mid-twenties, Mead visited the Southern Pacific island of Western Samoa. She studied a group of 50 adolescent girls for a few months and emerged with the book Coming of Age in Samoa, which was immediately canonized and has since identified Samoa as idealized islands where every person was well adjusted, sex was free, and worries were limited to who would roast the day’s communal pig. The Samoans resisted this pigeon-hole they had been forced into but no one seemed to listen. Such was the power of a young American anthropologist: what she wrote, true or false, defined a society for the rest of the world. Only in the last five years have serious questions been raised about the believability of Mead’s findings.

Like the Samoans, the Maoris of New Zealand too have had their image manipulated by outsiders. The Maoris believe that their ancestors arrived in 1930 in seven canoes after a heroic migration from Polynesia. They also believe in a supreme being known as lo. According to a 20 February article in The New York Times, these Maori beliefs were “more an invention of European anthropologists than an authentic heritage.” Ironically, the Maoris now accept this created “tradition” as historical fact and angrily resist any revisionist assaults on it by anthropologists. Reporting what it calls this “scholarly echo of colonisation with a twist,” the newspaper states, “The Maoris argue that anthropologists may have created and imposed this culture but it is theirs now. They are proud of it, and so let them believe what they want to.”

Bali’s experience presents another example of how outsiders’ preconceptions can define a land. Touristic lore salutes this supposed “tropical Shangri-La,” but in doing so merely succeeds in dehumanizing its society. The island is only “superficially serene,” says James X. Boon, who has tried to de-mythologize the island in his book The Anthropological Romance of Bali. Boon points out that the foreigner’s image does not deal with the reality that Bali is “over-populated, underfed, intensely politicized, ecologically imperilled, violent…”

Like the South Sea isles, Bali, or Papua New Guinea, the Himalaya also is an anthropologist’s mecca, with people to “discover,” – “strange” practices to study and to report. Because of restrictions on research in Tibet, Bhutan and much of India, Western anthropologists have overrun Nepal. Initial studies of Himalayan communities tended to be quick and cursory, while there is today increasingly serious study and a better understanding of the deeper realities of Himalayan living. And yet quite a few come for the sheer novelty of it, such as the anthropologist couple who “were captivated by the idea of doing field work in an exotic society thousands of miles away from Los Angeles.. Nepal seemed an ideal place for us to live out our fantasies.”

Where even social scientists come to live out their fantasies, who can deny the tourist his or her few days in Shangri-La?


The need to perceive mother land, another people, as having attributes that are almost extra-terrestrial and extra-human is present in every society. The exoticism and utopian myths surrounding the Himalaya are only among the most elaborate.

There is nothing inherently wrong in fantasy, especially if it brings peace-of-mind and mental well-being to the believer. There is also nothing wrong in the fantasy as long as the subject-people use it to advantage without actually buying into it. The outsider might want to read romance, mystery, enigma behind every ritual, every gesture and every glance. For the native, it might be life as usual.

The perspective of the viewer and the viewed is captured in an anecdote related by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his book, The Interpretation of Cultures: an Englishman, when told that the world rests on a platform on the back of an elephant which rests in turn on the back of a turtle, asked the native what did the turtle rest on?

Carne the reply, “Ali, saheb, after that it is turtles all the way down.”

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