Yale Himalaya Initiative

environment | livelihood | culture

Themes

These themes bring together our diverse disciplinary interests to consider critical questions in the Himalaya and beyond. Focusing our attention on the interconnections between the natural and social worlds in the Himalaya, historically as well as in the present, these themes also point towards issues of broad concern for the regionally integrated study of environmental, economic, and social transformation. They are starting points for our multi-faceted inquiry and collaborations, which we expect to lead towards a wide array of projects that will take us far beyond their limits to conceptualize both scholarly and applied problems in new ways.

Environment

The Himalaya are the highest mountains in the world, with great biodiversity and ecological variation. There is no single modality of land use in the Himalaya; rather, some areas experience heavy forest use and development, others have seen the creation of protected areas and conservation initiatives, and still more support small-scale agriculture and agro-pastoral systems. Patterns of land use have changed over time in relation to political and environmental transformation. Currently, the Himalaya is a source of ecosystem services for several countries in the region, yet is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global climate change. Many religious traditions in the region value mountains, rivers, rocks, and other environmental features as sites of divine power, so the natural world plays a key role in shaping worldviews and cultural practices. All of these dynamics present opportunities for challenging but rewarding research, particularly when carried out in consultation and collaboration with local communities and organizations.

Livelihood

Himalayan people rely upon on a combination of agrarian, pastoral, and wage labor to create diverse economic strategies. In an area with limited arable land and complex social hierarchies, livelihood choices are constrained by both environmental and cultural factors. Decisions about how to use environmental and cultural resources are in turn shaped by these economic choices. In many areas animal husbandry forms the backbone of agrarian aspects of the economy, with various forms of herding, pastoralism and transhumance found across the region. In addition to domesticated animals, wildlife remains an important component of life through hunting, its impact on agriculture and its religious or ritual role in agrarian life. Despite the popular image of the Himalaya as an isolated Shangri-La, cross-border as well as rural-urban migration for the purposes of trade, wage labor, and pilgrimage has long been an important feature of life. Such mobility brings Himalayan people into contact with a wide range of cultural, political, religious, economic, and environmental attitudes, which they bring home along with the remittances that play a key role in transforming local economies. Rapid urbanization in metropolitan areas like Kathmandu, Gangtok, and Thimphu has important environmental, cultural, and economic consequences that can only be fully understood from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Culture

The Himalayan region is home to a remarkable array of ethnic and linguistic groups, and serves as a seat for several major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as a variety of local indigenous beliefs and practices. For well over a thousand years, such traditions in the region have generated important forms of textual and cultural production. Literary collections in Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Newar serve as primary canons for the study of religious doctrines and practice. Together with an extensive archive of Nepali, Hindi, and Lepcha texts, they also provide rich resources for studying the social, cultural, economic, and environmental history of the region. Oral traditions in many more Himalayan languages further express the breadth and depth of indigenous knowledge. The Himalaya are also the seat of some of the world’s richest visual cultures and artistic traditions. As the source of several major rivers, and the site of numerous sacred mountains and shrines, pilgrimage forms a central aspect of Himalayan religious life cutting across modern geo-political boundaries. The long history of transregional mobility in the area—and its attendant flow of ideas, practices, and goods—has resulted in a complex and fluid cultural composition, but one currently encapsulated within several discrete modern nation-states. Competing interests around these borders have made the Himalaya a site of intense geo-political tensions, as well as protracted civil and local conflicts. Research that explores both historical and contemporary cultural transformations in the region will generate new knowledge of local experiences in the Himalaya, as well as their relationships to broader global dynamics.