ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Beyond Colonial Modernity: Re-reading British Mountaineering accounts of Kumaon and Garhwal in the 1930s


Garg Gaurav - Ashoka University, History, Sonipat, NCR, India


34 – Religious and Environmental Encounters: North Indian Mountains Through the Eyes of Travellers


 In the 1930s, British mountaineers and explorers— Frank Smythe, H.W. Tillman, and Eric Shipton— launched several expeditions to Garhwal and Kumaon. They left behind detailed accounts of these expeditions—their encounters with the peoples, cultures, flaura and fauna, and the vistas. Accounts of mountaineers have rarely been mined for what they had to say about the world around them— scholars have invariably focused on the undeniably colonial, masculinist, militaristic, and occasionally, romantic underpinnings of their discourse and practice (eg. Ortner 1999). While accepting these formulations, this paper goes beyond. Using the accounts of Smythe, Shipton, and Tillman, this paper attempts two tasks. One, it explores, from the standpoint of these British mountaineers, what, if at all, distinguished Kumaon and Garhwal from other parts of the Himalaya? The second, it historicizes mountaineers’ perception of mountains. With regards to the second point, this paper emphasizes that when explorers like Shipton described mountains as “beautiful” they were not simply following the footsteps of 19th century Romantics like William Wordsworth. Rather, their aesthetic appreciation of mountains was a product of a connected trading history between Europe and Asia from the 16th century that transformed how Europeans, especially the British, perceived and engaged with the mountains from the 18th century. In conclusion, this paper briefly discusses the implications of this argument.