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The Himalayas are a mountain range in Asia, separating the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau. The word Himalaya is derived from two Sanskrit words ‘hima’ meaning snow, and ‘alaya’ meaning home. Thus, Himalaya means ‘abode of snow’. The term was coined by the ancient pilgrims of India who were the first to explore this region. Sometimes the Himalayas are also called Himachal, Himadri, or Himavat, all of which mean ‘eternal snow’. The term Himalayan system loosely refers to the Himalayas and their neighbouring ranges, the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindukush, Tien Shan and Kun Lun, which extend out from the Pamir Knot. They have the unique feature of being the highest as well as the youngest mountain ranges in the world. Together they stretch across the following countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, China, Tibet, India, and Nepal.
The Himalayan range stretches uninterruptedly for 2900 km from west to east, between the Nanga Parbat (8,126 m) in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir and the Namcha Barwa (7,755 m) in Tibet. The width varies from 400 km in the western Kashmir-Xinjiang region to 150 km in the eastern Tibet-Arunachal Pradesh region. This range includes some of the highest mountains in the world with over 100 peaks of elevations above 7200 m. One such peak is the Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world with a height of 8850 m. The majestic beauty and towering peaks of the Himalayas have lured contrasting groups of visitors since ancient times. Pilgrims and traders have frequented this region through centuries. More recently, climbers, trekkers and explorers have been coming in increasing numbers every year, drawn by the enigma that is the Himalaya.
Classification of the Himalayas:
  • Western Himalayas: The Western Himalayas refer to the mountain ranges stretching across Western Tibet, North West Nepal, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir in North West India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The western Himalayas have long been the melting pot of different races, cultures and religions. For centuries, people belonging to various ethno-cultural groups and diverse religious beliefs have been pouring into this region from all directions.
  • Central Himalayas: The Central Himalayas are located in the state of Uttarakhand in India and parts of central Nepal. The Ganga-Yamuna basin drains a major portion of this region. The Central Himalayas, especially the Garhwal hills of Uttarakhand, have suffered serious deforestation and soil erosion due to excessive felling of trees and mining activities. Thus, the region has become extremely prone to landslides.
  • Eastern Himalayas: The eastern Himalayas refer to the ranges located in Bhutan, parts of Nepal, and northeastern India. This region, with its rich biological diversity, is home to 163 globally endangered species. The grasslands of this region are home to the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), and the tiger (Panthera Tigris) among other species. From south to north, the Himalayas are classified into the following three divisions:
  • The Outer or Sub Himalayas: This range is geologically youngest among the Himalayan mountain ranges. Located between the Lesser Himalayas and the Indo-Gangetic plains, these are the lowest and narrowest of the ranges, with an average elevation of 900-1200 m. Also referred to as the Sivalik hills, the range extends from Sikkim in the east, through Nepal, Uttarakhand and Kashmir, to Pakistan in the west. The Mohan pass is the principal pass in the Sivaliks. The Sivaliks are well developed in the western and central Himalayas but they merge with the foothills of the Lesser Himalayas on the eastern front. Longitudinal valleys called duns separate the Sivaliks from the Lesser Himalayas in the north.
  • The Lesser or Lower Himalayas: The Lesser Himalayas lie between the Sub Himalayas in the south and the Greater Himalayas in the north. The elevation of this region varies from 1800 m to 4500 m. The range passes from Pakistan in the west, through the Indian states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, over Nepal and Bhutan, to the northeastern states of India.
  • The Greater or Higher Himalayas: Lying north of the Lesser Himalayan range, The Greater Himalayas are often called the backbone of the Himalayas. They lie well above the snow line with an average elevation of above 6000 m. The range reaches its maximum height in Nepal, where nine of the fourteen highest peaks in the world, all exceeding 8000 m, are located. The Greater Himalayas include the highest peaks of the Himalayan system, including Mount Everest and Kangchenjunga, the highest and third highest peaks in the world. Rainfall is low in this region, but it receives heavy snowfall.

    It may be possible to identify a fourth range, the Trans Himalayas lying farther north of the Greater Himalayas. However, since ‘trans’ means beyond, some people consider the Trans Himalayas to be lying beyond the Himalayan range.

  • The Trans-Himalayas: The Trans Himalayas, also referred to as the Tibetan Himalayas or the Tethys Himalayas, lie to the north of the Greater Himalayas. Physiographically, the Tran Himalayas form a part of the Tibetan Plateau. The average elevation is around 3000-4500 m. The Zanskar, the Ladakh, and the Karakoram are the main ranges in this region. This is a rain-deficit area as the towering Greater Himalayas lying to the south prevent the moisture-bearing southwest monsoon winds from crossing into this region. The conditions here resemble those of a desert. Therefore, the Trans Himalayas are also called ‘cold deserts’. They experience extremely harsh climatic conditions with long snow bound winters and a brief three-month summer. In India, the Trans Himalayan region extends over Ladakh and Kargil districts of Jammu & Kashmir, and Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh.

    The Himalayas are a young dynamic mountain system and include the highest peaks, deepest gorges and highest glaciers in the world. The region has a wide variety of ecosystems, ranging from grasslands and subtropical forests to high alpine meadows. They have been identified as a biodiversity hotspot because of their rich biodiversity and high degree of endemism. However, recently the region has been experiencing the impacts of climate change and unsustainable use of natural resources.

Classification of the Himalayas
Western Himalayas
Central Himalayas
Eastern Himalayas
The Outer or Sub Himalayas
The Lesser or Lower Himalayas
The Greater or Higher Himalayas
The Trans-Himalayas