The soundtrack of the Himalaya

The beauty of the Himalaya lies not only in its awe-inspiring peaks, but is revealed in its vibrant and unique sounds, says Kev Reynolds. Illustrations by Clare Crooke.

Kev Reynolds

Until I went to the Himalaya and saw for myself, I thought of the mountains there in dramatic, physical terms; massive structures sculpted by ice, their ridges crusted with snow, their faces plastered with hanging glaciers and séracs ready at any minute to collapse, threatening death and destruction.

I imagined them rising above the clouds like fortresses, whose turrets were battered by the jet-stream, their summits way beyond my reach. They were massifs to be treated with respect, whose highest points were attainable only with their consent and the skills I did not possess. They haunted my dreams almost exclusively through visual images. If I thought in terms of sound, it was limited to the cracking of ice; hostile sounds of rock fall and the deadly boom of avalanche.

In that vision of savage beauty lay some of its appeal. The Himalaya, abode of the gods, to which adventurers were drawn like flies to a spider’s web.

But as I got to know the range better, crossed its passes and slept in its valleys, I came to recognise a more complex scene. Approaching the high mountains through the foothills I explored the middle hills, and studied the great peaks from a distance, from different angles, in different seasons and under different conditions. As familiarity grew, the great Himalayan range became less intimidating, but no less worthy of respect. And I discovered it had a soundtrack of its own, as bewitching as its visual appeal.

That soundtrack was not confined to the mountains themselves, but was shared with the creatures that roamed and flew around them: the maniacal cackling of a snow cock, the snort of a yak, the nasal sneeze of musk deer. I sat in remote places and listened to the ruffling wing feathers of a lammergeier as it sailed over my head. Choughs reminded me of the Alps; raucous ravens and crows carried the sounds of home to the high Himalaya.

Himalayan flags
Himalayan prayer flags

Villages were found in the uppermost valleys where the slapping of prayer flags and metallic twirl of hand-held prayer wheels added to the symphony. Streams came rushing with songs of their own; some were diverted to turn man-sized prayer wheels that would creak and groan while each revolution was counted off by the ringing of a bell. Only the prayers they scattered were silent. Bells tinkled in puja rooms; the chanting of monks in claret robes and shaven heads filled the dusty spaces of ancient gompas. Below the big mountains, from the middle hills down, the familiar sound of a cock crowing betrayed the existence of every foothill village.

Through the middle hills came the rivers. Swollen by snowmelt from a thousand streams they made their presence known by the bullying thunder of rocks being shifted, smoothed and crunched one against another – the very fabric of the mountains being ground to silt and carried off to the Bay of Bengal.

In deep gorges where the sun rarely shone, they roared their fury, while waterfalls sprayed down mighty cliffs to join them.

Then there were the voices. Human voices, echoing through and across the valleys. Children laughing, calling to one another; Namaste offered as a greeting with a smile of shiny white teeth; farmers yelping indecipherable commands to dusty-black buffalo dragging wooden ploughs through narrow, harvested fields. The pathetic bleating of goats driven to forage by a woman whose high-pitched instructions could shred the bark from a tree; the whirring stop-and-start of a pedal-driven sewing machine in a village street, an axe chopping firewood, and the ubiquitous sound of lung-retching, coughing, hawking and spitting heard everywhere – the inevitable response to lives lived in smoke-filled houses without chimneys.

All these things – and more – became essential pieces in the jigsaw of Himalayan experience. Without sound, the landscape dimensions would be reduced, the value of journeys among them diminished.

Prayer wheel
Prayer wheel

It was in the foothills that the sounds of the natural world were at their most colourful, their most varied, so that every waking hour was filled with a vibrant syncopation unlike anything I’d experienced before. So loud it was, and at such a pitch, that it was almost like wearing a headset of noise.

One year I took recording equipment with me to make a radio programme about a journey to the Kangchenjunga region made in 1848 by the great Victorian plant hunter Joseph Dalton Hooker. During the three years he spent gathering plants for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, he explored an area of north-east Nepal, constructed a remarkably accurate map of Sikkim, examined glaciers, moraines and geological formations, gathered 2500 plant species, illustrating more than 700 of them with extraordinary precision, and wrote a two-volume account of his travels with the title Himalayan Journals. First published in January 1854, it is now considered to be a minor classic of travel literature.

I have a copy. A battered, well-thumbed, poorly produced facsimile printed in India and costing 320 rupees. I wouldn’t be without it. You see this book has a history of its own; it not only describes a host of exotic plants previously unknown in Europe, it draws the reader into a world in which Nature’s complex diversity is displayed with an almost unique extravagance. The land in which Hooker travels is full of excesses. As I had already discovered, the mountains are immense, the rivers dangerous in their fury, the jungles almost impenetrable. And my copy of Himalayan Journals bears the scars, smells and stains of that very same land, for I carried it there with me.

Comparing the landscapes and villages he described with those I wandered through 150 years later, I found that very little had changed.

It was a revelation in many ways; not least because when recording that journey on tape, I was astonished to find that my headphones brought to life a richness of sound I’d never been aware existed until then.

Long before making my way up to the highest regions, and ignoring the roar of river and rock fall, I became aware of the individual calls made by a variety of different birds, forest animals and insects – many of which I heard now for the very first time. Standing alone in a semi-tropical jungle in the valley of the Tamur River another world was revealed. Among moss-coated rhododendrons and towering trees threaded with rope-like lianas, tree orchids caught shafts of sunlight that broke through the canopy. Up there a bird in silhouette lifted its head and called, its cry like a saw cutting through wire; another clapped its wings and as it launched from one tree to another a host of leaves applauded. I captured the chattering laughter of a family of white-faced monkeys, and no matter which way I turned, 10,000 cicadas competed for attention with a sound so shrill I feared my eardrums would burst. Meanwhile, creatures unseen rustled the leaves at my feet.

So far as I was concerned, the big mountains could wait. In the humid forests of the Tamur’s valley I was captivated by the richness of the Himalayan soundtrack.

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