“Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World” by John Keay


John Keay has written well over 20 books, ranging from European to Middle Eastern history, but it’s his writing on the Subcontinent that he’s best known for. His new book draws on decades of research to provide a comprehensive portrait of the Himalaya from geology and politics to revolution and religion. 

“History has not been kind to Himalaya,” writes Keay, opening with an account of Younghusband’s bloody expedition, or rather invasion, of Tibet in 1904. Keay then moves onto an explanation of Himalaya’s extraordinary physical and geological history starting from the collision of tectonic plates. He also provides an overview of the work of Alfred Wegner, an early champion of the once scorned theory of continental drift, which is now accepted to have formed the dramatic Himalayan landscape.


Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World, John Keay (Bloomsbury, September 2022)
Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World, John Keay (Bloomsbury, September 2022)

Keay goes on to explain the history of Tibetan legends from Amitabha, the Buddha of boundless light, to the Wrathful Ogress of the Rocks. He explores Tibet’s Paleolithic history and the paradox of the legend of Tibetan monkey King Halumantha thriving in a treeless desolate Tibetan landscape. Keay then provides an overview of Ole Olufsen’s scientific expedition in 1898 to explore the Pamirs and Hindu Kush geology, while at the height of the Great Game followed by the adventures of explorer botanist Kingdon-Ward, who while searching for Himalayan plants that would bloom in the UK, came across the forgotten fortresses and towers of Kongpo in central Tibet, the builders of which scholars even today remain unsure.

Another explorer who features in the story is the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci whose expeditions penetrated to the mouth of the Sutlej near Kulu and Spiti and onto Western Tibet. The Mussolini government gave the Tucci expedition generous sums to buy Tibetan artworks and texts direct from the lamas as Tucci conducted “one of the greatest ever hauls of Buddhist texts and devotional materials.” Keay segues to the history of Bon, a pre-Buddhist Tibetan belief system, and a background of the work of David Snellgrove, academic at SOAS, who made significant breakthroughs towards understanding Bon in the 1950s.

The British, as one might expect, remain central. There is a  vivid portrayal of Curzon and other key members of the Raj, as well as explorers such as the rather vain and pompous Sven Hedin and his explorations in the Aksai Chin and Tibet. Keay outlines many other stories and legends including the naming of K2 by Captain Montgomery, how Hunzakuts, from the Hunza Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, claim to conjure up glaciers at will and believe that each glacier is either male or female. Before telling the unlikely story of Shri Swami Pranavanada Maharaj who, despite coming from southern Andrea Pradesh, became an expert on Mt Kailash, Keay provides the histories of pilgrimage from Kailash to the Kawa Karpo.


This is a  wonderfully digressive read, with rich portraits and stories of those who made their careers and fame from Himalaya. Keay has condensed an immense amount of data and information into the book alongside a deft selection of poetry, literature, period sources and a wide array of maps and photographs.

It is poetically written too, the Pamirs are described as “devoid of conifer crowned crags and sawtooth horizons, the Pamirs’ lumpy upland of humped ranges and gravelled troughs disdains the picturesque,” These tightly-written yet rich descriptions make the book appealing for those looking for a history of exploration, geology to political history in the Himalaya, the world’s only high altitude ecozone.

Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.