Empire on High: The Absent People on the Mountains
Victorian masculinities (Sussman 1992) took the highlands to assert control over bodies, both on women and later on the indigenous people of their colonies. This practise of acquiring High places (Cosgrave 2009) as means of demonstrating their superiority and masculinity has led to the dual marginalisation of women who climbed the mountains and the indigenous people who inhabited it. Mountains as distinct geographical regions owing to their physiography have evolved from being considered spiritual sites to spaces (re)constructed for satisfying the masculine desire to seek control, adventure and study the human physiology at extreme conditions. Initially considered as sites of exploration and discovery during the enlightenment of the 18th century, the mountains gradually went on to become constructed sites of expansion and strategic control as is evident in the projection of the Himalayas through the colonial gaze. As much of the mountaineering narratives focuses on Victorian masculinity and the male body, the women climbers of the Golden Age have highly been under represented. With not much records on women climbers, these highlands became centre of codifying gender by altitude (Reidy 2001). Much as Edward Whymper, John Tindall and Leslie Stephen have been accoladed as pioneer mountaineers, attempts made by Lucy Walker, Maria Paradis, Henriette d’ Angeville among many others to break free from being categorised as the weaker sex and challenge the concept of mountains being an all-male zone have been less researched. In this gendered and racial context, this paper attempts to study and examine in two parts the shifting paradigms of gaze (Kaplan 1997)firstly, how the masculine discourse of Imperial Geography has marginalised women’s experiences that may present different or even alternative views of the mountains and secondly how mountains can be viewed not just as a geographical formation but spaces of lived experiences of the Himalayan people in particular as argued by the field of Cultural Geography (Oakes 2008) to study how people live in, experience and shape a particular environment. It is therefore essential to explore gaze, both the white woman’s gaze on white mountains and white man’s gaze on brown mountains simultaneously to establish how the colonial and the postcolonial voices view and interpret these highlands from their constructed positions. This paper will focus on Mrs Henry Fielding’s Alpine Byways (1861), Frank Smythe’s The Kanchenjunga Adventure (1930) and Jamling Tenzing Norgay’s Touching my father’s Soul: A Sherpa journey to the top of Everest (2001) to understand the absence of white women and native people from the mountaineering discourse to see how Eastern Himalayas as a spatial territory can be understood from cultural, aesthetic, political and economic dimensions as well as how the imperial gaze has been internalised and is responsible for generating reductive behaviours in the indigenous people and hampering their living conditions till date.
Keywords: Mountains, Himalayas, Gaze, Gender, Indigenous