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<< Indian Himalayas << About Himalayas >> << People & Religion >>


R e l i g i o n  o f   H i m a l a y a s

In Ladakh (Jammu-Kashmir), Lahaul & Spiti, Sikkim (East Indian Region), and Tibet there mainly majority of Buddhism, Hinduism & Islamic Religion.

Land of Lord Shiva

The many forms of Hinduism are henotheistic religions. They recognize a single deity, and view other Gods and Goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God. Henotheistic and polytheistic religions have traditionally been among the world's most religiously tolerant faiths. However, until recently, a Hindu nationalistic political party controlled the government of India. The linkage of religion, the natinal government, and nationalism led to a degeneration of the separation of church and state in India. This, in turn, has decreased the level of religious tolerance in that country. The escalation of anti-Christian violence was one manifestation of this linkage. With the recent change in government, it is hoped that the level of violence will diminish.

Since time immemorial, the Himalayas has been recognized as the sanctuary for ascetics and philosophers. Famous shrines like the ice cave at Amarnath in Kashmir, the glacial formation at Kedarnath in Garhwal, and Jageshwar amidst a thick stand of deodar in Kumaon are dedicated to him. Kalidas, a resident of Ujjain, a city of Shiva, aptly described the Himalaya as the dazzling laughter of Shiva. The Himalayas also occupy a central place in Hinduism. The whole region is considered the realm of Shiva- the supreme ascetic, and ‘Pashupati’ - the protecting deity of pastoral herds. Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of a lingam - a phallus symbolizing the male principle in the universe. In his manifestation as the cosmic darer, the ‘Natraja’, he rhythmically creates and destroys the cosmos.

Trans Himalayan Buddhism

Ladakh is home to some of the most spectacular monasteries on the planet. Perched on remote high peaks, these monasteries seem to rise from the formidable surrounding terrain. They have a certain timeless quality about them, an unfathomable yet distinct sense of belonging to these highlands. Standing alone on distant mountains, these edifices are living mementos of an ancient faith. Buddhism hardly needs to be studied in Ladakh. The impact of the religion on the hardworking and deeply religious mountain folk is obvious from their simple yet profound way of living. In Ladakh one can see the ‘eight fold middle-path’ unfolding. If at all you want to study Buddhism, just come and live here in a little village. Most villages have a monastery that normally stands on the highest mountain around the hamlet, as if to say that the gompa (monastery) withstands the onslaught of the elements, while the people it protects lie comfortably tucked away in a valley.

Islamic Religion

Islam and Christianity also have a distinct presence in the Himalayas. While the Muslims of the valley of Kashmir are mostly descendants of people who converted to Islam after the conquest by Muslim invaders, the Ladakhis adopted Islam after encountering it via the Central Asian trade route. On India's northeastern frontier, Christian missionaries won many converts among the tribes. Proselytizing has gone hand in hand with the spread of education and health care. One can also discern traces of animist of Bon worship in tribal areas bordering Tibet. In Kumaon, Gharwal and Himachal local, pre-Aryan deities vie with the Gods of the Hindu pantheon for propitiation by the faithful.

Muslim Religion

Most of the Muslims in the Kashmir valley, Jammu province and Azad Kashmir are Sunnis. Shias, mainly Nizari Ismailis, dominate in the Northern Areas. Ladakh also has a large number of Shias. Muslims are a majority in the Kargil district of Ladakh while Buddhists dominate in the Leh district. There are also some Sikhs, mostly in Jammu.Overall, according to the 1981 census, Muslims are 74.9% of the population of Kashmir, followed by Hindus (22.6%) and Buddhists (0.8%).

The “controlled by” data in the above table is based on who controls more of the district as some districts are divided by the Line of Control. For example, more than half of the Punch district is controlled by Pakistan but the town of Punch is on the Indian side of the line of control. It is not clear which census results they are using. For India, the religious data for the 2001 census has not been released yet and it seems that the 1991 census was not conducted in Indian Kashmir.

Christian Missionaries

The British, after their advent, sought to establish contact with the countries across the Himalayan barrier. Strategy and commerce dictated this. The proselytizing zeal of Christian missionaries also contributed to a keen interest in this region. Their conquests soon brought them to the foothills but it was only with their victory in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1816-17 that they achieved a breakthrough. The war opened trade channels and increased their contacts with the territories beyond the Himalayas. This also helped them consolidate their position in their imperial rivalry with Russia in the Central Asian area. Tibet had become enfeebled by this time and had retreated into an isolationist shell. The British, having established themselves in India, could now mould their expansionist polices at will. This situation continued till India became independent on 15 August 1947.

Sino Indian Relations

With the success of the Maoist revolution and assumption of power by the Communists in China, unexpected strains were introduced in the region. The geopolitical significance of the Himalayan borderland increased dramatically with the 'liberation' of Tibet in1950. The Sino-Indian border dispute transformed the relationship between India and the Himalayan Kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, ever since the clash of arms between the two Asian giants in 1962, the strategic considerations have dominated in the Himalayas.

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