With funding from the SSHRC Insight grant program, this five-year project will explore how the world’s highest mountains are constructed as ‘sacred.’ Our goal is to map ‘religious’ expression in written and oral depictions of Himalayan travel. In particular, we hope to shed light on how historical and contemporary travelogues, guidebooks and guiding discourses construct mountains as sacred, utopian, or otherwise religiously empowered; to reveal how individual transnational encounters define mountains in religious or spiritual terms, as expressed in oral histories of pilgrims, mountaineers, and residents of the Himalayan foothills; and to develop a history of Himalayan travel depicted as pilgrimage by local and international communities, contributing a globally informed perspective on sacred space and travel.

Our primary field site is Mt Khangchendzonga, straddling India and Nepal, which was recognized by UNESCO as a natural and cultural World Heritage Site in 2016. This mountain has been the subject of guidebook writing in Tibetan since the fourteenth century, and local and international communities continue to produce guides to the region. This project hopes add to our understanding of guidebooks and travel past and present, and examine how European and Asian forms of expeditionary travel have global impact. We also hope to explore how sacred spaces are constructed by inflections of power and transnational forces, how religious practices interact with the environment, and how stories embedded in local landscapes shape a traveler’s experience. While researchers are actively studying the construction of sacred space in many cultures, few have addressed the mapping of paradisal lands across the Himalayas. Despite the rapid rise of adventure travel in the Himalayas, moreover, little is known about the encounter between local climbers, local residents, and international mountaineers.

The project will involve text-historical, archival, and oral history research in Canada, the US, UK, Germany, India, and Nepal. Project researchers at University of Toronto include Frances Garrett and Matt Price. Project partners include the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok, East Sikkim, and the Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee (KCC) in Yuksam, West Sikkim.Undergraduate Study of Religion student Damien Boltauzer spent last summer in Yuksam working with the KCC on digitizing their archival materials. Students in courses in the Departments of History and Study of Religion have continued to work with these and other source materials throughout this year and will visit Sikkim in May of 2018.