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Baba Himalaya –"Father of the Himalayas"

February 15, 2012

«Photo: Ursula Markus. Taken in 1966
The leading western geologist of the Himalayas, Professor Augusto Gansser (1910- 2012) died last month. He was 101.

The Swiss professor had a fascination with mountains and spent most of his life on it. He became the leading authority on the geology of the Himalayas and his publications are widely referred to.

As a pioneer in his field he had a few firsts. He was the first man to geologically study Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash (Gang Tise) and he was able to do so only because he disguised himself as a Buddhist pilgrim.

He also became the first European to conduct a study on the geology of Bhutan. He is perhaps the first geologist to conduct a survey on the glacial lakes and caution the people of its dangers. He was the first European and perhaps the only one to ride on an elephant with a Bhutanese monarch to go Tiger spotting.

The third king’s close friend a Swiss businessman, Mr. Fritz Von Schulthess introduced the professor to the king.  The monarch invited him as his guest in 1963. From his first visit to 1977, he visited the country five times.

In Bhutan, Professor Gansser spent most of his time in the field. He traversed the length and breadth of the country studying its geology, taking down detailed notes, drawing numerous sketches and maps and taking a lot of photographs.

As expected of a trailblazer he ventured to remote parts of the country and most of it was done at odd times. He travelled in different seasons tolerating the torrential rains, cutting through dense fog and braving the snow; sometimes he rode on mules and yaks. He was able to fill in the blank spaces on our geological maps.

The professor was sensitive to the local culture, respected the people’s beliefs and listened to them. One good example is the story of his survey on glacial lake outburst floods.

On one of his trips to the remote north the villagers of Laya of Lunana told him stories of evil spirits. The villagers believed that they were responsible for some of the glacial lake dams catastrophically collapsing.

As a consequence of the story, the professor surveyed the glacial lakes. In 1967, he produced his survey report and spelled out the specific dangers so that Bhutan’s population could be protected from future flood disasters.

Prof. Gansser’s detailed notes, fascinating sketches and beautiful photos culminated in his 1983 book “Geology of the Bhutan Himalaya.” The dedication of the book read, “In memory of HM King Dorji Wangchuck.”

The king made Prof. Gansser’s trips possible and the support of the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research allowed him carry out his research works.

Dasho Tsheten Dorji, who worked as a personal attendant   to the third king, helped co-ordinate the Prof. Gannser’s trips. Since there were no airports in Bhutan, the only way to enter it was through India. Our neighbour was possessive about us and kept a close watch on all visitors. Infact, foreigners could travel only after they obtained an, “Inner Line Permit.”

The king sent Dasho Tsheten with the permit to pick up the professor from Bagdogra airport in India in 1963.

Dasho remembers the professor wearing gho (as shown in photo). Dasho said that the professor was often seen wearing one especially in Paro and Thimphu.

While the Swiss professor had no problem eating Bhutanese food, he struggled with the chillies. The professor’s favourite curry became kewa datshi or the cheese potatoes curry. Dasho said that he remembers the professor as a man of few words.

But he made up for it by writing. He has authored five books and has several publications to his name.

His book on the “Geology of the Himalayas,” (1964) earned him the Founder’s medal of the Royal Geographical Society in London. This and his monograph, “Geology of the Bhutan Himalaya” (1983) are set books and considered classics of descriptive geology.   The latter contains his detailed sketches and vivid description of the mountains of Bhutan.

Some of his other books are: “The Throne of the Gods” (1938) and “Central Himalayan Geological Observations of the Swiss Expedition 1936” (1939) – both co-written with Prof. Albert Heim.

The professor’s research on geology was not limited to the Himalayas as it was global in scope. In 1999 he wrote a book on ancient rock carvings “Schalensteine / Cupstones”.

His technical papers are listed in a bibliography running to some twenty pages; of interest is his paper on a legendary lost world, “The Roraima Problem, South America” (1984). An illustrated biography, “Augusto Gansser” was published in 2008 in Switzerland, in German.

Geologists in Bhutan refer to his book and they consider it to be the most authoritative work on the subject. It gives vast insight into the understanding of the mountain chain and his field survey was so exhaustive and his sketches so detailed that it is believed that the sale of his book was banned in the region by India.

Professor Augusto Gansser received many awards from different countries. In 1983, the University of Peshawar in Pakistan honoured him with the title of Baba Himalaya, “Father of the Himalayas.”

At his life’s end he declared, “I am not superstitious, but somewhere exists something greater. I have no fear of death; when it comes, it comes. Instead of flowers I would like a geologist’s hammer.”

Prof. Gansser died on 9th January this year in Switzerland.


Contributed by Tshering Tashi

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