c. 2019 hilarylewisruttley

Power, beauty and danger: this article covers the immense issues at stake, including the effects of climate change on one of the worlds' great pharmacopeia. 

This piece was requested by the Editor (Vivek Sharma) of Care Himalaya, an annual magazine based on the developmental, social, environmental, cultural and other activities of Himalayan region. It focuses on problem solving and highlighting positive initiatives towards the sustainable development of the region. 


Photo credit: Matthew Ruttley, Mustang 2019

My mother loved the Himalayan blue poppy. Still today, for me, a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh is incomplete until I have visited these beautiful creatures and gazed into their delicate petals. Deep and pale blues, frilled edges, gold stamens - there is much to contemplate. It is Spring now in England. Garden tubs show off their bright primulas, the rhodedendrons are coming into bud and in June, the quintessential Summer fruit, the strawberry - punnets of them everywhere. They make the jam for the scones of a Devonshire cream tea; ‘strawberries and cream’ is the iconic treat of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships; and the delightfully named ‘Eton Mess’ is a garden party favourite, a chaotic muddle of fresh strawberries, whipped cream and meringue. These flowers and plants are so inscribed and loved that most people would be surprised to know of their Himalayan heritage. 

Flowers are jewels in the crown of the Himalaya. Overwhelmed by the carpets of wild meadow flowers he encountered on an expedition to Kashmir,  the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627) was moved to say ‘If there is Paradise on earth, this is it, this it, this it’. He went on to write them into poetry in his Memoirs and his master artist, Ustad Mansur, made over a hundred botanical paintings of them. Jahangir visited Kashmir twenty two times during his reign, restoring his spirit in its beauty and also his health.  

Flowers and the botany of the Himalaya are a treasure trove, in unsentimental language the ecosystems of this bow-shaped range of high-altitude mountains, are fundamental to us all at a critical level.  Jahangir was inspired not only aesthetically but also scientifically, as a naturalist. He observed, recorded and experimented with the morphology, behaviour and anatomy of the flora and fauna he encountered, founded upon a passion to understand their integration within a wider natural and human ecology.  

Medicinal plants are an outstanding resource of the Himalayan regions. Botanical flora and products are the primary source of medicine used by the majority of the local population and a vital part of international (‘Western’) medicine, drug discovery and therapeutics. Extensive knowledge of medicinal plants is held by practitioners in a wide range of medical methods; in Nepal, for example, this includes Ayurveda, Unani, traditional Chinese medicine and Tibetan amchi medicine as well as various other forms of indigeneous medicine. There is continuing research into the numerous ethno-pharmacopoeias that exist across diverse Himalayan communities. Ethno-pharmacopoeias are cultural constructs.  This means that their holistic approach and the synergistic effects of often multi-compound and complex herbal mixtures require a different (systems biology and in vivo) approach rather than the reductionist in vitro methods used in allopathic medicine.  Where commercial pharmaceuticals are available, particularly in urban settings, they can co-exist or complement traditional medicine. With the emergence of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in recent years as a social phenomenon, commercial interests have become a driving force to commoditise herbal remedies and phytotherapeutics generally, on a global scale.  For Himalayan communities and the flora upon which they depend, this raises important sustainability issues of resource protection balanced with careful management of a source of valuable economic income. 

Between 35,000 – 70,000 plant species are used for medicinal purposes around the world, of which approximately 6,500 occur in Asia.  At the time of writing, David Attenborough, the famous naturalist who has brought astonishing and wonderful films of wildlife and plants drawn from all corners of the planet to our television screens – has recently stated loudly and clearly – using his film-work, that mankind (you, me, us all) must act to slow or halt the destruction of the environment caused by man-made climate change. Originally Attenborough’s films were BBC productions but he has now made them available on Netflix to reach the widest possible global audience. In particular, they will reach an audience that is young, modern and technologically savvy. 

The scientific journals have told the same story for many years and observations of the Himalayan ecologies are uncomfortable, sometimes frightening, reading.  Climate change-induced environmental destruction and inappropriate commercial management now present major crisis issues.  Among them are water and forest resources, depletion of edible and medicinal plants and seeds,  irresponsible construction and un-moderated tourism in heavily visited areas. Each of these issues is complex and inter-connected with other factors; it is unnecessary to detail them to readers of this journal who are acutely aware of them and involved in a myriad ways, in the care, protection and regenerative processes of Himalayan biological and human life.

‘How can we expect people to protect the environment if they do not first,  love and understand it?’. This question posed by Attenborough is key. It underlies Jahangir’s desire to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor, Babur, only better and to pass on to his son, Shah Jahan, a legacy of sensibility and aesthetics of the floral world. Through Shah Jahan, the world marvels at the exquisite jewellery, carpets, textiles and in-lay of semi-precious stones set translucent, in delicate floral patterns, in the white marble of the Taj Mahal, the tomb Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

It is not only through the Mughal heritage that a wider world is deeply attached to Himalayan flower expression in art.  Floral decorative designs are widely used on Himalayan textiles and house fixtures  but flower imagery is at its most poignant in its sacred context. The lotus is the outstanding example and shared by both mainstream religions of the Himalayas, Buddhism and Hinduism.  Temple wall paintings and Tibetan thangkas depict, for example, White Tara, Green Tara and numerous buddhas and boddhisattvas linked with their associative lotus blossom colours: white, pink, orange, jewelled. The Buddha’s nirvana is portrayed artistically, as it is described in one of the texts, showing the trees bursting into full blossom, showering him flowers, marking not sadness but the beginning of a new era. 

The Hindu story of creation describes how, as the dawn broke, a magnificent lotus grew from the navel of Vishnu in which was seated Vishnu’s servant, Brahma. While the aquatic pink lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is most often associated here, sacred also to Brahma is the life-giving Brahma Kamal.  (Its botanical identity is debated and variously identified as suassarea obvallata or epiphylum oxypetallum). 

With white, pure, large star-like petals and a beautiful fragrance, the Brahma Kamal is rendered even more entrancing by coming into bloom only briefly in the evening as night falls. By reputation, it flowers only once every fourteen years, such is the emphasis on its capacity for engendering spiritual experience and fleetingness of beauty. (Botanical observation tends to indicate it flowers every two years).

Medicinal species, such as the Snow Lotus, important in Tibetan medicine and now seriously threatened, is a plant that will be known to few outside the Himalayan context. Of much greater currency in the popular imagination across the world, is the story of Hanuman from the Ramayana epic. When Lakshamana, the brother of the god Rama, on their mission to rescue Rama’s wife Sita, is injured by an arrow and rendered lifeless, Hanuman is summoned to go to the Himalaya and bring back the life-restoring herb, sanjeevani. Hanuman lands on the Dronagiri mountain range but is unable to locate the right plant.  He then gathers an enormous mass of wild herbs similar to sanjeevani (in some versions, the whole mountain) and returns to Sri Lanka whereupon the sanjeevani is identified, Lakshmana is duly treated, brought back to life and he returns to continue the war against the evil Ravana.  In Ayurvedic studies and more widely, efforts continue to discover which herb this could have been.

The flora of the Himalaya matter – not only pragmatically, in the realities of life among Himalayan communities but at a very profound level.  They are integrated within what it is to be human, as metaphors expressing how the world is experienced, directly and through the lens of interpretation. In innumerable ways, the flora of the Himalaya are embedded in social and religious practices, they are at the heart of different understandings of humanity’s connection with the environment: philosophically on an intellectual level and at the deepest personal level, spiritually.  Shaping the human domestic environment, the visual floral landscape is reflected in decorative designs on textiles and traditional construction. Perceptions of illness, medical diagnostics and healing processes are addressed with treatments founded upon an enormous range of flora. Among other factors such as diet, the great faith placed their efficacy can play a significant role in outcome. Flowers are imbued with distinctive meanings intrinsic in religious offerings, they are central to festivals, to subjects of fine and vernacular art. 

From within the Himalayan regions and outside, religious, spiritual and thought leaders have come together with scientists, academics and professionals to discuss environmental conservation programmes aligned to such spiritual attachments. The ways in which humanity’s relationship with the natural world is felt and conceived among different religious and cultural communities, have become guiding elements. The Eastern Himalaya presents a particularly sensitive landscape  where  climate change threatens the entire survival of certain animal species. Similarly challenged is its flora, a complex of vital bio-diversity. Poor land management is also a contributor to the area’s deterioration, increasing the incidence of flash floods, landslides and forest fires. 

 An area extending over nine and half million acres and five million people of different cultures is named the Sacred Himalayan Landscape. When it is understood that this region’s glaciers contain the future water supply of the Indian sub-continent, it is clear that the importance of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s Sacred Himalayan Landscape initiative, in co-operation with the governments of Nepal, India and Bhutan, cannot be over-stated. The premise is inclusive: it incorporates the environmental ethics of local communities with pragmatic training programmes. There is jointly sponsored Himalayan cross-border and international scientific research, including PhD. opportunities. 

 Just as the first astronauts who saw the earth, the blue planet, from the Moon in space, were profoundly moved, so the Himalaya have touched the souls of many with their sheer power of beauty and danger. It is hard to comprehend how fragile they are. Equally unknown for the most part, to the world outside the region, is the extreme poverty of many who live in its isolated communities.                                                              

One is reminded of the Buddha’s Flower Sermon, a story of the 11thcentury, foundational to Zen Buddhism. Taking his students to a quiet pond, the Buddha reached into the water and drew out a white lotus (symbol of spiritual purity). He simply held up the flower and remained silent. His puzzled students struggled to discover what he meant, except one, Mahakasyapa, who smiled.  Seeing him smile, the Buddha knew he had understood: knowledge and wisdom come about without words. The flower is itself; it is pure, simple, ineffable. It is a manifestation of the highest wisdom of the mind. Words are not needed.

For the vast majority of people who will never be Moon astronauts or travel to the Himalayas, transmission of knowledge and wisdom is at its most direct in the outstanding wildlife pictures made by film-makers such as David Attenborough and in the well-honed stories described earlier, drawn from art, myth and evocations of beauty. 

A common theme links Jahangir’s love for the flower meadows of Kashmir, the symbolic language of the lotus in Buddhist imagery and the Ramayana story of Hanuman.  Each one is concerned with re-generation – with life-giving itself. Each one is reliant on a vital factor: the biological and metaphysical properties of flora growing among the Himalayas. Yet, this is the very thing now being destroyed, mostly through human agency. 

Unrelenting messages of Himalayan environmental crises and man-made failure leads to ‘compassion fatigue’ among an audience outside the region.  It is exacerbated  by a lack of any sense of connection with it,  even when they exist among some of the most common-place flowers, decorative designs and stories known since childhood.  

How do we join up the dots?  With a message of beauty.  A message that captures the imagination of a world unfamiliar with the Himalaya, its flora and the art, literature and stories that go with it. Introducing these connections along a path of beauty, nurtures an inspiration, an excitement to know more and to understand. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York recently based an interactive exhibition around Tibetan prayer wheels as a metaphor of the power of intention to create positive change. The Museum’s purpose is to stimulate understanding and personal connections to ideas, cultures and art of the Himalaya. Its exhibitions aim to encourage expansive and reflective thought and discussion. 

Perhaps the last word should go to the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Engaged Buddhism. This movement connects individual meditation practice with global ethics, in particular environmental sustainability and social action. It is his simple interpretation of the Flower Sermon that speaks volumes. ‘If the Buddha offers you a flower, he would like you to enjoy the flower’.


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Hilary Lewis Ruttley; hilarylewisruttley.com