Puzzled by passes

All mountain passes are the same: you climb along a road with mountains sloping up on both sides, the engine whines and grumbles so that you have to downshift, and then the road levels off. You are at the pass. Tall mountains flank the road, but now the road falls. The lowest line between the mountains is the road, and the highest point on the road is the pass. The geometry of the pass funnels winds along it. If there is snow, then the wind can pile it into huge drifts. If the mountainside is unstable, then boulders will fall down as far as they can, which means they block the road. High mountain passes are hard to cross in bad weather. I anticipate trouble like this when we cross the Se La (Se pass) on the way to Tawang in early November.

Himalayan passes I know go by names like Chele La (near Paro in Bhutan), Thorong La (in the Annapurna in Nepal), Khardung La (in the Ladakh plateau of India), and Se La (the pass between Bomdi La and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh). The word La probably comes from the Tibetan word Lam, meaning road or path. The thing that puzzles me is the fact that in Nepal, whose language is very different, the word used comes from Tibetan.

An aside: a romanticised Indian story about the naming of Se Pass seems to be gaining currency recently. According to this story, during the 1962 India-China war, an Indian soldier held off the Chinese singlehandedly at the pass. He was brought food and water by a tribal woman called Sela. When the soldier was killed, she committed suicide. According to the story, this is the origin of the name of the pass (the soldier is said to have got a posthumous medal for bravery). For this story to be believable, at the very minimum, the woman should have been called Se and not Sela. If you look at a list of Param Vir Chakra awardees you’ll find one for holding off enemy troops till death in the nearby Bum La. The new story does not do justice to the true story of Subedar Joginder Singh, which you can read by following the link above.

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Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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