By Sam Ellis (University of York)
Against the Grain v34#4
During the colonial era, rivers, lakes, and mountains were subject to naming processes that commemorated European colonial achievements, individuals, or European society. This is also evident in the Himalayas, with the name “Everest” being a homage to the former Surveyor-General, George Everest. An emphasis on that title however gives a limited historical account of Himalayan Mountain nomenclature. After all, Everest is an exception and the vast majority of peaks retain local names. Moreover, from the inception of that title onwards, alternatives were proposed. These alternatives were rooted in consultation with — and consideration of — local voices, many of them long since hidden within the subsequent colonial record.
European attempts to map and name the mountains can be traced back to a beach near Madras in 1802, as the Great Trigonometrical Survey (hereafter GTS) made its first measurement. This project was shortly brought under the auspices of the Survey of India, which gradually fanned its way across South Asia to the Himalayas. The survey initially gave numerical designations, sometimes grouping mountain ranges under an initial. Everest was initially titled “Gamma,” then “Peak B,” then “Peak XV.” The first calculation to place it above Kanchenjunga as the highest mountain in the world was made by Radhanath Sikdar in 1852.1
The GTS claimed to prefer local names, and George Everest himself had expressed this preference, on the basis that Everest was difficult to write or pronounce in South Asian languages. Achieving that preference was nevertheless a geographical and logistical challenge given that the mountains were often observed from hill stations hundreds of miles away. It was also dependent on how concerted and sincere an effort was made to learn the local name. In the case of “Peak XV,” upon reporting the confirmation of its height in 1856, the Times of India wrote that the mountain “had no name intelligible to civilised men.”2 However, plenty of options had been suggested, ignored, and discredited: The words Tchoumour Lancma, a variant of the Tibetan title “Chomolungma” had already been noted on a map drawn in Paris by the Cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon D’Anville in 1733.3 In addition, an effort by former Kathmandu Resident Brian Houghton Hodgson of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal to connect Everest with the supposed name “Devadhunga” was dismissed in 1858.
This outcome was unsurprising, given that it was considered at the height of the Indian Uprising, a very precarious moment for British rule in India wherein public opinion called for greater authority and control over a subcontinent in violent turmoil. One critic wrote of Everest that “it would be most inadvisable, in my opinion, to abandon this definite name, which will soon be familiar to very English or European child, for one of the, to Europeans, unpronounceable names given by Mr Hodgson.”4
Opposition quietened, but not for long. At the beginning of the 20th century, the political landscape changed. Climbing increasingly became a performative medium for European imperialism, with the Himalayas as its theatre. Soon the race to reach new heights began, with British ventures including those of George Mallory in 1922 and 1924 focussing on Everest. However, this new European pursuit was at odds with the summit’s local, religious significance as a spiritual abode, and expeditions for either scientific or leisure purposes could not traipse freely across the mountains. Many of the peaks lay within either Nepal or Tibet, both highly guarded in their passport allocations.
A further challenge came from emergent anti-colonial voices. The British Indian Army’s contribution in World War I, questions of reward, the maintenance of Empire, and a clamour for independence converged to challenge the prerogative of British rule and by extension, British mountain nomenclature. Then, newly established postcolonial governments (such as those of India and Pakistan in 1947) sought to exert control over a great extent of peoples and places, including the high mountains. The 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet likewise saw an assertion of Chinese control in that space, whilst independent kingdoms like Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim also sought to establish their national spaces and identities. This included the encouraging and, at times, enforcing of a national language, and subsequent titles for the mountains. In the 1930s, Nepali historian Baburam Acharya reported “from local sources” the name “Sagarmatha,” meaning “head [or forehead] of the sky.” This initially appeared in the Nepali language publication Sharada, with Acharya later adding in his book A Brief Account of Nepal that he was “charged with attempting to bring about insult to the British by giving a Nepalese name to the peak.” The name was formally adopted in 1956.5
“Everest” was now under great scrutiny. One commentator wrote that “to call the highest mountain in the world after one of its late chiefs may seem natural to a department, but it will hardly persuade — nor has it succeeded in persuading — the world to share its view.”6
These changes necessitated a more concerted British effort to learn and accommodate a Nepali or Tibetan name. This involved consultation with local agents, many of whom are long since obscured and somewhat “hidden” within the historical record. The names were then considered with care, to “determine the etymology where possible, and crystalise the spelling and punctuation.”7 This consultation however was not straightforward, often uncovering multiple options and generating further confusion.
For example, in the late 19th century the title “Gaurishankar” was mooted for Everest, after the German surveyor Hermann Schlagintweit reported that name being cited in both Kathmandu and Darjeeling.8 This generated much debate, and Captain Wood was sent to Nepal in 1904 to investigate whether the mountain was visible from there, and by what name is what known. Upon arrival in Kathmandu, Wood found that the title “Gaurishankar” was attributed “by the nobles only” to two different peaks. He went on to say “every lower-class native did not know the peak by that or any other name, nor did they appear to give names to any of the snows at all.” Wood then surveyed those living in the hills away from Kathmandu, and found that amongst those who he consulted, “everyone, without exception, gave different names to the same peaks, and none called the peak known in the valley [Kathmandu] by that name [Gaurishankar].”9 Wood also described how “none gave the name Gaurishankar to any peak until they were asked which one was Gaurishankar.”10 The identification to Schlagintweit of Gaurishankar in Darjeeling could have been the same scenario. Evidently within Nepal, the name provided by various local agents was influenced by geographical, cultural, and economic variables and the individual’s positionality. The uncertainty ultimately contributed to the dismissal of “Gaurishankar” and its allocation to a different mountain in the region.
Colonial efforts to learn local names have also resulted in suspiciously minimalist suggestions. Hodgson’s proposed “Devadhunga” for instance may have simply been the local term for “snowy range,” and is very similar to “Deodanga,” a word that according to Laurence Waddell meant a Hindu sacred hillock.11 It is plausible that the individual stated that the object they were being asked to identify was “a snowy range” through either subversion, hostility, confusion or disinterest.
The RGS’s solution to these difficulties was one of accommodation: to either create a new name in the local regional language or to accept a local suggestion. This is most notable in the Tibetan Pinyin name for Everest, “Chomolungma,” that appeared alongside “Everest” when the Survey of India published its second edition map of the region.12 “Chomolungma,” with its various alternative spellings, was proposed by Laurence Waddell (amongst others) at the turn of the century, and was invested with “excellent native authority.”13 Waddell’s study referred to those voices as his “informants” but their identity is mostly unknown. He did consult an “illiterate guide” and an individual named Chandra Das; however, neither of them came from the Everest region. It is therefore unclear what exactly made Waddell’s voices authoritative. One notable observation is that it appeared in Darjeeling on a picture map of unknown authorship.14 It is perhaps most likely that the name found British approval due to the frequency with which it was quoted, and its politically expedient Tibetan provenance.
Despite efforts by colonial officials to establish one formal, official title, there exists an enduring plurality in names. This article has barely scraped the surface, with no investigation unto many proposed names for the world’s highest peak.15
For each of those names, there existed a specific instance in which a cartographer or government agent encountered either an intermediary or a local agent who was subsequently asked the name of the mountain. Very little is known about these individuals, and they are rarely named, let alone credited. Their identities were significant nonetheless: their physical position, for instance, whether they were viewing the mountain from Tibet or Nepal, one valley or another, as well as their positionality —their social, cultural, religious, and political context — influenced their interpretative lens and therefore, the answer they gave. This, in turn, converged with the perception of the colonial agent. That convergence determined whether the name would fade into obscurity or find its way into global public consciousness.
1. “India and China,” in The Times, No. 22490. 4 October 1856, p. 8.
2. “Papers relating to the Himalaya and Mount Everest,” in Proceedings of the London Royal Geographical Society of London, IX (April–May 1857), pp. 345-351.
3. Craig Storti, The Hunt for Mount Everest (London: John Murray Press, 2022).
4. Andrew Scott Waugh, “On Mounts Everest and Deodanga,” in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 1857-1858, 2:2 (1857-1858), pp. 102-115. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1799335.
5. Baburam Acharya, “Sagarmatha or Jhymolungma,” in Sharada, 4:8 (1938) p. 193.
6. Douglas Freshfield, “Himalayan Nomenclature,” in The Geographical Journal, 24:3 (Sep., 1904), pp. 356-359 (358). https://www.jstor.org/stable/1776598.
7. A.M. Kellas, “The Nomenclature of Himalaya Peaks,” in The Geographical Journal, 52:4 (Oct., 1918), pp. 272-274. (274). http://www.jstor.org/stable/1779902.
8. Laurence Waddell, “The Environs and Native Names of Mount Everest,” in The Geographical Journal, 12:6 (Dec., 1898) pp. 564-569 (569). http://www.jstor.org/stable/1774275.
9. Douglas Freshfield, “Himalayan Nomenclature,” p. 357.
10. Captain H. Wood, Report on the Identification and Nomenclature of the Himalayan Peaks as seen from Kathmandu, Nepal, (Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, 1904).
11. Waddell, “The Environs and Native Names of Mount Everest,” p. 565.
12. Acharya, “Sagarmatha or Jhymolungma” p. 193.
13. Douglas Freshfield, “Himalayan Nomenclature,” p. 357.
14. Waddell, “The Environs and Native Names of Mount Everest,” p. 568.
15. For a more complete list, see Michael Ward, “The Name of the World’s Highest Peak,” in Himalayan Journal, 54 (1997). https://www.himalayanclub.org/hj/53/3/the-name-of-the-worlds-highest-peak/.