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Life Sciences of the Himalayan Mountains

The Himalayas, from the Sanskrit word Himalaya meaning "abode of snow", are a mountain system in Asia, separating the Tibetan Plateau from the Indian subcontinent. It is a broad continuous arc roughly 2,600 km. Along the northern frontiers of the Indian subcontinent, from the Brahmaputra River in the east to the Indus River in the northwest. The Himalayan mountain range, averaging 320 to 400 km in width, emerges from the Gangetic Plain. To the north lies the Tibetan Plateau. The Himalayas form the world’s highest mountain system, home to 9 of the 10 highest peaks in the planet. They are collectively known as the Eight-thousanders, which include Mount Everest (8,850 m/29,035 ft), and K2 or Mount Godwin Austen (8,611 m/28,251 ft). The Himalayan system stretches across six countries, namely Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Nineteen of the world's major rivers including the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Ganges, and the Yangtze, originate in the Himalayas, and their composite drainage basin is home to an estimated 1.3 billion people. Physically, the Himalayas form three parallel zones of varying width, each having unique physiographic features and its own geologic history.

The Great Himalayas, the highest zone and the backbone of the entire mountain system, consists of a colossal line of snowy peaks with an average height exceeding 6,100 m/20,000 ft. It trends northwest-southeast from Jammu and Kashmir to
Sikkim, an old Himalayan kingdom that is currently a state of India. East of Sikkim, it goes east-west for another 420 km through Bhutan and the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh as far as the peak of Kangto and finally turns northeast, terminating at Namcha Barwa.

The Middle Himalayas, also known as the Inner or Lesser Himalayas, possess a striking uniformity of height: most are between 1,830 and 3,050 meters. The Middle Himalayas region is an intricate cacophony of fertile valleys and forest-covered ranges. Within the Middle Himalayas, the intervening mountain ranges tend to separate the densely populated valleys. There are only a few roads and transport routes that exist between towns, partly because it is not financially feasible to build them over the rough terrain. Only major population centers are linked by air and roads with cities in India and Pakistan. The Sub-Himalayas, which is the southernmost and the lowest zone, borders the plains of Pakistan North and India. It includes the Siwālik Range and foothills as well as the narrow piedmont plain at the foot of the mountains. A distinct feature of the Sub-Himalayas is the great number of flat-bottomed valleys known as
duns, which are typically spindle-shaped and filled with alluvium. South of the foothills lies the Tarāi and Duars plains. The southern part of the Tarāi and Duars plains is heavily farmed. The northern part was forest home to wild animals until about the 1950s. Most of the forests of this region have been exploited, and much of the land has been utilized for agriculture.

The Himalayan climate varies according to altitude. It gets colder as the altitude increases and gets wet as the altitude drops. The climate ranges from tropical at the foot of the mountains to eternal ice and snow at the highest elevations. The amount of annual rainfall increases from west to east along the front of the range. The temperature and climate in the region changes very quickly. These erratic climate conditions make the region quite unpredictable and dangerous.

There are two major seasons in the region - winter and summer. During winter, the region receives maximum snow with sub-zero temperatures. Summer is quite mild, making the place perfect for summer holiday getaways.

Much like the climate, the flora and fauna of the Himalayas varies with climate, elevation, rainfall, and soil. Himalayan vegetation can be classified into four broad categories - tropical, subtropical, temperate, and alpine. Tropical evergreen rainforest is restricted to the humid foothills of the central and eastern Himalayas. In the Middle Himalayas, at elevations between 1,520 and 3,660 meters, the vegetation consists of several species of oak, pine, poplar, rhododendron, larch and walnut.

Below the timber line, the Himalayas contain forests of cypress, spruce, fir, birch and juniper. Alpine vegetation abound in the higher areas of the Himalayas just below the snow line and includes shrubs, rhododendrons, mosses, lichens, and wildflowers such as edelweiss and blue poppies. These areas are used for grazing during summer by the highland people.

Animals such as tigers, leopards, rhinoceroses, antelopes and a variety of deer at one time inhabited the forested areas of the Tarāi plain and the Sub-Himalayan foothills. Above the tree line, the most common animals are diverse types of insects, spiders, and mites, which are the only animals that can survive as high up as 20,700 feet. Fish of the genus Glyptothorax live in most of the Himalayan streams, while the Himalayan water shrew inhabits stream banks. The butterflies found in the Himalayas vary extensively, especially those belonging to the genus Troides. The avian life is equally rich but is more abundant in the east than in the west. In Nepal alone, an estimated 800 species have been observed so far.

Among the common Himalayan birds are various species of choughs, magpies, redstarts, titmice and whistling thrushes. Other varieties such as the lammergeier, the black-eared kite, and the Himalayan griffon can also be seen. However, as a result of deforestation, the habitat of most of the wildlife has been devastated. They are now confined to special protected areas such as the Kaziranga and Jaldapara sanctuaries in India and the Chitawan preserve in Nepal.

The population, habitation, and the economy in the Himalayas have been greatly influenced by variations in climate and topography which both impose harsh living environments and tend to hinder movement and communication. People living in remote valleys have generally preserved their cultural identities. However, advancements in transportation and communication, especially satellite television programs from Western nations and the United States, are bringing the outside world to isolated valleys. These outside influences are having a huge impact on the traditional cultural and social structures of the region.

Approximately 40 million people live in the Himalayas. In general, the Sub-Himalayas and the Middle Himalayan valleys from eastern Kashmīr to Nepal are dominated by Hindus of Indian heritage. To the north, Tibetan Buddhists inhabit the Himalayas from Ladakh to northeast India. In central Nepal, the Indian and Tibetan cultures have interfused, producing a combination of Indian and Tibetan traits. The eastern Himalayas in India and adjacent areas of eastern Bhutan are home to people whose culture is much like those living in northern Myanmar and the Yunnan province of China. People of western Kashmīr are Muslims and have a culture quite similar to the people of Iran and Afghanistan.

Economic conditions in the Himalayas depend partly on the limited resources available in different areas of the vast region of varied ecological zones. The primary activity is animal husbandry, but trade, forestry, and tourism are equally important. The Himalayas are rich in economic resources. These include extensive grasslands and forests, pockets of rich tillable land, mineral deposits, hydropower, and an exquisite natural beauty.

The most productive lands in the western Himalayas are in the Vale of Kashmir, the
Sutlej River basin, the Kangra valley, and the terraces flanking the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in Uttarakhand; these areas produce rice, wheat, maize, and millet. In the central Himalayas in Nepal, two-thirds of the arable land is situated in the foothills and on nearby plains. This land yields the majority of the total rice production of the nation.

The region also produces crops of corn, potatoes, wheat, and sugarcane. Most of the fruit orchards of the Himalayas lie in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh and the Vale of Kashmir. Fruits which are in great demand in the cities of India such as apples, peaches, pears, and cherries are grown extensively.

On the shores of Dal Lake in Kashmir, there are rich vineyards that produce grapes used to make brandy and wine. On the hills surrounding the Vale of Kashmir grow almond and walnut trees. The Himalayas are rich in minerals, although mining is restricted to the more accessible areas. The Kashmir region has the largest concentration of minerals. Sapphires are found in the Zaskar Mountains, and alluvial gold is recovered in the bed of the Indus River. There are huge deposits of copper ore in Baltistan, and iron ores are mined in the Vale of Kashmir. Ladakh possesses borax and sulfur deposits. Coal seams are found in the Jammu Hills. Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim have extensive deposits of coal, gypsum, mica, and graphite and ores of copper, iron, lead, and zinc.

The Himalayan rivers have a tremendous potential for hydroelectric generation. This potential has been harnessed extensively in India since the 1950s. A huge multipurpose project is located at Bhakra-Nangal on the Sutlej River in the Outer Himalayas; its reservoir was completed in 1963 and has a storage capacity of about 348 billion cubic feet of water and a total installed generating capacity of 1,050 megawatts. Three other Himalayan rivers, the Gandak, the Kosi, and the Jaldhaka have been harnessed by India, who also supplies power to Nepal and Bhutan. Tourism is an increasingly becoming an important source of income and employment in parts of the Himalayas, particularly in Nepal.

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