The Shadow of the Mountain: Everest’s Impact on Identity


In BRAHMAN/I and SHIV, the story of the forming of the Himalayas becomes an important totem in navigating the relationship between West and East, the “aliens” vs. the “explorers” as Bapu says. B uses comedy to explain Britain’s desire to colonize India and performs their own mockumentary of Brits with size issues attempting to build Stonehenge higher than the mountains; in SHIV, Bapu translates the history into sci-fi stories for his daughter, while the Professor has mythologized his upbringing in Britain-occupied India and proudly boasts of the family’s connection to Sir George Everest, the man who “discovered” Mount Everest.


Fast-forward to the conclusion back in London at the Royal Geographic Society, 1860.
(as Nasal British Lord): “Well. It’s now 1860, and we’ve measured and triangulated and re-triangulated and I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. The highest peak in the world is in the Himalayan Mountains, sir!”
(Other British Lord) “Dammit! I really thought we gave them a run for it with Stonehenge! But since we can’t move the bloody thing, I say we name it.”
(British Lord 2) “Ooh! BRANDING!”
(Ditsy girl) “It’s just the [Best-est] EVERest!”


From SHIV:

Once upon a time, India was a spaceship floating across the universe. For centuries, none could tempt her away from her independence, until one day, her captain answered a distress call from a distant planet, and with a final thrust of her heavy pelvis, she crashed into The Planet Where Everything Is Forbidden. When she came to, she saw that a great mountain had formed in the impact. She was trapped in the wreckage.

The story, you remember the story. My father took me and my brothers, you must have heard the story … we went to see Mount Everest one summer, traveled by a car very similar to this fraudulent vehicle, there’s a distant family connection, not to the car, to Everest. Our name, Everett, comes from Everest, the man who named Mount Everest, some colonel in the British army, from what I hear never even saw the place….

 These differing narratives reflect the characters’ personal relationships to a fraught period in history and led to rehearsal questions about the facts surrounding the naming and “discovering” of Mount Everest. The mountain, located on the border between Nepal and southwest China, is 29,029 feet tall and grows taller by at least 4 millimeters every year due to shifting tectonic plates. Its name in Sanskrit and Nepali – Sagarmatha – translates to “goddess who sits on the mountain.”

The Professor is indeed correct that Colonel Sir George Everest never saw the mountain that bears his name. Everest, whose name was actually pronounced EVE-rest rather than EVER-est, took over the job of superintendent of England’s Great Trigonometric Survey in 1823 to finish the work of mapping India and its mountain ranges that had begun in 1806. Everest was later appointed as Surveyor General in 1830 and held the post until 1843. In this time, he made many improvements in the accuracy of instruments used to measure great heights. One of these instruments was called a theodolite and weighed over a ton, requiring at least twelve men to move it from place to place.


The Professor would love this miniature theodolite

 Illness forced Everest to leave India in 1843, and a man called Colonel Andrew Waugh took over the survey. Mount Everest was identified as the tallest peak in the world in 1852 based on the trigonometric calculations applied to the Survey’s measurements by Bangladeshi surveyor and mathematician Radhanath Sikdar.


Colonel Sir George Everest

George Everest was never happy that the mountain was named in his honor. He argued that “Everest” would be difficult for natives of India to pronounce and pointed out that the name could not be written in Hindi. However, Colonel Waugh, who had suggested naming the peak in his predecessor’s honor, insisted and cited the plethora of local names given to the mountain as a reason to give it a new name that didn’t favor a particular regional one. The Royal Geographical Society agreed and officially declared Everest as the mountain’s name in 1865.

Read the Royal Geographical Society’s accounts of the history of Everest here. The University of Michigan has a great online exhibit and gallery about the Great Trigonometric Survey and history of mapmaking in India.

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