A mountain pass comprises of a route through a mountain range and its exact location is denoted by the highest location in terms of altitude within that route. This highest location within the route through the mountain range is also the lowest route in terms of altitude that can be travelled in relation to the mountains around the route.
The formation of mountain passes between mountain peaks might occur during the formation of the mountain range or they may be formed due to the action of glaciers, running water, or with the help of precipitation in the form of rain or snow. While a mountain pass through a ridge can be as narrow as 20 feet, in a large mountain range can occur in the form of a large valley. Semo La in the Tibetan Plateau is the highest confirmed mountain pass in the world with an elevation of about 18,258 feet (World Landforms, 2015).
Some of the highest peaks in the world are present in the Himalayas, which lie south of the Tibetan Plateau. India also has many other mountain ranges such as the Karakoram Range, the Aravali Range and many other minor ranges in the Deccan Plateau. Here we shall engage in a discussion of some of the prominent mountain passes in India that stand out.
- Eminent Mountain Passes in the Western Himalayas in India:
Fig: Mountain Passes in the Western Himalayas
- Aghil Pass (Jammu & Kashmir – PoK)
The Aghil Pass is located in the Karakoram Range at an elevation of about 4,805 m above sea level in the Jammu & Kashmir state of India northwards from the K2 peak. The mountain pass separates the Ladakh region in India with the Shaksgam Valley in China. The mountain pass lies in the transition between the valley of the Yarkand River and the valley of the Shaksgam River. The mountain pass is inaccessible during the winter season between November and May. Although the mountain pass is quite near, one cannot however, see the highest peaks of the Karakorum from the Aghil Pass.
Fig: The Aghil Pass
Source: Guenter Seyfferth, 2017
- Mintaka Pass (Jammu & Kashmir – PoK)
The Mintaka Pass is located in the Karakoram Range at an elevation of 4,709 m at the tri-junction of the Indian, Chinese and the Afghan borders. The Mintaka Pass in the ancient Wakhi language means the Pass of a Thousand Ibex, which could allude to the hunting practices of ancient tribes in these cold deserts. The mountain pass has a rich history of inhabitation and crossing, but although initially considered, was not in the route for the Karakoram Highway.
Fig: The Mintaka Pass
Source: Salman Rashid
- Khardung La (Jammu & Kashmir)
The Khardung La Pass is located in the Karakoram Range at an elevation of 5,359 m in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, India. The Tibetans are native to Ladakh and La in the Tibetan language means mountain pass. Khardung La is located near the town of Leh and holds the distinction for having the highest motorable road in the world passing through it and every year especially in the summer months, numerous tourists come to Khardung La to witness the scenery and experience its mountain road.
Fig: The road passing through the Khardung La Pass
- Karakoram Pass (Jammu & Kashmir)
The Karakoram Pass is located in the Karakoram Range at an elevation of 5,540 m and acts as a passage between India and China with the help of the Karakoram Highway. The route was part of the ancient Silk Route active in the early history of Asia. The route however, has remained one of the highest trade routes in the world. Located at the boundary between India and China, the mountain pass is marked by heaps of stones on either side of the border between India and China in what is not a disputed border. Although one might find bones and skeletons near the Karakoram Highway, the Karakoram Pass holds great popularity among Ladhakis.
Fig: The Karakoram Highway
- Chang La (Jammu & Kashmir)
The Chang La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in Jammu & Kashmir at an elevation of 5,360 m and connects the Ladakh region in India to erstwhile Tibet, now in China. The road passing through the mountain pass is said to be the second highest motorable road in the world after Khardung La, also in Ladakh. This road is not as much a tourist attraction as Khardung La however, as the road through Chang La is also a very dangerous road, with numerous sheer cliffs at great altitudes. On top of this there is a great deal of snow on the road almost throughout the year which can make the road slippery at times.
Fig: The Chang La Pass
- Zoji La (Jammu & Kashmir)
The Zoji La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in Jammu & Kashmir at an elevation of 3,528 m and the National Highway NH-1D passes through this mountain pass. Although the Border Roads Organization (BRO) is involved in cleaning the snow and maintaining the road, the Zoji La Pass remains closed between December to May each year. The road nearby and through the Zoji La pass has sights that are extremely picturesque and scenic.
Fig: The Zoji La Pass
- Bara Lacha La (Himachal Pradesh)
The Bara Lacha La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India at an elevation of 4,890 m through which passes the national highway connecting Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Jammu & Kashmir. The road cannot be used for transport in winter due to the high altitude in which the mountain pass is located in, and it is advisable to cross the pass at around noontime.
Fig: The Bara Lacha La Pass
- Rohtang Pass (Himachal Pradesh)
The Bara Lacha La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India at an elevation of 3,979 m. The Rohtang Pass is a huge tourist attraction and traffic jams are very common along the national highway leading up to it from Manali or Leh. However, the mountain pass is only open from May to November due to snowfall. Snowfall here can also occur in the form of unpredictable blizzards and snowstorms, especially during the winter season.
Fig: The Rohtang Pass
- Shipki La (Himachal Pradesh)
The Shipki La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India at an elevation of about 3,930 m. The mountain pass is located at the border with India and erstwhile Tibet (now China) and is inaccessible in the winter months.
Fig: The Shipki La Pass
- Lipu Lekh (Uttarakhand)
The Lipu Lekh Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Uttarakhand, India at an elevation of 5,334 m. The mountain pass is used by pilgrims in their route to the pilgrimage site Kailash-Mansarowar. Although the journey through this mountain pass is by foot, a road link is on to be constructed between Lipu Lekh and Ghatiabagarh. This coalesced after China closed down the road link to Kailash-Mansarowar from Nathu La Pass in Sikkim, India.
Fig: The Lipu Lekh Pass
- Eminent Mountain Passes in the Eastern Himalayas in India:
Fig: Mountain Passes in the Eastern Himalayas
- Nathu La (Sikkim)
The Nathu La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Sikkim, India at an elevation of 4,310 m. The road passing through Nathu La was once an important auxiliary route making up the ancient Silk Route. In contemporary times the route retains its significance for the passage of trade in the region and acts as an important trade route giving passage between India and China. After the war between India and China, the mountain pass was closed in 1962 but was later opened again in 2006 as a trade route. There is significant military presence of troops from both India and China in the areas around the mountain pass with many checkposts among the tall mountain tops. The nearby Tsomgo (Changu) Lake is a major tourist attraction.
Fig: A military checkpost by the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim
Source: Shayon Ghosh, flickr
- Jelep La (Sikkim)
The Jelep La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Sikkim, India at an elevation of 4,538 m. The route passing through the Jelep la Pass was part of the ancient Silk Route that led to Lhasa in the erstwhile Tibetan Kingdom. The Jelep LaPass falls on the eastern border of Sikkim and is known for the tricky zigzag uphill road that leads to the mountain pass and passes through the Chumbi Valley – the erstwhile summer residence of the King of Sikkim. The mountain pass is barren and desolate and very windy, but offers spectacular sceneries.
Fig: The road to Jelep La – part of the ancient Silk Route
Source: Pallab Seth, flickr
- Bom Di La (Arunachal Pradesh)
The Bom Di La Pass is located in the Himalayan Range in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, India at an elevation of 2,217 m. The mountain pass connects the western perimeter of Arunachal Pradesh with Lhasa, the erstwhile capital of the Tibetan Kingdom in the past. The mountain pass also has Bomdila town situated by it which serves as the headquarters of West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. The town is huge Tibetan influence, with Tibetan gates, food and also a monastery. Near the town is the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.
Fig: Bom Di La Valley
- Eminent Mountain Passes in the Deccan Plateau in India:
Fig: Mountain Passes in the Deccan Plateau
- Goram Ghat (Rajasthan)
Goram Ghat is located in the Aravali Range in the state of Rajasthan, India at an elevation of about 900 m. Goram Ghat connects Mewar and Marwar in Rajasthan through the Aravali Hills and has a railway line passing through it that crosses 2 tunnels and 172 bridges in total. The terrain is densely forested with Dhok forest and is rich in biodiversity, including many medicinal plants and a variety of fauna like sloth bears, leopards, wild boars, etc.
Fig: Goram Ghat
- Haldighati Pass (Rajasthan)
Haldighati Pass is located in the Aravali Range in the state of Rajasthan, India at an elevation of about 396 m. The name Haldighati is derived from the turmeric (‘haldi’ in hindi) coloured soil in the mountain pass. Located about 40 km from Udaipur, the mountain pass is said to be the historic location of the ‘Battle of Haldighati’ between the Mewar king Maharana Pratap and the Mughals under Emperor Akbar in 1576. The Government of India commissioned the setting up of the Maharana Pratap National Memorial in 1997 on the site which included a bronze statue of Maharana Pratap’s horse Chetak.
Fig: The Haldighati Pass
- Asirgarh Pass (Madhya Pradesh)
Asirgarh Pass is located in the Satpura Range in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India at an elevation of about 260 m. The Asirgarh Pass connects the Narmada and Tapti Valleys and is also known as the ‘Key to the Deccan’ for being among the most important routes from northern India to the Deccan. Asirgarh Fort overlooks the mountain pass and during the Mughal era, Hindustan would be the land from Delhi to Asirgarh and the land beyond would be the Deccan.
Fig: Asirgarh Fort overlooking Asirgarh Pass
- Palakkad Gap (Tamil Nadu-Kerala)
The Palakkad Gap is located in the Western Ghats between the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, India at an elevation of about 140 m. The mountain pass is located between Nilgiri Hills in the north and Anaimalai Hills towards the south and connects Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu with Palakkad in Kerala. The mountain pass was an important instrument for human migration across India’s southern tip throughout settled history.
Fig: The Palakkad Gap in Kerala