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Fig 2: The earth at the Permian-Triassic boundary.
The opening of the Neotethys separates the Cimmeridian Superterrane from Gondwana.
Based on Stampfli and Borel (2002) and Patriat and Achache (1984).
For a more modern paleo-geographic reconstruction of the same period, see this web-site (Stampfli et al.)
Fig 4: The northward drift of India from 71 Ma ago to present time.
Note the simultaneous counter-clockwise rotation of India.
Collision of the Indian continent with Eurasia occurred at about 55 Ma.
Source: (modified)
Fig 5: Geologic - Tectonic map of the Himalaya, modified after Le Fort (1988).
Fig 6: Geological Map of the northwest Himalaya, compiled after the work of: Epard et al. 1995; Frank et al. 1997; Fuchs and Linner, 1995; Guntli, 1993; Herren, 1987; Kelemen et al. 1988; Kündig, 1988; Patel et al. 1993; Searle et al. 1988, 1997; Spring, 1993; Steck et al. 1993; Steck et al. 1998; Stutz, 1988; Thöni, 1977; Vannay, 1993; Vannay and Graseman 1998; Wyss 1999 and completed with personal observations by Dèzes (1999). for references, see bibliography.
HHCS: High Himalayan Cristalline Sequence; ISZ: Indus Suture Zone; KW: Kishtwar Window; LKRW: Larji-Kulu-Rampur Window; MBT: Main Boundary Thrust; MCT: Main Central Thrust; SF: Sarchu Fault; ZSZ: Zanskar Shear Zone.
(Download map in PDF format).
Fig 7: Simplified cross-section of the north-western Himalaya showing the main tectonic units and structural elements by Dèzes (1999).
(Download in PDF format)

The geology of the Himalaya is a record of the most dramatic and visible creations of modern plate tectonic forces. The Himalayasmarker, which stretch over 2400 km between the Namche Barwamarker syntaxis in Tibet and the Nanga Parbatmarker syntaxis in Pakistanmarker, are the result of an ongoing orogeny — the result of a collision between two continental tectonic plates. This immense mountain range was formed by huge tectonic forces and sculpted by unceasing denudation processes of weathering and erosion. The Himalaya-Tibet region is virtually the water tower of Asia: it supplies freshwater for more than one-fifth of the world population, and it accounts for a quarter of the global sedimentary budget. Topographically, the belt has many superlatives: the highest rate of uplift (nearly 10 mm/year at Nanga Parbatmarker), the highest relief (8848 m at Mt. Everestmarker Chomolangma), among the highest erosion rates at 2–12 mm/yr, the source of some of the greatest rivers and the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar regions. This last feature earned the Himalaya its name, originating from the Sanskrit for "the abode of the snow".

The making of the Himalaya

During Late Precambrian and the Palaeozoic, the Indian sub-continent, bounded to the north by the Cimmerian Superterranes, was part of Gondwana and was separated from Eurasia by the Paleo-Tethys Ocean (Fig. 1). During that period, the northern part of India was affected by a late phase of the so-called "Cambro-Ordovician Pan-African event", which is marked by an unconformity between Ordovician continental conglomerates and the underlying Cambrian marine sediments. Numerous granitic intrusions dated at around 500 Ma are also attributed to this event.

In the Early Carboniferous, an early stage of rifting developed between the Indian continent and the Cimmerian Superterranes. During the Early Permian, this rift developed into the Neotethys ocean (Fig. 2). From that time on, the Cimmerian Superterranes drifted away from Gondwana towards the north. Nowadays, Iranmarker, Afghanistanmarker and Tibet are partly made up of these terranes.

In the Norian (210 Ma), a major rifting episode split Gondwana in two parts. The Indian continent became part of East Gondwana, together with Australia and Antarcticamarker. However, the separation of East and West Gondwana, together with the formation of oceanic crust, occurred later, in the Callovian (160-155 Ma). The Indian plate then broke off from Australia and Antarctica in the Early Cretaceous (130 - 125 Ma) with the opening of the "South Indian Ocean" (Fig. 3).

In the Upper Cretaceous (84 Ma), the Indian plate began its very rapid northward drift covering a distance of about 6000 km , with the oceanic-oceanic subduction continuing until the final closure of the oceanic basin and the obduction of oceanic ophiolite onto India and the beginning of continent-continent tectonic interaction starting at about 65 Ma in the Central Himalaya. The change of the relative speed between the Indian and Asian plates from very fast 18-19.5 cm/yr to fast 4.5 cm/yr at about 55 Ma is circumstantial support for collision then. Since then there has been about 2500 km

of crustal shortening and rotating of India by 45° counterclockwise in Northwestern Himalaya  to 10°-15° counterclockwise in North Central Nepal relative to Asia (Fig. 4).

While most of the oceanic crust was "simply" subducted below the Tibetan block during the northward motion of India, at least three major mechanisms have been put forward, either separately or jointly, to explain what happened, since collision, to the 2500 km of "missing continental crust". The first mechanism also calls upon the subduction of the Indian continental crust below Tibet. Second is the extrusion or escape tectonics mechanism (Molnar and Tapponier, 1975) which sees the Indian plate as an indenter that squeezed the Indochina block out of its way. The third proposed mechanism is that a large part (~1000 km (Dewey et al. 1989) or ~800 to ~1200 km) of the 2500 km of crustal shortening was accommodated by thrusting and folding of the sediments of the passive Indian margin together with the deformation of the Tibetan crust.

Even though it is more than reasonable to argue that this huge amount of crustal shortening most probably results from a combination of these three mechanisms, it is nevertheless the last mechanism which created the high topographic relief of the Himalaya.

Major tectonic subdivisions of the Himalaya

One of the most striking aspects of the Himalayan orogen is the lateral continuity of its major tectonic elements. The Himalaya is classically divided into four tectonic units that can be followed for more than 2400 km along the belt (Fig. 5 and Fig. 7) .

  1. The Subhimalaya forms the foothills of the Himalayan Range and is essentially composed of Miocene to Pleistocene molassic sediments derived from the erosion of the Himalaya. These molasse deposits, known as the Muree and Siwaliks Formations, are internally folded and imbricated. The Subhimalaya is thrust along the Main Frontal Thrust over the Quaternary alluvium deposited by the rivers coming from the Himalaya (Gangesmarker, Indusmarker, Brahmaputramarker and others), which demonstrates that the Himalaya is still a very active orogen.
  2. The Lesser Himalaya (LH) is mainly formed by Upper Proterozoic to lower Cambrian detrital sediments from the passive Indian margin intercalated with some granites and acid volcanics (1840± 70 Ma). These sediments are thrust over the Subhimalaya along the Main Boundary Thrust (MBT). The Lesser Himalaya often appears in tectonic windows (Kishtwar or Larji-Kulu-Rampur windows) within the High Himalaya Crystalline Sequence.
  3. The Central Himalayan Domain, (CHD) or High Himalaya, forms the backbone of the Himalayan orogen and encompasses the areas with the highest topographic relief. It is commonly separated into four zones.
    1. The High Himalayan Crystalline Sequence, HHCS (approximately 30 different names exist in the literature to describe this unit; the most frequently found equivalents are Greater Himalayan Sequence, Tibetan Slab and High Himalayan Crystalline) is a 30-km-thick, medium- to high-grade metamorphic sequence of metasedimentary rocks which are intruded in many places by granites of Ordovician (~ 500 Ma) and early Miocene (~ 22 Ma) age. Although most of the metasediments forming the HHCS are of late Proterozoic to early Cambrian age, much younger metasediments can also be found in several areas (Mesozoic in the Tandi syncline and Warwan region, Permian in the Tschuldo slice, Ordovician to Carboniferous in the Sarchu Area). It is now generally accepted that the metasediments of the HHCS represent the metamorphic equivalents of the sedimentary series forming the base of the overlying Tethys Himalaya. The HHCS forms a major nappe which is thrust over the Lesser Himalaya along the Main Central Thrust (MCT).
    2. The Tethys Himalaya (TH) is an approximately 100-km-wide synclinorium formed by strongly folded and imbricated, weakly metamorphosed sedimentary series. Several nappes, termed North Himalayan Nappes have also been described within this unit. An almost complete stratigraphic record ranging from the Upper Proterozoic to the Eocene is preserved within the sediments of the TH. Stratigraphic analysis of these sediments yields important indications on the geological history of the northern continental margin of the Indian continent from its Gondwanian evolution to its continental collision with Eurasia. The transition between the generally low-grade sediments of the Tethys Himalaya and the underlying low- to high-grade rocks of the High Himalayan Crystalline Sequence is usually progressive. But in many places along the Himalayan belt, this transition zone is marked by a major structure, the Central Himalayan Detachment System (also known as South Tibetan Detachment System or North Himalayan Normal Fault) which has indicators of both extension and compression (see ongoing geologic studies section below).
    3. The Nyimaling-­Tso Morari Metamorphic Dome, NTMD: In the Ladakh region, the Tethys Himalaya synclinorium passes gradually to the north in a large dome of greenschist to eclogitic metamorphic rocks. As with the HHCS, these metamorphic rocks represent the metamorphic equivalent of the sediments forming the base of the Tethys Himalaya. The Precambrian Phe Formation is also here intruded by several Ordovician (~480 Ma) granites.
    4. The Lamayuru and Markha Units (LMU) are formed by flyschs and olistholiths deposited in a turbiditic environment, on the northern part of the Indian continental slope and in the adjoining Neotethys basin. The age of these sediments ranges from Late Permian to Eocene.
  4. The Indus Suture Zone (ISZ) (or Indus-Yarlung-Tsangpo Suture Zone) defines the zone of collision between the Indian Plate and the Ladakh Batholith (also Transhimalaya or Karakoram-Lhasa Block) to the north. This suture zone is formed by:
:*the Ophiolite Mélanges, which are composed of an intercalation of flysch and ophiolites from the Neotethys oceanic crust
:*the Dras Volcanics, which are relicts of a Late Cretaceous to Late Jurassic volcanic island arc and consist of basalts, dacites, volcanoclastites, pillow lavas and minor radiolarian cherts
:*the Indus Molasse, which is a continental clastic sequence (with rare interbeds of marine saltwater sediments) comprising alluvial fan, braided stream and fluvio-lacustrine sediments derived mainly from the Ladakh batholith but also from the suture zone itself and the Tethyan Himalaya. These molasses are post-collisional and thus Eocene to post-Eocene.
:*The Indus Suture Zone represents the northern limit of the Himalaya. Further to the North is the so-called Transhimalaya, or more locally Ladakhmarker Batholith, which corresponds essentially to an active margin of Andean type. Widespread volcanism in this volcanic arc was caused by the melting of the mantle at the base of the Tibetan bloc, triggered by the dehydration of the subducting Indian oceanic crust.

Future of the Himalaya

Over periods of 5-10 million years, the plates will probably continue to move at the same rate. In 10 million years Indiamarker will plow into Tibet a further 180 km. This is about the width of Nepalmarker. Because Nepal's boundaries are marks on the Himalayan peaks and on the plains of India whose convergence we are measuring, Nepal will technically cease to exist. But the mountain range we know as the Himalaya will not go away.

This is because the Himalaya will probably look much the same in profile then as it does now. There will be tall mountains in the north, smaller ones in the south, and the north/south width of the Himalaya will be about the same. What will happen is that the Himalaya will have advanced across the Indian plate and the Tibetan plateau will have grown by accretion. One of the few clues about the rate of collision between India and Tibet before the GPS measurements were made was the rate of advance of Himalayan sediments across the Gangesmarker plain. There is an orderly progression of sediments in front of the foothills. Larger boulders appear first, followed by pebbles, and further south, sand-grains, silts, and finally very fine muds. This is what you see when you drive from the last hills of the Himalaya southward 100 km. The present is obvious, but the historical record cannot be seen on the surface because the sediments bury all former traces of earlier sediments. However, in drill holes in the Ganges plain, the coarser rocks are always on the top and the finer pebbles and muds are on the bottom, showing that the Himalaya is relentlessly advancing on India.

Ongoing geologic studies

There are many areas of geologic research being conducted in the Himalaya. Until recently only the area controlled by Nepal was readily accessible to geologists while Tibet, India, and Pakistan were relatively unexplored by western scientists.

Once such area of research is the basic structure of the Himalaya. Following finding of shear sense in both the top-north (extensional) and top-south (compressional) along the South Tibet Detachment (the fault that separates the Greater Himalayan Crystalline and Tethyan Himalaya), several models came forward to explain this including gravity collapse, erosional-controlled upwelling, tectonic wedge, as well as many others. Conclusively resolving the origin of the Greater Himalayan Crystalline as well as the nature of the South Tibet Detachment to the point of scientific consensus is dependent on further study.

A closely related problem to that of the STD, is the inverted metamorphism, sometimes referred to as the inverted metamorphic sequence (IMS) which is a metamorphic sequence where higher temperatures and pressures are found to increase with structural height. It is located between the LHS and the GHS, generally somewhat associated with the MCT. Various authors have suggested kinematic models (where a regular sequence was deformed), thermal models (where there actually was a source of heat above the IMS), and mixtures of the two to explain it.

See also

Localized geology and geomorphology topics for various parts of the Himalaya are discussed on other pages:


This paleogeographic reconstruction is mainly based on the papers of Besse et al. (1984), Patriat and Achache (1984), Dewey et al. (1989), Brookfield, (1993) Ricou (1994), Rowley (1996) and Stampfli et al. (1998). More information can be found on  this website.

The fourfold division of Himalayan units has been used since the work of Blanford and Medlicott (1879) and Heim and Gansser (1939).



  • Besse J., Courtillot V., Pozzi J.P., Westphal M., Zhou Y.X., (1984): Palaeomagnetic estimates of crustal shortening in the Himalayan thrusts and Zangbo Suture.: Nature (London), v. 311, p. 621-626.
  • Blanford W.T., Medlicott H.B., (1879): A manual of the geology of India: Calcutta.
  • Brookfield M.E., (1993): The Himalaya passive margin from Precambrian to Cretaceous times: Sedimentary Geology, v. 84, p. 1-35.
  • Dewey J.F., Cande S., Pitman III W.C., (1989): Tectonic evolution of the Indian/Eurasia Collision Zone: Eclogae geologicae Helvetiae, v. 82, no. 3, p. 717-734.
  • Dèzes, p. (1999): Tectonic and metamorphic Evolution of the Central Himalayan Domain in Southeast Zanskar (Kashmir, India). Mémoires de Géologie (Lausanne) No. 32.
  • Heim A., Gansser A., (1939): Central Himalaya; geological observations of the Swiss expedition 1936.: Schweizer. Naturf. Ges., Denksch., v. 73, no. 1, p. 245.
  • Molnar P., Tapponnier P., (1975): Cenozoic tectonics of Asia; effects of a continental collision.: Science, v. 189, p. 419-426.
  • Patriat P., Achache J., (1984): India-Eurasia collision chronology has implications for crustal shortening and driving mechanism of plates.: Nature, v. 311, p. 615-621.
  • Ricou L.M., (1994): Tethys reconstructed: plates, continental fragments and their Boundaries since 260 Ma from Central America to South-eastern Asia: Geodinamica Acta, v. 7, no. 4, p. 169-218.
  • Stampfli G.M., Mosar J., Favre P., Pillevuit A., Vannay J.-C., (1998): Permo-Triassic evolution of the westernTethyan realm: the Neotethys/east-Mediterranean basin connection: Peri Thetys, v. 3.
  • Steck A., Spring L., Vannay J.-C., Masson H., Stutz E., Bucher H., Marchant R., Tièche J.C., (1993): Geological Transect Across the Northwestern Himalaya in eastern Ladakh and Lahul (A Model for the Continental Collision of India and Asia): Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae, v. 86, no. 1, p. 219-263.

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