Tectonic Gifts Hot Springs of the Himalayas

Features Issue 112 Feb, 2011
Text and Photo By Pat Kauba

When two tectonic plates hurtled and smashed into each other countless millions of years ago, they created the mountains known as the Himalayas. Another result of this great force was the creation of a network of hot springs all over the Himalayas—warm waters flowing upwards from the earth’s deep bowels.

My entire body felt as if it was about to shatter, as it swiftly reached its deepest, inner freezing point, but still I stripped away my layers—hastily. Wafting pungent odors of sulfur flowed up my nostrils, like finding a batch of old and nasty boiled eggs. But, even with this discomfort, I felt ecstatic, as white Himalayan peaks pleasantly wrapped and embraced me in my surroundings—winter in the Himalayas is a very white and strange affair. I was frozen beyond belief, even more now as I stripped. The night before had dropped below -300C and my bones felt as brittle as could be. But it was okay, I was nearly there, nearly ready to leap into the pool of steaming hot spring water that lay before me. Even if it did smell odd, I didn’t care, I was about to feel warm, warmer than I had in weeks. And then, like a flash, I was in, immersed in a deep warm heaven, healing me to my very core.

When two tectonic plates hurtled and smashed into each other countless millions of years ago, they created the mountains known as the Himalayas. Towering precipices of rocks crushed and smashed upwards, with all of dear mother earth’s might. Quite the destructive force if one really stops to think about it. Thankfully, we weren’t around in those days. But one glorious result of this destructive force (other than creating some of the world’s most magnificent mountains) was the creation of a network of hot springs all over the Himalayas—warm waters flowing upwards from the earth’s deep bowels. And folks, we scored big here, with an estimated 50 plus hot springs within Nepal’s border alone. Many are quite a journey to get to—but then, that can be half the fun.

The word tatopani, in the Nepali language, means “hot water” and if one closely inspects a map of the country, one will find many places sharing that name—mostly in the mountains. Sure enough folks, there are hot dips to be had at these places. The well known ones are: Tatopani, Jumla District in Karnali Zone, then down the hill is Tatopani of Surkhet District, bordering the Terai in Bheri Zone. The most well known Tatopani is in Myagdi District of Dhaulagiri Zone, on the pilgrimage and tourist route to Jomsom and Muktinath. However, for those of us living here (in the big city), the most convenient to reach is Tatopani, Sindhupalchok District in Bagmati Zone, right on the border with Tibet.

Each of these tatopanis are surrounded by small villages, the most numbering only 1,000 odd homes, keeping the queues small, and generally, the whole experience relaxed. Many offer the bather breathtaking panoramic views of Himalayan peaks and are great places to stop while trekking in Nepal. They give broken and weary bones a healing respite, as well as a glorious hot wash—something that can be rare on the trails. Some have even been developed with bathing pools, like in Myagdi District. Others have pipes running hot water from a height, providing you with a hot-shower experience. At a few of these places like in Jumla for example, are two bathing areas, one for men and the other for women.

But Wait, There’s More
However, most of the hot springs around Nepal are not called tatopani, so before trekking or travelling, do some research online, maybe one is close to your route. Annapurna is littered with them, as well as near the Tibetan border at Kodari, and along that road are a number of hot springs other than just Tatopani village; Kodari has one, and there’s another close to the Borderlands Resort. Rasuwa District has one too, near the Gosaikunda trekking route. Dhading and Gorkha District have a few small ones, even extreme far-western Nepal in Darchula District is believed to have some. East Nepal however, seems to be lacking, but if you are in that neighborhood, ask around, maybe the locals have a secret spot that they are willing to share.  

Pat Kauba is a freelance writer and photographer
who loves nature’s gifts. He can be
contacted at patkauba@gmail.com.

The Explanations
Hot springs have been synonymous with offering “wellness” since the beginning of time, as well as treating users to warm dips in cold times. The explanation for its healing properties is the high levels of diluted solid minerals and nutrients in the water, such as: sulfur, calcium and lithium. The wonderful feeling one gets from being in such warm water, outdoors, on a cold day, with mountains as your scenery, is immensely good for relaxation and wellness. The word spa originates from a small town in Belgium, famed Europe-wide since the 14th century, for its healing hot springs—where many a European noble would come and dip. In the local language espa means a “spring or fountain”. Worldwide, many healing and wellness centers are today located near these places.

Gaining greater momentum in this century is the use of hot springs as a renewable energy source. North of Lhasa in Tibet is the Yangbajing hot springs, an area filled with thermal activity and now producing a large amount of Lhasa’s energy requirements. In India, the Tattapani thermal springs in Madhya Pradesh—not yet developed, also shows major potential. At least when the world’s oil is finally gone, and if (God forbid) the glaciers have melted away, the Himalayan region will be relieved with still one more energy option.

Thankfully, with no volcanoes in the Himalayas, the type of hot springs found here are the pleasant temperature versions. This is due to the water being warmed near the earth’s crust, on the point where two tectonic plates meet. It’s the pressure built up in this area, combined with the heat of the earth’s mantle that warms our water. Hot springs found near volcanoes are very different, as these tend to be geysers; springs where the thermal energy regularly builds up, releasing a powerful blast of boiling energy.

The major difference in temperature is because this water is heated near magma or lava—a much hotter substance. The most well known examples are the Excelsior Geyser Crater, in America’s Yellowstone National Park and the Geyser Hot Springs in Iceland, home of the word geyser. And these are not the ones you want to bathe in—unless desiring to look like an extra from a bad zombie movie. Thankfully, the user-friendly versions are found worldwide, with a more ambient temperature.