Geology of the Himalaya

The geology of the Himalaya is a record of the most dramatic and visible creations of modern plate tectonic forces. The Himalayas, which stretch over 2400 km, 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 1 cm/year at Nanga Parbat), the highest relief (8848 m at Mt. Everest Chomolangma), 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, Iran, Afghanistan 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 Antarctica. 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 at an average speed of 16 cm/year, covering a distance of about 6000 km, until the collision of the northwestern part of the Indian passive margin with Eurasia in early Eocene time (48-52 Ma). Since that time and until today, the Indian continent continues its northwards movement at a slower but still surprisingly fast rate of ~ 5 cm/year, indenting Eurasia by about 2400 km and rotating by just over 33° in an anticlockwise direction (Fig. 4).

Whilst 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 2400 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) of the 2400 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 (Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra 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; Frank et al., 1977). 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 (Steck et al., 1993) 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 extensional structure, the Central Himalayan Detachment System (also known as South Tibetan Detachment System or North Himalayan Normal Fault).
    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; Girard and Bussy, 1998) 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 Ladakh 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 India will plow into Tibet a further 180 km. This is about the width of Nepal. 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 Ganges 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.


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


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  • 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., (1988): Extensional collapse of orogens: Tectonics, v. 6, p. 1123-1139.
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  • Dèzes, p. (1999): Tectonic and metamorphic Evolution of the Central Himalayan Domain in Southeast Zanskar (Kashmir, India). Mémoires de Géologie (Lausanne) No. 32.
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