In 1951, long before the Indian Army found footprints of the 'Yeti' in Nepal, British mountaineer Eric Shipton had snapped the first definitive snapshot of the mythical creature's footprint in the snowy slopes of the Himalayas. Back then, he had used an ice pick to provide scale to the size of the footprint.
Since then, the Yeti has resurfaced time and again on mountaineering expeditions and pop-culture. Initially limited to the Himalayas in Nepal, Yeti sightings soon began to be recorded in Europe, US, and other continents. In fact, it seems every continent had its own version of the Yeti, a name given to the Himalayan creature by the Sherpas, a tribal hill community in Nepal, adapted to the cold climes the Himalayan mountains. These stories were preserved in ancient folk tales and oral histories of local tribes and people.
The craze Shipton's photo created led to a mass interest in the creature and many expeditions were mounted just to get a glimpse and conclusive proof of the elusive Yeti. And much like other things that garner mass interest, the Yeti soon found its way to the silver screen.
One of the first popular adaptations of the Yeti on the silver screen was in 1957 when the British released 'The Abominable Snowman', a sci-fi adventure set in the Himalayan mountains. It depicts young British researchers and explorers who venture out to seek the Yeti, only to find in it a deadly adversary, ruthless, powerful and bestial.
However, in the years to come, the image of the Yeti would go through several makeovers, and also make a grand entry into a comic book - Tintin in Tibet.
While all descriptions of the Yeti before that tended to describe the creature as a terrible miscreant and predator, Herge's Tintin in Tibet showed the Yeti in a mellower light. It gave the Yeti human characteristics - lonely, proud, caring, free. Thus grew the idea of a brooding, intelligent and somewhat genteel Yeti, one who is misunderstood due to its size and recluse nature. (It is also probably one of the best metaphors of climate change, but that's for another article).
Americans popularised the 'Bigfoot' or 'Sasquatch', their version of the cryptozoological giant hominid, somewhat resembling King Kong but on two limbs instead of four. The Yeti itself was picked up by Warner Brothers in 1961, who created 'The Abominable Snow Rabbit', a 6 -minute animated short featuring Daffy Duck that further softened the Yeti's image in the eyes of American audiences. In fact, the Bigfoot/Sasquatch trope is a staple in American pop-culture and still continues to spawn films, cartoons and comics. The 1987 film (and later TV series) Harry and the Hendersons depicted a family that found a sasquatch and befriended it but struggled to keep it a secret from nosy neighbors, much like the alien Jadoo and his band of human accomplices in the 2003 Bollywood film Koi...Mil Gaya. Countless films have been made exploring the friendship between humans and mythical creatures like Yetis and Bigfoots and their popularity is a testament to the enduring power of these myths. Snowmen also appeared in children's cartoons like Scooby Doo, thus cementing their place the pantheon of fictional monsters in the minds of children who grew up on these toons.
After hibernating for the most part of the 80s and 90s, the Yeti reappeared as another children's favourite in the 2003 hit animated film Monsters.Inc.
Despite the proximity, Indians were a little late to the scene but could not resist the romantic charms of the Yeti for long. The first time a Yeti was seen on screen in India was in 1991 when the Ramsay Brothers featured it 'Kudrat Ka Ajooba'. The horror-thriller film centered around the platonic relationship between the female protagonist and the Yeti. Popular Bengali comic series 'Tenida' featured the Yeti, as did Sunil Gangopadhyay's famous children's novels. In recent times, Srijit Mukherjee's 2017 film 'Yeti Obhijaan' made another attempt to recreate the creature's aura in all its glory.
What makes the Yeti such a sticky literary trope in films, novels and adventure tales? The first could be the promise of mystery and adventure. Myths about creatures like the Loch Ness monster or Chupakabra grow out of ancient folk tales that have been passed down through oral history for years. They provide a window into an ancient time that humans can only imagine, an insight into the way the ancient ancestors of humans lived and the creatures it encountered. Modern humans, tired of concrete jungles and hostile lives, long for the romanticism and wonder that nature in all its Delphic glory has to offer (or conceal). It offers an escape from the humdrum.
It could be argued that early Western films (and some present ones) based on the Yeti demonised the creature, a trope that was widely used as a metaphor to symbolise former imperial colonies as a bunch of brutish, uncivilised characters. It was an attempt to further romaticise the 'The Orient', a literary trope that was much popular among home British audiences, bored of the dull pace of industrial life in 20th century Britain.
But as time went by, filmmakers, writers and documentarians added fresh perspectives to the simpleton Yeti, making it more an more complex with each passing decade. The Yeti today could symbolise lost cultures and worlds, civilisations that ceased to exist. they could also symbolise the communities that continue to live in these remote areas, communities like the Sherpas who believe in the Yeti the same way a modern American believes in the dollar. It is a peek into the lives and the distinct flavour of these cultures that remain aloof from human scrutiny - a goldmine for anthropological reconstructions of lost cultures. No conclusive evidence has ever been found of the Yeti or any of its international counterparts, so far. The Indian Army's 'discovery', therefore, is sure to bring the spotlight back to the elusive creature.
Could it be that the Sherpas carry in their unconscious memories an imprint of an ancestor that once roamed the Himalayan terrain and slept in its ice caves? Could it be an as yet undiscovered species? And what if humans find it? Would we run science experiments on it? Use it to fight our wars? Exterminate it out of fear?
These questions can only be solved if a real Yeti or snowman is ever uncovered. For now, all we have is footsteps lost in time, a bunch of pop-culture references to use as fiction fodder, and the hope that one day, all the mysteries of the world shall be revealed to us.