Explaining the presence of normal faults in overall compressive settings is a challenging problem in understanding the tectonics of active mountain belts. The Himalayan-Tibetan orogenic system is an excellent setting to approach this problem because it preserves one of the most dramatic records of long-term, contemporaneous shortening and extension. Over the past decades, several studies have described extensional features, not only in the Tibetan Plateau, but also in the Himalaya. For a long time, the favored model explained the function of the Southern Tibetan detachment system, a major fault zone in the Himalaya, as a decoupling horizon between the regime of crustal shortening forming the Himalayan wedge to the south and the extensional regime of the Tibetan Plateau to the north. However, in recent years, increasing evidence has shown that N-S–trending normal faults in the Central Himalaya crosscut not only the Southern Tibetan detachment system, but also the Main Central thrust.
Here, we present new structural data and geologic evidence collected within the NW Indian Himalaya and combine them with previously published seismicity data sets in order to document pervasive E-W extension accommodated along N-S–trending faults extending as far south as the footwall of the Main Central thrust. We conducted a kinematic analysis of fault striations on brittle faults, documented and mapped fault scarps in Quaternary sedimentary deposits using satellite imagery, and made field observations in the Greater Sutlej region (Spiti, Lahul, Kinnaur) and the Garhwal Himalaya. Studies of extensional features within the regionally NW-SE–trending NW Indian Himalaya provide the advantage that arc-parallel and E-W extension can be separated, in contrast to the Central Himalaya. Therefore, our observations of E-W extension in the Indian NW Himalaya are well suited to test the applicability of current tectonic models for the whole Himalaya. We favor the interpretation of E-W extension in the NW Indian Himalaya as a propagation of extension driven by collapse of the Tibetan Plateau.