In the last half of the
nineteenth century, the British Survey of India made several abortive efforts to map the
lands that lay beyond Tibet but the emperor of China had closed the
Tibetan border to foreigners, on pain of death. Several men of the Survey died in this
attempt, until Thomas G. Montgomerie hit upon his brilliant solution of
sending in Indians, disguised as itinerant lamas, to literally spy out the
land1. He succeeded in convincing his superiors, and then set about
locating new recruits for his mission. His requirements by way of prospective agents were
fairly severe they had to be able to read and write, should not be too
old, should not have unreasonable demands in terms of rewards expected, and have
some idea of the difficulties that could be expected on this proposed trip.
The first recruit, Mohamed-i-Hameed, was sent on a
journey to Jharkhand, and died of illness on the way back. Undeterred, Montgomerie next
selected two cousins Nain Singh and Mani Singh for this
Herculean task. When recruited in 1863, Nain Singh was a 33-year-old Tibetan-speaking
headmaster of a school in Milan, in the upper Himalayas. Mani Singh was slightly older,
from the same village. Montgomerie put the cousins through a rigorous two-year training
course, which was to later become the standard training for all future Indian
surveyors or chain men, as they came to be called. They were
first trained to walk in a measured fashion, so that no matter the nature of the terrain,
each pace measured a constant distance 33 inches. To keep track of the
number of paces they took, they were given rosaries, with 100 beads instead of the
traditional 108 after every 100 paces, one bead would be clicked. A complete
circuit of the rosary, therefore, represented 1000 paces, or five miles. In this manner
they were to keep track of distance.
They were also taught the use of sextants, which
they carried concealed in specially designed secret pockets within their clothes, and the
use of thermometers for altitude measurements. Mercury, required for setting an artificial
horizon from which to take altitude readings, was hidden in a sealed cowrie shell, and
poured out into the standard pilgrims begging bowl, when needed. The Tibetan prayer
wheel, which was supposed to contain strips of paper with holy prayers written on them,
was also suitably modified so that the surveyors could record their observations on these
paper strips. (For those for whom this seems somehow familiar, Rudyard Kipling borrowed
several of his characters and much of the general atmosphere for his novel, Kim,
from real life incidents of Montgomeries team.)
The Singhs were also given code
names Nain Singh was called the Chief Pundit and his cousin, the Second
Pundit. These names stuck, and all Indian surveyors were refereed to for many years by the
Survey as pundits.
In 1865, the two pundits finally departed on their
first mission to cross the Tibetan border disguised as Bashahris, who
were given limited rights to travel there. In spite of the two years they had spent being
trained, this was a task of enormous difficulty all for twenty rupees a
month, and the tentative promise of more in the future. Once in Nepal, the two brothers
separated ways, and Nain Singh headed for the Tibetan border near Lhasa. He managed to
cross into Tibet by associating with a party of traders who were also crossing with a
large caravan who subsequently vanished at night, with most of his money.
Fortunately, they left his most precious possessions intact his survey
equipment, in a box with a false bottom which they fortunately did not find.
With this primitive apparatus, he spent the entire
summer of 1865 journeying to Lhasa, begging for food from the rare caravan that appeared.
In January 1866, he finally reached the forbidden city of Lhasa, where he
played the role of a pilgrim for a few days. One day, he witnessed the public beheading of
a luckless Chinese man who had arrived in Lhasa without permission this
scared him into adopting the life of a recluse. Within the confines of a little inn, he
stayed for several weeks, and used the roof of the inn as his observatory at night. By
measuring the boiling temperature of water, he calculated the altitude of Lhasa to be
3240 m above sea level astonishing precision, when you consider that we
today believe it to be 3540 m! From the angular altitude of stars, he then calculated
the latitude of Lhasa.
Soon, however, he realized that local merchants
were getting a little suspicious of him. Therefore in April, he packed his equipment, and
left for India with another caravan of people, who were heading west along the Tsangpo.
During his two-month journey with the caravan, the ever pious lama clicked his rosary
beads and tracked the river course for more than 800 km. Finally, one night, he stole
away from the caravan and struck north for India, reaching the Survey headquarters at
Dehradun on 27 October 1866 and here my story ends (and began!).
Singh did not stop here, though. Between 1865 and
1872, the Singh family of Nain Singh, Mani Singh and nephew Kishen Singh contributed
greatly to the exploration of Tibet. In 1874, Nain Singh went on his third and last
excursion into Tibet, to survey the route from Leh to Lhasa2. There is evidence
to show that he was rather reluctant to undertake this last piece of travel, being much
older and relatively worn out. Persuaded by the likelihood of further inducements, and a
possible pension, also assuaged by a promise that this was to be the final such journey,
he set out with a small party of people on 15 July 1874. During an incredible eight and
half months, where they ran out of money and their disguise almost exposed by a merchant
they met on the way, he succeeded in charting the route through large parts of Tibet. His
maps provided the only definitive information on these parts for almost half a century,
when the next British party was able to reach Tengri Nor. This last journey had taken its
toll on his health, also impairing his vision. He continued for a few years to train other
Indians in the art of survey-ing (and spying), and did a highly commended job of it, too.
Nain Singhs name, and feats, could now be
made public after years of secrecy. In 1876, his achievements were announced in the Geographical
Magazine. The awards and recognition soon started flowing in. On his retirement,
the Indian Government honoured him with the grant of a village, and 1000 rupees in
revenue. The Paris Geographical Society, having heard of his feats, sent him a gold watch
(according to Montgomerie, not a very handsome watch, but the Society is not rich,
and they meant to pay N.S. a handsome compliment)2. The crowning
achievement came in 1876, when the Royal Geographical Society honoured him with a gold
medal as the man who has added a greater amount of positive knowledge to the map of
Asia than any individual of our time3.
Although Nain Singh got the recognition he deserved
late in life, it is difficult to imagine what drove such a man to carry out arduous and
dangerous work like this, under conditions of near-impossibility, all for a starting
salary of rupees twenty a month!
- Hopkirk, P., Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race
for Lhasa, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, pp. 276.
- Waller, D., The Pundits British Exploration of
Tibet and Central India, University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky, 1990.
- Wilford, J. N., The Mapmakers, Knopf, New York, 1981, pp. 414.