Mission Impossible: The Spies Who Mapped Tibet

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In the 1860s, a Buddhist lama, or holy man, cut a new path through the Great Himalayas. Prayer wheel and rosary in hand, he navigated treacherous mountain passes, braved freezing temperatures and paused to rest at monasteries along the way.

As he made this perilous journey, seeking alms and asking for directions every now and then, no one seemed to notice that his prayer wheel wasn’t really a prayer wheel, that his rosary was a little different from other rosaries, and that his gait was measured, in fact too measured, to be natural.

Nain Singh Rawat was no lama. He was an undercover agent hired by the British in India to measure, map and gather information in territories north of the Himalayas. Think of Rawat and his colleagues as the 007s of the Survey of India.

But why hire spies?

The Great Game

These men, who displayed unusual dedication to their missions, were handpicked and meticulously trained by the colonial British administration, as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, one of the greatest projects of the 19th century.

The Survey, which spanned the better part of the 1800s, aimed at scientifically surveying the Indian subcontinent and other territories captured by the British. They needed to demarcate the territories that were theirs, prepare maps, and gather intelligence, to help them rule and exploit the land under their control.

The British also needed intelligence information on territories that were not under their control but were linked to the subcontinent and their political objectives and ambitions in the region. The Survey coincided with a shadowy game, where Britain and Russia feared that the other would make inroads into Tibet, East Turkestan and Central Asia, and control the massive region that lay between Russia, China and the Indian subcontinent.

A political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his "friends" the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878). The Great Game was a political confrontation between the British Empire and the Russian Empire over Afghanistan and territories in Central and South Asia | Wikimedia Commons
A political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his "friends" the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878). The Great Game was a political confrontation between the British Empire and the Russian Empire over Afghanistan and territories in Central and South Asia | Wikimedia Commons

While Russia suspected that Britain would push up north into this region from India, the British were worried that Russia might make forays southwards, into Central Asia. This game of one-upmanship and the manoeuvres it spawned was called the Great Game, and explorers-cum-spies like Nain Singh Rawat were swept up in it.

The then kingdom of Tibet was off-limits to foreigners and that’s where the pundits came in. | althistory.com
The then kingdom of Tibet was off-limits to foreigners and that’s where the pundits came in. | althistory.com

But surveying and gathering intelligence in these regions posed special challenges to the British. The then independent kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam and Tibet were largely off-limits to them, especially Tibet, which had closed its borders to all foreigners in the 1850s, when the Great Game was at its peak. Since the English would be very conspicuous in these lands, they wouldn’t be able to pull off clandestine intelligence-gathering missions there.

Who Were The ‘Pundits’?

Lt-Gen Thomas Montgomerie, who worked with the Great Trigonometrical Survey, had a brainwave. He realised that Indians living in border regions would be best suited to these secret missions. They were already familiar with the geography of these areas, the culture of the people who inhabited them, and their ancestors had been crossing India’s border with Tibet for centuries! In other words, they had access to places where no Englishman could go.

Montgomerie outlined his proposal in a memorandum to the Survey in 1861 and suggested that these Indians could be trained as surveyors. He said, disguised as lamas, traders and merchants, they could venture deep into Tibet and Central Asia without arousing suspicion. Montgomerie’s proposal was accepted, and the Survey began to carefully recruit ‘pundits’, so called as the initial few were local school teachers who were referred to as such.

At the Survey’s Dehradun headquarters, the pundits were trained to use the sextant; they were taught celestial navigation and to gauge altitude by measuring the temperature of boiling water. They were trained to measure distance in the most intriguing manner – by walking exactly 2,000 paces to a mile. And, to keep count, they used a modified Buddhist rosary. However, instead of the usual 108 beads, this rosary had 100 – every bead representing 100 paces and every tenth bead 1,000 paces.

These pundits recorded all kinds of information. They took measurements, noted details about topography and resources, and drew maps. They also noted their observations about the culture, politics, economy of the places they surveyed, and their military strength – all in code.

The data was noted on paper stored in the cavity of a hand-held Buddhist prayer wheel, a place least suspected to conceal state secrets. And, for good measure, these papers were mixed with prayers. Although a sacrilegious trick, it offered the perfect camouflage!

The prayer wheel was used for another secular purpose. A compass was concealed in the semi-precious stone in the centre of its drum. Alternatively, the compass was secreted in the head of a hollowed-out stick, which served as a repository for gold and silver coins. Pundits with a poetic bent turned their observations into poems and recited them during their travels. Could it get more ingenious?

Pundits & Their Missions

Let’s meet some of the pundits, an elite group of trans-Himalayan explorers who travelled across vast swathes of Tibet and Central Asia, from the 1860s to the 1890s, and whose work greatly helped the British navigate the geopolitical chessboard of the time.

Abdul Hamid was the first pundit recruited by the Survey. Originally from Punjab, he was sent to Yarkand in August 1863. Yarkand, then in East Turkestan and now in the present-day south-western Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in Western China, was situated on the Silk Road. It was chosen because it was strategically important and had been incorrectly marked on contemporary maps. The British urgently needed intelligence about the region.

After a month’s training in Dehradun, Hamid joined a caravan disguised as a trader. After crossing the Karakoram mountains, the caravan arrived in Yarkand, where Hamid spent a winter gathering information for the Survey. But the Chinese grew suspicious and Hamid began to retrace his steps. He managed to evade capture but died while returning home after eating poisonous rhubarb. His notes and instruments were recovered and his mission was a success. Hamid’s was the first of many such secret expeditions in Central Asia.

Nain Singh Rawat was one of the two most outstanding pundits recruited by the Survey and he undertook three missions, mainly in Tibet. Originally from Milam, in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region near India’s border with Tibet, Nain Singh was a trader. Since he and his father traded with Tibetans at the border, he could speak a smattering of Tibetan and was familiar with Tibetan customs and religious practices. He couldn’t have been more perfect for the job.

Pundit Nain Singh Rawat | Wikimedia Commons
Pundit Nain Singh Rawat | Wikimedia Commons

Disguised as a Ladakhi merchant, Nain Singh too joined a caravan and surveyed the trade route from Ladakh to Tibet. His destination was Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and he was the first to determine the precise location and altitude of the city.

Nain Singh also figured that the Tsang-po River in Tibet was a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Until then, no one knew whether it flowed into China or South East Asia. Before he returned to Dehradun in October 1866, he collected climatic, topographical and political details that were of immense value both to the Survey and to the British Government in India.

Nain Singh Rawat figured out that the Tsang-po River in Tibet was a tributary of the Brahmaputra | Wikimedia Commons
Nain Singh Rawat figured out that the Tsang-po River in Tibet was a tributary of the Brahmaputra | Wikimedia Commons

During his second expedition, Nain Singh became the first non-Tibetan to visit the legendary Thok Jalung gold fields in Western Tibet. He blended in seamlessly with the locals and was able to stay on site among the miners without arousing suspicion. Situated at 16,000 feet, temperatures were freezing and the tents were pitched below ground level. Nain Singh was able to survey the mile-long mine and bring back detailed information.

Kishen Singh too hailed from Milam, where he was a school teacher or pundit. From 1869 to 1882, he completed four missions in territories such as Kailash-Mansarovar, Yarkand-Kashgar, Shigache-Lhasa and Mongolia, mapping major rivers such as the Irrawadi, Salween and Mekong. He was also the first to refine the mapping of the Ramgarh crater in the deserts of Rajasthan. Kishen Singh is considered the greatest of the pundits. He was such a skilled surveyor that he became a trainer for the Survey.

Perhaps the most moving account is that of Kinthup, a pundit from Sikkim, whose four-month expedition turned into a four-year trial by fire. Setting out to confirm Nain Singh’s belief that the Tsang-po River and the Brahmaputra were one and the same, Kinthup was dispatched to Lhasa along with a Chinese lama, who had access to Tibet.

To test the Brahmaputra theory, Kinthup was to mark and then throw 500 logs into the Tsang-po River at a predetermined time, so that his colleagues along the Brahmaputra could wait for them to arrive. But that’s not what happened. In the forbidding wilds of Tibet, the Chinese lama turned Kinthup into his slave and later sold him to a local chief. Kinthup eventually escaped but always stayed close to the Tsang-po.

Pundit Kinthup | Wikimedia Commons
Pundit Kinthup | Wikimedia Commons

Surviving on wild berries, mushrooms and fruit in the Tibetan desert and forests, Kinthup navigated near-impossible terrain before he was taken in by a monastery. But he had to serve to buy his freedom. During his stay there, Kinthup made several ‘pilgrimages’ (expeditions to survey the Tsang-po) and even made it to Lhasa, from where attempted to get a message across to his British boss. His message mentioned a specific date a few months down the line, when he would throw 500 logs into the Tsang-po.

Nine months later, he kept his promise but there was no one to receive the logs – his British boss had long since left India and had never received Kinthup’s message.

Kinthup returned to India in November 1884 but, sadly, no one believed his extraordinary account. It wasn’t even recorded until two years later. Vindication came nearly 30 years later, when British surveyors confirmed Kinthup’s observations. (More on the India-Tibet connection in colonial times and the rediscovery of Tibet by explorers like Kinthup here)

What Drove These Spies?

For around three decades, the British sent a small army of pundits into unchartered lands north of the Himalayas. It’s hard to say what drove these remarkable men to embrace danger and flirt with death. Many were caught, imprisoned and executed. And yet, those who survived, executed their secret missions with unwavering commitment, returning with information that helped their colonial masters navigate the treacherous world of global geopolitics.

Most importantly, for those times, these pundits managed to push into Tibet and map what was then a forbidden land that had closed its borders to the rest of the world.

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