The Indian ‘Spy’ Who Mapped Tibet

The Indian ‘Spy’ Who Mapped Tibet

Two great Asian power centres and both ancient civilizations – India and China, have a lot of history together. While much of it is chronicled, there are twists and turns that need to be explored. One such chapter harks back to the period of the ‘Great Game’ in the 19th century – when Russia and the British empire vied for control and influence in Central Asia and Tibet.

Author Parimal Bhattacharya’s book Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet, published by Speaking Tiger (2019) tells the story of the Indians who ‘uncovered’ Tibet for the rest of the world. It makes an interesting read in understanding the relationship between India and Tibet in the 19th century.

The 19th century was the new ‘Age of Exploration’, when botanists, geologists, archaeologists, cartographers and explorers raced to explore new lands.

It was a time when the North and South poles, sources of rivers such as the Nile, the deepest forests and lost civilizations were revealing their secrets. However, Tibet continued to be a ‘forbidden land’. It was closed to the rest of the world and it jealously guarded even the mountain passes that led to it. In fact, by the late 1800s, it was one of the few blank spaces still left on the world map, until a remarkable Indian – Sarat Chandra Das – changed all that.

In his book, Bhattacharya weaves through geography and history to tell the tale of Das, a Bengali cartographer, who was assisted in his quest by a cast of interesting characters. Das was one of the people assigned the task of mapping the region by the colonial government in India, and gathering intelligence on the topography and customs of Tibet.

Das went on to become friends with the Panchen Lama, the ruler of Western Tibet, and his prime minister. His predecessor, in the quest to map Tibet, was not quite so fortunate; he was a Lepcha tailor named Kinthup, who was sold as a slave. Das was followed by a British intelligence officer Eric Bailey who did his own bit of sleuthing. The information all of them brought back not only opened Tibet to the world, it also made the region vulnerable to British aggression.

NASA image of the Brahmaputra-Tsangpo Gorge, deepest in the world | Wikimedia Commons

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the story of the Brahmaputra-Tsangpo Gorge and the legend of the great waterfall there.  The Tsangpo river, which originates at a height of 24,000 feet on the Tibetan plateau, enters one of the deepest gorges in the world, in Tibet, and within 200 miles, plunges 9,000 feet, only to appear on the Indian plains as the Brahmaputra river. For centuries, there was a debate about whether the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra was the same river, and with it grew legends of a great waterfall on which there was a perpetual rainbow. Sadly, while there is no such great waterfall, the legend managed to capture the world’s imagination.

I spoke with author Parimal Bhattacharya about the extraordinary journeys of these men and the relevance of what they found, even today.

British Expedition to Tibet | Wikimedia Commons

While much has been written about the Indian connection with Tibet during ancient times, publicly we know so little about the India-Tibet connection during the colonial period. Your book gives a very interesting insight into the fascinating characters like Sarat Chandra Das and Kinthup, who ‘rediscovered’ Tibet for the outside world. How did the story of this book originate?

When I was working in Darjeeling in the ’90s, I stumbled upon the story of Sarat Chandra Das and Kinthup in an old bookshop, which I have mentioned in the book. I began to go deeper into their stories, but there was so little documentary evidence. There were stories about Sarat Chandra Das and Kinthup in Darjeeling. People were still talking about them. Then I found out that Das was quite an interesting figure, although in Bengal he is completely forgotten.

He suffered this complete erasure maybe because he was the spy of a colonial government.

After India’s independence, people were not comfortable with this fact. But espionage was only one aspect of his personality. He was a Bengali who went from Darjeeling into Tibet, and fell in love with this vast and mysterious land. What I found so intriguing was how, through his secret mission, the two ancient cultures were coming face to face – Tibet, which was locked up in the middle ages, and late 19th century colonial India.

So I began to explore, and a few old people in Darjeeling began to tell me about the Lepchas and how they worked as spies in Tibet. Then I laid my hands on some of the reports that were available, particularly that of Bailey (Frederick Marshman Bailey, a British intelligence officer), which gives a lot of space to Kinthup. He also wrote a couple of essays on Kinthup, and I found them particularly interesting.

Somehow, all these different stories were connected and there were these parallels and repetitions running through them. But there were also blank spaces. So my book, Bells of ShangriLa, is the re-imagining of the journey of Sarat Chandra Das, Kinthup and others, and an attempt to explore those blank spaces of history.

Sarat Chandra Das | Wikimedia Commons

This was a time when Tibet was shut off from the outer world and the ‘Western’ world was trying to discover it, for their expansionist agenda. But both Sarat Chandra Das and Kinthup were Indian. So, at that time, how did the Indians look at this land in the North?

This is an interesting area and I couldn’t give much space to it in the book. From the 13th century, during the successive invasions that took place in India, Sanskrit texts and manuscripts were being vandalized and destroyed. Sometimes, the Indian pundits took these texts to Tibet, whose dry and cold climate was a kind of natural archive. These manuscripts or texts were kept in remote monasteries there.

For Sarat Chandra Das, Tibet was the archive of a lost part of India, where he could uncover his own country’s past.

The important thing to remember is that Das went to Tibet in the 1880s, when historical knowledge of ancient India was very limited. The Indus Valley Civilization would be discovered many years hence, and many ancient monuments were yet to be located by archaeologists. We must also remember that the country was under colonial rule and a sense of inferiority was being thrust on native Indians. So it was kind of a pilgrimage for him (Sarat Chandra Das) to rediscover the lost glory of his own country.

Kinthup, on the other hand, was Buddhist. At a time when British India was changing quite fast, hill stations were being built, traditional ways of life were changing – especially in Sikkim and the Darjeeling Hills – the journey to Tibet was, in a spiritual sense, a kind of pilgrimage for Kinthup. He was going to an unsullied centre of his own faith.

Newspaper report of the British Expedition to Tibet | Wikimedia Commons

One of the most interesting stories in the book is the legend of the great waterfall in the Brahmaputra river that Kinthup described, and it captured the imagination of Western explorers.

After he stayed in Tibet for four years, Kinthup finally came back to India and was debriefed. He spoke the Lepcha language and his version was transcribed by Ugyen Gyatso, the Lama who went with Sarat Chandra Das to Tibet. Then it was translated into English. Kinthup’s report, after being sifted through these different languages, turns out to be a very sketchy documentation of mostly names of places. He has, in fact, recounted the names of around 150 places.

There is also the description of a waterfall (on the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra), where there is a ‘perpetual rainbow’. There were two falls. When Bailey went there, he discovered that the waterfall with the perpetual rainbow was a low torrent on the river. And the huge waterfall that Kinthup described is actually on a tributary stream of the Tsangpo. In Kinthup’s narration, these two waterfalls were superimposed.

But the sparse two-line description of the waterfall created a huge sensation. It resonated in the minds of colonial explorers. It was a time when Victoria Falls, Niagara and all those great waterfalls in the world had (already) been discovered. People were writing that the age of great explorers had ended and there was nothing worthwhile left on the planet to be discovered.

At this time, the possibility of a great waterfall, or perhaps a series of springs, tucked away in the great Tsangpo Gorge, fuelled the imagination of adventurers.

In fact, the course of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, particularly the segment that enters the impenetrable canyon, was already a huge enigma. The river vanishes into the gorge at a height of around 9,000 feet, and when it re-emerges after 200 miles, it is almost at sea level. So, it was presumed that there must be a series of great waterfalls, or at least one, the mother of all great falls! What was actually found was no such waterfall but a series of rapids. But Kinthup’s mention somehow caught the imagination. It gave birth to a series of later expeditions.

Another important thing to remember here is: we live in a photographic age. Now, thanks to Google, we even know the design of a hotel in a place we are visiting for the first time. But, in the 1880s, when Sarat Das visited Tibet, photography was in its infancy. These intrepid travellers didn’t know what they were going to see in uncharted lands. When they were tracing the contour of a hill, they had no idea what to expect even around a bend in the road, in a world of lofty mountains coming under the Western gaze for the first time. It was a completely different world, with an element of wonder that we can never imagine.

Also, it is very difficult for us to imagine the grit and the stamina of these first travellers, and their appetite for adventure.

Rare photo taken during the British Expedition to Tibet | Wikimedia Commons

Places like Kalimpong, for instance, had a large population of Tibetan settlers and merchants with close links to Tibet. Why were these Tibetan locals not used for espionage? Why were Indians sent as spies, especially since they would be so conspicuous in Tibet?

First of all, there was this purely military and commercial motive. They wanted to explore Tibet to map its topography, particularly because Russia was breathing down the neck of the British Empire in India. The Tibetan traders who came to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and other places were very secretive, and they could not speak about the land in a way the British wanted. Primarily, it was about knowing its geography.

Sarat Chandra Das was a civil engineer, and he had been sent to Darjeeling to teach the locals techniques of surveying.

While the other native spies who were sent before could do the survey work, Sarat Chandra Das was exposed to the best of Western education in Calcutta. He had the learning and the objectivity needed to gain in-depth knowledge, not only about the topography of the hidden land, but also its people and culture. That was important from the point of view of the long-term objectives of commerce and trade. The British could not possibly extract any information from the Tibetan traders, who used to visit Kalimpong and Darjeeling, seasonally.

Old Map of Tibet showing great blank spaces (1730s) | Wikimedia Commons

In Tibet, which was a closed country, how did an English-speaking Bengali like Sarat Chandra Das manage to remain inconspicuous? He even managed to strike up a friendship with the Panchen Lama. Wouldn’t a man like him have raised suspicion there?

There was a very old tradition of Indian scholars and pundits travelling to Tibet and studying in the monasteries there. For Das, Tibet was the key to India’s vanished past. For the Tibetans, on the other hand, he was an ambassador from the land of their Lord Buddha. There is an episode where Das is being hosted by a Tibetan aristocrat and the latter says that ‘we know Indian pundits know palmistry, so tell us our future’.

So they knew about Indians and they took him to be a scholar. There is no evidence for this, but I have a strong suspicion that the Panchen Lama’s prime minister, with whom Das struck up a great friendship, knew that he was a spy. But perhaps the minister could not resist the knowledge of the outer world that this young Bengali from Calcutta brought with him.

Author Parimal Bhattacharya

The information that Sarat Chandra Das brought from Tibet… how do you see it in the historical context?

Sarat Chandra Das’s account was sort of a manual for Sir Francis Younghusband, who led a military expedition to Tibet in 1904. It was the first comprehensive account of the unknown land; not only its topography but its people, culture and all aspects of life. And if you look at the historical sequence – Das returned from Tibet in 1882 after his second trip, but his account was first published in book form in 1902. The very next year, in 1903, Younghusband is preparing to invade Tibet. I see Das as an explorer, who ultimately made it possible for the British to go into Tibet.

With Tibet becoming an integral part of China, most of what Sarat Chandra Das documented is a closed chapter now. Many monasteries were vandalized, manuscripts and thangkas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China between 1966 and 1976. So, it is a lost segment of history. But, if we can interpret it properly, particularly the interaction between the two ancient cultures, it could show us a way into the future. With the persistent tension between India and China, especially around the McMahon line that was born out of the adventures of Kinthup and Eric Bailey, it can never be a closed chapter of history.

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