Discoverers Web: The Pundits

The Pundits

One of the greatest projects of nineteenth century geography was the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. Bit by bit, the whole subcontinent was mapped with unprecedented precision. The English also wanted geographical information on the lands further north. This was not just out of scientific curiosity: The Russians were expanding their empire into Central Asia, and the English feared that might have set their eyes on India. Thus, the Russians and the English both tried to extend their influence in Asia. Knowledge of geography of the region was of course of utmost importance in this so-called 'Great Game'.

However, in some regions these surveys seemed impossible. Some of the Indian border countries, in particular Tibet, would not allow westerners to enter their country, let alone a British surveying team. In the 1860s, Thomas G. Montgomerie, a captain in the survey, realised that the solution to this problem would be to train natives from Indian border states such as Sikkim to be surveyors, and have them explore the region. These would raise less suspicion than Europeans, and might be able to make observations disguised as a trader or a lama (holy man). These native surveyors are called pundits, after a Hindi word for a man of learning.

A number of tricks were developed to enable the pundits to make their observations without being found out. They were trained to make exactly 2,000 paces to the mile. To count them, they used what looked like a buddhist rosary, but instead of the usual 108 beads had 100, every tenth being slightly larger. Every 100 paces a bead was dropped. A prayer wheel did not hold the usual buddhist prayer om mani padni hom, but maps and notes. Pundit Nain Singh also found that these could be used to ward off curious co-travellers: Each time someone came too near, he would start whirling the wheel around and thus pretend to be in religious contemplation. Usually this would be enough to stop others from addressing him. Another way of keeping their observation was to turn them into a poem, and recite that during their travels.

The pundits were given extensive training in surveying: They learned to use the sextant, determine height by measuring the temperature of boiling water, make astronomical observations. They also got a medical training. Despite the precautions and tricks, some of them were sent back, tortured or even executed. But with their travels they managed to map the Himalayas, Tibet and surrounding areas with remarkable precision. Their exploits are still little known and under-appreciated. They deserve to be counted among the greatest and most daring explorers in history.

Nain Singh (1826?-1882)

The first, and arguably the greatest, of the pundits was Nain Singh, a Bhotian schoolteacher. With his cousin Mani Singh, he left Dehra Dun, the survey's northern India headquarters, for Nepal in 1865. From there Mani returned to India by way of western Tibet, but Nain went on to Tashilhumpo, where he met the Panchen Lama, and Lhasa. During his stay in Lhasa, his secret was discovered by two Kashmiri merchants, but for unknown reasons, they did not report him to the authorities. Nain Singh returned to India by way of Mansarowar Lake in western Tibet. He had done an enormous jog, mapping the trade route through Nepal to Tibet, determining for the first time the location and altitude of Lhasa, and mapping a large section of the Tsangpo, the major Tibetan river.

On a second voyage, in 1867, Singh explored western Tibet and visited the legendary Thok-Jalung gold mines. He noticed that the workers only dug for gold near the surface, because they believed digging deeper was a crime against the Earth and deprive it of fertility. In 1873-5, he traveled from Leh in Kashmir ot Lhasa, by a route more northerly than the one along the Tsangpo that he had taken on his first journey.

Hari Ram

Hari Ram explored the region around Mount Everest in 1871-1872. At first he was not allowed to enter Tibet, but his luck changed when he met a district official whose wife was ill. He examined her, checked his medical book for a disease with similar symptoms, and gave her some pills. To his own surprise, the woman recovered, and from then he found relatively little difficulty in travelling on. He gave a frightening account of his trip along the Bhote Kosi river:

He followed the general course of the Bhotia-Kosi River, which he was obliged to cross fifteen times within twenty-five miles. At one place the river ran in a gigantic chasm, the sides of which were so close to one another that a bridge of 24 paces was sufficient to span it. Near this bridge the precipices were so impractible that the path had to be supported on iron pegs let into the face of the rock - the path being formed by bars of iron and slabs of stone stretching from peg to peg and covered with earth. This extraordinary path is in no place more than eighteen inches, and often not more than nine inches in width, and is carried for more than a third of a mile along the face of the cliff, at some 1,500 feet above the river, which could be seen roaring below in its narrow bed. The Pundit, who has seen much difficult ground in the Himalayas, says he never in his life met anything to equal this bit of path. (report of Montgomerie to the Royal Geographical Society, as quoted in Cameron 1980)

During his voyage, Hari Ram had opened up 30,000 square miles of virtually unknown territory. He had travelled all the way around Mount Everest, but because other mountains stood in between, he never actually saw it. On a second journey, Hari Ram traversed northern Nepal from west to east.

Krishna Singh

Krishna Singh (also known as Kishen Singh), Nain Singh's brother, also was an important pundit. His last and greatest voyage commenced in 1878. He followed the northern trade route from Lhasa to Chinese Turkestan and China. He followed the route all the way to Tuhnwang, and on his way back explored the eastern Tibet border region. At one point the caravan leader wanted the caravan to go by horse to cross a bandit-ridden area faster. Krishna, unable to count his steps during this period, measured the distance (230 miles) by counting his horse's steps instead.


At this time, the Tsangpo river was still a mystery. Was this river, which flows from west to east through Tibet, perhaps the same river that flows into the Bay of Bengal under the name of Brahmaputra, as Nain Singh thought? To find this out, a pundit name Kinthup was sent into Tibet, together with a Chinese lama, as whose servant he would act. They were to throw logs into the Tsangpo, fifty logs a day for ten days. Along the Brahmaputra, surveyors would be on the lookout for these logs. However, the lama proved unreliable. He wasted time on flirting with various women and eating and drinking with his colleagues, and then sold Kinthup to a Tibetan lama. After seven months in slavery, Kinthup managed to escape, and travelled east along the Tsangpo. His master nearly captured him, but he fled into a buddhist monastery, and the head lama bought him from his previous owner.

Despite all, Kinthup was still dedicated to his task, and after a few months he asked permission to make a pilgrimage, and used his leave to cut and mark the logs. He did not throw them in the water yet - it was eighteen months since he had left India, and probably noone would be looking for them any more. So Kinthup returned to the monastery, some time later asked for permission to make a pilgrimage again, and went to Lhasa, where he had a fellow Sikkimese bring a letter to the survey authorities to tell about his fate, and announce when he would be throwing the logs into the river. Kinthup returned to the monastery, and on his next leave threw the logs into the river as announced. Only then he returned to India, but there disappointment awaited him. His letter had not reached India, and his report of his travels were not believed. Kinthup left the survey and became a tailor. Only years later did geographers realize that his reports and his story were completely correct - and that the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were indeed the same river.

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