India’s Spy-Explorers

When I think of explorers, I think of tall blonde men in khaki shorts and Shikari Shambu style hats, coming out tents with a notebook and a pair of binoculars around their necks. It turns out that Google also imagined explorers in a similar manner because when I searched for “British explorers in the 19th century” I found this fascinating advertisement for explorer hats for men and women. I suppose, you cannot go out exploring without just the right hat or helmet for the occasion!

Pith helmet style options in the late 19th century/early 20th century. (Source: Pinterest)

Nain Singh Rawat did not fit this rather specific image we all seem to have of explorers. He was a thin brown man, with narrow eyes. During his explorations through the forbidden lands of Tibet, he was dressed as a Buddhist pilgrim. In spite of not being dressed for the part, in 1877, when he was being considered for a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions through Tibet, Col. Henry Yule (a well known Scottish geographer of the time) wrote that Nain Singh Rawat accomplished something that “no European but the first rank of travelers like Livingstone or Grant [could] have done.” Yule was writing to the Society to persuade them that Nain Singh was truly deserving of the medal instead of his British supervisor, Capt. Trotter who had planned the expedition, interpreted the results and published them. Yule argued that Nain Singh’s “great journeys in Tibet would have brought this reward to any European explorer”. In the end, this school teacher from Kumaon Valley in Uttarakhand won the prestigious Gold Medal in 1877 for having “added a larger amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than those of any other living man.”‘

Nain Singh Rawat, one of the first Indian spies to explore Tibet (Source: Wikipedia)
Source: PBS

Nain Singh was just one of several Indian spies recruited by the British as agents in the Great Game that was being played between the British and Russian Empires. In the second half of the 19th century, the two European empires were eyeing each other’s growing power in Asia with suspicion and some envy. The Russians raced through Central Europe, trying to consolidate their influence in the region, while the British felt particularly protective of their South Asian colonies. When Russia showed interest in Afghanistan, the British got worried. That was far too close for comfort. What if, after Afghanistan, the great Russian bear turned their attention on the precious Indian subcontinent?

So, poor Afghanistan fell victim to its own geography. The British and Russians had diplomatic and actual battles over the country. Afghanistan became the centre of two wars and it is in this time I see the roots of the Afghani resentment of foreign powers in their domestic affairs that drives the Taliban. It is true that for a large part of their modern history, Afghanistan has been manipulated and toyed with by foreign powers for their own selfish reasons. With these same selfish motivations, both also started to wonder about the mysterious state of Tibet. Tibetans had a long standing suspicion of foreigners and unhesitatingly killed any foreigners found within their borders.

The Russian bear and the English lion, each claiming to be friends of the Emir of Afghanistan, also began to be menacing forces in the state. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Worried about an impending Russian invasion, the British wanted to know what exactly lay on the other side of the Himalayas. Could the British Raj be extended to include this land? Was it a natural barrier between India and the Russians in Central Asia?

The British employed a bunch of Indian spies to do this exploring for them. Nain Singh and his cousin, Kishen SIngh are the most famous but there were at least 20 others. They were recruited by British surveyors who then sent them to a type of spy school where they learnt not just how to be surveyors, but also how to measure distance using Buddhist malas (prayer beads) with 100 instead of 108 beads in them. Every 2000 paces was equal to 1 mile. They dropped a bead every 100 paces. Therefore, when they had finished counting 1 full string of beads they had covered half a mile. I would have failed miserably at this mission because I would have constantly lost track of my paces! The Tibetans would have been suspicious of a pilgrim shaking her head and constantly muttering about having to start over.

In their surveyor/spy school Nain Singh and the other pundits (that was the code name given to these Indian explorer-spies), learnt the art of disguise, how to write observations in code and hide them in their prayer wheels instead of buddhist mantras, or make up little poems of their observations that they would recite regularly so that they did not forget what they were noting down. Were these explorer-spies (code named pundits) aware of their role in this game? Did they know why they were disguising themselves as pilgrims and risking their lives to wander the Tibetan plateau taking careful measurements and recording their observations in code?

Some of these explorers were truly committed to their missions. Kinthup, a Lepcha man from Sikkim. He had been hired as an assistant to a Chinese explorer lama. Their mission was to investigate whether the river Tsangpo in Tibet was the same as the river Brahmaputra in India. Kinthup’s mission was to send around 500 specially marked logs down the river Tsangpo. If his British supervisor spotted them floating down the Brahmaputra then they would know that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were the same.

Unfortunately Kinthup was in for a really rough ride. First, the Chinese lama/spy sold him as a slave to a Tibetan lama who confiscated all his surveyor equipment. After four years as a slave, Kinthup managed to escape. You would think that he would have just turned around and come back to Sikkim, but no. Kinthup found a way to send those logs down the Tsangpo. Of course, by this time his British supervisor had returned to England and there was no one on the Indian end looking out for these logs. Kinthup ended up spending 2 and a half years trekking the length of the Tsangpo, recording his observations while pretending to be a Buddhist pilgrim. Eventually he proved their hypothesis that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were the same river.

Kinthup, Sarat Chandra Das, Abdul Hamid, Kishen Singh, Nain Singh and the other pundits were as much adventurers as their khaki clad European counterparts. Yet, I imagine them as being different in their attitude. As I browse through images of the explorers of yesteryear, like this one of an European explorer posing with a pygmy couple, I wonder if these pundits would have struck such similar confident, condescending poses on similar explorations. Were they more aware that they were just a small part of a greater and somewhat more sinister game of imperialistic ambitions?

A European Explorer posing with a pygmy couple and their baby circa 1921. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At any rate, the Indian pundit explorers seem always to escape the notice of the average school child. While they know of Vasco Da Gama, Magellan and Columbus, Nain Singh and his cousins, the brave Kinthup and other pundits remain unknown to the average Indian.


Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
The Great Game and Afghanistan, The Library of Congress website (this is such an excellent resource, so please check it out if you have the time)
Nain Singh’s Last Exploration, PBS Frontline
The Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game by Parag Sayta