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Spying for the Raj: The Pundits and the Mapping of the Himalaya

Spying for the Raj: The Pundits and the Mapping of the Himalaya

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by Jules Stewart

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From the early nineteenth century, Imperial Russian expansion threatened the increasing British dominance of India. In the 1860s, Captain Thomas Montgomerie hit on the idea of training natives from Indian border states to be surveyors, and have them explore the region covertly. Disguised as traders of Buddhist monks, the Pundits taught themselves to count their own


From the early nineteenth century, Imperial Russian expansion threatened the increasing British dominance of India. In the 1860s, Captain Thomas Montgomerie hit on the idea of training natives from Indian border states to be surveyors, and have them explore the region covertly. Disguised as traders of Buddhist monks, the Pundits taught themselves to count their own paces and to walk at exactly 2,000 paces to the mile, whether uphill, downhill or on level ground. They were taught the use of sextant and compass, to navigate by the stars and to calculate altitudes by observing the boiling point of water. These loyal servants of the Raj, for personal prestige, the opportunity of employment or the sheer love of adventure displayed an extraordinary dedication to their British employers. Despite their precautions and tricks, some of them were sent back, imprisoned or tortured. Even so, they managed to map the Himalaya, Tibet and surrounding areas with remarkable precision, thereby helping the British to consolidate their rule in the Indian subcontinent.

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The History Press
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Spying for the RAJ

The Pundits and the Mapping of the Himalaya

By Jules Stewart

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Jules Stewart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9586-6


To Tibet with a Cross

A passing yak herder might have dismissed the odd-looking individual as one of those eccentric, perhaps slightly mad Buddhist pilgrims who were often to be found performing their mysterious tantric rites by the banks of Tibet's sacred Tsangpo river. The shabby figure, clad in tattered sheepskin tunic and worn felt boots, crouched with his gaze fixed on the swiftly flowing water that rises on the Tibetan tableland to the west, to come crashing wildly across the bleak plateau, through the world's deepest gorge, whence it emerges as the Brahmaputra, sluggishly wending its way down to the Bay of Bengal.

Every day, he would release fifty small logs into the river, each cut exactly a foot long. A keen-eyed observer might have been puzzled by the small tin tubes that were bound to each of the logs with strips of bamboo. Had he been a Tibetan official, this discovery would almost certainly have cost the enigmatic 'pilgrim' his life. For the man perched by the river bank was Kintup, an illiterate peasant from Sikkim and one of the British Government's master spies, engaged on an espionage mission deep in Tibetan territory nearly 150 years ago.

The Tsangpo, which has yet to be navigated from its glacial source near Mount Kailash in western Tibet for the full length of its 1,800-mile course to its outlet in Bangladesh, was in the late nineteenth century an irritating conundrum to the geographers of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Was this river, which zigzagged its way through the hidden canyons of southern Tibet, in fact linked to the Brahmaputra, thus ranking it among the world's greatest waterways? To find the answer, the British recruited specially trained undercover agents, known as Pundits, men who risked life and limb to infiltrate the forbidden land of Tibet, to gather intelligence about this disturbing blank spot on the Survey's map of Central Asia.

The Indian Pundits could by no means lay claim to being the first interlopers to penetrate terra incognita in High Asia. More than two centuries before the first Indian explorers set out to cross the Himalaya, a band of determined Catholic missionaries was suffering hunger, frostbite and highwaymen to salvage heathen souls in Tibet and China.

Tibet has exercised a magical power over travellers and religious pilgrims throughout history, from Marco Polo to Alexandra David-Neel, the early twentieth-century French opera singer-turned-Asian explorer. The pulse quickens at the mere mention of this mysterious land, the highest region on Earth, a vast, land-locked 14,000-foot-high plateau concealed behind frozen Himalayan ridges and barren, forbidding deserts. There is a compelling fascination about a people who carry their dead to mountaintops, their corpses to be dismembered and then devoured by hovering vultures, messengers who can run for days on end in a trance-like state of mind, their feet barely touching the ground, and holy men who are able to dip sheets into icy streams and dry them on their naked bodies while sitting cross-legged in the snow. The tantric practices of Tibet are chronicled in David-Neel's highly readable travelogues of Tibet, christened by Westerners the Roof of the World, the Abode of Snow or the Third Pole, and more prosaically known to its inhabitants as Bohd, literally 'followers of Bön', the ancient animistic religion that pre-dates the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet around the eighth century AD. The name Tibet is itself generally believed to derive from a composite of terms used by early Arabic, Mongol and Chinese traders and conquerors.

Tibet has always represented an irresistible enigma to those wishing to penetrate its mysterious ways. Nearly four centuries were to pass after Columbus had placed the New World on the map before Europeans were to acquire an accurate knowledge of this country's geography. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, the precise location of Lhasa was a subject of animated debate at meetings of the Royal Geographical Society.

As Britain expanded its rule over the Indian subcontinent, the Empire marching inexorably northward toward the Himalaya, with Russia methodically gobbling up the wild khanates of Central Asia on its southern borders, the matter of gaining a foothold in Tibet became a matter of urgency for the converging great European powers. But well before the celebrated Anglo-Russian rivalry, romantically dubbed the Great Game, began closing in on Tibet's borders, Europeans had begun to gatecrash this hidden Buddhist sanctuary, and appropriately enough they were arriving on a wave of religious zeal. Some four centuries ago, a band of intrepid clerics emerged from Portugal, of all places, to carry the evangelising fervour of the Society of Jesus to unbelievers on the other side of the world. The overland journeys of these dauntless globe-trotters would today be no less fraught with hardship and peril than when the Jesuits set out to reach Tibet in the early seventeenth century.

The Jesuit missionaries spent more than a century trekking across Central Asia. It was not a quest for knowledge of uncharted territories, there was no desire to fill in white spots on the map or unearth forgotten cities. This was to come more than 300 years later through the laborious fieldwork of geographers and archaeologists such as Sir Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin and the early British explorers. The Portuguese clerics were first and foremost out to spread the Gospel.

Bento de Goes was 40 years old, a man well into middle age in 1602, when he stood before the ochre sandstone walls of Lahore, the Punjab capital of the great Moghul emperor Akbar, who had summoned the priest to his Court to learn about his curious form of worship. Brother Goes had marched more than 800 miles northward through the Indian desert from Goa, the Portuguese enclave where he had taken his Jesuit vows. At last he had arrived, fatigued and jubilant as he contemplated the splendour of the Moghul palaces, the hectic bustle of the bazaar, as well as the certainty that far more trying times lay ahead. For the priest's objective was to carry on to Xathai (Cathay, or China) and in that far-away kingdom to find a lost community of Christians, whose existence was based on the flimsiest of evidence. A Muslim merchant had returned to the Punjab after months of wheeling and dealing in the Orient, bearing tales of a considerable population of Isauitae (followers of Jesus) living in the remotest reaches of Asia. This trader's accounts, wholly unsubstantiated to be sure, were based on little more than a description of dress and custom that he had observed in his travels. They nevertheless aroused the Moghul emperor's curiosity. Thus Akbar granted Goes permission to go on his quest. The Islamic merchant may have been led to believe he had stumbled across a congregation of Nestorians, the ancient Christians of Iraq, Iran and Malabar, in India. The name relates to Nestorius, an abbot of Antioch, whom the Emperor Theodosius II appointed as patriarch of Constantinople in 428. The Nestorian missions in Asia were persecuted nearly to extinction by the Chinese, Hindus and Muslims, leaving fewer than 100,000 Nestorians practising today. Nestorius outraged the Catholic world by opposing the use of the title Mother of God for the Virgin Mary, on the grounds that, while the Father begot Jesus as God, Mary bore him as a man. This heresy served as a fertile expedient for wholesale massacres of Nestorian communities by Kurds and Turks as late as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The great period of expansion of the Nestorian Church was from the seventh to the tenth centuries, when missions were established in India and China, but since that time little had been heard of this mysterious sect. It was known that a famous monument had been erected by Chinese Nestorians in Sian (the ancient Su-cheu) in 781, and it was thither, through the trackless wilds of the Pamirs and Tien Shan mountains, that Goes set his sights.

Trekking through parts of Afghanistan where even today only the suicidal would dare to set foot without an armed convoy, Goes wandered north into Kafiristan, the homeland of pagans who had not yet been converted to Islam. The blue-eyed, fair-haired Kafirs living in these isolated valleys were said to be descendants of soldiers who had marched into India with Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. These people being wine-drinkers, unlike the Muslims, Goes happily surmised that he had come upon one of these mythical Christian enclaves. His spirits lifted by this encouraging discovery, the Jesuit pressed on, skirting the northern reaches of Tibet on his voyage to Cathay. During the many rigorous months, two years in fact, that it took him to reach the Great Wall, Goes variously was forced to perform a European dance before the 12-year-old king of East Turkestan, found himself caught up in horrific scenes of civil-war carnage in the Hindu Kush, and was threatened by the maharajah of Kashmir with being crushed under the feet of an elephant. Disregarding these annoyances, on he marched, moving by night to avoid an encounter with the Tartar bandits who made a habit of spreading terror along the caravan routes.

On Christmas Day of 1605 Goes, the first European since Marco Polo to set foot in China, rode into Su-cheu, having failed to save a single soul on his crossing or to lay eyes on a fellow Christian, Nestorian or otherwise. Two years later, while still in the Chinese city, the valiant Jesuit gave up his own soul in obscure circumstances and was buried in a grave now long- forgotten, laid to rest by a young Chinese convert sent by the Jesuit Fathers whose mission was already established in Peking.

The death of Goes was embroiled in controversy, arousing strong suspicions of foul play on the part of the Muslims with whom the Jesuit had shared part of his journey and in whose quarter of Su-cheu he spent his final months. 'The hypothesis of poison ... receives some confirmation from their action [the Muslims] after his death,' says the Jesuit chronicler Cornelius Wessels.

Though not a scholar, Goes was a man of talent and a sharp observer. He kept an elaborate journal, in which he accurately noted down distances, roads and their condition, places and countries. But the same journal had recorded in its pages the sums of money advanced by Goes to several of his fellow travellers. This must have been known to them, for no sooner had he died than they possessed themselves of all his belongings, and as if by pre-concerted action first threw themselves on the diary.

In a world immersed in treachery and intrigue, as was seventeenth-century Asia, this would have been a perfectly plausible sequence of events. Much later, the more factually documented murders of Western and mainly British explorers on trans-Himalayan missions became a prime incentive for employing native agents. With a dash of camouflage, these men ran a far smaller risk of coming to grief at the hands of fanatical Oriental potentates. Goes was nonetheless extremely lucky to have escaped persecution or worse on his voyage. The priest was determined that under no circumstances would he deny his Christian faith. 'That as a European he might not at once have to meet opposition,' writes Wessels, 'he donned the garb of a Persian trader and let his hair and beard grow. That he was a Christian he neither might nor would conceal, as is sufficiently apparent from the name, Abdullah Isai (servant of God), which he adopted.'

Exploring Central Asia in disguise was a device pioneered by Goes, and it is one of several ways in which Goes's adventure, as well as the later travels of his Catholic brethren, is relevant to the story of the Indian Pundits. Hardly had the dust settled on Goes's epic journey than another Jesuit in disguise was making his way toward the lush valleys of Kumaon province, west of Nepal, at the foot of the mountains that demarcated the northern limits of Hindustan in what is today Kashmir. Antonio de Andrade was 44 years old when in 1624 he rode out of Agra, fired like his predecessor by tales of Christians living in seclusion in Tibet. In Delhi he joined a party of Hindu devotees starting off on a pilgrimage to a sacred temple in the Himalaya. This was as good a subterfuge as any Andrade was likely to find, so, adopting a Hindu disguise that even his Jesuit coreligionists in Delhi failed to penetrate, he negotiated to link up with the caravan, taking with him a Christian companion and two servants.

The Hindus turned out to be more astute, or at least more mistrustful than the Jesuits of Delhi. Andrade's expedition came within a whisker of ending in tragedy only several days' march from the Moghul Court. The Jesuit spent a few anxious days when the Hindus, taking note of Andrade's unusual mannerisms, snatched him from the caravan and blatantly accused him of being a spy. Andrade had been unmasked, but fortunately not undone. The priest was forced to admit that he was neither a Hindu pilgrim nor a travelling merchant, but thanks to an almost miraculous stroke of luck, he managed to persuade his captors of his bona fides as a man of God, albeit an alien divinity. It apparently made little difference to the Hindus whether the Muslim and Buddhist inhabitants of Tibet were converted from one religion to another. Once satisfied that espionage was not on the Portuguese missionary's agenda, they allowed Andrade to rejoin the caravan.

After a terrifying journey across collapsing snow bridges, and inching their way along rock walls hundreds of feet above the swift-flowing waters of the Ganges, Andrade and his party at last reached Badrinath, the holy Hindu temple perched 10,500 feet above sea level in the Garwahl Himalaya. Here Andrade bid farewell to his Hindu travelling companions and struck out for Tibet, turning a deaf ear to death threats from the rajah of Srinagar, whose messengers had presented him with orders to turn back. He pushed on, sinking in snow drifts up to his shoulders on his ascent to the high passes. 'The intense cold numbed their hands and feet and faces, so that Andrade, hurting his finger against something, lost part of it,' says Wessels. Andrade's body was so paralysed with cold that only the intense bleeding made him aware of his loss.

At last, one fine afternoon Andrade found himself gasping for breath on the summit of Mana Pass, with the Tibetan plateau laid out in bleak magnificence before his snow-blinded eyes. It was August 1624, and after a steep descent into the upper Sutlej river valley, Andrade became the first European to enter the Tibetan town of Tsaparang, situated at 15,800 feet above sea level, roughly the height of Mont Blanc. The wandering Jesuit returned to India bearing tales of red hat and yellow hat lamas, who wore necklaces made of human bones and used skulls as drinking vessels to remind themselves of death, along with a litany of doctrines and ceremonies that suggested a closer link with Christianity than Islam. None of these theories held water, of course, but they were sufficient to persuade the local Tibetan chieftain to lend his support to the Jesuits' proselytising work. The mission established at Tsaparang was abandoned a few years later as hopeless, and within a decade of Andrade's arrival the Jesuits' presence in Tibet had withered to little more than a memory.

A trickle of Portuguese missionaries continued to ply the routes of the High Himalaya to Tibet well into the eighteenth century, in pursuit of converts and imaginary secret Christian communities. Their adventures, along with those of later Franciscan friars, were undeniably heroic achievements of great single-mindedness. But their exploits bore little consequence for another generation of explorers whose missions were undertaken in the name not of God, but of Empire.

A few hours on a steamy June afternoon in 1757 were all it took to seal the fate of the Indian subcontinent for the next two centuries. Sir Robert Clive, commanding a force of 3,000 British and native troops, joined battle with the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey, a small village and mango grove near Calcutta. The nawab, Siraj-ud Daula, had deployed a superior force of 50,000 men, including French artillery, in the field. The motive for the battle, at least from the British side, was the nawab's attack on Calcutta the previous year, in which some of the British defenders had been cast into the city's infamous Black Hole, whence a few were never to emerge alive. It was the pretext Clive was after to dethrone the nawab and take possession of the rich and fertile region of Bengal in the name of his employer, the East India Company.

The Bengal army opened hostilities with a sustained artillery barrage from the French gunners, a bombardment as ineffective as it was furious, until at midday a monsoon downpour on their poorly protected powder stores forced the nawab to retire his forces from the battlefield. Clive lost no time in launching a vigorous counter-attack. A general rout ensued; Clive's troops scattered the panic-stricken Bengalis across the plains, pursuing them for 6 miles and picking up forty abandoned cannon along the way. The final tally was more than 500 Bengali troops killed, while Clive's losses numbered only twenty-two. Among the enemy casualties was Siraj-ud Daula, who had been taken prisoner and stabbed to death by accomplices of Mir Jafir, the turncoat chieftain whom Clive now enthroned as puppet Nawab of Bengal.


Excerpted from Spying for the RAJ by Jules Stewart. Copyright © 2013 Jules Stewart. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Spying for the Raj: The Pundits and the Mapping of the Himalaya 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I was interested in the subject matter, the level of storytelling made the book less than engaging. The unfortunately overused technique of foreshadowing, prevalent in many of today's historical texts was even poorly employed when many of these events were not revisited nor their relevance explained. Additionally, the scholarship seemed quite collegiate merely recounting exploits previously chronicled by others and drawing few new conclusions. However, the biggest problem for me was that it is a book was about the men who explored 'terra incognita' to fill in blank areas on the maps of that time but the maps provided failed miserably to identify even half of the locations discussed in the text. In the absence other texts that address this subject, this is an adequate introduction but sadly not either a work of great scholarship nor a captivating tale.