The Secret Exploration of the Himalaya and Central Asia


THE SURVEY OF INDIA was one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the British in India. Its success was based on highly motivated, talented, well-trained and dedicated members of many races, a high proportion of whom died or were killed in its service. The number of British officers was always small but they more than made up for this by being highly effective. Their professionalism was in keeping with the ethos of the Indian Civil Service, which managed to administer a country of 250 million people with no more than about 2500 British members.

The contribution of the Survey of India to mountain exploration was formidable. In 1921, for example, during the first Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, E O Wheeler, later Surveyor-General of India from 1941 to 1946, discovered the key to the successful route on the north side of the mountain after Mallory had failed to investigate the East Rongbuk Glacier. Later that year Wheeler set up the world's highest survey station on the Lhakpa La (22,000ft), while H T Morshead, the other surveyor in the 1921 party, had already been on Kamet in 1920 with Kellas. Also in 1921 about 15,000 square miles of unknown southern Tibet were surveyed and a survey of northern Sikkim completed.

The roots of the Survey of India lay deep in the Vedic History of India: as early as the third century BC the art of survey had been described, and by the fifth century AD, Arya Bhat had calculated the earth's circumference at the equator to be 25,000 miles, less than 200 miles off the modern measurement. The Survey of India owed its birth to the appointment in 1797 by the East India Company of James Rennell as Surveyor General of Bengal. His first Map of Hindostan, printed in the UK, had reached India.

After Lambton's death in 1823 he was succeeded by George Everest who completed the Great Meridional Arc from Cape Cormorin at the southern tip of India to Mussoorie, a distance of 2400km. This was the backbone of the gridiron system by which India was subsequently mapped.

*Reprinted from the Alpine Journal 1998, with kind permission of the author and editor.

Photos 17-18

The difficulties of working in a land of mountains, desert and jungle were awesome, with poor communications and the ever-present risk of attack by endemic disease, bandits and wild animals; moreover, instruments continually broke down. Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, particularly praised Momsin Hussain, 'the great repairer of instruments', without whose dedicated expertise so much of his survey work would have been impossible.

Eventually the Survey reached the unmapped ranges of the Himalaya and Karakoram which divided the subcontinent from Central Asia. The relatively favourable political climate of the time allowed teams to probe India's north-west boundaries, while access to the then independent kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam, the North-East Frontier Agency and Tibet was largely unattainable. So the pundits were born.

Following the retirement of Sir George Everest in December 1843, Andrew Waugh was appointed both Surveyor General and Director of the Great Trigonometrical Survey. Between 1855 and 1865, some of the Survey's most important work was completed in Kashmir under the guidance of Captain T G Montgomerie, the originator of the pundits.


Montgomerie was gazetted in the Bengal Engineers and arrived in India in 1851. In the same year he joined the Great Trigonometrical Survey and in 1855 was put in charge of the Kashmir Survey, with W H Johnson as his second-in-command. The triangulation started in Kashmir's Pir Panjal. In 1856 a reconnaissance of Ladakh was made during which K2 was seen and its height, 28,265ft, calculated for the first time. The Kashmir survey continued throughout the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and in 1858 it was in Skardu in 1865, during his first leave to the UK, Montgomerie was awarded the Founder's Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society. Though he was awarded this honour for his own personal achievements, it was to be for his initiative and enterprise in the use of the pundits that he would subsequently be remembered.

Although surveys covering 'several marches beyond the Karakoram Pass' had already been made, it was clear that different techniques would be needed to fill in the large blanks on the map of Tibet and Central Asia. As natives of India could cross the frontier freely, Montgomerie conceived the idea of training native surveyors disguised as traders or pilgrims, using concealed instruments; these men became famous as 'the pundits'.

Montgomerie first put forward his ideas in a Memorandum dated 20 August 1861. He suggested that to measure distance, surveyors should be required to walk 2000 paces to the mile. They were trained to do this by a British Sergeant-Major with a drum and a pace stick. To assist counting they carried a specially-designed Buddhist rosary with 100 beads rather than the usual 108. Every tenth bead was larger and represented 1000 paces, the smaller beads representing 100 paces. The results were inscribed and kept among the prayers in the cavity of the hand-held prayer wheel. Information about topography, culture and politics was also recorded. A compass could be placed in the semi-precious stone in the centre of the drum of the prayer wheel or in the head of a hollowed-out stick, which served also as a repository for gold and silver coins. A watch, boiling- point thermometer (for altitude), barometer and sextant were carried in various guises. After training at the Survey headquarters at Dehra Dun, each pundit was tested along a known route before being despatched on a mission. All Montgomerie's proposals were approved by the Government of India in 1863.

The first pundit, Abdul Hamid, was despatched to Yarkand the same year. Yarkand was chosen because not only was it an important centre, but its position had been incorrectly placed on contemporary maps and intelligence was needed about the region.

Hamid, a Moslem, already had some surveying knowledge, and after training for a month at Montgomerie's camp, he joined a caravan disguised as a trader. Leaving Leh on 23 August 1863 he crossed the Karakoram Pass and on 30 September reached Yarkand where he remained throughout the winter. Eventually the Chinese became suspicious so, with his friend Awaz Ali, he returned by the same route. Sadly, he died after eating poisonous rhubarb, but luckily his notes and instruments were rescued by W H Johnson, who happened to be camping close by.

This first secret journey was a great success from the point of view of the Survey, and Montgomerie capitalised on it by sending more pundits into Turkestan. The secret exploration of Central Asia now began in earnest. The two most outstanding pundits were Nain Singh and Kishen Singh.

NAIN SINGH (1830-1882)

For the initial exploration of Tibet and the independent Himalayan Kingdoms, Montgomerie selected Nain Singh and his cousin Mani Singh from Milam on the advice of Edmund Smyth, Education Officer of Kumaon. They were sons of the Singh family who had helped Moorcroft and Hearsey in their exploration of western Tibet in 1812.

Nain Singh

Nain Singh

Son of Lata Burha, Nain Singh was born in Milam in the Upper Johar Valley of Kumaon in 1830. Milam, situated at the foot of the glacier which is the source of the Gori Ganga river, is inhabited in summer only. Trade with western Tibet was in flour, rice and British manufactured goods, which were exchanged for wool, salt, gold-dust, ponies and borax. Each Johar trader had a Tibetan colleague or mitra who was identified by the splitting of a stone, each keeping one half. Carrying this token, the Indian trader or a colleague would sell his goods in Tibet only to an individual who could marry up the other half of the stone.

Nain Singh, with his father, traded regularly in Tibet, became fluent in Tibetan and familiar with Tibetan customs and religious observances. With his cousin Mani Singh, he was with the Schlagintweit brothers between 1855 and 1857 and with Richard and Henry Strachey in western Tibet in 1858. Nain Singh then joined the education service and was headmaster of the Milam Government Vernacular School from 1858 to 1863. Both he and Mani Singh were then selected and trained as pundits at Dehra Dun.

1865-66 Kathmandu — Lhasa — Gartok

The first task assigned to Nain and Mani Singh was to make for Lhasa, and immediately they demonstrated qualities of initiative and enterprise. Providentially, some traders who had been robbed near Gartok in western Tibet asked them to act as their representatives in Lhasa in order to try to recover the goods. The direct route north from Kumaon to the Lake Manasarowar region, which followed the main route from Gartok to Lhasa, was impassable, so the cousins decided to go via Kathmandu which they reached. Nain Singh persevered, and when the merchant for whom he was working reneged on his offer, Nain disguised himself as a Ladakhi merchant, complete with pigtail, and continued alone, joining a group of Bashari traders bound for Lake Manasarowar. On reaching the Tsangpo, he was told that this river flowed east and then turned south into India. At the time this information was of great geographical importance. Following the main trade route east he finally reached Lhasa in January 1866, having covered some 500 miles in 37 days. He rented a room and explored the city, making the first measured topographical observations since the visit in 1846 of Fathers Hue and Gabet.

Although 'forbidden' to Europeans, Lhasa was a thriving cosmopolitan centre visited by merchants from India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and further afield. Nain Singh had an audience with the Dalai Lama at Sera Monastery, and was able to observe closely the ceremonial details. When his funds were exhausted he supported himself by teaching. This was an unlikely occupation for a Bashari trader and his disguise was spotted by two Kashmiris, but luckily they remained silent and even lent him some money.

After three months in Lhasa Nain Singh returned to western Tibet with the same group of Kashmiris who had befriended him earlier. Instead of returning directly to Kathmandu, he continued towards the important trading centre of Gartok, crossed the Himalaya with difficulty and arrived in Dehra Dun on 27 October 1866. His report included the first survey of 1200 miles of the main trade route in southern Tibet. He also defined the course of the Tsangpo as far as the Kyi Chu tributary on which Lhasa lies. In addition he had collected innumerable climatic, topographical and political details which were of great value both to the Survey and to the Government of India. As a result, more money was made available for exploration in Tibet and Central Asia.

The pundits now started mining a rich seam of hitherto unavailable information with panache, bravery and intelligence. Once they had left Dehra Dun they received no support, and they had to rely for survival solely upon their own wit and cunning.

1867 Gartok — Thok Jalong goldfields — sources of the Indus and Sutlej rivers — Mt Kailas

The purpose of Nain and Mani Singh's next mission was to establish the position of the headwaters of the Indus and Sutlej rivers, explore the famed goldfields of Thok Jalong, and fill in a number of topographical gaps. An extra member was added to the party; this was Kalian Singh, one of Nain Singh's brothers.

The trio left Mussoorie on 2 May 1867 and travelled east through Badrinath, reaching Mana on 3 June. Crossing the Himalaya by the Mana Pass on 28 July, they passed close to Tsaparang where in 1624 Father Andrade had established the first Christian mission in Tibet. After crossing the Sutlej river at Toling, they headed north and east, to avoid Tibetan officials. On the desolate and bare 'antelope plains' they disguised themselves as Bashari traders, ostensibly selling coral in exchange for shawl wool. Only by repeated protestations of innocence and the offer of large bribes were they allowed to continue. By this time Mani Singh's nerves were shredded and he was left behind as a hostage, whilst the other two continued their journeys separately — Kalian Singh towards Mt Kailas, and Nain Singh to the newly-worked goldfields of Thok Jalong.

The mine was a trench about a mile in length, 25ft deep, and with a width varying between 10 and 200 paces. A stream ran through the bottom of the trench, earth being sluiced into it and the soil being carried away leaving a residue of gold. At 16,000ft it was worked all the year round and tents were pitched below ground level to mitigate the almost continuous freezing wind. The gold was used for the many holy buildings of Tibet, particularly in Lhasa, but to avoid suspicion Nain Singh only stayed for a short time and was not able to assess the annual output of the mine. Returning to Giachuraf he was reunited with Kalian who had confirmed that the eastern branch of the Indus, north of Mt Kailas, was the river's main source. Mani also rejoined them here and, with his cousin Nain, continued to Gartok before returning to Toling. Here they waited for Kalian who had surveyed the Indus as far as Demchok and crossed a high pass to the Sutlej valley before returning to Toling. Separating again, Nain Singh returned directly to Badrinath, whilst Mani and Kalian descended the Sutlej to Shipki, and then recrossed the Himalaya. All were reunited on British territory in November 1867.

Pandit Nain Singh, C.I.E.

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17. Pandit Nain Singh, C.I.E.

Rai Bahadur Kishen Singh Milamwal

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18. Rai Bahadur Kishen Singh Milamwal

Saltoro Kangri peaks, the Siachen glacier.

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19. Saltoro Kangri peaks, the Siachen glacier. Peak II is one of the highest unci imbed peaks at present.

Thus ended the first systematic survey of western Tibet. Montgomerie built on this by sending further pundits into southern, northern and eastern Tibet.

1873-74 Forsyth's Second Mission : Yarkand - Khotan - Polu - Pangong Lake - Leh

Nain Singh and Kalian Singh, with another member of the Singh family Kishen Singh, joined this mission which opened up some new ground. Politically, however, it was the most important ever to visit Central Asia, since it brought back a vast amount of information about a then little- known but strategically vital region where the empires and areas of influence of China, Russia and the British in India converged.

1874-75 Pangong Lake - North of the Gangdise Range - Tengri Nor - Lhasa - Tawang - Assam

This was Nain Singh's last mission. Captain Trotter, who had taken over from Montgomerie when the latter left India in 1873, despatched him to Lhasa by a route that crossed the Chang Tang from west to east, north of the Gangdise Range and the many lakes in that region. After nearly ten years of rigorous and dangerous work, Nain Singh was exhausted but he accepted this final mission before retiring to a well-earned government position and a pension.

The proposal of the Survey was that he should travel eastwards through the southern part of the Chang Tang, about 100-150 miles north of the Tsangpo and north of the Gangdise Range. Reaching Lhasa, he would join a caravan that went either south and east to Tatsienlu in China or north and east across the Tibetan Plateau to Xining, also in China, and from either place he would make for Beijing. If this proved impossible he was to return to India from Lhasa either by continuing down the Tsangpo or by going due south through Bhutan. In either case he would end up in British territory.

As Nain Singh was known in Leh from his previous government service, a subterfuge was used at the start of his journey. He was provided with a flock of sheep, ostensibly carrying merchandise to Yarkand over the Karakoram Pass, but at a certain point he would divert into western Tibet. His party consisted of Chhumbel (who later accompanied Kishen Singh on an epic four-year journey) and two Tibetans. At the last village before the Tibetan border the pundit and his companions changed into lamas' robes, and travelled along the north side of the Pangong Lake. They then continued parallel to but north of the Gangdise Range, befriended by Khampa traders from eastern Tibet going in the same direction.

Nain was able to visit the gold mines at Thok Daurakpa. He identified the peak Aling Kangri for the first time and enjoyed extensive views of the north side of the Gangdise and later the Nyainqentanglha Range. After passing many lakes filled with brackish water, he arrived at the north-west corner of the largest of them, the Tengri Nor (Nam Co). Here he turned south and east, reaching Lhasa on 18 November 1874.

Unfortunately he was recognised by a merchant from Leh, so he sent two of his men back to Leh with all his notes and observations, whilst he himself stayed on for a few days before leaving with his other servants. To throw any potential pursuers off his track he left all his heavy gear in Lhasa, saying that he would return in a month or so. After a false start due north on the Xining Road, he doubled back as darkness fell and made for India. When he reached the Tsangpo he turned east for two days before crossing the river by boat. He estimated the current of the river by throwing logs into the stream and timing their descent over a fixed distance : by measuring the poles used for punting, he gained an idea of the depth of the river, which was 18-20 feet, and estimated its width at Tsetang where he crossed at about 500 yards. This was about 50 miles beyond the point to which the Tsangpo had been explored, and by taking bearings on distant peaks, he estimated its course for the next 50 miles or so. Following a tributary south, he crossed the Karkang La and entered Tawang just east of Bhutan. Here he was detained for two months by a local ruler but finally reached British territory on 1st March 1875.

Nain Singh's last survey had covered 1300 miles of virtually unexplored territory and the information gained about the goldfields and southern Chang Tang were verified by H Hayden in 1921, when further information about the Tsangpo River and Tawang was obtained. Exhausted now, after years of hazardous work, he retired to train further pundits. An excellent teacher, he was responsible for the instruction of the pundit Sarat Chandra Das, who provided a scholarly account of Lhasa and southern Tibet. The village of Rohilkhand, with a yearly revenue of 1000 rupees, was given to him as a pension. He died in 1882.

KISHEN SINGH (1851-1921)

Kishen Singh, the greatest of the pundits, died in 1921, the year of the first reconnaissance of Mount Everest, on which members of the Survey of India played such a notable part. A cousin of Nain Singh, Kishen too was born in Milam and in 1867 was summoned to Dehra Dun for training by T G Montgomerie and Nain Singh. In 1869, aged 18, he explored from Milam to Lake Rakas Tal, along the Karnali River to Kathan Ghat, a distance of 400 miles. In 1871 he was selected to explore the Nam Co Lake (Tengri Nor) just north of the Nyainquentanglha Range of southern Tibet.

1871-72 Shigatze - Namling - Nam Co - Lhasa

From Kumaon, Kishen Singh's party crossed the Himalaya, reached Lake Manasarowar and, evading robbers, took the main road, reaching Shigatze on 24 November 1871. Here they remained for twelve days, exploring the town and Tashilumpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama. They bought fifty sheep to carry their supplies to the region of the Nam Co and Kishen Singh exchanged his silver coins for gold ones which he placed in his hollowed-out walking-stick.

Leaving Shigatze on 6 December, they crossed the Tsangpo next day by raft to the north bank. At Namling ('garden of the sky'), which they reached on 14 December, there was a large monastery, about 200 houses, and a garrison of 100 soldiers. Here their tents were ripped apart by gale force winds, and they lost some time repairing them.

On 28 December they camped by a series of hot springs, part of a geo- thermal belt that crosses Tibet at about this latitude. The most spectacular of these were at Nai Sum Chuja, which they reached on 2 January 1872. Here the water of the Lahu River, a tributary of the Tsangpo, was so hot that it was unfrozen for three miles downstream. On one bank a jet of boiling water was thrown sixty feet into the air where it froze into a pillar of ice about thirty feet in circumference. The temperature of the water was 183°F, only a fraction below boiling point at that altitude.

After crossing the Khalamba Pass (17,200ft) they descended towards the Nam Co. To avoid being robbed, Kishen Singh deposited his goods at Dorkia Monastery, leaving three of his party to guard them. Over the next 15 days the rest of the party circumnavigated the Tengri Nor (Nam Co), returning to the monastery from which they had started. Though brackish and frozen in winter, the lake, at 15,200ft, contained fish. Many peaks of the Nyain-qentanglha range were visible to the south and east.

Kishen Singh

Kishen Singh

On 16 February they were attacked by armed robbers on horseback. Everything was taken except their instruments, which were not considered valuable. After listening to their pleas for mercy, the robbers gave them back a piece of cloth each, two sheep, two bags of food and one cooking vessel. This incident prevented them from continuing north to Xining, for in order to survive they had to find food and clothing. They all became so weak that Kishen Singh had to shorten his paces; begging all the way, they reached Lhasa on 9 March. Here Kishen Singh tried and failed to borrow money to go north to Xining, but after much difficulty he managed to obtain 150 rupees from a trader going west to Gartok, who insisted that he accompany him, taking his compass and aneroid barometer (which he mistook for a watch) as surety. Finally, after a long and taxing journey, Kishen Singh reached Dehra Dun.

1873-74 Yarkand - Khotan - Polu - Noh - Pangong Lake - Leh

After taking part in Forsyth's Second Mission to Yarkand, Kishen Singh returned by a hitherto unknown route east of the already well-known Karakoram Pass (information about this route had been obtained some years earlier by R B Shaw from a native of the area). Before leaving Turkestan, Kishen Singh visited the Surghak goldfield, 160 miles east of Khotan. He then returned to Keriya and Polu. From here he followed the Polu (Keriya) River to the south for about 28 miles, making a 9000ft ascent to the Diwan Pass (17,500 ft). After traversing the Ghumbolic Plain (17,000 ft.) he descended to Arash and crossed an unnamed pass over a range continuous with the Kun Lun. Continuing over a series of high plateaux containing numerous brackish lakes, he reached Noh. For the whole of this journey from Ghumbolik to Noh, a distance of 244 miles, he saw no one, though there were large herds of yak, antelope and ovis ammon (wild sheep). He was thus able to complete his route survey without interruption.

From Noh he tried to get to Rudok, an important village in western Tibet, but was prevented by the local inhabitants. Anticipating that his baggage would be searched, he buried all his instruments, returning for them some days later after he had persuaded the villagers to allow him to continue his journey to Leh. Following this lengthy exploration, he was too exhausted to join Nain Singh on his last expedition of 1874 through the southern Chang Tang, Lhasa, Tawang and the Tsang Po.

1878-82 Darjeeling - Lhasa - Chang Tang of Northern Tibet - Kun Lun Shan - Golmud - Tsaidam - Tunhuang - Eastern Tibet - Tatsienlu - Darjeeling

This was the most substantial and important journey in the history of Central Asian exploration. By 1878 the Survey of India had obtained a considerable amount of information about the Pamir, Kashgar and the approaches to Turkestan from the south via Leh and the Karakoram Pass. Southern and western Tibet were also fairly well known, but northern Tibet, the Chang Tang, Kun Lun mountains, the Tsaidam, eastern Tibet and the Chinese-Tibet borderlands were almost unknown. In 1846 Huc and Gabet had travelled to Lhasa from Xining through northern Tibet, and from Lhasa to Chamdo in Szechuan in China, but little geographical knowledge had been obtained.

J T Walker, who had taken over from Trotter, wrote in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society in February 1888 :

Thus in the spring of 1878 I dispatched Pundit A-K [Kishen Singh] towards this region, directing him to strike directly across the great Plateau of Tibet into Mongolia, by any route from the south to north that he might find practical, and return by a parallel route over new ground. As he might very possibly strike one of the great routes to China and be tempted to find his way to the coast and return to India by the sea route to Calcutta, I particularly directed him to avoid China, of which the geography was well known, and make his way as far as practicable through Tibet, which was comparatively terra incognita.

Because of difficulties with the frontier guards in western Tibet, whose interrogations were extremely strict and thorough, Kishen Singh opted to cross into Tibet from Sikkim. He had with him his faithful companion Chhumbel and another servant, Ganga Ram. They left Darjeeling on 16 April 1878 and crossed through deep snow into Tibet by the Bod La. On 24 April they reached Chumbi, the summer residence of the Rajah (Gyalpo) of Sikkim and two days later were at Phari, where they enjoyed fine views of Chomolhari (Peak 1 of the Survey of India). On 21 August they reached Gyantse. After remaining here for a few days to exchange goods with traders from Nepal and China, they crossed the easy Karo La to reach the famous Yamdrok Tso ('Signet Ring Lake'). After crossing the Kampa La they descended a very steep path to the Tsangpo (100 paces wide) over which they went by the iron bridge at Chaksam and reached Khamba Barji where Kishen Singh started his survey. On 5 September he arrived in Lhasa where re replenished his merchandise.

Enquiring about a caravan to Mongolia, Kishen Singh was told that the next one would leave in February, but that no definite date had been fixed.

A wait of over a year was imposed on him, but he put the time to good use, learning Mongolian and making a detailed survey of the city. He was also able to acquire valuable information on the customs, ceremonials and governance of the city which was subsequently used on Younghusband's mission of 1903-4. His knowledge of languages enabled him to speak freely without an interpreter; when robbed and destitute in the Tsaidam and Tunhuang, he was able to raise money by reciting from sacred books.

Eventually Kishen Singh and his party of six were able to join a caravan returning to Mongolia and they left Lhasa on 17 September 1879. Of the caravan's 105 members, 60 were Mongolians who, having ridden since birth, were able to stay on their horses even when dead drunk, whilst the Tibetans walked. All were armed, and they were preceded and followed by mounted scouts. Anyone who failed to keep up was left with food and water, but seldom survived. Each day, after a start at daybreak, a brief halt was made at 10 a.m. and camp was made at about 4 p.m. Overnight, horses where hobbled and a fire made from animal dung, a bellows being essential, as dung would not ignite without it.

Sixty miles north of Lhasa they crossed the Lani La (15,700ft) and started to cross the Chang Tang ('Northern Plain') which stretched to the Kun Lun Shan and covered 480,000 square miles. The world's largest plateau, and the highest at 15-16,000 ft, the Chang Tang was almost wholly uninhabited except for nomads. No trees and very few shrubs grew on this plain, which was home to vast herds of wild yak, goats, antelope, sheep and, further north, 'Bactrian' camels. A week's march brought them, on 29 September, to the notable Shibden Gompa in the Province of Nakchuka. For the next 240 miles they passed no habitation.

On 8 October they crossed the Dang La (Tanggula Range) by a pass at 16,400ft. This east-west range is the main feature of the Chang Tang and separates the headwaters of the Yangtse Kiang to the north from the great rivers flowing to the south. Today the Lhasa-Golmud road crosses this range at 5120m. To the east and west there are extensive snowfields, with the highest peak at 6525m. The range is also the boundary between Tsinghai province, in which the north-east part of the plateau lies, and the Xizang autonomous region, which encompasses the rest. On 19 October they crossed a relatively minor range, the Koko Shili, and on 22 October met another caravan of 150 Mongolians on their way to Lhasa with 80 camels and 100 ponies. Here, whilst crossing an ice-covered and boggy river, Chhumbel lost a toe through frostbite, whilst a horse and a mule became fatally stuck in glutinous mud.

The next obstacle was the Kun Lun Range (Angirtakchia) which bounds the northern edge of the plateau. Kishen Singh correctly observed that this was the same range as the one that he had crossed over a thousand miles to the west on his return from the Forsyth Mission in 1873. On 27 October the Kun Lun Pass provided an easy passage and they dropped down into the Xidatan, a rift valley running straight from east to west on the north side of the Kun Lun Range. Continuing east and then north, they reached Naichi where they found a number of Mongolian yurts. They followed the Naichi River to Golmo (Golmud), which at that time was a nomad camp with 50 tents situated in a dense 'forest' of trees 6-7 ft. high. (Now it is a burgeoning industrial town in a key position on the road to Lhasa.) The Golmo nomads were most hospitable and Kishen Singh stayed with them for ten days after the caravan dispersed.

The clear air of the plateau had now changed to a murky haze; the landscape was one of sandy hills with many trees and shrubs covered with a salty-tasting dust, whilst the Bactrian camel of Central Asia had replaced the Tibetan yak as the main beast of burden.

Leaving Golmo, Kishen Singh went east to Tengelik, where his now diminished group was attacked by robbers. The Mongolians fled and he lost nearly all his possessions. Almost destitute, he continued north towards Saitu (Tunhuang). Fortunately at Yembi he met a Tibetan from Gyantse who, twenty years previously, had emigrated to Mongolia. He engaged Kishen Singh and his two companions, Chhumbel and Ganga Ram, to look after his camels in return for food. Here they remained for three months until, in July 1880, Ganga Ram deserted, taking with him almost all their remaining money and provisions. Still intent on reaching Tunhuang, both were hired to look after ponies and goats, but after five months they decided to move on, even with limited funds, and, if necessary, beg their way. On 3 January 1881 they joined a group going north and on their departure were very generously given a horse, warm clothing and provisions by their employer. Crossing the salty sand desert of the Tsaidam, they reached Sirthang and then on 8 January the outskirts of Tunhuang, the first town since Lhasa. Set in extensive green fields, it was an oasis with good water supplies and a largely Chinese population. The local people distrusted the two pundits, and they were detained in Tunhuang for seven months. By a lucky chance the head lama of Thuden Gompa, a large monastery near Darchendo (Tatsienlu) in the Derge Province of eastern Tibet, visited Tunhuang to see the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas (described so well by Aurel Stein). He obtained permission for them to leave as his servants, and they retraced their route, reaching Yemba on 15 August 1881.

Following J T Walker's instructions, they next went south through eastern Tibet and crossed the Kun Lun Range again by a pass 180 miles to the east of the Kun Lun Pass. Since he was now riding rather than walking, Kishen Singh had to adjust his pace-length figures. Gaining the Chang Tang once again, they crossed the headwaters of the Hwang-Ho River and five days later were at Thuden Gompa in the valley of the Yangtse Kiang, where they worked for the head lama. After two months their wages were paid and the lama gave them a letter to an influential friend at Kegudo, a town at the junction of the trade routes to Xining and Tatsienlu from Lhasa. Finally they reached their furthest point to the east — Tatsienlu (in China) — on 5 February 1882. Here Kishen Singh contacted Bishop Biet of the Franco-Catholic mission and on giving him a letter of introduction from General Walker, received some sorely-needed money. A letter was sent to Walker via the Abbe Desgordin of the Mission in India; this was the first news of the pundit for three years.

Mukut Parvat East.

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8. Mukut Parvat East.

Kamet (right) and Abi Gamin from Mukut Parvat East.

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9. Kamet (right) and Abi Gamin from Mukut Parvat East.

Leo Pargial from summit of Pk. 6228, Chango glacier. Reo Purgyil is partly seen in background on right.

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10. Leo Pargial from summit of Pk. 6228, Chango glacier. Reo Purgyil is partly seen in background on right.

Pk. 6228 m. First ascent was made by NW face to right of triangular rock feature.

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11. Pk. 6228 m. First ascent was made by NW face to right of triangular rock feature. Leo Pargial in background (left)

Looking NW into Cholo Topko glacier and unclimbed peaks.

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12. Looking NW into Cholo Topko glacier and unclimbed peaks. View from summit of Pk. 6484 m.

Gya NW ridge and face seen en route to Gya sumpa.

Article 12
13. Gya NW ridge and face seen en route to Gya sumpa.

From Tatsienlu they went west to Batang and then Litang. Here smallpox was prevalent, so they took snuff prepared from the dried postules of patients as a prophylactic. Striking across the hitherto unexplored gorge country of south-east Tibet (so well described by the plant hunter F Kingdon Ward many years later) they reached the Zayul River which flowed into the Brahmaputra. At Sama they were only 30 miles from British territory, but would have been murdered if they had attempted to cross the country of the Mishmi tribes in between.

It was now the middle of May 1882 and Kishen Singh would have to go north and cross the main Himalaya by the Ata Kang La (15,300ft), a glacier pass, but as this was not immediately possible he went from village to village reciting the sacred books of Tibet to defray expenses. On 9 July he and his party crossed the Ata Kang La and regained the Plateau where, at Lhojong, they joined the Junglam, the official highway between Lhasa and China..

In the course of this excursion through south-east Tibet, Kishen Singh's observations left little doubt that the Tsangpo and Brahmaputra rivers were one and the same. Following the Kyi Chu River, on which Lhasa lies, they left the Junglam, struck south, and crossed the Tsangpo, reaching Khambarji on 17 October, 4&frac; years after they had left. Here Kishen Singh's survey ended. Both he and Chhumbel arrived in Darjeeling on 12 November 1882 'in a condition bordering on destitution, their funds exhausted, their clothes in rags and their bodies emaciated with the hardships and deprivations they had undergone'. The newly surveyed distance covered on this epic journey was 2800 miles which, added to the 1950 miles already surveyed by Kishen Singh on previous journeys, reached a total of 4750 miles, a feat never equalled or surpassed. Virtually all his survey notes and instruments were intact and when asked if he had any debts he said that he had none.

Kishen Singh faced a sad homecoming. On his return he found that his only son was dead and that his house had been broken up. He was kept on the books of the Survey at a salary of Rs. 100 a month and retired in 1885 on the income from the village of Itarhi in the Sitapur district with the title of Raj Bahadur. Twenty years later Tom Longstaff met him in the village of Mansiari in Kumaon where the Milam Bhotias spent the winter.

Kishen Singh organised an expedition for J C Brown of the Geological Survey of India in 1905-6, but as the Tibetans had put a price of 9500 on his head, he himself never went near the Tibetan frontier again.

Judge Usaris Ameer Ali, when Assistant Commissioner of Kumaon, visited Kishen Singh when he was in his seventies and found him very spry. An unassuming man, he kept chests full of books, diaries, maps and medals from the world's major geographical societies, but not the Royal Geo-graphical Society which had only honoured Nain Singh.

It is difficult to overpraise Kishen Singh's epic final journey. His nationality and knowledge of Tibetan and Mongolian enabled him to explore regions which were inaccessible to Europeans. He provided the first route survey of eastern and northern Tibet, a description of the Chang Tang and of the Kun Lun range, an up-to-date survey of Lhasa, a description of Tunhuang, and information about the principal rivers of Tibet and of the gorge country of south-east Tibet. He also supplied details of the cultural and political facets of all the places through which he passed. All this was carried out secretly, and often when he was exhausted and in extreme danger. Truly Kishen Singh was the greatest of all the pundits.


Abdul Hameed (Mahomed-I-Hameed) Kishen Singh (A-K, Krishna)
Nain Singh (The Pundit, No 1) Sukh Darshan Singh (G.S.S.)
Mani Singh (G.M., The Patwar) Lama Serap Gyatso
Mirza Shuja (The Mirza) Lala
Hyder Shah (The Havildar) Nem Singh (G.M.N.)
Ata Mahomed (The Mullah) Kinthup (K.P.)
Kalian Singh (G.K.) Rinzin Namgyal (R.N.)
Hari Ram (M.H., No 9) Lama Ugyen Gyatso (U.G.)
Ata Ram Sarat Chandra Das (S.C.D.)
Mukhtar Shah (M.S.) Alaga
Abdul Subhan (A-S)



1774 Later part of 18th century A sepoy officer Learned Muslims and Hindus Bengal Central India, Hindu Kush, Chitral
Early 19th century Various Indians con- tributed to the compilation of the Map of Hindostan.
1812 Mir Izzet Ullah Leh, Karakoram Pass, Yarkand, Bokhara, Kabul.
1812-13 Harkh Dev Pundit used by Moorcroft. Measured paces used for the first time Western Tibet
1813 A Brahman used by J Hodgson Ladakh, Western Tibet
1823-40 Agents used by C Wade, Political Officer in Ludhiana. Punjab
1832 Mohammed Ali traveled with A Burnes. Bokhara
1846 Ahmed Shah Nakshah Banda used summer route from Leh to Yarkand. Izzet Ullah used the winter route. Ladakh, Karakoram Pass, Yarkand.
1855-57 Nain Singh, Mani Singh, Dolpa Singh with the Schlagintweit brothers. Ladakh, Turkestan, Western Tibet.
1858 Nain Singh, Mani Singh with Moorcroft and Hearsey. Western Tibet
1860 Abdul Mejid Kokand. First recorded passage of the Pamirs.



1863 First pundit: Abdul Hameed (Mahomed-I-Hameed) Leh, Yarkand
1864 Nain Singh and Mani Singh Attempts to enter Tibet
1865 Pundit Munphool Bokhara
1865-66 Nain Singh, Chhumbel, Mani Singh Kathmandu, Tradom, Shigatse, Lhasa, Gartok, Milam
1867 Nain Singh, Mani Singh
1856-58 Lama Serap Gyatso left China in 1856, and settled in Lower Tsang Po. Lived in Kongpo (south-east Tibet). Namcha Barwa mentioned.
1868 Hari Ram
Kalian Singh
Kalian Singh's Zaskari servant
North of Everest Rudok, Thok Jalong, Shigatze visited Muktinath, Lo Mantang
1868-69 Mirza Shuja Kabul, Kashgar, Yarkand, Leh
1869 Kishen Singh Rakas Tal Lake, Karnali River
1870 Hyder Shah Ata Mahomed Faizabad, Chitral
1871-72 Hari Ram
Kishen Singh
Tashirak, Tengri, Nyelam, Kathmandu. Kumaon, Shigatze, Tengri Nor, Lhasa, Gartok
1872-73 Mirza Shusa murdered ? Bokhara
1873 Hari Ram
Kishen Singh
(2nd Yarkand Mission) Hyder Shah
Nain Singh
(2nd Yarkand Mission)
Kumaon, Kali Gandaki, Muktinath, Mustang, Tradom. Khotan, Polu, Noh, Leh.
First survey across Hindu Kush Leh, Yarkand, Khotan, Karakoram Pass.
1873-74 Ata Mahomed Chitral, Wakhan, Yarkand.
1874 Abdul Subhan Kabul, Wakhan, Oxus, Roshan
1874-75 Nain Singh, Chhumbel Leh, Thok Daurakpa, Tengri Nor, Lhasa, Tawang, Assam.
1875-76 Lala
Ata Mahomed
Sayid Amir
Darjeeling, Shigatze, Tsona, Shigatze, Chumbi Gilgit
1876-77 Abdul Subhan Udaipur
1877 Lala Darjeeling, Lachen La, Darjeeling
1878 Ata Mahomed Swat River
1878-79 Nem Singh Kinthup Darjeeling, Lhasa, Tsetang, Tsang Po to Gyala, Phari
1878-81 Mukhtar Shah Oxus River, Wakhan, Badakshan, Gilgit.
1878-82 Kishen Singh, Chhumbel Darjeeling, Lhasa, across Chang Tang, Kun Lun Shan, Tsaidam, Tun Huang, East Tibet, Tatsienlu, Zayul (SE Tibet), Khambarji, Darjeeling.
1879 Rinzin Namgyal Nem Singh Alaga
Sarat Chandra Das and Lama Ugyen Gyatso
Upper Irrawady Jonsong La and Shigatze
1880 Nem Singh Shigatze, Khamba Jong
1880-81 Sukh Darshan Singh Popti La (Nepal-Tibet frontier), eastern Nepal
1880-82 Sarat Chandra Das Lama Ugyen Gyatso Phurchung Shigatze, Lhasa
Before 1883 Bozdar ?
1883 Rinzin Namgyal Sikkim, Talung Valley
1880-84 Kinthup
A Chinese Lama
Tsangpo, Gyala, Olon, Darjeeling
1883-84 Lama Ugyen Gyatso (His third journey. The first two were with Sarat Chandra Das in 1879 and 1880-82.) Shigatze, Lhobak, Kula Kangri (alias Kangri or Gangkar Puensum), Lhasa, Chumbi.
1884 Syud and Meah (with McNair) Rinzin Namgyal (with Tanner) The Hakim NW Frontier
West Nepal, Kumaon,
Lipu Lek
1884-85 Rinzin Namgyal Darjeeling, Jonsong Pass, Chorten Nyima La, Lachen, Darjeeling.
1885 Hari Ram Sola Khumbu, Tengri, Kathmandu
1885-86 Rinzin Namgyal Phurba Sikkim, East and West Bhutan, South Tibet
1887-88 Rinzin Namgyal Tanner West and Central Nepal, from tower stations outside its borders.
1888 Ata Mahomed Afghanistan
1888-89 Rinzin Namgyal (with Needham) To Sadiya on the Brahmaputra. He obtained information from Lama Ugyen Gyatso about Abors, Mishmi tribes and about the Tsangpo and Dihang rivers.
1891-92 Ata Ram (with Bower) Across Tibet 50 miles N of Nain Singh's route of 1874. Traverse from Leh to Batang.
1892-93 Hari Ram and his son Nepal and Tibet
1899 Rinzin Namgyal (with Freshfield) Around Kangchenjunga


The external reconnaissance survey of Nepal from Tower stations outside its borders was completed by 1888. The Nepal detachment of the Survey of India worked inside Nepal from 1924-27, but with Indian surveyors only. Neither Europeans nor photographs were allowed.

The complete survey of Bhutan was completed by the Survey of India in 1971.

The survey of Sikkim was completed during the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition.

Everest was circumnavigated by Hari Ram in a series of journeys in 1871-72 and in 1885.

Kangchenjunga was circumnavigated by Rinzin Namgyal (with Douglas Freshfield) in 1899. The first circumnavigation of this peak had been completed by Rinzin Namgyal, leader of a survey team, in 1884-85.

The first 'modern' map of Tibet was published by the Royal Geographical Society in 1906.


G. F. Heaney, 'Rennell and the Surveyors of India' in Geographical Journal 134, 318327, Sept. 1968.

R. H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India I-V. Dehra Dun, 1945-58.

S. M. Chadha, Survey of India Through the Ages. 105 (DLI) Printing Group of Survey of India, 1990.

J. B. N. Hennessey, Report on the explorations in Great Tibet and Mongolia made by A-K in 1879-82 in connection with the Trigonormetyric Branch. Survey of India, Dehra Dun, 1884.

S. G. Burrard, Records of the Survey of India, Part 11865-1879 and Part II 1879-1892. Dehra Dun, 1915. Exploration in Tibet and neighbouring regions.

Indra Singh Rawat, Indian Explorers of the Nineteenth Century. Ministry of Information, Government of India. New Delhi, 1973.

D. Waller, The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia. The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Sarat Chandra Das, Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet. Edited by W. W. Rockhill. John Murray, 1902.

Mir Izzer Ullah, 'Travels Beyond the Himalaya' in Calcutta Oriental Quarterly Magazine, 183-342, 1825.


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