Following on from 'The Name of the World's Highest Peak' by Michael Ward (HJ 53, p. 27) I set out to enquire into the mountain's real name by literally walking in the footsteps of Everest and Waugh to examine their tracks.

There is nothing like an invigorating walk in fresh mountain air to quicken the mind and stimulate enquiry. In the year that celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest I wish to take a layman's look at the stray evidence from several sources that points to a suppression of the real name of this mountain. Appropriately my walk will take in Col. Sir George Everest's estate called 'The Park' at Hathi Paon some 5 km west of Mussoorie where the great surveyor lived from 1833 to 1843. From there I will continue for another 5 km to Benog Tibba walking past 'Clouds End', the last bungalow on the high oak ridge before it drops steeply to the river Yamuna.

A north-leading saddle connects to Benog (as the British called this 7432 ft-2477 m long peak) that marks the last fix of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, begun by Col. William Lambton and completed by Everest. Near the top Sir George's handpicked successor Gen. Sir Andrew Waugh had built a tiny observatory and twenty years ago when I last visited the ruin with its cosy fireplace and chimney intact, I had pushed up the chimney an article from that day's Times of India which by co-incidence carried an article on Everest's scientific achievement.


* Popularly known as Bill Aitken.

Hathi Pao and Benog happen to comprise of the world's purest grade of limestone and when I came to live in Mussoorie in 1972 there was a running battle between the quarriers who drove near-vertical roads down the sheer mountainside to get at the profitable mineral and the locals who were aghast at the rape of the hill station's sylvan beauty. What saved the environment was Benog's fortuitous status as the Survey's last fix. Garbled into popular sentiment the quarriers were made out to be unpatriotic elements who threatened to undermine India's boundary pillar with China!

The quarrying was stopped, trees were planted and a 'Mountain Quail' sanctuary established. This rare species had last been sighted in 1876. Happily a few years back the bird was re-sighted in the Mussoorie Range at an undisclosed location.

In Survey lore Sir George is painted as a genius of monumental proportions solely responsible for accomplishing the Great Arc of the Meridian, despite the contribution of Lambton whose genius was also undeniable. Of the three great surveyors Lambton, Everest and Waugh, the evidence suggests Lambton was the most professional who cared more for his work than his name. Everest and Waugh revelled in their status as 'Surveyor General of India, and even assumed the power to name geographic features outside their jurisdiction.

Everest's estate has a bibikhana (harem building) attached that housed native concubines. When some years back I photographed an elegant wall over lights and speculated on its feminine touches, Brigadier Dalal a retired Surveyor General rushed up from Dehra Dun to disprove the likelihood of any 'indoor games' played by his distinguished predecessors. He brought with him Jack Gibson the legendary teacher of the Doon School and both peered into several tumbledown buildings to conclude (like an earlier Surveyor General opining on a native name for Mt. Everest) 'the evidence that no such thing exists is overwhelming.' As it happens the wall I had photographed had in the meantime been knocked down to build a cowshed. And anyway how could two such eminent pillars of society be expected to know what the inside of a bibikhana looked like?

Mussoorie got it wrong about Sir George. As a misogynist and workaholic the only female form he would have responded to would have been long and thin, capable of doubling up as a survey pole. Sir George's vice was not an overdose of sex but an outsized ego that translated into monstrous self-regard. In The Great Arc, a life of the great surveyor, John Keay balances the Survey's hagiography with exposure of Everest's warts. While the high praise for his work is beyond dispute, his deficiencies as a person were so glaring that instead of having his name elevated to the highest peak it could just as well have been reviled for the ugly impression he left on people. An ill-graced individual, according to Keay, Sir George was 'the most cantankerous Englishman ever to have walked the Indian stage.' How did he manage to hoodwink posterity and survive as an icon worthy of public regard? For a Surveyor General with a monumental ego, self- promotion demanded Sir George would choose as successor what India calls a chamcha (ego-masseur). Sir Andrew Waugh shared with Everest a long and distinguished professional career plus the Victorian ability to make self-righteousness seem a virtue. Waugh's urge to unctuousness comes out in his famous proposal of 1856 when he decided to name the latest confirmed highest peak (Peak XV) not in the furtherance of Science but in the 'hope that Mt. Everest would become a household word among civilised nations.' Everest had retired to England a few years before Peak XV had floated into the Survey's sights. However, he was not averse to honours thrust on him unlike his contemporary the great scientist Farady who said 'I must remain plain Michael Faraday.... Or I could not answer for the integrity of my intellect for a single year.' Everest basked in his knighthood and fellowship of the Royal Society while Faraday balked at titles and turned down the offer of presidentship of the Royal Society.

In The Great Arc John Keay basing his findings on Survey records declared, 'Of his reaction to having the world's highest mountain named in his honour there is no record at all.' Like so many officially inspired assumptions surrounding the naming of Mt. Everest this is factually incorrect. A year after Waugh proposed the name of his chief the Royal Geographical Society held a meeting at which Sir George was invited to express his views on the proposal (Alpine Journal XII, 1886). Now was his chance to reassert the professional objectivity the Survey claimed for him and veto Waugh's contravention of departmental rules. According to Waugh his high- principled teacher had taught him 'scrupulous adherence' to assigning native names to geographical features. The moment of truth had arrived. Were Waugh's claims professionally made or did they amount to humbug? Instead of advising the Survey and RGS that Peak XV should remain unnamed until the local name was discovered, Sir George expressed his 'gratification' at what amounted to a bending of the rules in his favours.

No mention was made of native names, to strengthen the suspicion that Everest like Waugh did not want to know them. Modestly Sir George conceded Asians might have difficulty in pronouncing and writing his surname. But modesty did extend, to suggesting that the joint name of 'Mount Lambton-Everest' would honour the muse of Geodesy better. In fact according to Keay, Everest did everything in his power to play down the genius of Lambton who as a true professional shunned centre-stage.

Everest's attempted slighting of Lambton's status would be visited on his own head. During his prolonged sick-leave in England the East India Company appointed Major Jervis as provisional Surveyor General to take over in the event of Everest's demise. Jervis was not an accomplished surveyor but did share Everest's thirst for fame, and likewise used the ear of the Royal Society to further his prospects. Indignation served to give Everest renewed life and a volume of letters in self-defense squelched the claims of his pushy rival. Guilt at having been taken in by Jervis boasts no doubt contributed to the Company's acceptance of Waugh's candidature.

By claiming the Survey could not discover a native name Waugh exposed his own lack of professionalism. Since a Francophonic version of Chomolungma had appeared on a French map in 1735 either he was ignorant of the fact that this peak was marked correctly (as 'Tchoumou Lancma') in the place where Peak XV stood or was prejudiced against it. For 150 years after Waugh, colonial Survey officers found 'Chomolungma' a word that stuck in their throats. Nor does the name appear in the index of those volumes of the Himalayan Journal under the Anglocentric editorship of Kenneth Mason, a survey diehard.

Of the three current contenders for the title of true name of Everest, 'Sagarmatha' is a modern official Nepalese signifier without any pretensions to antiquity. The Tibetan 'Chomolungma' (signified as 'Chomolangma') precedes the Survey imposition by atleast a thousand years. This should silence the plea of sentimental Anglophones who share Professor Mason's view that 'Surely after a hundred years the world should be content with Everest.' By the same token surely after a millennium the world should be content with Chomolungma.

Unfortunately for the Tibetan rendering, the name comes in several guises and these variants not only made Chomolungma difficult to confirm without access to Tibet but provided straws for the Survey to clutch at to keep their man on top. First the Survey claimed they couldn't find a local name, then they denied that any existed. When British expeditions to Everest from 1921 onwards produced hard evidence of Chomolungma's widespread place in popular Tibetan Buddhist affections, the point was conceded but the survey now argued the local name applied to the range not to the peak. To prove this to be a face-saving stratagem George Finch took a photograph of the massif from Rongbuk where a Buddhist meditate on the Mother Goddess situated thereon. When I wrote to the Dalai Lama's office in 1984 to check on the details I was told the Goddess is 'Tashi Tsering-mu' whose four sisters preside over neighbouring ranges.1

There had been a precedent for Waugh's behaviour. In 1822 when Nanda Devi was thought to be the highest peak in the world, the surveyors called her 'A2' pretending she had no native name. But the moment the next likely candidate for top spot floated into their sights (Dhaulagiri), 'A-2'-till then awaiting a colonial name-was dumped, and Nanda Devi restored. It seems certain colonial surveyors suffered from a mania to corner the top spot.


  1. Copy of letter dated July 16th, 1984 is printed at the end of the article.


As a Survey diehard Professor Mason refused to accept the claims of Chomolungma, and so dedicated was his loyalty to espousing Sir George's name that he risked his reputation as an objective geographer. In Abode of Snow he tells us the name 'Mt. Everest' was not given till 1865, but what he really means is that it was officially recognised by the government then. The name 'Mount Everest' in fact had been given in a Royal Geographical Society map in 1858 to accompany a paper by Waugh (HJ 53, p. 32) dismissing a native name for Peak XV. Surely in a work of reference on the naming of Everest by a professor of Geography at Oxford this first use is a material fact that demands mention. Instead Professor Mason suggests the name 'Mt. Everest' was kept pending till 1865 to allow for 'searching enquiries' to be made into the true native name. This is misleading because obviously in printing 'Mt. Everest' on a map that dismissed a native name, already the Survey had made its intentions clear. (The RGS after initial collusion with Waugh switched to provisional acceptance of the name 'Gauri Shankar' till 1865.) To further mislead, Mason refers to Chomolungma as a 'subsequent discovery' though it had been known to reputable geographers for more than a hundred years. And to confuse the reader again, in discussing this Sino-French map Professor Mason does not mention either Tchoumou Lancma or the accuracy of her position but damns its Chinese mappers as amateurs. However, Stephen Ward (HJ 53, p. 28) confirms that the cartographers were professionally competent and that Tchoumou Lanchma is depicted in the position of Peak XV.

If as Waugh claims Sir George was 'an illustrious master of accurate geographical research' why did he (like Mason) not remark on Chomolungma's position. Surely to strengthen the survey's claim of there being no native name, the status of 'Tchoumou Lanchma' (of 'Jumu Langma Alin' in Chinese) should have been addressed. By ignoring it Mason, Everest and Waugh open themselves to the charge of unprofessionalism. It is all the more strange when even Atkinson's famous manual, the Himalayan Gazetteer (1882) relies on 'D'Anville's reproduction of the Jesuit Map of Tibet' (Vol. III, part I, p. 271). It appears that Everest, Waugh and Mason studiously ignored Chomolungma.

It is sobering to climb up the zig-zagging trail to Benog Tibba and realise Waugh had probably been responsible for its excellent alignment. At the shoulder I am dismayed to find Waugh's tiny observatory has been vandalised for stone to build a bland new temple under the summit cone. Only the fireplace and arch remains but the rubble is too deep to allow my hand up to ferret for my hidden newspaper cutting.

Stupidly the temple builders who hope to attract tourists have, from their ignorance, destroyed a unique piece of international scientific history. And to make matters worse they have installed in their temple a Goddess from a neighbouring province, foreign to the affections of the local Garhwalis. But had not Waugh been guilty of similar hubris in imposing on a peak outside the East India Company's jurisdiction a stern figure alien to the five sister goddesses who presided over southern Tibet?

Twenty years ago Benog approached from the south was a bald peak but now oak trees are spreading towards the summit where the steep northern face is so thickly forested that only the ghooral (mountain goat) can negotiate it. The panorama of snow peaks is hazed over in the month of May but the Choor (Chur Chandni) westwards — a favourite spot for Sir George's observations is visible.

The evidence suggests the real name of the world's highest peak became the victim of an ill-considered decision prompted by misplaced loyalty and departmental narcissism. Waugh's unctuous violation of Survey rules was compounded by Everest's self-importance. Both appear wanting in professional thoroughness in failing either to take cognisance of Chomolungma's claims or in awaiting the outcome of further research into this native contender. It seems conceit took precedence over responsibility and sanctimoniousness was harnessed to smother science. To emphasis the phony motivation, it is intriguing to compare the echoes of what John Keay refers to as 'Anglo-Christian bravado' in the conclusion of Abode of Snow which does not end as promised in the subtitle on top of Everest but in Westminster Abbey. 'As we moved to our seats on the morning of the Queen's coronation' writes the author, 'the great news spread among the crowd.' What those in the seats knew but did not tell the crowds was that the news of the ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing had been tillered to suit the needs of the British Establishment in rather the same way Everest's name had been elevated a century and a half earlier to boost colonial prestige.

Chomolungma throughout these 150 years was a subliminal threat to what Lord Morley would have called 'high imperial policy.'

Like Lord Morley, Chomolungma was 'a malignant fairy at the christening of Everest' (Unsworth Everest p. 18) — Morley being the spoilsport who frustrated the earliest attempt on Everest. Walt Unsworth has described Waugh's naming of Everest a 'charade', a word that signifies 'a piece of ridiculous pretence'. Imperial bluff, departmental vanity and Evangelical self-righteousness were some of the ingredients that puffed up the protagonists. From a Freudian point of view the height of Peak XV had aroused the kundalini of these frigid eminent Victorians. From a philosophical angle they did indeed further a household word among civilised nations, though it was a more mundane term than 'Everest'. Waugh's supposition that Peak XV lacked a native appellation fits the definition of Harry Frankfurt, chairman of the Philosophy department at Yale (Raritan, Fall 1986) : 'Bullshit is inevitable when circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.' Like bullshit 'Mt. Everest' is not much 'a product of falsehood as of phoniness' (ibid.).

Everest and Waugh might consider themselves lucky they escaped the summing up of Lord Morley (the biographer of Gladstone) by George Bernard Shaw : 'A conscientious high-principled scoundrel.' The vain glory of Sir George and Sir Andrew will continue to haunt modern geography until 'Mt. Everest' is admitted to have been a gratuitous self-serving assignation that abused the scientific credentials of the Survey. To all serious students, residents and pilgrims the true name of the highest peak in the Himalaya was, and is, the benign Mother Goddess of the World, to whom all mountaineers' prayers are addressed, no matter how 'Chomolungma' is written, spelled, ignored or imposed upon.



July 16, 1984

Mr. William McKay Aitken
Mussoories 248179
Uttar Pradesh

Dear Mr. Aitken :

Please refer to your letter of 3 May 1984 addressed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama concerning the information you had sought regarding Mount Everest. We had asked the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Dharamsala, for the information and they have the following to say:

"CHOMOLUNGMA in the Tibetan context:

In all of the older Tibetan texts and historical documents, Everest as known to the westerners is referred to as Gang Thong Thing Gyalmo (Gangs — mthongs — mthing — rgyal-mo) Snow — high — blue — queen.

However, among the general populace, the mountain is known by its most popular name of Gang-ri Jomolungma. The whole group of ridges forming Mt. Everest is given the name Jomolungma. Whereas the Highest point (Everest) i.e. the top part is called Jomolungma.

The highest point is believed to be the abode of (celestial palace) of goddness Tashi Tsering-ma. She is one of the five sister goddesses believed to preside over the chain of nountains lying to the south of U and Tsang provinces of Tibet.

The five female goddesses or deities are:

  1. Tashi Tsering ma
  2. Thing Gyi Zhal zangma
  3. Mi Yo Lobsang ma
  4. Chod pan Drin zangma
  5. Ta kar Dro zangma

There was a good deal of discussion on the correct Tibetan name of Mt. Everest, and these were published by the late Rev. G. Tharchin in his Tibetan Newspaper (1933). Photocopies of the relevant items appearing in four issues of the Tibetan Newspaper, published in the year 1933, are enclosed herewith."

I am sure you will find a Tibetan who will be able to translate the enclosed copies of the above Tibetan Newspaper.

I am sorry for not being able to answer your letter earlier and hope that it has not caused you any inconvenience.

With best wishes,
Yours sincerely,

Ngoudpp Tesur
General Assistant


Encl : NT/pd


An inquiry into real name of Mount Everest. The author is a leading writer and researcher on Himalayan matters.


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