Centuries of Travels and Tales

A Bharat-Himalayan View

A. D. Moddie

We shall show them signs on the horizon,
and in their own souls

The Koran


Memorial lectures1 can cover a variety of subjects. As there should be some relationship with the life and activities of the person memorialized, I have chosen the above subject to offer glimpses of travel from mythological to historical times. Hopefully, these travels and tales over millennia will show you something of the Koran’s ‘signs on the horizon, and in their souls’, the different kinds of sparks which make people travel and explore outer and inner worlds. As a small bi-product, I hope it helps to decolonise Indian minds.


  1. The article is based on the first Sarat Chandra Das Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Himalayan Club, (Kolkatta Section) in 2004. (Abridged).


Travels in Sacred Geography

India is a country where the heritage and power of mythology has always been greater than that of history. So may I begin with two examples of travels and tales from Bharat‘s (India’s) mythology. The first is Valmiki’s account in the Ramayana of Hanuman’s gigantic leap from a mountain top ‘upwards into the clear sky, taking plants, creepers and birds nesting in the flowering trees with him’; a leap across the sea to (Sri) Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana’s formidable defenses. No modern airline's ad can match Valmiki’s hyper-imaginative description of that flight, in which Hanuman ‘seemed like a cloud adorned with lightning’, ‘a truly wondrous sight’.

Eventually, after the flight Hanuman landed on Mount Trikuta, and looked on the city of Lanka, a city of unimaginable perfection, and well-guarded by rakshasas (devils). At night, shrinking himself to a small size, he entered the wondrous city, ‘with floors of crystal set in gold, and the mansions themselves studded with pearls and gems.’ His quest for Sita had begun. Whatever Hanuman may have had to cope with in that stupendous, engineless flight, he did not have to cope with India’s Immigration and Customs authorities! Nor Sri Lanka’s !

The modern Indian tourist and travel trade hardly realizes that the greatest tourists of Bharat in legend seem to have been the Pandavas. Go north, south, east and west, people still claim one or other of the Pandavas had been there. My home in the hills is on the shores of the Bhimtal lake. Legend has it, that the lake was made after the earth there was struck by Bhim’s mace. The Pandavas must have had no problems with the Tourist departments and bookings; as I had on a trip to the Pindari glacier decades ago. At Almora, the Tourist Department gave us paper bookings for six bungalows on the way. On route, we found all but one had fallen in an earthquake six months earlier ! I wish I had Bhim’s mace then!

A millennia ago, there was the powerful force of Shankaracharya’s journeys, coming up from Kerala, and establishing the four pristine, holy ‘dhams’ of India, in Dwarka, Badrinath, Puri and Sringeri, four enduring pillars of religion in four corners of Bharat. In one short life he covered the sub-continent and laid down the parameters of its most sacred geography; in the final conquest of the soul of India for Hinduism from Buddhism. It is a great pity he found no biographer or historian for perhaps the greatest historic epic of travel and mission in this vast subcontinent, long before the days of current motorised ‘yatras’. He has been followed by hundreds of millions of pilgrims for centuries. Empires and kingdoms may come and disappear. Pilgrims and pilgrimages go to a thousand places of sacred geography, with no need of maps.

One of Bharat’s greatest travelers in the spiritual tradition was Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. He spent twenty-three years on the road of his unique mission, visiting Assam in the east, Sri Lanka in the south, Mt. Kailash beyond the Himalaya, and Mecca in Arabia. To that extent, he was a far wider pilgrim traveler of holy places than even Shankaracharya. Nanak passed through historical places in India’s history; Kurukshetra, from the days of the Mahabharata wars, and Panipat, the thrice decisive battleground of Indian history. Then on Bharat’s oldest Grand Trunk Road of the spirit, Hardwar, Joshimath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Ayodhya, Varanasi spreading his new inclusive mission of a simple faith embracing all God’s creatures.

None, other than Nanak, among the great religious leaders of India from Shankaracharya to Vivekananda, ever made the Haj to the holy places of Islam, to Mecca, Medina and Baghdad over vast, wild, desert lands via Baluchistan. No subsidized Haj flights then! For him Ram and Rahim were one, the true God had been forgotten. A Hindu monk, Anand Acharya of the 20th century wrote of Nanak’s meeting with a Muslim pir, Bahlol in Baghdad :

What peace from Himalaya’s lonely
caves and forests thou didst carry
to the vine groves and rose gardens
of Baghdad!

What light from Badrinath’s snowy
peak than didst bear to illumine
the heart of Bahlol, thy saintly
Persian disciple.

Between the Buddha’s disciples and the Jesuits, religion has been a great spur to travel and exploration into new lands to find the souls of men. Guru Nanak was one outstanding example. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) has been called ‘one of the great schools of adventure in the world’. They silently penetrated the unknown, centuries before famous names in geographical exploration. Two Jesuit priests penetrated into West Tibet in the early 17th century.

Travels in Trade and Culture

Trade and culture have always been great motivators of travel. Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries opened up routes in Central Asia, Tibet and China. There was the return flow of the famous Chinese travelers Fa Hien (399 to 414 A. D.) and Hieun Tsang (629 to 645 A. D.) to India, by land and by sea. Perhaps Bharat’s greatest trade and culture and adventure (with conquest), was that of the Chola empire in South East Asia for about five centuries after the 9th century A. D. This culminated in what is today one of the world’s great heritage sites, the amazing temple complex of Angkor Vat, retrieved from centuries of jungle growth. Angkor flourished from the 9th to the 13th century as the political and cultural center of Cambodia, a centre of Khemr artistic activity for five hundred years. In this distant, long lost temple complex, covering 12 sq. miles, one meets the faces of Brahma, Shiva, Lokeshvara and the Buddha. Its architects are unknown. This Chola thrust of trade and culture extended over the seas to Bali and today’s Indonesia. This was the southern sea route of spices, silk, and the spiritual.

The northern route became the famous Silk Route over a thousand years, between Bokhara and Samarkand in the west, and China in the east. It was the magnet, which attracted Marco Polo, and the subsequent imagination of the West, down to explorers like Sven Hedin in the 20th century. Bharat had southern subsidiary routes to and from this Central Asian Silk Route; largely from Gujarat through the Punjab, Kashmir and Ladakh; and partly through the central Himalayan passes of Garhwal and Kumaun to Gartok, and through Nathu la and Jelep la and Tawang to Lhasa. These must have been the world’s toughest, highest and most dangerous trade and culture routes.

Just before this southern route was closed in 1959, after the flight of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa, Gurdial Singh and I got a personal flavour of traditional trade, culture, and carnival in Gartok. It was as told to us by our Milam porters in a high altitude journey around Nanda Devi. Two decades later, Major Ahluwalia an ex Everester, organized a return to the old Silk Route in a fleet of motor vehicles; a clear sign that the days of mythical Shangrila were over. The Milam porter’s account was the last of a fascinating old world experience of high adventure over 16,000 ft to 18,000 ft passes in three or four summer months of trusting trade without banks and credit cards; and of a joyous carnival of cultures of different peoples, before the later poisons of aggression and terror.

Travel in Conquest

Even the briefest accounts of travel and exploration in South Asia, cannot omit the unique example of Babur in his Baburnama ; a unique prince of adventure and one of the world’s most unique biographical travelogues. Babur and the Baburnama mark the clear divide in our subject between mythology, legend, and recorded history.

Babur’s is a classic case of a wanderlust, motored by the urge for conquests, and a comprehensive curiosity about nature and peoples, mountains, passes, rivers, routes, flora and fauna, which, 400 years later were expressed in the objectives of The Himalayan Club. Besides conquering peaks, its underlying broad objectives were, To encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend knowledge of the Himalaya and adjoining ranges through science, art, literature and sport. Babur was a great predecessor in that comprehensive view of an adventurous life. In my earlier article, ‘Babur’s Crossing of the Zirrin Pass, 1506’2 I showed what a marvelous leader Babur would have made of a modern Himalayan expedition. In storm and deep snow, the future emperor of Hindostan (old name for India), led the way. ‘This was no time for plaguing them with authority,’ he wrote. ‘Every man who possesses spirit of emulation, hastens to such works himself.’ A born leader of men when challenging hardship called.


  1. See A Passage to Himalaya, (edited by Harish Kapadia), published by the Himalayan Club, 2001. Compilation of select articles from the past Himalayan journals. The first Sarat Chandra Das Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Himalayan Club, (Kolkatta Section) in 2004.


At the age of 13, Babur inherited his father’s principality of Ferghana in Central Asia, one of many princely descendants of the great Chenghiz Khan, who built one of the largest empires in history, and of the terrible Timur. By the age of 20, Babur had won and lost kingdoms. On horseback he led armies to conquer Samarkand, Tashkent, Bokhara, then Kabul; and finally on the historic battleground of Panipat, he won and established the Mughal empire in Hindostan. In the course of his long, arduous travels, he was a great nature observer. His Baburnama abounds in descriptions of trees, plants, mines, mountains, passes, and great cities.

Babur’s must have been one of the greatest conquering, observing, recording adventures on horseback travels between the Oxus and the Ganga. Even in death he would not rest. His body traveled back 700 Kms. to be buried in Kabul. May I suggest, the Baburnama be read by all members of The Himalayan Club. His spirit and that of the founders of the H.C. were close, embracing all aspects of human exploration. The Baburnama certainly showed to the world ‘the signs on the horizon, and in the souls’ of men, with the eyes of an exploring, conquering observer.

Travels in Geographical Exploration

Then the Western mind of the British came to this mythological land. In seeking empire and trade, they were in the geographical unknown. So, in 1802, they set out on the world’s longest scientific project, the arduous and meticulous Trigonometrical Survey of India over nearly a century, from Cape Comorin to the Himalaya. By the time most of India was mapped, there lurked the perceived threat of the Russians beyond the Himalaya, which in typical English was called ‘The Great Game’. But, the early British explorers found Tibet and Central Asia forbidden territory, in which it was hard to disguise themselves. Hence, the resort to the surrogate adventurers, the so-called Pundits of the Survey of India, primarily from Johar in Kumaun, and traditional traders with Tibet. The accounts of their exploratory travels, without maps or expedition stores and equipment, should have been a part of every course, in the mountain schools of India, as exemplary cases of Himalayan and trans-Himalayan exploration.

Captain Montgomery (1830-1878) was the first to conceive of the survey training of the Pundits. To measure distances they carried a specially designed Buddhist rosary with 100 beads, not the usual 108. Every 10th bead was larger, and represented 1000 paces, the smaller ones 100 paces. The results were kept in the cavity of a prayer wheel. The compass was placed in the centre of the prayer wheel, or in the head of a hollowed-out stick, which also carried a reserve of gold and silver coins. No travellers’ cheques then! They collected information about topography, trade, culture, and politics. They combined exploration, survey, and what is called Intelligence on the Roof of the World, where empires clashed.

Nain Singh’s first journey in 1865-66 began in Dehra Dun, then to Kathmandu, via Mustang in Nepal to Shigatse, Gyantse, Lhasa and back by the same route. He was disguised as a Ladakhi merchant. He found the Tsangpo and travelled along it. He was rightly told it flowed east and then turned south into India. He visited Manasarover. He covered 500 miles in 37 days. He explored Lhasa and had an audience with the Dalai Lama. Returning to Dehra Dun via Gartok, the trade centre in the W. Tibet, in a journey of 1200 miles, he defined the course of the Tsang-Po, and returned with climatic, topographical, trade and political information.

His next journey in 1867 with Mani Singh and Kalyan Singh was to try and discover the sources of the Indus and Satluj, visiting Kailash. They confirmed the eastern branch of the Indus, north of Kailash. Kalyan found his way to the upper Satluj over a high pass. It was the first systematic survey of West Tibet.

Nain Singh’s last journey in 1874-75 was phenomenal. It was a traverse of a giant explorer over 1300 miles from Leh in Ladakh to Tengri Nor Lake in Central Asia, then penetrating through the unknown Nyaingentangtha range to Lhasa, to the Tsangpo, 50 miles beyond its last exploration, and he entered Tawang in the present Arunachal. En route, in Tibet, he found several gold mines.

Kishen Singh, perhaps the greatest of the Pundits, was a cousin of Nain Singh and was trained by him in survey work. After his first two short journeys in 1869 through Garhwal to Manasarovar, and in 1871-72 to Gartok; in 1873-74 from Leh, crossing the Karakoram Pass, he went to Yarkand, Kashgar, Khotan, returning via Lake Pangong. En route, at Rudok, he had to bury his survey instruments, anticipating his baggage would be searched, retrieving them on his return to Leh. For much of this journey, between the Ghumbholic Plain and Noh over 244 miles he saw no human being, only wild herds of yak, antelope and wild sheep. 160 miles east of Khotan, he passed the Sarzhek gold field.

Between 1878 and 1882, Kishen Singh completed the most substantial journey in the history of C. Asian exploration. Even now, the sweep of the journey - far surpassing Kalidas’ imaginary ‘Cloud Messenger’ (Meghdoot) - was a classic. Starting from Darjeeling, he went to Gyantse and Lhasa, where he had to wait for over a year to join a caravan to Mongolia. His survey of Lhasa, finding its longitude and latitude, was of use to Younghusband in his 1903 expedition to Tibet. Between the Tangsula and Kunlun passes, he crossed the Yangtze near its source. He crossed into China in Tengelik (near Koko Nor lake) and Saitu, east of Lop Nor. (Kishen could not have dreamed that a century later, the Chinese would explode a nuclear device near Lop Nor). Then he turned south to the Thuden gompa to Tatsien Lu in China; and visited the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas. He made the then unrecognized crossing of the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rivers, made famous half a century later as the ‘land of the Blue Poppy’ by the famous botanist explorer, Kingdon Ward. This single epic journey was of 2800 miles, in Kishen Singh’s marathon journeys of 4750 miles.

Let me conclude with Sarat Chandra Das, one of the least known of the Pundits of the Survey of India. Strangely, he does not even find a place in I. S. Rawat’s Indian Explorers of the19th Century, from the Survey of India itself; not even among ‘Other Explorers’ in the last chapter. Sadly, Bengal too has forgotten him.

I first discovered him almost 50 years ago in Douglas Freshfield’s Around Kinchenjunga (1905) in which he describes how Das was carried over the Jongsong la in Sikkim by his porters. He seems to have been a modest man, unlike recent peak baggers. In his article in HJ 55 (1999), ‘The Survey of India and the Pundits’, Michael Ward mentions two journeys of Das; in 1879 to the Jongsong la and Shigatse in Tibet with Lama Ugyen Gyatso; and in 1880-82 to Shigatse and Lhasa with the same Lama. In A Mountain in Tibet Charles Allen thought his account of Lhasa was the best till then, and very useful to the Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1903-4. It should be worth reading now. Sarat Chandra Das was perhaps the best educated of the Pundits, and the only plainsman in a band of tough, mountain-bred hill men. ‘Hari Babu’ in Kipling’s Kim was said to be derived from him.

Wondering whether I could find Sarat Chandra Das’ Journal to Lhasa and Central Tibet, edited by W. W. Rockhill (Murray, 1902) after a century, even in the U.K., I was amazed and delighted to find a recent Indian edition with a descendant friend of Nain Singh in Bhimtal, my Himalayan home in Kumaun. It is published by Classics India Publications, Delhi in its first Indian edition of 2001. It should be on the shelves of the HC Library, those of the External Affairs Ministry and in institutions and universities of Central Asian studies; as a memorable account of Lamaistic Tibet in the days of imagined Shangri-La, before it’s violent disruption in the next half century between the Younghusband expedition of 1904 and Mao’s ruthless ideological aggression of territory, institutions and culture after 1950.

Das was a keen observer of Tibet’s physical features, its natural landscapes, its peoples at all levels of society, its monasteries, villages, markets and its governance in the late 19th century. He was most impressed with the imposing religious architecture of Tashilunpho and Lhasa. The book is replete with varied observations of all kinds of people in Tibet, from the wild men of Kham, to the wicked ones of Shigatse, to women and lamas in high places, including the Tashi Lama and ten-year boy Dalai Lama. He was fortunate to have audience with the latter two.

What was said by Sir Richard Temple in 1884 about Kishen Singh Rawat at the Royal Geographical Society, could be said of others like Nain Singh and Das who initiated him: ‘Had he been an Englishman, he would have looked forward to returning to his native land, where the applause of the public, the thanks of Parliament, the gracious approval even of the Sovereign would have awaited him.’ But they returned to lesser recognition by a colonial government ; and worse, forgotten heroes long preceding Angtharkey and Tensing Norgay in the minds of post-independence Indians even.

Sarat Chandra Das remains in a Himalayan mist. I recommend that the HC and the Survey of India, Kolkata, and the Asiatic Library, get together to research and reveal him to the contemporary world of Himalayan climbers, explorers, and the public of Bengal. He does not deserve to be forgotten.

References :

  1. The Ramayana by Valmiki.
  2. The Book of Nanak, Penguin Viking, 2003.
  3. Baburnama
  4. A Mountain In Tibet, Charles Allen, (Futura Macdonald & Co,. London, Sydney, 1983)
  5. Journals of the Royal Geographical Society, 1877, 1885, 1916.
  6. Historical Records of the Survey of India I-V, Dehra Dun, 1945-48.
  7. The Himalayan Journal, Vol. 55, 1999.
  8. Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, Sarat Chandra Das, Edited by W. W. Rockhill, (Classics India Publications).


Explorations and travels in the Himalayan range by the Indians over centuries.


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