Centuries of Travels and Tales: A Bharat-Himalayan View

The First Sarat Chandra Das Memorial Lecture-2004

A.D. Moddie

A centuries-old practice among the Khasi and Jaintia tribes, seen in the southern part of the state, is crafting bridges out of living aerial roots of rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica), each more spectacular than the last. These root bridges are strong and remain healthy as long the plant becomes stronger over time, as it often in fact does.(Dipti Bhalla Verma & Shiv Kunal Verma)

A centuries-old practice among the Khasi and Jaintia tribes, seen in the southern part of the state, is crafting bridges out of living aerial roots of rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica), each more spectacular than the last. These root bridges are strong and remain healthy as long the plant becomes stronger over time, as it often in fact does.(Dipti Bhalla Verma & Shiv Kunal Verma)

Sarat Chandra Das

Sarat Chandra Das

Kishen Singh

Kishen Singh

Nain Singh Rawat

Nain Singh Rawat

A. D. Moddie

A. D. Moddie

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.

“We shall show them signs on the horizon, and in their own souls”
- The Koran

I am pleased the Eastern Section of The Himalayan Club, Kolkata, has accepted my 2003 suggestion for a Sarat Chandra Das Memorial Lecture. I am both surprised and honoured to be asked to deliver the first such lecture, having delivered the Nain Singh Memorial Lecture at Nainital in 2000.

Memorial lectures can cover a variety of subjects. As there should be some relationship with the life and activities of the person memorialized, I have chosen ‘Centuries of Travels and Tales: A Bharat-Himalayan View’, in which I touch on Bharat’s long tradition of Travels and Tales in ‘Sacred Geography’, in Trade and Cultures, in Conquests and Cultures over millennia; and in ‘Scientific Geography’ in the 19th century. The forgotten Pandits of the Survey of India, including Sarat Chandra Das will have a place in this last phase of geographical exploration. These glimpses travel from mythological to historical times. As a small by-product, I hope it helps to decolonize Indian minds.

So this memorial lecture is from an ex-historian, and the oldest member of The Himalayan Club. At a chance meeting at the Uttarkashi Nehru Institute of Mountaineering of three past Presidents of the Club in the 1980’s, Jack Gibson, Balwant Sandhu and myself; a young member of the Basic Course asked, “I wonder what happens when three past Presidents of The Himalayan Club meet?” My reply then was: “What usually happens when old men meet? They reminisce.

They tell old tales.” So you will please permit me to do the same today. I hope it will be of interest beyond those of the day and the year. 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.

Travels in Sacred Geography

As you know, 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 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 Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana’s formidable defenses. No modern airline 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. The disturbance he caused in the skies agitated the ocean. The gods, gandharvas and the danavas rained flowers upon the monkey as he flashed by. The sun did not burn him and the wind served him for Ram’s sake'.

Eventually, after a flight of a hundred yojanas, Hanuman landed on Mount Trikuta, and looked on the city of Lanka, a city of unimaginable perfection, and well-guarded by rakshasas. 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 Bharat’s Immigration and Customs authorities! Or 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. En 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 Dwaraka, 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 motorized ‘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 travellers 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 traveller 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, Kedernath, 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. And 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
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 W. Tibet in the early 17th century.

Travels in Trade and Culture

Trade and culture have always been great motivators of travel. Asoka’s Buddhist missionaries opened up routes in C. Asia, Tibet and China. There was the return flow of the famous Chinese travellers FaHien (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 S.E. 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 centre of Cambodia, a centre of Khemr artistic activity for five hundred years. In this distant, long lost temple complex, covering 12sq. 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 became the famous Silk Route over a thousand years, between Bokhara and Samarkhand 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 C. Asian Silk Route; largely from Gujarat through the Punjab, Kashmir and Ladakh; and partly through the C. Himalayan passes of Garhwal and Kumaon to Gartok, and through Nathu La and Jelap 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, told to us by our Milam porters in a high attitude journey around Nanda Devi in 1959. 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 Shangri-La were over. The Milam porter’s account was the last of a fascinating old world experience of high adventure over 16000 ft. to 18000 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.

Perhaps, the saddest, symbolic event of the transition from that ancient civilization in this Hindukush-Himalayan region, has been the recent cannonade destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan by Al Qaida. It was the last symbolic and shattering blow to mythical Shangri-La, and a harsh reminder of the Clash of Civilizations of our time. When ‘jehadic’ guns fired at Bamiyan, the souls of two millennia old cultures reverberated on many horizons.

Travel in Conquest

Even the briefest accounts of travel and exploration in S. 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 his 2001 compilation of select articles from past Himalayan Club journals, ‘A Passage to Himalaya’, Harish Kapadia has included my earlier article, ‘Babur’s Crossing of the Zirrin Pass, 1506'. In that article, 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’, 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.

At the age of 13, Babur inherited his father’s principality of Ferghana in C. 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 Samarkhand, Tashkent, Bokhara, then Kabul; and finally on the historic battleground of Panipat, he won and established the Mughal empire in Hindustan. 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 roving eyes could scarcely escape Hindustan’s beautiful peacock, of which he wrote: “It is a beautifully coloured and splendid animal. Its form is not equal to its colouring and beauty; the head of the cock has an iridescent collar ‘Tang Susani’; its neck is of beautiful blue, its back is painted in yellow, parrot-green, blue and violet colours...” He loved the climate of Kabul, and the beautiful pasture lands around it. He hated the heat, dust, and hot winds of Hindustan. In Delhi, he became a tourist, visiting Nizamuddin Auliya’s tomb, and the tombs, residences, and gardens of earlier Afghan rulers.

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 travelled 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 THC 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.

I leap three and a half centuries to the forgotten Pandits of the Survey of India in the two decades after 1860. Unlike Hanuman, they had no Valmiki to tell their remarkable stories. Unlike Babur, they were not equipped to write their ‘Baburnamas’. They were silent unsung surrogate adventurers of imperial surveyors who made simple written and oral reports. In the past centuries, between Marco Polo and Francis Younghusband, the European imagination created a mythical Shangri-La in those Himalayan and C. Asian spaces, unknown, unmapped. Somewhere in that vast unknown was reported a Lhasa, (spelt ‘Laffa’ in my 1700 A.D. map 'Residence of great Lama'), in the mysterious heart of Asia. There too, the highest mountains of the world, and the sources of Asia’s largest rivers, the water pythons of the continent, lay hidden.

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 C. Asia forbidden territory, in which it was hard to disguise themselves. Hence, they resorted to the surrogate adventurers, the so-called Pandits of the Survey of India, primarily from Johar in Kumaon, 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, Basic and Advanced in the Mountain Schools of India, as exemplary cases of Himalayan and trans- Himalayan exploration. Such pioneering exploration was at the heart of THC objectives; perhaps one of their sources in spirit.

So I conclude briefly with the remarkable story of the Pandits of the Survey of India, who should have an honoured place in the cartographic history of Asia, especially in the search for the sources of some of Asia’s greatest rivers; particularly the Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra, and in the case of Kishen Singh a traverse of the upper reaches of the Tsangpo, the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze.

Sarat Chandra Das belongs to that great company, though perhaps one of the least known ones. They were men with the remarkable courage to face the terrible uncertainties of the harsh unknown and, in Asian culture, the sacred high places. Apart from the physical hardships of traversing high altitudes and thousands of miles of unknown tough territory, they were the victims of hostile regimes and bandits one like Kinthup was sold into slavery; but they were determined to fulfill their lonely missions over long years; not the few weeks of a fully equipped modern Himalayan expedition in known, mapped geography.

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, 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 Ang Tharkey and Tenzing Norgay in the minds of post-independence Indians.

I can, in limited time, only speak of four such heroic figures, The first leader, Nain Singh Rawat, his relative Kishen Singh Rawat of Kumaon; the poor, illiterate, Kinthup from Darjeeling, and Sarat Chandra Das, perhaps the most educated, from Bengal, out of over 20 such personalities.

Captain Montgomerie (1830-1878) was the first to conceive of the survey training of the Pandits. 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 Shigatze, Gyantze, Lhasa and back by the same route. He was disguised as a Ladaki merchant. He found the Tsangpo and travelled along it. He was rightly told it flowed east and then turned south into India, he visited Mansarover. 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 Kalian Singh was to try and discover the sources of the Indus and Sutlej, visiting Mt. Kailash. They confirmed the eastern branch of the Indus, north of Kailash. Kalian found his way to the upper Sutlej over a high pass. It was the first systematic survey of W. 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 C. Asia, then penetrating through the unknown Nyainquentanglha range to Lhasa, to the Tsang-Po, 50 miles beyond its last exploration, and he entered Tawang in the present Arunachal. En route in Tibet he found several gold mines.

Nain Singh was discovered by the Education Officer of Kumaon, Edmund Smyth, as a school teacher in Milam. He was an excellent teacher of other Pandits too, including Sarat Chandra Das.

Kishen Singh, perhaps the greatest of the Pandits, was a cousin of Nain Singh and trained by him in survey work. After his first two short journeys in 1869 through Garhwal to Mansarovar, and in 1871-72 to Gartok; in 1873-74 from Leh, crossing the Karakoram Pass, he went to Yarkland, Kashgar, Khotan, returning via Lake Pangyong. 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 Sarhek 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 Gyantze 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 KakoNor 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. His observations on the return journey to Lhasa and Darjeeling left little doubt that the Tsang-Po and the Brahmaputra were the same river.

This, the greatest of the Pandits, went unrecognized by the Royal Geographical Society, for which the responsibility rests with the British Officers in the Survey of India. Forgotten again, was the fact that Everest was first circumnavigated by Pandit Hari Ram in 1871- 72 and in 1885; and Kanchandzonga by Pandit Rinzing Namgyal first in 1884-85, and later in 1899 (with Douglas Freshfield).

We in THC and others, have been excited by the recent in- depth explorations by T. Nakamura of Japan of the unknown Nyainquentanglla range north of Lhasa, as the newest area of trans- Himalayan mountain climbing. We hardly know that both Nain Singh and Kishen Singh crossed this range more than a century earlier. How little we know of our own hidden Himalayan history. Why, is because we live so much in the present and in selfhood.

Despite the length of this memorial lecture, and before ending with Sarat Chandra Das, the Eastern Section of THC should consider it unforgivable if I excluded mention of the humblest, illiterate, yet most devoted of this remarkable band of adventurers, Kinthup of Darjeeling. He began as Pandit Sirdar Nem Singh’s coolie, though his name Kinthup meant the Almighty One! They followed the Tsang-Po from Tsetang, S.E. of Lhasa for 120 miles, following it around the knee- bend between two high mountains, Namche Barwa (25445 ft.) and Gyala Peri (23460 ft.) Then the great river turned from a wide smooth flowing river into a roaring torrent down unknown gorges, “between the portals of a gigantic cleft in the Himalayan wall”. Kinthup was sent on a second attempt as a guide with a Mongolian Lama, a temporary visitor to Darjeeling. The Lama, a rogue, ate into the Surveys’ funds, but managed to go into the great gorge to the Pemachong monastery perched above the river.

The Survey Officer, Harman, was waiting for the marked logs he had instructed them to float down the Tsang-Po. But the Lama sold Kinthup as a slave to the monastery. After seven months of servitude, Kinthup managed to escape to Lhasa, from where he sent a message to Sirdar Nem Singh in Darjeeling, conveying his intention to return to the Tsangpo bend, cut and float down 500 logs. After an absence of four years, Kinthup returned to Darjeeling to find Nem Singh and Captain Harman dead. His logs went down to the Bay of Bengal unnoticed. Forty years later, Bailey and Moreshead (latter was on the first Everest expedition in 1921), confirmed what Kinthup had found, the Brahmaputra’s bend and its course southwards into Assam. Kinthup went unrecognized and was assumed dead. A later survey officer, Bailey, tried to compensate him with a pension, which was turned down as the ‘sarkar’ thought this burly, rugged man would live to 90! He was found in the back streets of Darjeeling running a small tailor’s shop, when he was summoned to Simla to receive an ad hoc compensation of Rs. 1000 ! Such was the fate of a devoted, humble Himalayan adventurer.

Let me conclude with Sarat Chandra Das, one of the least known of the Pandits of the Survey of India. Strangely, he does not even find a place in I. S. Rawat’s’ Indian Explorers’ of the 19th 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 Kanchenjunga’ (1905) in which he describes how Das was carried over the Jonsongla in Sikkim by his porters. He seems to have been a modest man, unlike recent peak baggers. In his article in THJ 55 (1999), ‘The Survey of India and the Pandits’, Michael Ward mentions two journeys of Das; in 1879 to the Jonsongla and Shigatze in Tibet with Lama Ugyen Ghatso; and in 1880-82 to Shigatze and Lhasa with the same Lama. In ‘A Mountain in Tibet’ Charles Alien 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 Pandits, and the only plainsman in a band of tough, mountain-bred hillmen, ‘Hari Babu’ in Kipling’s ’Kim’ was said to be derived from him.

Wondering whether I could find Sarat Chandra Das’s Journal to Lhasa and C. 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 of Nain Singh in Bhimtal, my Himalayan home in Kumaon. It is published by Classics India Publications, Delhi in its first Indian edition of 2001. It should be on the shelves of THC 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 Iate 19th century. He was most impressed with the imposing religious architecture of Tashilunpo 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.

I must confess there was little to show in the journal of SCD (the ‘pandits’ of the Survey were know by their initials) as a surveyor. In fact, on p. 96 he specifically mentions Lama Ugyen, his companion as the Surveyor of Gyantze and its monastery, and on p. 111 he mentions it was Ugyen again who showed the Minister in Tashilunpo “the prismatic compass with attached clinometer, explaining the use of these instruments”. Being the senior SCD seems to have been primarily a scholar of Sanskrit texts and Buddhism, when he was referred to in Tibet as ’Pandit La’, it was in the old-world capacity of scholar, as medicine man, as astronomer, a kind of wise Asian learned man of pre-modern times. Interestingly, he found senior Tibet officials, like the present Dalai Lama were interested in technological gadgets like the sextant, the compass, the camera, the lithographic printer, and morse telegraphy, apart from books on astronomy and medicine. SCD was modest enough to convey and admit his limitations in such wide fields; just as he was modest enough to record he had been carried over many passes by his servant, Phurchung.

To me, being a surveyor, SCD’s routes of travel seem not too clear. In his journal he says he was advised not to go to Tibet via Yalung, Kangla and Nangla passes. On his second outward journey he refers to “this part of Nepal” and also to “Sikkim and the Sikkimese Raja’s people”, leaving me wondering where he was! The editor, Rockhill said he crossed the Chorten Niyama La. He says he also crossed the Nargo La, which Dr. Hooker earlier placed at 15,570 ft. The picture on p. 46 shows SCD crossing the Donkhya Pass. Unfortunately, this pandit of the Survey does not have a single sketch map of his routes to and from Tibet in his journal. This leaves scope for more research. Nor does he refer to Nain Singh’s and Kishen Singh’s earlier routes in the Lhasa region, which he crossed. One wonders how far senior British Survey officials in India co-ordinated work between the pandits.

As a one-time student of Modern Indian History, I think the later British rulers like Curzon, Younghusband and Minto could have learnt crucial lessons from Sarat Chandra Das’s journal, in making relations with Tibet less difficult and avoiding a military Younghusband mission. Das attributes ‘the exclusiveness’ - in plain language, the acute fears of the Tibetan rulers of the power south of the Himalaya, to four main reasons. First, the hostile and intriguing attitude of the frontier officials towards the British government, also shared in Nepal out of fear of British expansionism. Second, the terrible fear of smallpox and other dangerous diseases from India, which Sarat Chandra witnessed, had spread in Tibet from common people to the highest levels. Third, the fear of the extinction of Buddhism by the foreigners, especially among the rulers and the clergy and finally, the conflict with the commercial interests of China, the suzerain power; with a long, costly supply line of four to eight months from Peking, against only three weeks from Calcutta via the Jelep la. The British-Indian government, if it understood these reasons from Sarat Chandra, could have used sagacious diplomacy to allay fears of smallpox and the elimination of Buddhism; apart from territorial expansion, instead of an aggressive military mission in 1904 and at the Simla Conference in 1912.

Similarly, the Indian government post-1947 could have learnt more of the sensitivities of the Tibetan rulers and the reality of past Chinese power in Tibet from Sarat Chandra’s journal, rather than the foreign niceties of ‘suzerainty’ from British official records pre- 1947. That legalistic European concept was hardly applicable to the very different, complex political, cultural and religious relationship between the two Asian countries, Tibet and China, going back over centuries. In a chapter on ‘Governance in Lhasa’ in Das’ journal one learns, a) that the Chinese dominance in Tibet went beyond mere legal ‘suzerainty’, with the de facto rule of the Chinese Ambans, who were also commanders of the Tibetan army; b) that whilst the Chinese Amban rule was harsh to the Tibetan people, there was a civilized respect for the Buddhist religion, the high lamas, the monasteries, and the cultural life of Tibet. This was in marked contrast to Mao’s more ruthless cultural destruction as compared with the rule of Chinese emperors in centuries past.

So beyond being a forgotten surveyor, I hope this memorial lecture helps to resurrect Sarat Chandra Das as an Indian explorer, a scholar, and a writer of significance; before the heart of Asia began to change from its ancient past to Tibet’s harsh 20th century realities, of which he had no inkling. He was one of the last links in the centuries-old travels and missions between India and Tibet in a long Hindu- Buddhist relationship; going back to Asoka’s Buddhist missionaries, and the later visits of the Chinese Buddhist scholars, FaHien and Hieun Tsang. Between early Sanskrit texts, the Buddhist religion, survey instruments, and lithograph printing, he stood on the historic divide of ancient and modern worlds.

So, Sarat Chandra Das remains in a Himalayan mist. I recommend that THC 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. Bengal and the Eastern Section of THC also need to know his ‘signs on the horizon’ in that fascinating, forgotten time, and what was in his soul.


  1. ‘The Ramayana’ by Valmiki
  2. ‘The Book of Nanak’, Penguin Viking, 2003
  3. ‘Baburnama’
  4. ‘A Mountain in Tibet’, Charles Allen, (Futura Macdonald &, London, Sydney, 1983)
  5. Journals of the Royal Geographical Society, 1877, 1885, 1916.
  6. Historical Records of the Survey of India 1-5, Dehra Dun, 1945-48
  7. T H C J Vol. 55, 1999
  8. "Journey to Lhasa and Centr al Tibet”. Sarat Chandra Das, Edited by W W Rockhill, (Classics India Publications).


Sarat Chandra Das was a pioneer Pandit explorer of the Survey of India. He was the first Indian scholar of the Tibetan language and culture and one of the gretest pioneers in the discovery and exploration of Tibet in the 19th century. During 1879-82, when Tibet was forbidden to foreigners, Sarat Chandra Das went to Tibet disguised as a Buddhist lama and surveyed unknown regins of the Kangchenjunga Massif and Tibet on behalf of the British Government of India. During this Journey, he crossed glacier passes greater than 20,000 feet without the aid of any modern mountaineering equipment. This has been acknowledged as one of the 'boldest journeys on record' by famous British mountaineer Frank Smythe.

In 2004, on initiative of Aspi Moddie, it was decided to institute an annual Memorial Lecture in his name to keep alive and honour his memory. Aspi Moddie himself addressed the first SCD Lecture.

About the Author

A. D. Moddie was a member of The Himalayan Club for 65 years. He was a pioneer, a staunch supporter and THC's President. He developed a keen interest in protecting the Himalayan Environment and was thus one of the pioneers of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICMOD). He devoted his life to Himalayan exploration, its history and geology.


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