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History of cartography in British India and Tibet

Updated on December 14, 2012

Role of Pundit Cartographers in unraveling the mystery of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra, one of the greatest river systems of the world, is the lifeline of Assam. It has been shaping the geographical as well as geological profile of the state, as well the backbone of Assamese Civilisation. Although, the Assamese people claimed it to be their own and worship it, the river solely does not belong to this northeastern state of India. It is, in fact, a truly international river. With a drainage area of 580000 square km, the river crosses 2880 km from its source Chema Yung Dung to its mouth in Bay of Bengal. The Brahmaputra, known as Tsangpo in Tibet, flows 1625 km over the Tibetan plateau, then enters a narrow deep gorge at Pe (3500m from MSL) and then continues its journey southwards across the east-west ranges of Himalayas before entering the Assam Plain. The two rivers Dibang and Lohit join the river in Arunachal Pradesh, India and hereafter it is known as the Brahmaputra. The river traverses 918 km in India and rest 337 km in Bangladesh before emptying into Bay of Bengal through a joint channel with the Ganga.

The course of Brahmaputra is always attracting scholars from different disciplines and explorers from various parts of the world. Especially the upper course of the river was a subject of great interest to the British explorers in the early 19th century. The source of this river and its link to the sacred river of Tibet i.e. Tsangpo was such an enigma that kept the British Survey of India busy for more than a century. The first adventurer who declared Tsangpo and Brahmaputra to be the same river was Major Rennel in 1760s. However, much debate was on to solve the riddle of Tsangpo and its later course. Several explorers claimed Irawaddy as the later course of Tsangpo. The local beliefs also contradicted the theories, which the British explorers tried to hypothesise. The Survey of India became determined to solve the mystery with its dedicated officials. Nevertheless, numerous obstacles before them yearned to solve the riddle. There were two directions before them to solve the mystery – to reach the Tsangpo close to its source and trace it eastward or travel upstream along the Dihang, Dibang or Lohit to check if any of them were contiguous to Tsangpo. However, Tibet was a Forbidden Land to the white-skinned foreigners in the 19th century. Moreover, the alternative way to explore the upper course of the previously mentioned rivers was equally dangerous through the tribal people of northeast India. The land was actually terra incognita to Europeans until that point of time and the people were very hostile to any outsiders.

Despite these difficulties, the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra mystery remained unsolved for the British adventurers. The urge of exploring the hidden parts of the country was pushing the British officials for adventures. Besides, there are two things which pushed the British administration in India to take interest in exploring the upper course of the Brahmaputra. First, the Tsangpo flowed at a great height in Tibet and if the same river flows in Assam plain which have a few meters altitude, then there was a possibility of the presence of the highest waterfall in the world in its course. The other agenda was to open a trade route to western China through Tibet. However, the prospect of discovering the highest waterfall on earth led many adventurers to expedition by both the routes. However, the hill tribes of northeast India proved to be the greatest obstacles in exploring the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra from east. The British were also not successful from north due to hostility of the Tibetans toward Europeans. Decades passed, but the riddle of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra became a difficult nut to crack. Ultimately, British masterminds Colonel Montegomerie and General Walker thought of changing the strategy and devised a new scheme. According to the new plan, young and talented Indians were trained as spy-cartographers who can explore the forbidden country of Tibet to survey the course of Tsangpo in lieu of the British officials. The Indians had the benefit of being native and easy access to Tibetan territories. Colonel Montegomerie started to train selected young Indians in the Institute of Survey of India at Dehradun. This is the point where the thrilling adventure of Indian cartographers began.


Pundit Cartographers

With mongoloid features, these Indians were fluent in speaking Tibetan or trained in the language so that they could mingle with the Tibetans. They were trained to conduct basic survey works using improvised instruments and techniques and to record them as concisely as possible. They were instructed to take strides of equal length and use beads of their rosary to keep count. The Indian Cartographers were also taught to recite their findings as reciting prayers as Buddhist monks. They were not only given disguises but were also equipped with modified instruments, which could be camouflaged. The prayer wheel was equipped with a prismatic compass hidden inside it and rolls of paper were also kept to take notes. Instead of regular 108 beads, the rosaries given to them had only 100 to carry the counting accurately. They also carried thermometers to measure the boiling point of water and complete the altitudes by that means. They also get medical training. Thus, the group of Indians were sent one by one to unlock the mystery of Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. These brave men added high expectations to the exploration of the Brahmaputra. Though they were not scholars, they were designated as “Pundits” (Scholars). The Pundits were chosen very carefully for their intelligence and resourcefulness. Disguised as Indian pilgrimages, they largely contributed to the adventure which also brought geographical and political account of Tibet.


The Route of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra

Journey of Nain Singh

The first two pundits to be chosen were Nain Singh and Mani Singh. They were fluent in Tibetan Language as well as conversant with the routed through their previous visits to Tibet. Under the supervision of Colonel T.G.Montegomerie, British education officer of Kumaon, Major Edmund Smith trained them. In 1865, Nain Singh made his first journey to Tibet and reached Tsangpo after crossing the Nolan Pass (5000m). Following the course of the Tsangpo westward, Nain Singh aka A.N. was able to reach close to its source. He returned to India with invaluable records of a 2400 km trek. He was the first person to determine the exact location of the Forbidden City, Lhasa. On his second voyages in 1867, he explored western Tibet. The last and greatest journey of Nain Singh was in 1873 when he took an eastward course along the Tsangpo and returned to India through Assam. In his third expedition to Tibet, he covered 1095 miles (1763 km) from Leh to Lhasa. He then turned south and mapped an unknown part of Tsangpo. He followed the river course downstream for thirty miles unexplored. The information brought by him was valuable as the point where he left the river was Chetang and it was beyond the last point at which the river was mapped until date. From this town, Nain Singh was able to approximate its course for further 100 miles by taking bearing of distant peaks. He continued his journey eastward and finally reached Udaygiri after surpassing many hurdles. Thus, one piece of the puzzle was finally found when Nain Singh mapped the unexplored part of upper Tsangpo.

The confusion was still there. Here comes the account of Kinthup who has the greatest contribution in exploring the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra course.

An account of the Legendary explorer, KInthup.

In 1880, Kinthup followed the path of Nain Singh to solve the riddle of Brahmaputra. Kinthup was a Sikkimese explorer who spent four years in Tibet (1879-1882). He was selected by General Walker to travel along Tsangpo as far east as possible and cut and float logs down the river. According to the plane,once Kinthup floated the specially marked logs in Tsangpo, he would inform the British Officials of Survey of India and they would be keeping watch on the lower reaches of Dihang to catch them. This process would lead to conclusive evidence of Dihang being the lower part of Tsangpo. Kinthup was illiterate. He began his journey as a servant of a Tibetan lama. They first reached Lhasa and then followed the river up to Gyala Dzong which was the furthest point to be reached by previous pundits. He reached the Rainbow Fall and later carried his journey to Onlow. Onlow was nearly 100 miles lower than the any point reached by previous cartographers and was nearly 35 miles from the nearest plains in Assam. But unfortunately his companion sold him to a Tibetan official as a slave and Kinthup had to live a life of misery there. But he managed to escape and took shelter in a monastery at Pemako-chung. There he managed to prepare the logs according to the orders of Captain Harman to throw 50 logs per day. During that period, Kinthup was able to earn his master’s trust who gave him permission to go to Lhasa. From Lhasa, Kinthup sent a message to Survey of India about the logs. However, the messenger failed to deliver the message. In spite of having risk of remaining slave for life, this brave explorer returned to Pemako where he managed to float the logs. The lady luck didn’t favour Kinthup and his superior Captain Harman, who kept watch for whole day and night for two years. But Captain Harman fell ill and left India. There was no one who was aware of the massage sent by Kinthup as the messenger failed to deliver the message, those who were to watch the river for the logs had not been alerted and the logs floated down undetected. Kinthup earned his freedom from his master and tried to re-enter India through Assam. However, he was prevented from entering Assam by the hill tribes. He was forced to take a circuitous route to enter India. Due to his illiteracy, he was not able to keep records. Therefore, the British officials were not so willing to believe his account. Though he was not rewarded for his extreme loyalty and courage, Kinthup went down the history as the most courageous person to establish the link the Tsangpo and Brahmaputra.Two years after Kinthup's return to India, the Survey debriefed him. Despite being illiterate, or more likely because of it, he had an extremely retentive memory with almost total recall of the topographical details of his adventure of the Tsangpo. Decades later, in 1913, his account was checked and found to be remarkably accurate. The later explorers who succeeded to establish the fact that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra is the same river was based on the account of Kinthup. After numerous expeditions, finally Kingdon Ward and Earl Cawdor discovered and established the fact.

The journey goes on...

Before the adventures of the pundit cartographers, the only source of information regarding Tibet was traveller’s tale and ancient Chinese maps. That information was not near perfect and full of inaccuracies locating places in wrong locations. The pundits were instrumental in bringing the first piece of authentic information about the unknown land. Besides being resourceful and extremely courageous, the men were very loyal who carried out the tasks entrusted to them with utmost care. Nain Singh (A.N.) charted a crude map of Tsangpo from Chema Yung-dung glacier up to the south of Lhasa. He also carried out a survey of Lhasa and adjoining areas. Kishen Singh (A.K.) crossed the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween and established the course of Irawaddy and proved them none of them was continuation of Tsangpo. Kinthup (K.P.) finish his job with ultimate sacrifice .Their reports along with their British counterparts enabled the Survey of India to sketch an accurate map of the area. Moreover, the process resulted in determining the Dihang as the continuation of Tsangpo. The accounts of the pundits about their journeys make exciting reading. Some of them failed to return due to numerous obstacles. Nevertheless, the courage and sacrifice made by these brave people laid the rock hard foundations of mapping of the Central Asia, China, Mongolia and Tibet. For almost one century, the information collected by the pundit cartographers was the only authentic source to explore the lower reaches of Tsangpo. The bravery of these pundits like Kinthup, their loyalty and devotion to duty, contributed largely in unravelling the enigma. In this age of technology like remote sensing, GIS and GPS, the expeditions of these people may appear strange with minimum technology and hardships. But there is no doubt that the riddle of Tsangpo-Brahmaputra was solved due to the pundit cartographers courage and sacrifice making it one of the most exciting adventure in the history of human explorations.


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      Puspanjalee Das Dutta 4 years ago from India

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