Books, History

Tailor Spy

Somewhere in our basement is a plastic tote, wherein, hidden amidst a bunch of old documents is a AAA TripTik.  If you haven’t heard the term before, TripTiks were detailed personalized routes that the Automobile Association of America (AAA) put together for its members prior to the advent of GPS devices.  The AAA membership was worth it just for the TripTiks.  In my case, the TripTik came in handy when my wife and I drove my parents through the North East when they visited us in the US in 1997.

TripTik with directions to Niagara (courtesy my brother-in-law, Kumar)

Given the ubiquity of smartphones today and GPS software, we hardly worry about or pay attention to directions.  I doubt my daughter has ever thumbed through the pages of a Road Atlas.  It was one of the first things my roommates and I bought when we were in school here in the US and we flipped through the pages looking at various highways.  My friend Hari had memorized several routes and he could talk at length on driving through various states.  It was a different matter that we did not own cars and we had no way of driving those routes!  The only route I had heard of before I arrived in the US was “Route 66” and that was thanks to the song sung by Nat King Cole.

The days before GPS and Google Maps!

While we take this for granted now, it is hard to imagine that things were way different even in the 1950s.  When Maurice Herzog and his French team successfully summited Annapurna in 1951, they were justifiably acclaimed for completing the first ascent of an 8000-meter peak.  In his fascinating book “Annapurna”, Maurice Herzog chronicles their travails during the trip.  Surprisingly, the first problem they encountered was actually finding the mountain! The map they were relying on had misidentified the mountain and they actually found a range of mountains and a lake where Annapurna was supposed to be located.  In the age of satellite photography, this is hard to envision.

Much of the surveying of India was done by the British.  Having accurate maps meant they could collect revenue and these maps would also come in handy during military conquests.  A wonderful read on the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India is John Keay’s “The Great Arc”. The survey started in 1800 in Madras in South India and wound its way 1600 miles to the North to the foothills of the Himalayas.  This survey took fifty years to complete and was accomplished using a Theodolite.  I wish my trigonometry teacher had spoken about this survey when I was in school, it would have made the chapter more interesting.

Both are excellent reads!

While this survey was scientific and very accurate, I was struck by a different kind of survey when I read Wade Davis’s excellent book “Into The Silence”.  This book is primarily focussed on George Mallory’s failed attempts to summit Mt Everest but Davis weaves in World War I, life in the British Raj, and elements of the great game.  The term “Great Game” no doubt conjures up images of Kipling’s “Kim” and the British (mis)adventures in Afghanistan.  There was however a great game afoot on the North-Eastern frontier of India too.

Very little was known of Tibet and its surrounding regions.  The British trained Indian spies as surveyors and sent them across the passes as pilgrims, holy men, or peasants.  Wade Davis writes that these spies were instructed to study the height and orientation of mountain ranges, the location and accessibility of passes, and the character and extent of rivers.  In addition to the geographic features, these spies tried to understand the nature of local rulers/governments, the strengths of armies, and the agricultural economy.

These spies were trained to walk precisely two thousand paces to the mile and in place of the 108 beads in a rosary, they had 100 beads.  Prayer wheels hid a scroll of paper that in lieu of hymns was used to record information.  Pandit Nain Singh, the first surveyor to place the location of Lhasa traveled 1580 miles by foot from Sikkim to Lhasa!

The Brahmaputra (Son of Brahma) is one of India’s mightiest rivers.  In fact, amongst all the major rivers of India, it is the only one with a male name.  Traditionally, Indian rivers have female names.  Rivers figure prominently in Hindu mythology, perhaps the best known to the Western world is the Ganges. However, there are lots of rivers all across India that have their own sets of myths and legends.

When our daughter was born and we gave her her first bath at home in a tiny plastic tub, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law invoked a blessing that I hadn’t heard before. “Kashi Ganga, Kaveri amma, Bhagirathi – please bless our child with a long life, health, good fortune, and may our child grow up to be a well-mannered one.” It has become so ingrained now that we still invoke it when we finish giving Nikhil his shower every day. Kashi is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, finding mention in the Rig Veda. Kaveri is the river that flows through the south Indian states of Karnataka and Tamilnadu (“amma” – “mother”) and Bhagirathi joins the other headstream of Ganges, Alaknanda at Devprayag to form the Ganges. Ancient rivers, still life-giving and invoked to this day across homes in India.

In the late nineteenth century, it was known that the Tsangpo originated in Western Tibet on the flanks of Mt Kailash.  After flowing East for a thousand miles, it disappears into the Himalayas at a place called Dhemu Chamak.  At Sadiya, 120 miles from Dhemu Chamak, is the origin of the Brahmaputra in India.  Sadiya is 12,000 feet lower in elevation than Dhemu Chamak.  Whether Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same was unknown.

The Angsi Glacier – the origin of the Tsangpso (From Google Earth)

In 1880, Kinthup Pandit, a tailor from Darjeeling was given the task of ascertaining whether the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were indeed the same rivers.  He was a Lepcha from Sikkim, the term “Pandit” was given to the Indian surveyors.  The plan was to head to a point in Tibet, closest to where the Tsangpo disappeared, and float specially marked logs.  Observers would wait downstream along the banks of the Brahmaputra for several months and look out for the logs.

Kinthup was accompanied by a Chinese lama and after seven months of journeying through Tibet, he was betrayed by the lama and sold into slavery.  He spent fifteen months in slavery and when he finally managed to escape, he continued to journey tracking the Tsangpo to a point just about thirty-five miles from India.  He cast 500 specially marked logs into the river and then made his way back to India.

Meanwhile, the observers had waited for six months in India and having given him up for dead, had returned home.  Kinthup returned to Darjeeling in 1884, four years after he had set out on his mission. The officers who had sent him on his mission had either left India or had died and Kinthup’s stories were not given much credibility by the survey office. Kinthup returned to his anonymous life as a tailor.

In 1913, the British explorers F.M. Bailey and Henry Morsehead set out on a mission to explore Tibet. Bailey was fluent enough in Tibetan to converse with the Dalai Lama without an interpreter. Bailey’s and Moreshead’s topographic findings were presented at a conference held in Simla in 1914. It was at this conference that the McMahon line (named after Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British India) was established. This demarcated the border between British India and Tibet in the North East. While India accepts this as the official border, China does not. The dispute continues to simmer today after erupting into a brief war in 1962 between the two countries.

At the Simla conference, Bailey, having heard of Kinthup arranged for him to travel from Darjeeling to Simla. Kinthup, who likely had a photographic memory, remembered in detail the topography of the land even though it had been thirty years since his trip. Kinthup’s claims were then corroborated by Bailey finally cementing his place in history. Kinthup must have felt vindicated and recognized. He died shortly thereafter.

Namcha Barwa which lies on the inner side of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon (From Google Earth)

It is now known that the Tsangpo or Yarlung Tsangpo as it is known at its upper course, originates near Mt Kailash in Tibet. After running about 1100 miles, it enters the gorges near the Namcha Barwa mountain. The gorges at this point are known as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. It is the deepest canyon in the world and stretching 303 miles, it is also one of the largest. These are the gorges where the Tsangpo enters on the Tibetan side, changes into the Siang, and then finally flows as the Brahmaputra into India at Arunachal Pradesh. It flows through Bangladesh as the Jamuna, merges with the Padma, and then empties into the Bay of the Bengal as the Meghana. It is also speculated that the Yarlung Tsangpo gorges were the inspiration for James Hilton’s Shangri La in his book “The Lost Horizon”.

While growing up, my history books paid homage to travelers such as Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang, Marco Polo, and Alberunni. Travelers who visited India over the years enduring hardship and leaving behind fascinating tales. They are rightly celebrated but I am struck by the loyalty and dedication of this virtually unknown explorer. The first instinct of anyone after escaping slavery would have been to make his way home. Kinthup, however, felt that it was his duty to complete his mission and continued his exploration. He was just a cog in the Colonial machinery, but he felt he had to discharge his duty.

Indian Explorers of the 19th Century – Survey of India publication that I found on the web

Stories of intrepid explorers like Kinthup are virtually unknown. I came to know of him only through Wade Davis’s book. Even there he finds just a brief mention, enough to whet one’s curiosity. However, while discussing this book with my cousin Bakin, he mentioned that Kinthup gets a lot more coverage in Parimal Bhattacharya’s “Bells of Shangri-La”. I’m yet to read Bhattacharya’s book.

There were probably many more such intrepid explorers over time who have been completely forgotten today. I’m guilty of posting pictures of my walks on trails or through the woods and enjoying the gratification that comes from the “likes” and the envious comments from friends who dwell in concrete jungles. In my mind, I’m a modern-day explorer. From the comfortable environs of my home, I can also zoom into any place on this planet using Google Earth. Kinthup, however, was cut from a different cloth. Here was a tailor who undertook a dangerous mission as a spy. He lost his liberty in the process and upon regaining it, completed his mission to retire into a life of obscurity. He didn’t get the recognition for his work but he probably was at peace with himself, knowing that he had discharged his duty and completed his mission to the best of his ability.

The Featured picture of Kinthup for this blog was taken by By Lieutenant G. Burrard – source:, Public Domain,

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