On 10th April 1802, the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GST) was started by the Royal Geographical Society, London. The Royal Geographical Society stated that GST was the most important milestone in the development of science in 19th century. This 1600 miles long geographical survey took around 50 years to get completed. This survey played a great role in the mapping of not only the Indian sub-continent, but also the parts of Central Asia beyond the Great Himalayas.
Many people worked for the successful completion of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, but the one who is mainly responsible for it, was Pundit Nain Singh Rawat. He was a famous Indian explorer, surveyor, and cartographer, who dedicated most part of his life to the field of exploration and cartography.
Early Life :
Nain Singh was born in Milam village of Munsyari tehsil in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand on 21st October, 1830. His father Amar Singh was known as Lata Buda, and grandfather Dham Singh Rawat was a big landlord, who was rewarded Jagir (land) in Golma and Kotal villages by the Kumauni King Deepchandra in 1735.
Most of his early education was held at home. After leaving school, Nain Singh helped his father in their traditional trans-border trade between India and Tibet. During the trade, he visited several trade centres in Tibet with his father, learnt the Tibetan language, customs and manners, and became familiar with the Tibetan people. This knowledge of Tibetan language, local customs, and protocols helped Nain Singh during his future survey missions.
1. Schlagintweit Brothers’ Expedition (1855-1857)
At the age of 25, Nain Singh was first recruited by the German geographers, Schlagintweit Brothers. Baron Humboldt had sent these German scientists to the office of Survey of India, which reluctantly allowed them to proceed for the survey. Adolf and Robert Schlagintweit met old Deb Singh Rawat in the Johar valley, who advised them to recruit three members of his family for their expedition – Man Singh Rawat (Mani Compasi), Dolpa Pangtey and Nain Singh Rawat. Nain Singh’s first exploration journey was with these Germans from 1855 to 1857. During this mission, he travelled to Mansarovar and Rakastal lakes in Tibet, then further to Gartok and Ladakh.
2. Education Department (1858-1863)
After the expedition with the Schlagintweit Brothers, Nain Singh joined the Education Department as a teacher at the Government Vernacular School in his village Milam in 1858. Later, he was appointed as the headmaster of this school, where he served till early 1863. During those days, people commonly used to address to the teachers with the name “Pundit” (Knowledgeable Person). That’s where the famous title or prefix of “Pundit” came!
3. Great Trigonometrical Survey (1863-1875)
In 1862-63, Education Officer Edmund Smyth was in correspondence with Captain Montgomery to recruit some trustworthy natives as explorers for the Great Trigonometrical Survey. On the recommendation of Edmund Smyth, Nain Singh and Mani Singh Rawat were selected for this expedition at a starting salary of rupees twenty a month. Nain Singh worked in the active service of the Great Trigonometrical Survey from 1863-1875. Nain Singh was given code names "Chief Pundit" or "No. 1" for this clandestine expedition by the survey officials. He not only worked as a surveyor in the GST, but also trained many surveyors and explorers for other expeditions.
(a) Training :
On 12th January 1863, Nain Singh along with his cousin, Mani Singh Rawat were sent to the Great Trigonometrical Survey office at Dehradun, where they underwent training for two years. This included the training on scientific instruments, and some ingenious ways of measurement and recording information, and the art of disguise (espionage). Nain Singh was exceptionally intelligent and determined, and quickly learned the correct use of scientific instruments, like sextant and compass. He could also recognize all major stars and different constellations easily for directions.
(b) Methodology :
A sergeant major drilled them using a pace-stick, to take steps of a fixed length which remained constant even while climbing up, down or walking on plain surface. They were trained to record the distances by an ingenious method using a rosary. This rosary unlike a Hindu or Buddhist one, which has 108 beads, had just 100 beads. At every 100 steps the Pundit would slip one bead, so a complete length of the rosary represented 10000 steps. It was easy to calculate the distance as each step was 31½ inches and a mile was calculated to be around 2000 steps. To avoid suspicion, these explorers went about their task disguised as monks or traders or whatever suited the particular situation. Many more ingenious methods were devised for this expedition. The notes of measurements were coded in the form of written prayers and these scrolls of paper were hidden in the cylinder of the prayer wheel. The Pundit kept this secret log book up to date. The compass for taking bearing was hidden in the lid of the prayer wheel. Mercury used for setting and artificial horizon, was kept in Cowri shells and for use poured into the begging bowl carried by the Pundit. The thermometer found place in the topmost part of the monk’s stave. There were workshops, where false bottoms were made in the chests to hold sextant. Pockets were also added to the clothes used during these secret missions.
Thus prepared and trained, the Pundit travelled for months at a stretch collecting intelligence in most difficult conditions, travelling closely with the natives in caravans. What was to follow, were some of the most glorious years in the exploration and mapping of Tibet and all its river systems and indeed some of the most fascinating explorations worth recounting. In 1865-66, Nain Singh travelled 1200 miles from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then to the Mansarovar lake and back to India. On his second expedition in 1867, Nain Singh explored Western Tibet and visited the legendary Thok Jalung gold mines. His last and greatest journey of 1874-75 was from Leh to Tawang (Assam) via Lhasa, which got a great appreciation thorough out Europe.
In the Great Trigonometrical Survey, Nain Singh surveyed 2000 km long trade route from Nepal to Tibet in around 21 months. He was first to determine the exact location and altitude of Lhasa town. Nain Singh measured 31 latitudes and 33 altitudes of different places during this survey. He travelled the length of 800 Km of Tsang Po river in Tibet, and was the first person to find that the Tsang Po and Brahmaputra rivers are one. He successfully completed his expeditions in the disguise of a Lama as the entry of foreigners in Tibet was forbidden by the Chinese Iron Curtains.
(c) Survey Missions / Expeditions :
Nain Singh Rawat as a surveyor in the Great Trigonometrical Survey made the following important expeditions from 1865 to 1875 :
1865-66 : Kathmandu – Lhasa – Mansarovar Lake.
1867 : Origin of Sutlej and Indus rivers, and Thok Jalung (Tibet).
1870 : Douglas Forsyth’s First Yarkand – Kashgar Mission.
1873 : Douglas Forsyth’s Second Yarkand – Kashgar Mission.
1874-75 : Leh – Lhasa – Tawang (Assam).
Retirement and Death :
Nain Singh’s last journey has taken its toll on his health, also impairing his vision. He continued for a few years to train other Indians in the art of surveying and spying, and did a highly commendable job of it too.
Nain Singh Rawat died of a heart attack in 1895, while visiting his Jagir, a village in the Indian Terai (plains) granted to him by the British in 1877.
Nain Singh Rawat explored most of the unknown territories of the Central Asia and Tibet beyond the Great Himalayas. His collected scientific information about the geography of these regions provided a major contribution in the mapping of the Central Asia.
For his extraordinary achievements and contributions, Nain Singh was honoured with many awards by the Royal Geographical Society, the Paris Geographical Society, and other European institutions. The survey journeys of Nain Singh got place in many books, magazines, and research papers of different languages around the globe. His literary contribution to the art of writing travelogues, reports, memoirs, and scientific literature was never acknowledged and researched (except by Dr. Ram Singh) in the Hindi World!
Colonel Yule, addressing the Royal Geographic Society at the time of its presentation of the Society's Gold Medal to Nain Singh, said, "It is not a topographical automaton, or merely one of a great multitude of native employees with an average qualification. His observations have added a larger amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than those of any other living man!"
Nain Singh was a man of strong character – where others admitted defeat, he persisted. Due to the clandestine nature of his work and because he was a ‘Spy Explorer’, his great and important discoveries never gained the proper recognition. As he worked for the British, after independence his work and contribution was not given due recognition by the Indian government. This can be the only reason why his work faded in public memory!
Awards and Recognition
In 1868, Nain Singh was presented with an inscribed gold chronometer/watch by the Royal Geographic Society (RGS), London.
In 1876, Nain Singh’s achievements were announced in the “Geographical Magzine”.
In 1877, Nain Singh was awarded with the “Victoria / Patron’s Gold Medal” by the Royal Geographic Society (RGS), London.
In 1877, Nain Singh was presented with an inscribed gold chronometer/watch by the Society of Geographers of Paris.
In 1877, the British government awarded him with the title of “Companion of the Indian Empire” (C.I.E.)!
In 1877, the British government honoured him with a grant of a village in Rohilkhand (Bareilly) as Jagir, and 1000 rupees in revenue.
On 27th June 2004, an Indian postage stamp featuring Nain Singh was issued commemorating his role in the Great Trigonometrical Survey by the Indian government, after about 139 years since his achievement!
Literature By Nain Singh Rawat
1. Akshansh Darpan (Mirror of Latitudes) :
Nain Singh has put all his scientific and technical information about his experiments and the experiences of the explorations during the Great Trigonometrical Survey (1865-75) in writing in the form of this book. It worked as a good manual/guide for the later generations of explorers.
2. Itihaas Rawat Kaum (History of Rawats) : This book is about the history of the Rawats, a sub-group of the larger Shauka community of Johar valley in Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand).
3. Nain Singh’s Diaries / Reports : These are the unpublished works of Nain Singh in the form of Diaries and Reports. The original manuscript of these works is missing, but some historians have tried to publish them using the available sources.
Nain Singh Rawat in Popular Culture / Media :
There are several forms of media in which information about Pundit Nain Singh Rawat and his extraordinary achievements has been published / illustrated.
Report of a Route-Survey made by Pundit & Others - T. G. Montgomery, The Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 38 (1868).
Report of the Trans-Himalayan Explorations during 1867 - T. G. Montgomery, The Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 39 (1869).
Account of the Pundit's Journey in Great Tibet - Capt. H. Trotter, The Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 47 (1877).
A Memoir on The Indian Surveys, 2nd Ed. - Clements R. Markham, W H Allen & Co., London (1878).
A Memoir on The Indian Surveys (1875-90) - Charles E. D. Black, London (1891).
The Heartland of Asia - Nathale Ettinger, Aldus Books, London (1971).
Indian Explorers of the 19th Century - Indra Singh Rawat (1973).
The Rand McNally World Atlas of Exploration - Rand McNally & Co., New York (1975).
To the Farthest Ends of the Earth : The History of the Royal Geographical Society (1830-1980) - Ian Cameron, Macdonald, London (1980).
Johar Ka Itihaas (History of Johar) - Babu Ram Singh Pangtey (1980).
The Mapmakers - J. N. Wilford, Knopf, New York (1981).
Trespassers on the Roof of the World : The Race for Lhasa - Peter Hopkirk, Oxford University Press (1982).
The Pundits : British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia - Derek J. Waller, University Press of Kentucky (1990).
Accidental Explorers : Surprises and Side Trips in the History of Discovery - Rebecca Stefoff, Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford (1992).
Pundit Nain Singh - Dr. Ram Singh.
Madhya Himalaya Ki Bhotia Janjaati (Bhotia Tribe of The Central Himalayas) - Dr. Sher Singh Pangtey (1992).
Asia Ki Peeth Par : Pundit Nain Singh Rawat - Uma Bhatt & Shekhar Pathak, PAHAR, Nainital (2006).