From the 1860s to the 1890s, the British Indian government launched dozens of “native explorers” or “pundits” across the Himalayas onto the board of the Great Game. They were recruited from among the footsoldiers of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, the first complete mapping of South Asia, launched from St Thomas Mount in Chennai by Major William Lambton. Retrained as spies, these surveyors went on dangerous missions into Central Asia, China and Tibet, along routes that white men could not travel without arousing suspicion.
These elite secret agents mapped out the game board where the superpowers are still at play. Distances were calculated by counting paces walked on rosaries with 100 beads, instead of the usual 108. Their walking staffs doubled as navigation kits, with a compass hidden in the knob and a hypsometer (for estimating altitude above sea level) in the shaft.
In September 1863, Abdul Hamid reached Yarkand in the Tarim Basin, on the Silk Road, but did not survive the journey. Derek Waller’s The Pundits (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2015) is a fine compilation of the masses of sensitive data generated by his successors. But the fullest account was that of Sarat Chandra Das, who undertook two journeys to Lhasa and opened the door to the roof of the world. Apart from mapping routes into Tibet — which British expeditionary forces would later use — he produced a trove of information on religion, customs, politics and commerce in one of the last fastnesses of the world.
Classified for decades, Das’s account appeared in 1902, published by EP Dutton in New York and John Murray in London. There’s a scanned copy of the first edition at Archive.org which appears to have been signed by Das. Several modern editions are available, the latest being from Speaking Tiger, which has a beautiful cover illustration by Onkar Fondekar and an introduction by Darjeeling lover Parimal Bhattacharya — apt, for Das found his calling in Darjeeling, and spent his last days there.
Das had come to Calcutta from Chittagong to study civil engineering in Presidency College, and came to the notice of Alfred Woodley Croft, who spent most of his life as director of public education in Bengal. Das would have spent his life erecting jute mills or planning storm drains, were it not for Croft, who appointed him headmaster of the new Bhutia Boarding School in Darjeeling, opened by the order of the lieutenant-governor of Bengal to teach, among other things, surveying.
Das immediately began learning Tibetan and made friends with the king and Buddhist priesthood of Sikkim. With a little help from Lama Ugyen Gyatso, who taught Tibetan at the school, he was admitted to the Grand Monastery of Tashilunhpo as a theology student. That meant a valuable passport into Tibet, which had closed access to the Western powers when the Great Game began. Thus his journeys to the roof of the world began and, in spirit, he never returned from Shangri-la.
Bhattacharya retraces Das’s career from his retirement home in Darjeeling, Lhasa Villa. “One must exercise the imagination to remember that a century ago this was a place of solitude,” he writes, “and that a spy once lived here. He was a spy who had fallen in love with the land of his mission and remained its lifelong lover.”
The master of Lhasa Villa was slightly embittered and withdrawn, keenly aware that after Francis Younghusband’s mission to the Forbidden City, one phase of the Great Game was over. But his account is that of a young man who has set out to see the world. Das’s gaze was of deep focus, recording both processes of the Dalai Lama’s government and the everyday life of the people.
In the city, he described markets dominated by Chinese, Nepalese and Kashmiri shops, and moved on to high culture: the celebration of the Buddha’s nirvana at the great temple, with a panchadhatu image 12 feet high, made in Magadha in the lifetime of the Buddha. Apparently, it was gifted to China in return for its support to Magadha in a conflict with the Yavanas. And the Chinese sent it on to Lhasa as part of a dowry when their Princess Konjo married the king of Tibet. The same temple bore the text of a 9th century treaty, when King Ralpachan defeated the Chinese in battle.
Before the Great Powers, there were other great powers, and the Great Game has been in progress centuries longer than we imagine. It had taken some incredible turns before the extraordinary intervention by the Pundits, who mapped out the game board for the first time. And of them, Sarat Chandra Das, engineer, teacher and spy who is now remembered mostly as the author of an exhaustive Tibetan dictionary and grammar, may have been the most extraordinary.