As the heavily laden caravan wound its way through the snow-filled valleys and
passes of southern Tibet towards Lhasa, a solitary Buddhist pilgrim, rosary in
hand, could be observed toiling alongside the straining yaks. As he strode his
companions could hear him repeating endlessly the sacred Tibetan mantra 'Om!
Mane Padme Hum!' Sometimes he would draw a prayer-wheel from the folds of
his thick sheepskin coat and rotate it with a flick of the wrist for hour after
hour, filling the thin Tibetan air with prayer. Conscious of their pious
companion's need for privacy, the Ladakhi caravan men avoided questioning or
talking to him at such times.
It was the winter of 1865. The leader of the caravan, bringing goods from
Ladakh to Lhasa, had agreed to allow this good natured pilgrim to accompany
them on the final, three-month stage of their journey to the Tibetan capital.
What they did not know, and never did discover, was that this was no Buddhist
holy man. Had they suspected this, and troubled to count the beads of his
rosary, they would have found that there were only one hundred of these,
instead of the sacred one hundred and eight. Had they removed the top from his
prayer-wheel while he slept they would have discovered, instead of the usual
scroll bearing block-printed prayers, tiny pencilled figures and mysterious
jottings in Urdu.
Once their suspicions had been aroused, they might have noticed that sometimes
this holy man dropped behind the slow-moving caravan. Then he would remove
surreptitiously from his sleeve, a small, curious-looking device made of metal
and glass, through which he would peer hastily at some distant feature,
afterwards scribbling a brief note which he would then conceal inside his
prayer-wheel. At other times, after making quite sure he was not being
observed, he would carefully remove from the top of his pilgrim's staff a thin
glass object (which some of his companions might have recognised as a
thermometer), and dip it fleetingly into a boiling kettle or cooking vessel.
Again, he would note down the reading and hurriedly secrete this in his
Not merely was this traveller not a Buddhist, but neither was he a holy man.
He was a Hindu - and worse, he was a British spy. Had his identity been
discovered, he would undoubtedly have been killed on the spot. Not long
afterwards he was to witness the public beheading of another traveller who had
entered Lhasa without permission. But who was this man, and why was he
prepared to take such terrible risks, and face appalling hardships, for his
At this period in the history of the Raj, ever since the Tibetans had closed
their frontiers with India, knowledge of what was going on there was extremely
meagre. To those British Indian officials entrusted with gathering political
and other intelligence from their northern neighbour, it must have seemed at
times rather like waiting for signals from outer space. What little
intelligence frontier officials did manage to glean came from native traders
who travelled regularly between India and Tibet. A certain amount more was
passed on by the British Legation in Peking and by the handful of consuls and
foreign missionaries living in western China. But for the latest movements of
the advancing Tsarist armies in Central Asia, the intelligence chiefs in
Calcutta and Whitehall were almost entirely dependent on the St Petersburg
newspapers. To make matters worse, much of the information reaching them from
these sources proved to be highly unreliable, especially that to do with Tibet,
just three hundred miles north of Calcutta, then the capital of British India.
British official maps at this time show Tibet as one huge white blank, as
though the whole area was obliterated by snow. At their headquarters in the
hill station of Dehra Dun, the cartographers of the Survey of India preferred
to ignore the positioning of towns and rivers shown on the old, Chinese-made
pictorial maps of Tibet. Thus, in the 1860s, the locations of towns even as
important as Lhasa and Shigatse, and - further afield in Chinese Turkestan -
Yarkand and Kashgar, were known only to the nearest hundred miles or more.
Much the same applied to roads and passes, mountains and rivers. But now, with
the Russians advancing across the great empty spaces of Central Asia, suddenly
there was a call for accurate maps of this vast political no-man's land to the
There was no easy solution, if there was one at all. To send through the
passes young officers trained in map-making, however brave, willing and well
disguised, would have been not only personally hazardous but politically so
also. Already one celebrated traveller - William Moorcroft - had been murdered
in the unpoliced approaches to Tibet. Others were to meet with a similar fate,
including old Central Asian hands like Andrew Dalgleish, hacked to death by a
giant Afghan on a lonely Karakoram pass, and George Hayward, about whose
violent end Sir Henry Newbolt wrote the epic poem He Fell Among Thieves.
Anyone brave - or foolish - enough to trespass in these badlands was
regarded as fair game by the lawless tribes and brigands who lived there by
rapine. And because there was little or no chance of those responsible ever
being brought to justice, any such enterprise by adventurous Raj officials (and
there was no shortage of volunteers) was expressly forbidden. Even if they had
succeeded in evading the murderous tribesmen, there was very little likelihood
of their being able to outwit the vigilant Tibetan border guards who waited at
every pass or approach.
In a celebrated incident in 1849, the distinguished botanist Joseph Hooker and
a friend had crossed briefly into Tibet from Sikkim on a plant-hunting
expedition despite the tearful entreaties of the Tibetan guard commander (who,
it is said, later paid for this lapse with his life) and also the protests of
Sikkimese officials. The following month they attempted to bluster their way
across again, but were turned back by Tibetan troops. On returning to Sikkim
they were arrested and Hooker's companion, a Raj official, mistreated by having
bamboo cords twisted round his wrists and being made to march with his hands
bound to the tail of a mule. The perpetrators were punished for this, but it
was the very sort of incident that the British authorities wished to avoid, and
Hooker and his companion, Dr Archibald Campbell, were lucky to escape a severe
Year after year Tibet thus continued to remain a no-go area for map-makers,
and therefore a blank on everyone's charts. Then, in 1862, a young Royal
Engineers officer attached to the Survey of India hit upon a brilliant
solution. Why not, he asked, send native explorers, hand-picked for their
intelligence and resourcefulness, and trained in clandestine surveying
techniques? The officer, Captain Thomas George Montgomerie, explained his idea
'When I was in Ladakh I noticed the natives of India passed freely backwards
and forwards between Ladakh and Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan, and it
consequently occurred to me that it might be possible to make the exploration
by that means. If a sharp enough man could be found, he would have no
difficulty in carrying a few small instruments amongst his merchandise, and
with their aid good service might be rendered to geography.'
Montgomerie's chiefs agreed to let him put his idea to the test, confident
perhaps that a native could always be disowned if it came to it, and that
reprisals would hardly be called for in the event of his death. Nonetheless,
in view of their anxiety not to upset their Asiatic neighbours, especially
Manchu China, it was a surprising decision. For Yarkand, in the heart of
Chinese Central Asia, was chosen as the target for this sensitive mission.
Montgomerie's first recruit was Mohamed-i-Hameed, a young Muslim clerk
already trained in simple survey work. In the summer of 1863 he set out from
Ladakh, the last outpost of British influence, and headed across the Karakoram
passes towards Yarkand, an oasis town on the ancient Silk Road. Both he and
Captain Montgomerie knew that he was taking his life in his hands, and that
detection meant alnost certain death. Every effort, therefore, had been made
to reduce to an absolute minimum the risk of discovery. The surveying
instruments he carried were of the smallest possible size, designed and made
specially in the Survey of India workshops. These were still early days, and
Montgomerie and his colleagues had not yet begun to adapt Buddhist
prayer-wheels and rosaries to clandestine ends. Chinese Turkestan, although
only a stone's throw from Tibet, was in any case a Muslim region.
Mohamed reached Yarkand safely, residing there for six months, all the time
taking furtive observations with his secret instruments, and keeping his ears
open for any news of Russian activities in the region. Then, towards the end
of his stay, he was warned by a friend that Chinese officials had become
suspicious of his activities and were making enquiries about him. The only
thing to do was to leave discreetly but fast, and this he did, hastily
returning across the Karakoram towards Ladakh, and safety. But he never got
At first it was surmised that he and a travelling companion had been
murdered, possibly on Chinese orders, but subsequent investigations proved that
both travellers had, in fact, died of illness, possibly precipitated by the
hardships of their journey through the grim passes of the Karakoram.
Fortunately, however, the young explorer's carefully kept notes were recovered,
and eventually delivered to Montgomerie. These proved to contain valuable
topographical intelligence enabling Montgomerie, among other things, to fix the
precise position and altitude of Yarkand and other nearby towns and villages.
They also contained a brief report of Russian activities in this remote corner
of the Chinese empire. It must have been with considerable satisfaction,
albeit tinged with sadness at the fate of his agent, that Montgomerie was able
to report to his superiors on the success of his first secret mission.
It was now agreed that this ingenious idea should be extended into Tibet. In
anticipation of this, two Tibetan-speaking hillmen of British nationality had
already been chosen for the task by Montgomerie and his immediate superior,
Colonel James Walker, with the help of Major Etwall Smyth, a government
education officer working in the frontier region. The two men were Nain Singh,
aged thirty-three, the headmaster of a village school at Milam, lying 11,000
feet up in the Himalayas, and Mani Singh, his slightly older cousin. Both were
experienced mountain travellers, having some years earlier accompanied a German
expedition whose members had found them intelligent and resourceful.
The two recruits were brought to Dehra Dun, where they were given two years'
training in route survey and reconnaissance work. They were taught the use of
sextant and compass, how to identify the stars and use them for fixing
positions, and how to calculate altitudes by observing the boiling point of
water. But that was no more than the Survey of India taught all its newly
recruited native surveyors, or 'chain men' as they were known in the business.
Nain and Mani Singh now entered what today would be called a spy-school, a
world curiously familiar to readers of Kim, Kipling's story of a small
boy caught up in the Great Game and eventually recruited into the Raj
intelligence service. Here they were schooled in the ingenious techniques
devised by Montgomerie and Walker for conducting clandestine surveys of
territories which were hostile, politically sensitive, or belonged to other
governments - or, in the case of Tibet, all three.
First they were trained by endless practice to take a pace which, whether they
walked uphill, downhill or on the level, always remained the same -
thirty-three inches in the case of Nain Singh. Next they learned how to keep
an exact count of the number of such paces they took in a day, or between any
two landmarks. This was done with the aid of a Buddhist rosary, which as we
have noted normally comprises one hundred and eight beads. Eight of these were
removed, leaving a mathematically convenient one hundred, but not a sufficient
reduction to be noticeable. At every hundredth pace a bead was slipped. Each
complete circuit of the rosary, therefore, represented ten thousand paces -
five miles in the case of Nain Singh, who covered a mile in two thousand paces.
Because the Buddhist rosary has attached to it two short secondary strings,
each of ten smaller beads, these were used for recording every completed
circuit of the rosary.
Nain and Mani Singh were trained in the use of cover stories and disguise,
just as Kim was at Simla by the shadowy Lurgan Sahib. Their lives were to
depend on just how convincingly they could play the part of holy man, Himalayan
trader, or whatever the delicacy of the situation demanded. Their disguise
would have to stand the test of months of travelling, in the closest intimacy
with real traders and pilgrims. Like Kim, they also learned to forget their
own names, and work under a number or a cryptonym. Thus Nain Singh became
simply 'Number One', 'the Pundit' or 'the Chief Pundit'. His cousin was known
in the Survey records as 'Pundit Number Two', 'the Second Pundit', or just
'G-M', which was arrived at by taking two of the letters of his name and
reversing them. The word 'pundit', which suggests a man of certain learning,
was to become the generic name by which they, and all subsequent recruits, were
referred to. Their real names were not revealed until they were too old to make
further secret journeys.
Not only was the Buddhist rosary ingeniously adapted to Montgomerie's purpose,
but so were prayer-wheels. These were fitted with a secret catch which enabled
the pundit to open the copper cylinder and insert or remove the scrolls of
paper bearing his route notes and other intelligence. Later the workshops at
Dehra Dun were to conceal compasses inside the wheels, so that a pundit could
take bearings while pretending to be at prayer. Larger instruments like
sextants were concealed in specially built false bottoms in the travelling
chests which native travellers carried, while secret pockets were added to
their clothing. Thermometers, for measuring altitude, were concealed in
hollowed out staves, and mercury - necessary for setting an artificial horizon
when taking sextant readings - was hidden in a sealed cowrie shell and poured
into a pilgrim's bowl whenever needed.
For his novel Kim, which was written nearly forty years after Nain and
Mani Singh graduated from the Dehra Dun spy school, Kipling borrowed at least
two of his characters from Montgomerie's twilight world. The amiable Hurree
Chunder Mookerjee - R. 17 on the Great Game payroll - is known to have been
modelled on Sarat Chandra Das, one of the later pundits, while Colonel
Creighton, who recruited the youthful Kim and masterminded his education, can
only have been Montgomerie himself.
Their training now complete, it was time for Montgomerie's two proteges to
show their paces. The route which he and Colonel Walker worked out was aimed
to carry them some twelve hundred miles through Tibet to Lhasa and back. The
two men, it was hoped, would return with a route survey which would enable
Montgomerie to fill in a number of embarrassing blanks on the map of Tibet.
These included the precise location and altitude of Lhasa, the route that the
great southern caravan trail took from Lhasa westwards towards Gartok, and the
course of the mysterious Tsangpo river as it flowed from west to east across
Tibet. It was also hoped that the explorers would return with useful political
intelligence. Despite the fact that they had spent nearly two years being
schooled for it, it was a daunting task for the two hillmen - all for some
twenty rupees a month and the promise of a larger reward if they were
The journey would take them many months, every minute of which they would have
to be on their guard against Tibetan suspicions. Every yard of the way would
have to be paced, latitudes and altitudes calculated and carefully recorded.
In the event, despite all Montgomerie's painstaking preparations, the two were
to get off to a bad start.