The Singh family had made very substantial contributions to the exploration of
Tibet between 1865 and 1872. The journeys of Nain, Mani and Kalian had
crisscrossed much of the Southwestern comer of the country, while Nain had
mapped southern Tibet along the Tsangpo and north of the river to Lhasa.
Kishen had carried a route survey north of Lhasa for over a hundred miles to
Tengri Nor and the Bul Lake. But most of Tibet still remained unvisited and
unmapped. Between Tengri Nor and the Nganglaring Tso of Kalian Singh stretched
over four hundred miles of virgin territory, quite unvisited, as were the
further reaches of northern Tibet. In 1874 came the opportunity to penetrate
this area, to map fresh territory, and to provide a new link between Lhasa and
the surveys already conducted in Southwestern Tibet.
Nain Singh, together with Kishen and Kalian Singh, had been attached to the
second Forsyth Mission to Yarkand, which left India in 1873. For
reasons beyond his control, Nain Singh had not been able to break much new
ground while attached to the Mission. But when the Mission returned to Leh in
the summer of 1874, Captain Trotter, who had succeeded Montgomerie on the
latter's departure from India in 1873, dispatched Nain Singh by a northerly
route across Tibet to Lhasa. The exploration was undertaken on the
instructions of General Walker, superintendent of the GTS. It was initially
intended that the Pundit should be accompanied by Kishen Singh, but Kishen was
suffering from exposure, incurred on a journey from Khotan.
There is evidence that Nain Singh was worn out after nearly two decades of the
rigors of traveling under difficult and dangerous circumstances. In a letter
to General Walker discussing the pundit's participation in the second Forsyth
Mission, Montgomerie wrote that "I do not think he was greatly taken with the
idea of going Northand East of Ladak, though he would not have minded
anything to the South East." Montgomerie continued: "he may make one grand push
if he fully understands that it is likely to be his last, and that he will get
some position given him, or a pension. He does not at all fancy having much
more of actual exploration." According to Trotter, "on the return of
the mission to Ladakh, being anxious to have an opportunity of gathering fresh
laurels, he [Nain Singh] volunteered to proceed on a fresh
exploration." This was to be his last "grand push," and he may have
volunteered with the promise of a pension or other inducement, particularly
since the journey involved the relatively level plains of Tibet rather than the
rugged passes over the Karakorum and the Kunlun.
The objectives of this last journey were to survey a route from Leh to Lhasa
by a much more northerly path than the one he had taken in 1865. From Lhasa he
was to try to join the caravan to Peking, which the Survey of India had heard
left from Lhasa every three years. Should this not prove possible, his
instructions were to return to India by an unexplored route, either down the
course of the Tsangpo Brahmaputra, or through the Himalayan kingdom of
This was the pundit's third clandestine penetration of Tibet. Officials on
the frontier would have been on the lookout for him. He had also been in Leh
on numerous prior occasions and was known to be in the service of the Indian
government. Accordingly, more elaborate precautions than usual were needed in
order to ensure his safe passage in disguise across the border. The frontier
crossing was the key to everything. Once into Tibet, Nain Singh would be
relatively safe, since he would be passing through thinly populated areas.
The deception involved a rather complex scheme in which William Johnson
(famous for his visit to Khotan in 1864), now wazir of Ladakh in the service of
the maharaja of Kashmir, was to conspire with the headman of the village of
Tankse, near the Tibetan border. The headman was to collect a number of sheep
for the Pundit, giving the impression to the Ladakhis that the sheep were to be
used as baggage animals to carry the Pundit's merchandise on the road to
Yarkand. This was quite plausible. The sheep were indeed to be used as
baggage animals, and Tankse was on the Changchenmo route to Chinese Turkestan.
The Pundit, however, was not going to Chinese Turkestan, but to Tibet.
Another problem which Trotter had to address was the question of how to
provide security for the funds the Pundit would need to reach Lhasa and then
continue to Peking and home to India. For the first stage of the journey, as
far as Lhasa, the pundit carried sufficient cash with him. But to carry more,
even inthe form of merchandise, through areas infested by robbers was
to Trotter's mind to risk the life of his explorer. As it happened, the
triennial Lopchak mission from Ladakh to Lhasa was about to leave Leh. Nain
Singh had traveled with this caravan before, and Johnson got the Lopchak to
agree to take money to Lhasa for Nain Singh, who would collect it personally when he arrived. Since the caravan was a large one and traveled
along a well-known road, it was felt that this arrangement would provide ample
For the final section of his journey, from Peking back to Calcutta by sea,
Trotter provided the Pundit with a letter of introduction to the British
Minister in Peking. The minister was to arrange transportation for the Pundit
once the letter was presented.
Nain Singh's parry included four attendants. One of these was his servant
Chumbel, two were Tibetans who had also accompanied him in the past, and the
fourth was a local man, loaned by the headman of Tankse. They set out from Leh
on 15 July 1874, Nain Singh leaving behind the impression that he was returning
Nine days later they reached the last village before the Tibetan border, and
under cover of darkness the pundit and his companions dressed in the priests'
robes which had been tailored secretly for them in Leh. At first they did
follow the Changchenmo road north, but after two days turned east. Slow
progress was made, the pace determined by the speed of the sheep. Crossing the
"frontier" was something of an anticlimax, just one hut with a small guard,
which they passed without incident. The party was now in Tibet, on the north
bank of Lake Pangong, and proceeding in a generally southeast direction,
parallel to the Tsangpo but at distances varying from one hundred to two
hundred miles north of the course of the river. The villager from Tankse had
gone ahead of them and by using his good offices had obtained from the local
officials the permission needed to proceed into the heart of Tibet. The pundit
continued past Lake Pangong and was able to fix the location of its eastern
extremity. Godwin-Austen and others had mapped the western parts of this
elongated lake, but the easternmost point, well into Tibet, had now been
located for the first time.
Nain Singh's route now took him on to the great lacustrine plain of central
Tibet. Most of the lakes were salt, but some were fresh water and the
travelers were able to fill their waterskins, made of sheep stomachs. For the
first ten days the road was not far to the north of the route taken by Kalian
Singh while on his way from Rudok to the gold mines of Thok Jalung.
For security, Nain Singh had secreted his Indian rupees in a number of hiding
places, the main one being in a wom pad on the back of an old donkey. This
animal was dubbed the "Government Treasurer." Occasionally, they would
deliberately camp well off the road, to avoid robbers whose favorite trick was
to cut the tent ropes at night and plunder the camp while the sleepers were
trying to extricate themselves.
The altitude was, on average, a little over fourteen thousand feet. A few
shepherds were seen, but the paucity of human population was more than made up
for by an abundance of animal life.
About one-third of the way between Lake Pangong and Tengri Nor, Nain Singh
entered an area inhabited by Khampas, who said that they had migrated there
from Kham (north and east of Lhasa) twenty-five years earlier. Accomplished
horsemen and sportsmen, they tended herds of horses, sheep, and goats. They
also had a bad reputation for plundering caravans. However, because one of his
servants had befriended one of the Khampas in Ladakh some years before, the
pundit was able to join a small group of them going in the same direction, and
which afforded some protection for a while. Then, taking a devious route to
minimize the risk of being robbed, they arrived in the gold-mining area of
The pundit's account of the mines of the Thok Daurakpa area led Trotter to
downgrade the importance which had been attached to the Tibetan goldfields as a
result of his earlier report of 1867. The mining area through which
Nain Singh was now passing did produce gold of a higher quality than that found
in look Jalung to the west. But the gold of Thok Daurakpa was embedded in
rock, rather than soil, and the water for washing the pulverized rock had to be
carted in skins on the backs of donkeys from a stream over a mile away. The
amount of gold produced was so small that the local shepherds were wealthier
than the gold diggers. Furthermore, said the Pundit, he believed that only two
other mines in northern Tibet were being worked, and both were evep smaller
than Thok Daurakpa.
Pausing for just one day at the gold mines, Nain Singh and his companions, now
halfway to Tengfi Nor, continued across the Chang Tang. Their altitude was now
sixteen thousand feet, but the sun was warm, grass grew underfoot, and herds of
antelope grazed nearby On his route from Lake Pangong, the pundit had been
marching parallel to a snowy range lying just to the south, a chain of
mountains now known as the Nain Singh Range. The extension of this
range continued up to a point south of Tengri Nor.
Nain Singh struck the northwest comer of Tengri Nor (the easternmost point of
which is about eighty miles due north of Lhasa), after a journey of sixty-four
marches from Noh, near Lake Pangong. He had mapped a chain of lakes across
central Tibet, none of which had been seen before. Only Tengfi Nor itself had
been visited before by a trans-Himalayan explorer, in 1872, when Kishen Singh
made a complete tour around it.
Nain Singh followed the path of Kishen Singh along the northern shore of
Tengri Nor for fifty miles and then, like his predecessor, turned to the south
in the direction of Lhasa. After some ten to twenty miles, he struck off by a
different and less direct route to the Tibetan capital.
The pundit and his party entered Lhasa on 18 November 1874. They had started
from Leh on 15 July, averaging less than ten miles per day over the 1,095 miles
from Leh to Lhasa. But the sheep purchased in Ladakh, although slow movers,
had more than proved their worth. Of the twenty-six that started out on the
journey, four or five covered the entire distance. Others were eaten or had
been taken sick. All carried twenty to twenty-five pounds of baggage on their
backs and foraged for whatever food they could get.
Nain Singh was anticipating small luxuries such as fresh vegetables, beer, and
a more comfortable accommodation in Lhasa. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
Just before reaching the city, he heard a rumor that the Chinese were aware
that a British agent was approaching Lhasa from India. The pundit sent one of
his servants ahead of him to see if the Lopchak mission had arrived with the
remainder of his funds. The response was negative; in fact, the head of the
mission had died on the way to Lhasa. Now Nain Singh's penury was to force the
curtailment of his expedition.
But there was a more present danger. On reaching Lhasa, Nain Singh had the
bad luck to bump into a merchant from Leh who knew his identity and true
occupation. The pundit feared betrayal and made plans to leave Lhasa
immediately, rather than wait in the hope that the Lopchak mission might
appear. Had he been able to delay his departure, he might have been able to
retrieve his funds from the mission, even in the absence of the Lopchak
Instead, the pundit sent two of his men back to Leh. They carried details of
all his astronomical observations and route survey, and they reached Trotter
safely in January 1875. Trotter now feared for the safety of his agent, who
had in fact left Lhasa abruptly with his two remaining servants only two days
after arriving. The psychological strain of possible discovery (followed by
the inevitable imprisonment and probable death) must have told on the pundit,
particularly as he had had to start off again from Lhasa with no chance to
recuperate from a four-month march across the Chang Tang.
To return to India via Peking was clearly out of the question. The remaining
funds were pitifully small. The best route to take home was the shortest and
quickest, not northeast through China, but south into India.
In order not to arouse suspicion, and to throw pursuers off the track should
he be betrayed, Nain Singh left his bulky inessentials behind with his
landlord, saying that he would collect them ina month's time after
returning from a pilgrimage to a monastery north of Lhasa. The small party
duly left Lhasa for the north, but as soon as darkness fell made a 180-degree
turn toward India. This fall-back strategy was inaccordance with his
original instructions received from Walker and Trotter.
A week after leaving Lhasa, the pundit came to the Samye gompa, an ancient and
famous monastery just two miles from the northern bank of the Tsangpo. He
admired its high circular walls, which he estimated to be one and a half miles
in circumference, and counted 1,030 chortens (funeral monuments) on top
Nain Singh followed the course of the Tsangpo downstream for two days and
then crossed it by boat. The river was sluggish, and the pundit was able to
estimate its rate of flow as two-thirds of a mile per hour by throwing in a
piece of wood and timing it over a fixed distance. Measuring the poles used to
punt the ferry across the river gave it a depth of between eighteen and twenty
feet. The river was about five hundred yards wide.
The point where the river was crossed was near the town of Chetang, and here
Nain Singh left the Tsangpo. The information he was able to give about the
river was valuable. He had followed it for thirty miles along a part of its
course that had hitherto been unexplored. Chetang was fifty miles beyond the
lowest point at which the river had been mapped to date, and from the town the
pundit was able to approximate its course for a further one hundred miles by
taking bearings of distant peaks, the Tsangpo being reputed to pass to one side
Following the road south away from the Tsangpo, and up the valley of the
Yarlung, one of its tributaries, Nain Singh crossed the main Himalayan chain by
the Karkang pass, at a height of over sixteen thousand feet. He was traveling
toward Tawang, accompanied by a man of some importance in that district.
Tawang was a small area to the east of Bhutan and north of the Assamese plains,
loosely owing an allegiance to Lhasa, and situated on a traditional trade route
between India and Tibet. The merchants of Tawang were suffering at the hands
of those in Lhasa and so were preventing any merchants from Tibet from
proceeding onward to the Indian border, in order to retain the bulk of the
trade for themselves. Because of this, the pundit, who had arrived in Tawang
on 24 December, was detained there until 17 February, and not even his
influential friend could prize him free before that time. Eventually, by
depositing almost all of his remaining goods and by claiming that he would
return for them after a pilgrimage just across the border, the pundit reached
Udaiguri in British territory on 1 March 1875. There he presented himself to
the local assistant commander, who telegraphed Trotter to announce the safe
arrival of his explorer. The assistant commander also made the travel
arrangements for the pundit to proceed to Gauhati, where he once again met up
with the Tsangpo, now known as the Brahmaputra, and took a steamer to
The expedition had achieved important results, even though the pundit had
been unable to reach his far-flung goal of Peking.
Nain Singh had traveled 1,405 miles between Leh and Udaiguri. His survey had
started at Noh, a village whose position had also been fixed by the pundit
Kishen Singh on his return from Khotan. It terminated at Udaiguri, the
position of which was known very accurately from measurements made by the
Indian Revenue Survey Department. Between these two points stretched 1,319
miles of virtually unknown country, of which 1,200 miles was completely
unexplored. Prior to Nain Singh, only the small section around Tengri Nor had
been surveyed, by Kishen Singh in 1872.
The pundit had located the eastern extremity of Lake Pangong, provided
additional details of the Tibetan goldfields, mapped a large number of new
lakes and rivers, and confirmed the existence of a chain of snow peaks to the
north of the Tsangpo. More information on the course of this river through
Tibet had been discovered. The route through Tawang to British India had been
charted for the first time.
Nain Singh also took a large number of sextant observations, as well as pacing
his route, taking compass bearings and measuring for altitude by observing the
boiling point of water. All had to be made in conditions of complete secrecy
Based on the pundit's earlier observations at Lhasa, Montgomerie had concluded
that Lhasa lay at longitude 90 59' 30". All the measurements, said Trotter,
showed the pundit to be "a skillful and accurate observer."
No Europeans were successful in reaching Tengri Nor until Bonvalot and Prince
Henri of Orleans in 1890. A British expedition to the west of Tengri Nor
almost half a century after Nain Singh (in 1922) commented that most of the
information they had on the area was still derived from his expedition and that
of Kishen Singh. They also verified the accuracy of the two pundits'
This was Nain Singh's final foray beyond the frontiers. The stress of this
journey and prolonged exposure to the elements had taken their toll on his
health, and his eyesight in particular had been affected by continuous
observations taken at very high altitudes. But although he retired from
exploration, he continued to serve the Indian government with the training of
Within a year of his retirement, Walker was able to write that "he is an
admirable trainer and has managed to collect several young men around him and
taught them all that is necessary for work of this nature, so that they are now
ready for further explorations." The work of teaching new recruits the
fine art of secret exploration continued at least up until 1879, when "S.C.D."
(Sarat Chandra Das) was given a course in surveying and observing by Nain
The pundit's name was now made public and was announced in the Geographical
Magazine in 1876. Members of the GTS, including Walker and
Montgomerie, urged that Nain Singh, in addition to his pension, should receive
further monetary compensation from the government, as well as recognition from
the Royal Geographical Society.
Montgomerie wrote to the India Office in March of 1877 from his home in Bath,
pressing for a grant of land to be made to Nain Singh. Unknown to
Montgomerie, this had already been done. On the recommendation of Walker, the
Indian government had proposed to London on 15 December 1876 that the pundit be
given the grant of a village in Rohilkand together with a jumma (or
revenue assessment from land) of Rs. 1,000. These proposals were
enthusiastically endorsed by the secretary of state for India in Council, who
spoke of the "high value" of the pundit's achievements. The secretary of state
also expressed "warm approval of the energy and discretion shown by Colonel
Walker and Colonel Montgomerie in the gradual elaboration of a system which has
produced, at a minimum of cost, results of real importance, which are seldom
attained elsewhere without some considerable sacrifice of resources, if not of
The Paris Geographical Society had given Montgomerie a gold watch for him to
send on to Nain Singh. Montgomerie did so, noting in a letter to Walker that
"it is not a very handsome watch but the Society is not rich and they meant to
pay N.S. a high compliment." The award of this watch came in the same
year as the award of a gold medal from the Royal Geographicalal Society. It
was the latter award, however, which occasioned considerable dissension in the
highest councils of the "Geographical."
The question at issue was who was the most meritorious-Nain Singh for his
feats of exploration, or Trotter for planning the expedition and interpreting
and writing up the results? Clearly each accomplishment depended upon the
other, but who should achieve recognition first?
On the one side was the former president of the RGS, Sir Henry Rawlinson, who
proposed that Trotter should have the Patron's Medal for 1876 because of his
"having conducted the Survey operations of the late Mission to eastern
Turkistan under Sir Douglas Forsyth." This view was opposed by Colonel
Henry Yule, whose views as a scholar carried much greater weight than those of
Rawlinson. Yule wrote to Sir Rutherford Alcock at the Society, calling Nain
Singh "the Pundit of Pundits," and comparing him with such giants of
exploration as Livingstone and Grant. It was his "strong opinion," said Yule,
"that his [Nain Singh's] great merits cannot be fully recognised by anything
short of one of the Society's gold medals." Yule continued that "either
of his great journeys in Tibet would have brought this reward to any
European explorer; to have made two such journeys adding so enormously to
accurate knowledge . . . is what no European but the first rank of travelers
like Livingstone or Grant have done." Yule had been in touch with
Walker, who was on leave in England at the time. Walker agreed with Yule and
wrote that "I shall be very glad if you can get him the gold medal of the R. G.
S., or any other suitable mark of distinction, in acknowledgement of his
excellent services to geographical science." The letter, which did not
mention Trotter, was sent along to the RGS by Yule......
.....The last words on Nain Singh are best left to Colonel Yule, addressing
the Royal Geographic Society at the time of its presentation of the Society's
gold medal. Nain Singh, he said, "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 knowlege to the map of
Asia then those of any other living man."