Book hails feat of Kumaon hero Nain Singh Rawat who surveyed Tibet in 19th century
A new book provides a fascinating account of Nain Singh Rawat, an unsung Kumaoni hero who was sent to Tibet on a secret mission by the British in the 19th century.
The Journey to the Forbidden City by Deepa Agarwal is about the man who dared to explore the ‘Roof of the World’ and whose contribution was recognised by institutions like the Royal Geographical Society and the Paris Geographical Society.
Rawat and his cousin Mani Singh were on a top-secret mission - they intended to map Tibet, ‘the Roof of the World’, still an unknown entity to cartographers. And a dangerous one because, suspicious of the imperialist designs of the western powers, the Tibetan government had forbidden entry to all foreigners on pain of death, says the author.
The battle for influence in central Asia between Russia and Britain was in full play at that time. The British government that ruled over India was desperate to acquire geographical knowledge of Tibet. China already had a foothold there.
“But the British were more interested in outwitting Russia, which they believed was expanding its influence from the West. They were apprehensive that Russia might next try to wrest control of India, their prized colony,” the book, published by Puffin, says.
Nain and Mani Singh happened to belong to the Shauka tribe, a community that lived on the Indo-Tibetan border. They resembled the Bushaharis physically and could speak Tibetan because they were permitted to trade in certain regions of the country.
The two masqueraded as Bushaharis because these people (from Himachal Pradesh) were permitted to visit Tibet freely, unlike other foreigners.
“Thus, the British found them perfect for this undercover job. Their task was to find answers to questions like the exact location of Tibet’s capital Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama, along with numerous other geographical details of the country that were still missing on the world map,” Agarwal writes.
The book was officially launched at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival by Shekhar Pathak, former professor of History, Kumaon University, Nainital in presence of noted singer Shubha Mudgal.
Agarwal says this is one book she dreamt of writing for many years.
“I had heard of my grandfather’s uncle Pundit Nain Singh’s achievements from childhood. Stories were told about his daring adventures, his quick intelligence and the honours he had received for his exploits,” she says.
Apart from his manual of survey methods “Akshaansh Darpan”, Singh had even written a family history “Itihas Rawat Kaum”.
According to Agarwal, there were always heated arguments about whether Singh should be described as a spy or not.
“Whatever information he might have gathered on his journeys, Nain Singh’s extraordinary contribution to the map of the world remains most important to me,” she says.
Nineteenth century Tibet was an unknown entity, a complete geographical mystery to the West. And the British wanted to know where its capital city Lhasa was, which rivers, lakes and mountains stretched across this land and where were its fabled monasteries and legendary goldfields.
Trekking across this unknown country with deliberately measured steps, Rawat risked life and limb and donned innumerable disguises as he surveyed vast expanses and identified countless villages, cities and people along his route.
From putting Lhasa on the world map and tracking the course of the Brahmaputra or Tsangpo as it was called in Tibet, his eventful and often arduous travels led to his name being permanently engraved in the annals of both Indian and world exploration.
The book is based on his actual diaries and is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the man who rose from being an impoverished village schoolteacher to a legendary hero.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)