Magazine article Geographical

Late, Great Geographers

Magazine article Geographical

Late, Great Geographers

Article excerpt

Nain Singh (c. 1830-1882)

Singh worked for the British Survey of India and mapped vast tracts of the Himalaya on foot, often in disguise

How did Nain Singh make his mark? By charting distances of thousands of miles in the Himalaya while working as a `pundit', or surveyor, for the British Survey of India.

How did he become involved? In the late 1800s attempts were made to map the land in Tibet and central Asia. The British, fearing the expansion of Russia into Asia set about covertly gathering intelligence. Colonel Montgomerie came up with the idea of using local people disguised as wandering llamas for the task. Two cousins, Nain and Mani Singh, fitted Montgomerie's requirements of being literate, not too old, and prepared to work for a pittance. When he was recruited in 1863 Nain was 33.

Were they trained for the job? Montgomerie put them through an arduous two-year training programme. They were taught how to walk in `measured fashion', so that whatever the nature of terrain, each pace measured exactly 33 inches. They counted the paces with rosaries: after every 100 paces one bead was clicked. A complete circuit of a rosary represented 1,000 paces, or five miles. They were also trained how to use sextants, recording observations on the paper strips of Tibetan prayer wheels.

Why were they called `pundits'? The term pundit comes from pandita meaning `a learned man.' Montgomerie gave the Singhs code names: Nain was called the chief pundit and his cousin, the second pundit. …

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