Maps and Map-making in India

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The Survey of India

Surveying India Exhibit Section

The “Father of the Indian Survey” was Major James Rennell. In 1767 he was given the newly created post of Surveyor General. Rennell ensured that precision was the utmost concern for his surveyors. When training Indian recruits he taught them to keep an exact pace, unvaried no matter what the terrain might be. The rule was: 1 mile = 2000 paces.

Thomas G. Montgomerie, who was a captain in the Survey of India, was an intrepid mapper. He was able to sight the elevation of K-2 (Karakoram), the second highest peak in the Himalayas. Even more interesting, though, was his work with the “pundits”. These were native agents who were “intelligence workmen”, or essentially spies for the British. The northernmost sections of South Asia (especially Tibet) were uncharted and quite dangerous, so the pundits would disguise themselves. Oftentimes they dressed as Buddhist pilgrims, using Tibetan rosaries to record the number of steps they had taken during the day. They carried a number of mapping instruments that were cleverly hidden in their clothing and secret compartments in their luggage. They even hid paper (for recording their measurements) in the prayer wheels.

Tibetan Prayer Beads

Tibetan Prayer Beads

The exploits of the pundits are legendary. They had to be very cagey in order to avoid detection. Nain Singh, one of the most accomplished of the pundits, was able to enter Lhasa in 1866. He wrote: “I accompanied the Ladakh merchant, called Lopchak, on the 7th Gewaring-bo-chi [Great Lama] in the fort, ascending by the southern steps. A priest came out to receive us and we were conducted into the presence of the Gewaring-bo-chi, a handsome boy of about thirteen years, seated on a throne 6 feet high, attended by two of the highest priests, each holding a bundle of peacock feathers. To the right of this boy, and seated on a throne 3 feet high, was the Raja Gyalbo-Khuro-Gyago, his minister … We were ordered to be seated, and after making offering of silks, sweets, and money, the Lama Guru put us three questions, placing his hand on each of our heads: ‘Is your king well?’ ‘Does your country prosper?’ and ‘Are you in good health?’ We were then served with tea, which some drank and others poured on their heads.” (Wilford, p. 170)