Cartography in Survey of India in 1870

By Vidisha Nainwal

Imagine getting lost in an unknown place with no maps to guide you and no knowledge of the surrounding region. Sounds quite adventurous, doesn’t it? But if you weren’t an ardent traveler, would you still fancy the situation? I reckon NOT. Since ages, maps have been used by travelers for navigating their way through the world. This led to the study and practice of making maps, also known as, “Cartography”. But map itself is of various types; one of which that is quite useful is a TOPOGRAPHIC MAP. It is an intricate and accurate two-dimensional representation of the natural and man-made features on the Earth’s surface. But, in order to map a place, one first needs to find a specific route for it and when the explorers come into the picture one realizes that exploring places is no child job. You need to have certain kind of training for it and I am not talking about the navy-seal-kind-of-training here, but you need to have enough information about the place to be explored, the indigenous groups of that region and their dialects. You have got to prepare yourself, mentally as well as physically, and be cognizant and observant of everything happening around you.

Cartography in Survey of India in 1870


One such famous explorer to have been born in India was Pandit Nain Singh Rawat. Born in the valley of Johar of Kumaon, he was part of a selected group of indigenous surveyors in the second half of the 19th century, who explored regions of the north of India for the British. Pandit Nain Singh left school in order to aid his father in their traditional trans-border trade between India and Tibet. During this period, he visited different places in Tibet with his father, learned the Tibetan language, customs, manners, and traditions and also became friends with the local people. The knowledge of the Tibetan language and their culture proved to be very useful in Nain Singh’s tenure as an SPY Explorer.

His very first expedition was in 1855 with the German geographers, SCHLAGINTWEIT brothers. Nain Singh and two of his brothers were recruited; after which they traveled to Mansarovar lake and Rakas Tal lake in Tibet and then further to Gartok and Ladakh. It was quite an adventure and Pundit Nain Singh’s ability to recognize all the major stars and constellations proved to be very useful to him and his fellow travelers whenever they lost their way.Sextants used in Cartography by British India

In order to gain more knowledge about the Indian sub-continent, the British began The GREAT  TRIGONOMETRICAL SURVEY. As part of the project, trustworthy natives from Indian border states, including Pundit Nain Singh Rawat and his brother Mani Singh Rawat, were trained to be surveyors. They were trained vigorously and were taught how to use the scientific equipment as well as the art of disguise. This was done mainly because the neighboring countries, particularly Tibet, did not allow the entry of Westerners. The surveyors had learned to disguise themselves as traders or holy men. In fact, Pundit Nain Singh Rawat undertook these explorations disguised as a Tibetan monk and walked from Kumaon to places as far as Kathmandu, Lhasa, and Tawang. He used to maintain a precisely measured pace, covering one mile in 2,000 steps, in order to keep track of the distance. To avoid suspicion, he used to hide the compass in the lid of his prayer wheel, and the mercury in the cowrie shells and disguised the travel records as written prayers.

Tibet Map Cartography by Nain Singh RawatPundit Nain Singh Rawat was the first man who surveyed Tibet and determined the exact location and altitude of Lhasa. He mapped the Tsangpo river and described in profound details, sites such as the gold mines of Thok Jalung. He also surveyed and mapped a large section of the Brahmaputra river and the trade route through Nepal to Tibet. His last and greatest journey was from Leh via Lhasa to Assam, by a different unexplored route. It was a journey that lasted for almost a year and covered nearly 2100 kms, of which 1900 kms were completely unexplored before. Traveling through the Himalayan terrain, Nain Singh mapped a sequence of lakes across central Tibet, none of which had been seen before. His invaluable findings revealed that the Tibetan river Tsangpo and India’s Brahmaputra River were actually the same!

Nain Singh’s extraordinary feats of exploration were not ignored by the British government. The world’s prestigious cartographic institution, the ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY(RGS) honored him with a gold medal in 1868 which was followed by the award of the Victoria or Patron’s Medal of the RGS in 1877. Needless to say, Nain Singh Rawat made incredible contributions in cartography and topological surveying by undertaking arduous journeys with undoubting spirit, across the Himalayan region of Tibet and mapping the Tibetan landscapes which evaded the eyes of the humanity for centuries. He was indeed, Survey of India’s most prized asset!





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