By Priyanjali Bhalla
The Kashmiri traders had seen him. They were keeping an eye on him. It was only a matter of time when the target would be apprehended. And once he was caught, nobody in the entire world would ever know where he disappeared.
The monk had finished his prayers. He sat isolated under the moonlit sky. He looked around. There was not a single living being to be spotted in this barren, hidden and impassable land. The land was nested amongst the lofty Himalayan ranges. Nature had crafted this particular piece of land in such a fine skill that even the neighboring lands would remain unknown about its existence. Over the years even the men living in this hidden plateau were able to protect this sacred land from the rest of the outer world. But now its secret was on the verge of being disclosed.
Over the centuries this land had developed its own kind of culture, living patterns, traditions, and customs. Only the monks or traders who were allotted permission could enter this land. If any spy or stranger entered its domains, he or she was sacrificed to the lord of death. The monk was aware of this. Looking towards the sky he sends out his prayers to his Creator, who would protect him and guide him in his mission. Then he looked down to his prayer wheel. It was a very ordinary looking rotating device with Buddhist prayers and symbols engraved on it. Anyone could surpass it for what it externally appeared to be. But only the true seeker of his mission would know what beheld its heart. He opened the rotating drum of the prayer wheel. He looked at the semi-precious stone studded in the center of the drum. The liquid in it moved slightly and then stood still at a particular angle. It was mercury. A mercury compass. Precisely fitted there for a great purpose just as the minor laser beam which holds the key to a great treasure. But this compass also held the key to the death of this monk. He noted down something, some words. But if one would peep closer they will find that they were more similar to mathematical symbols rather than words. He then counted the beads of his rosary. All Buddhist rosaries had 108 beads. This was a well known traditional fact. Never were they a bead more or less in the count. Then why was he counting? Being a monk it was another strange thing he did along with other strange things he has been doing repeatedly every night. Wait! The beads count ended on one hundred!
One hundred?! That was weird. Not only this was the last bead bigger than all other.
The strange activity of the monk continued. This time he fidgeted with his ochre colored robe and from the topmost part of his stave he pulled out a thermometer and a watch. Then a sextant was drawn out. Having all these things out him worked upon these instruments. Made several calculations and noted down his observations. He spends a few minutes doing data analysis and then hid everything very precisely right under the eye, where it had always been.
It was a trading day in the market. The marketplace was flocked up with merchants and traders from various neighboring parts of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, etc. There was strict surveillance. Nobody was allowed to enter without the pass. Anyone caught doing anything suspicious was taken into custody.
There were three Bashari traders who were repeatedly declaring their innocence and giving proof of their trading rights. But the Tibetan official did not believe them. In the end, permission to trade was traded for a heavy sum of bribe. Finally, the three traders moved on to strike an exchange deal for shawl wool with decorative corals. But one of them gave up. He was held back as a hostage. Finally, the other two continued in different directions. One towards Mt. Kailash and the other towards the goldfields of Thok Jalong.
Thok Jalong was blessed with gold enriched soil. The gold from this goldfield was mined to be used for monasteries in Lhasa and Tibet. But the people of this land did not mine the earth too deep for they believed that this would deprive the earth of its fertility. The bribe given at the beginning of the trade had left the trader with very less amount. His corals too did not earn him any good profit. Ultimately he decided to teach local children in order to earn money. This was unlikely for a Bashari trader. Suspicion and doubt about him filled the mind of the Kashmiri traders. His disguise would be figured out soon. The days of the trader were numbered now.
Dalai Lama was about to hold an audience with the people at the Sera Monastery. If you mingle with a holy audience od the Dalai Lama, it was rare that anyone would suspect you. The trader decided to be a part of this holy gathering. He disguised himself as a monk. This disguise was even convenient if someone wanted to note down the ceremonial details of a Buddhist gathering.
The ceremony started. The gathering consisted of local people, priests, holy men and traders from different areas. The disguised monk sat in the front row with the other monks of the monastery. After a while when the ceremony ended, everyone got up to show their respect for their holy leader. The monk spotted two pairs of Kashmiri eyes staring at him from the back left corner of the ceremonial hall. He knew that his secret had been compromised. He decided to flee. But there was only one gate available to him for escape. Another one was jammed with the attendants and helping staff of the monastery. But the free gate was more close to the approaching pair of Kashmiri traders. The monk was stuck amidst the excited crowd. If he tried to push and rush past the holy group he would draw unwanted attention. He could not do this. His research would change the map of the world and transform the existing history about the landforms of the earth. But if he is caught now, his months of research and findings would be lost. It would not only put his life in danger but the lives of all the innocent traders present in and around this land. He made himself ready for action and prayed one last time to the magnificent pure gold statue of Lord Buddha in front of him. The seekers and the target were now at a half-an-arms distance from each other. The traders looked at each other as if agreeing on their plan of action and approached swiftly towards the monk. They went straight for the fold of his dress near the chest. The monk thought that he would be dead any moment now. He expected the smell and warmth of his own blood to fill his senses as it would drip down from the blade’s cut mark in the chest. But instead, he felt something cold and metallic along with the silken feel like that of a small pouch touch his lower chest. He felt some weight under his upper robe just above the horizontally tied piece of cloth which does the work of a belt, keeping robes together. He met the eyes of his attackers’. They were not merciless or angry as he had thought. They were calm and helpful. The traders whispered into his ears very politely that they knew who he was. They knew that he was neither a merchant from Bashari nor a Buddhist monk. They knew what his reality was and whom he was working for. They even knew that he was out of the fund and thus they had quietly inserted a pouch with thirty silver coins in his upper robe. Giving it in hand would arise suspicion in the minds of the onlookers and he might be suspected of an illegal trade. The traders wished him good luck and left the hall.
The monk stood shocked and relieved at the same time. He looked towards his lord, thanked him and whispered a prayer. His belief in his mission and its success strengthened.
From there he returned to Giachuraf and reunited with the other two brothers with whom he was separated earlier. They then continued their journey to Gartok and then returned to Toling.
The monk visited these lands again on his last mission in 1874. He stayed and surveyed the area near Pangong lake and Tengri nor for two years for the Survey of India (British India).
This monk was none other than the greatest geographical explorer of India, Pundit Nain Singh Rawat. He was born in Milam in the Upper Johar valley of Kumaon in 1830. The Milam valley was situated at the foot of the Himalayan glacier and thus it was inhabited in summer only. The people of Milam traded regularly with the Tibetan people. But they had very complex trade practices. A Johari trader would trade only with the Tibetan colleague who was identified by the splitting of a stone. Each one of them kept their respective half pieces. The goods from one of the stone-half piece holding trader could only be sold to that person who could marry the half of the stone. Fortunately, Nain Singh’s father was a frequent trader and thus well versed in Tibetan. Nain Singh was aware of the customs and religious practices of the Tibetan people. Being born in the highlands of the Himalayas, his facial features held similarities with the features of the Tibetan race. He was self-taught in various languages and basic mathematics. He was a quick learner of both- advanced mathematics and sophisticated measuring instruments. He and his brothers, Mani Singh and Kishan Singh were selected for initial exploration of Tibet. They were trained under Montgomerie’s supervision at Dehradun. When he was not occupied with any exploration or survey expedition he spends his time teaching in a vernacular school in Johar. Thus he has mentioned as ‘Pundit’ a respectable term for a teacher in the local language. Not only did he teach the school going kids but in the later years he played the role of the Chief trainer at the Survey of India teaching and imparting the knowledge of his exploration experiences to the upcoming generation of geographical explorers.
Nain Singh was a part of two major geographical explorations project:
1.Schlagintweit Brothers’ Expedition (1855-1857)
- Great Trigonometrical Survey (1863-1875)
As a surveyor in the Great Trigonometrical Survey he made the following important expeditions from 1865 to 1875:
- 1865-66: Kathmandu-Lhasa-Mansarovar lake
- 1867: Origin of the Sutlej and Indus rivers and Thok Jalong
- 1870: Douglas Forsyth’s First Yarland-Kashgar Mission
- 1873: Douglas Forsyth’s Second Yarland-Kashgar Mission
- 1874-75: Leh-Lhasa-Tawang
He noted down his findings and exploration details in his personal diaries. Unfortunately only a couple of his diaries could be accessible to the later researchers. Shekhar Pathak, a historian from Kumaon along with his wife, Dr. Uma Bhatt collected what was left if his writings and his diaries and published a three-volume set entitled Asia ki Peeth Par -On the back of Asia, life, explorations, and writings of Pundit Nain Singh Rawat in 2006. Pathak’s analysis of Pandit Nain Singh Rawat’s writings concluded that the explorer used to write in khadi boli Hindi and it was one of its types. Two of Nain Singh’s books were published:
1.Akshansh Darpan (Mirror of Latitudes) where he mentioned all his scientific and technical information about his experiences in the explorations of Tibet;
2.Itihas Rawat Kaum (History of Rawat’s) where he mentioned the histories of a sub-group of the larger Shouka community belonging to the Johar valley in Uttarakhand.
Pundit Nain Singh was a person of strong character and a determined soul. He was the first Asian to be honored by the Royal Geographical Society by the Patron’s Medal, their highest honor in 1877. He did an outstanding work of filling up the white gaps in the scientific knowledge on the geographical map of Asia on the risk of his life. His findings and explorations became a great inspiration for several people. He did not belong to any privileged class of the society. But his simple life and high work ideals made him The Greatest Explorer of India. His various exploration reports were published by the Royal Geographical Society and in the Schlagintweit Brothers’ reports. PAHAR (People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research) also published various articles about Nain Singh’s life and explorations. The harshness of the land he explored also could not stop him and his strong conviction to explore it. Thus the land too honours this great explorer by having the road leading to Gochar, at Thal named as Nain Singh Rawat Road.