Ganga Canal Map by GTS Roorkee

By Samridhi Dixit

Nain Singh Rawat single-handedly mapped and explored the vast horizons of the Himalayas and Tibet that were previously untouched. His important contributions in cartography have been vital in our understanding of the geography of Asia and most importantly the Himalaya-shrouded Tibet. This short and stocky man from Johar valley impressed the British government with his determination and grit. With the passage of time, Nain Singh Rawat and his adventures were lost among pages of history. An explorer of legendary status, Nain Singh is still widely unknown to the outside world. His almost-surreal journeys should encourage new generation to get closer to the ever so fragile nature which we take for granted.

Tibet map by survey of india in 1880s
Tibet map by survey of india in 1880s

Many people worked for the successful completion of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, but the one who is mainly responsible for it, was Pundit Nain Singh Rawat, who dedicated most part of his life to the field of exploration and cartography.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey was a project which aimed to measure the entire Indian subcontinent with scientific precision. It was begun in 1802 by the infantry officer William Lambton, under the auspices of the East India Company. Under the leadership of his successor, George Everest, the project was made a responsibility of the Survey of India.

Among the many accomplishments of the Survey were the demarcation of the British territories in India and the measurement of the height of the Himalayan giants: EverestK2, and Kanchenjunga. The Survey had an enormous scientific impact as well, being responsible for one of the first accurate measurements of a section of an arc of longitude, and for measurements of the geodesic anomaly which led to the development of the theories of isostasy.

In the Great Trigonometrical Survey, Nain Singh surveyed 2000 km long trade route from Nepal to Tibet in around 21 months. He was first to determine the exact location and altitude of Lhasa town. Nain Singh measured 31 latitudes and 33 altitudes of different places during this survey. He travelled the length of 800 Km of Tsang Po river in Tibet, and was the first person to find that the Tsang Po and Brahmaputra rivers are one. He successfully completed his expeditions in the disguise of a Lama as the entry of foreigners in Tibet was forbidden by the Chinese Iron Curtains.

A common belief is that science heads in a direction of progress, and thus leads to more accurate representations of maps. In this belief European maps must be superior to others, which necessarily employed different map-making skills. “There was a ‘not cartography’ land where lurked an army of inaccurate, heretical, subjective, valuable, and ideologically distorted images.

Map of India based on GTS method
Map of India based on GTS method in 1880s

Pundit Nain Singh’s methodology of survey of the Himalayas and the Tibet has proved to be very influential, such that may of the cartography and navigation techniques used today are derived from it. The methodology included them using a pace-stick, to take steps of a fixed length which remained constant even while climbing up, down or walking on plain surface. They were trained to record the distances by an ingenious method using a rosary. This rosary unlike a Hindu or Buddhist one, which has 108 beads, had just 100 beads. At every 100 steps the Pundit would slip one bead, so a complete length of the rosary represented 10000 steps. It was easy to calculate the distance as each step was 31½ inches and a mile was calculated to be around 2000 steps. To avoid suspicion, these explorers went about their task disguised as monks or traders or whatever suited the particular situation. Many more ingenious methods were devised for this expedition. The notes of measurements were coded in the form of written prayers and these scrolls of paper were hidden in the cylinder of the prayer wheel. The Pundit kept this secret log book up to date. The compass for taking bearing was hidden in the lid of the prayer wheel. Mercury used for setting and artificial horizon, was kept in Cowri shells and for use poured into the begging bowl carried by the Pundit. The thermometer found place in the topmost part of the monk’s stave. There were workshops, where false bottoms were made in the chests to hold sextant. Pockets were also added to the clothes used during these secret missions.


Though cartography has been a target of much criticism in recent decades, a cartographer’s ‘black box’ always seemed to be naturally defended to the point where it overcame the criticism. However, to later scholars in the field, it was evident that cultural influences dominate map-making. For instance, certain abstracts on maps and the map-making society itself describe the social influences on the production of maps.

Cartographers in general tools, from basic writing implements to complex satellites for aerial photography, to design and develop maps. Modern mapping has taken traditional handwritten blueprints and turned them into digital versions for online and mobile viewing. Many cartographers specialize in maps for use in vehicles or cellular navigation systems the GPS system, while others focus on detailed depictions of regions. They rely on various tools to obtain information specific to their map, such as population density or other socioeconomic data.

Telescopes and compasses were the first tools used in cartography and have remained useful throughout the ages. Cartographers use all kinds of compasses, from the folding pillar compass to the sundial, which indicates directions and relies on solar power to align its plate to point North. Other essential tools include triangles and pens with adjustable needle points.

Digital cameras and scanners are frequently used in addition to satellite images to capture visuals for a map. They may utilize drafting equipment, such as lighting tables, straightedges, stencils, lettering aids, drafting scales, T-squares, protractors and dividers, to sketch and develop rough drafts. Despite the growth in online mapping, many cartographers still rely on printing machines to make hard copies. Cartographers need reference materials when developing their maps, such as almanacs or ephemerides guides, which are published predictions of locations and times that atmospheric and astronomical phenomena may occur. They use various gazetteers to help them determine locations of area features, like bodies of water, buildings and landforms. For example, The Fuzzy Gazetteer database helps identify geographic features without the exact name. Cartographers also use calculators for distance and time, such as the World Time Zone Map of standard time zones.

Ganga Canal Map by GTS Roorkee
Ganga Canal Map by GTS Method in Roorkee

Cartographers use several technologies, including radar-based surveillance systems such as global positioning system (GPS) and Geographic information system (GIS). With GPS we can find certain location information on earth with the aid of satellite support and some devices. And so on the basis of that information, any area can easily be mapped. We can receive the latitude, longitude, altitude, etc. and use those basic facts to draw the map. Apart from these systems, computers and mobile communication software use Google Earth and GPS as the modern geographic information sources, while GIS method communicates with the satellites in earth’s orbit and special computer software. The information received from the satellites is used to generate accurate maps. Mapping is done by processing the information collected from the satellites. The mapping method has been modernized because of this method, as the data is accurate and clear. They also take advantage of web tools available through cartographic computer programs. For example, most cartography software includes a latitude and longitude tool that indicates details for a selected location. Programs also include options to mark, move or calibrate specific points or areas on maps to highlight special landmarks or calculate distances between two locations.

No matter how modern and effective and less tedious todays mapping and navigation techniques may have become we Indians have this century long tradition of sticking to the roots. Similarly The Survey of India has tried their level best to appreciate the massive contribution that Pundit Nain Singh Rawat has made by bringing the forbidden land of Tibet to the map of the world and exploring the unexplored parts of the mighty Himalayas. On our behalf all we can do is bring to notice the work of these unknown pioneers of our country to the general public.

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