For much of the 19th century, Europe played the Great Game. Explorers vied with each other to map the geographical vastness of Central Asia and understand its people and customs. Knowledge was essential to political success, but Europeans were not welcome everywhere.
A thirst for knowledge and the need for secrecy led to the creation of pandits, a select group of highly educated and brave local men trained in geographical exploration.
Prominent among these was Nain Singh Rawat, born on this day and the first man to survey Tibet, determining the exact location and altitude of Lhasa, mapping the Tsangpo, and describing in mesmerizing detail fabled sites such as the gold mines of Thok Jalung.
Disguised as a Tibetan monk, he walked from his home region of Kumaon to places as far as Kathmandu, Lhasa, and Tawang. He maintained a precisely measured pace, covering one mile in 2000 steps, and measured those steps using a rosary. He hid a compass in his prayer wheel and mercury in cowrie shells and even disguised travel records as prayers.
In picture: Mount Kailash and the chortens of Tibet.
Image source: Tibetan Archives