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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Pandits in disguise: How Hindu spies charted almost entire Central Asia and Tibet

The trained Hindu spies under Buddhist disguise would carry prayer beads with them but the number of beads was 100 and not the sacred 108. For every 100 steps, the spy would turn one bead and thus upon the turn of the entire prayer bead 10000 steps would be considered completed.

This would be repeated and kept count for. This is how distances were measured while traveling. Needless to say, it was an extremely hard task to complete. They could be discovered anytime if their beads were counted.

They would also carry small scrolls hidden inside their prayer wheels. When nobody was looking they would open the prayer wheel, note the relevant information and then close it. Compass would also be hidden inside the prayer wheel.

Sometimes they would carry thermometer hidden inside their walking staff and would keep noting temperature at different junctions of their journeys. Bigger instruments like sextants would be hidden in their traveling chests. Mercury was hidden in cowry shells.

These British spies were mostly Hindus and the stupendous journeys that they took and the surveys that they made is the stuff of legends. In one or two cases they were also Muslim but as a group, they were overwhelmingly Hindu.

At great personal risk, but with a great sense of adventure and scientific discovery, they would be crucial in charting the path of the various rivers and mountain cliffs of Tibet and the surrounding mountain ranges in Central Asia.

They were under danger of being killed by fanatical Muslim chieftains in Central Asia from where they often passed. They could be discovered anytime making notes and recording details and subsequently killed.

They could be killed by the harsh weather in all of these high altitudes landscapes. But still, they marched on. Their travels are the stuff of legends.

These brilliant men, practically alone, on foot, charted almost entire Central Asia and Tibet. Even at home, they would live a secret life. In British records, they would simply be known with the number assigned to them, such as Number 1 and Number 2.

They were paid meagerly and were rarely rewarded in the Royal Geographical Society in London for they were not British citizens, albeit what they achieved is at least akin to if not more than what the great British explores did in Africa, Americas and Antarctica.

Exploring Tibet

Some of the earliest of these spies were Mani and Nain Singh from the Himalayas. They were trained in the spycraft in Dehradun.

One of them Nain Singh completed legendary travels across Tibet and managed to chart the entire course of distance from Nepal to Lhasa, along with discovering Tsang-po and traveling across it.

He was to prove himself a man of astonishing resolution and resource, and was destined to become a legend among explorers everywhere, even before they were allowed to learn his real identity.

From all accounts he also possessed remarkable charm and was a popular member of any caravan he joined, and welcome at any campfire.

It was no doubt with the help of this charm that he managed to ingratiate himself with the leader of the Nepalese caravan which finally got him safely across the frontier at Kirong, some eight months after his departure from Dehra Dun.

His new disguise completely fooled the frontier officials, and once against the false bottom of his traveling trunk survived scrutiny.”

These Hindus spies like Nain Singh could not travel in any vehicle even if they found one. They had to complete the entire journey on foot because that was the only way exact distances could be calculated.

Traveling on foot, no matter how hard and perilous it was, would also provide them to study stars and thus directions when they were alone.

Nain Singh spent one and a half year in Lhasa, had a meeting with the Dalai Lama. He mapped the exact locations of various cities of the Tibet and also measured latitudes and altitudes accurately.

He walked around two thousand kilometers on foot while doing all the surveys that he was meant to do, clandestinely. Interestingly the map that the Jesuits had created who had gone to Tibet before Nain Singh, were proved to be false.

Nain Singh, working under much more dangerous conditions did more accurate surveys than the Jesuit missionaries.

Nain Singh’s explorations were so successful that Montgomerie trained an entire school of these Pundits under the tutelage of Nain Singh. All of these men were Hindus from the hill tribes of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

They were highly literate and exceptionally intelligent men. It is a sad fact of history that they are often forgotten by history.

Another great Pundit Kishen Singh surveyed the Koko Nor Lake in eastern Tibet and made yet larger and more accurate maps of Tibet.

Kishen Singh went to Xinxiang, befriended Mongol caravans and also visited the remote corners of eastern Tibet where three great rivers flow within miles of each other.

When he returned back to Bharat with absolutely accurate surveys and detailed maps of Tibet and the other neighboring regions he had traveled on foot more than 4,500 kilometers!

Even today with all the help of modern means of transport and communication it is very hard to navigate these parts of Asia. And yet about 150 years ago these brave Hindu men, not only travelled, but also accurately and scientifically surveyed entire Central Asia, in disguise, under the threat of being killed upon discovery. And they did so accurately while walking! It is a feat that should fill the heart of every Bharatiya with pride.


a) Ardussi, John A. “The Quest for the Brahmaputra River and Its Course According to Tibetan Sources.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 1977, pp. 35.

b) Hopkirk, Peter. Quest for Kim. John Murray, 2006.

c) Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. John Murray, 2006.

d) Hopkirk, Peter. Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa. John Murray, 2006.

e) Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Penguin, 1991.

(This article has been compiled from the tweet thread originally tweeted by Pankaj Saxena | पंकज सक्सेना (@PankajSaxena84) on March 24, 2023.)

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