Much before Ian Fleming created the the suave and tough British spy known as James Bond, colonial bosses in India used to pack off indigenous people to Tibet to help in espionage. Nestled amid the high mountains, this recluse Himalayan kingdom was an enigma to the Western world for centuries.
Tibet, which ran under China’s surveillance, would not let any outsiders set foot on their land, and the ban would be irrevocable it the person was an Westerner.
The Chinese authorities were totally opposed to any foreign intrusion in Tibet, and in such a scenario, obtaining travel permit in this unknown land and assistance from local authorities was next to impossible.
While British surveyors worked on and prepared the map of India, the region around Tibet remained just a blank area on the charts, symbolic of opaqueness of the “forbidden” kingdom.
Around this time, another political storm was brewing in Central Asia. The British colonialists were scared that Tibet would be the route to their doomsday, when the Soviet Tsars would enter India via Tibet and take over India. And there was of course the badass China who just wouldn’t let anybody near Tibet.
But the British were not to be deterred by such resistance; after all, they had a history of invading nations and subjugating the subjects ruthlessly…
In 1862, Captain Thomas George Montgomerie, a young Royal Engineers officer working for the Survey of India suggested a novel idea: to send intelligent native explorers, tutored in espionage and secret surveying ways. When Montgomerie’s superiors agreed to the ingenious plan, British officials began cultivating Indian ‘‘pundits’’ to help them map Tibet covertly.
These pundits would crossover to Tibet in the guise of merchants or Buddhist scholars with mapping instruments and secretly record geographic details, distances and even altitudes.
The choosing of Indian people for the espionage saga served the British a double purpose: a spy who would not raise suspicions easily in the Tibetan badland, and secondly, if they were ever caught, the Colonial Raj could just dismiss the loss of yet another “native” frivolously .
The next important thing carrying the surveying tools in a clandestine manner. The Buddhist prayers beads were altered to contain 100 beads instead of the customary 108 to mark distance; and the prayer-wheels could be opened to store scrolls of paper bearing a pundit’s notes .
Bigger tools such as sextants were hidden in false bottoms in the travelling chests, and secret pockets were stitched into the layered monk habits. Altitude-measuring thermometers were hidden in hollowed out staves, while mercury was hidden in a sealed cowrie shell and poured into a pilgrim’s bowl whenever needed.
For his novel Kim, Rudyard Kipling borrowed at least two of his characters from Montgomerie’s spy school. The amiable rotund Hurree Chunder Mookerjee was inspired by the extraordinary Bengali spy Sarat Chandra Das, one of the pilgrims, who brought in valuable information from Tibet. Captain Montgomerie appeared as Colonel Creighton, who appointed Kim and tutored him.
Sarat Chandra Das is the Bengali babu who went to Tibet twice, and while he immersed himself in the spiritual learning of Buddhism in the company of his Tibetan masters, he also collected valuable geological information on the sly. I shall discuss more about him in my next article.
Montgomerie’s espionage mission brought in many valuable information, and his 19th century survey work was pretty much close. The elevations of major summits which the captain’s faithful pandits calculated are very close to the elevations that are accepted today.