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Sarat Chandra Das, the Indian “James Bond”, who spied on Tibet in the 19th century

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This is a tale that has all the ingredients to make a fast-paced spy thriller in Hollywood. It has a spy, it has a forbidden kingdom that he needs to befriend to gather information, and all the dangers that comes with travelling along the highest mountain in the world.

Back in the mid 19th century, the imperial lords in India couldn’t sit in peace. It had something to do with the central Asian political turmoil that was brewing up. The British feared that the Russian Tsars would take over India, and this they would do by trespassing from Tibet. So the colonial officials wanted information from Tibet: political, geographical, and social.

But there was a big hitch. Tibet was forbidden for outsiders, especially for the Westerners. So what could the British do to mitigate their fear of losing India to the Soviet? May be send spies to gather information. But the idea was fraught with danger, for Tibet would publicly behead anybody caught trespassing into its realms.

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Sarat Chandra Das detailed every sight of Tibet that he witnessed as he travelled along the high mountains.

While British India was still scratching its head about the whole dilemma, a crafty young British engineer named Captain Montgomerie, decided to send trained Indians disguised as Buddhist scholars. They would cross over to the Himalayan kingdom, seeking Buddhist knowledge, and spy on Tibet while on the go. And among all the scholars, who the British nicknamed “pundits”, a Bengali Babu named Sarat Chandra Das, outshone everyone.

Das was born in Chittagong, East Bengal in 1841. By a freak chance, he landed as one of Captain Montgomerie’s spies. After a bout of malaria, Das was recommended, at the age of 25, for the position of headmaster of the newly-established Bhutia boarding school in Darjeeling.

Sarat Chandra first travelled to Tibet with the school’s Tibetan language teacher, lama Ugyen-Gyatso, and studied there for six months in 1879. Although the Western world was advancing fast in scientific fields, Tibet at this time was still a primitive land without electricity, bicycles, automobiles or even clocks! The sleepy nation would break into activity for around four months in a year, while the rest of the months would remain frozen.

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Tibet was one of the places the British wished to explore and chart, in the hopes of preventing the Russians from finding alternate access to India.

Das was to observe and report on the religious, economic, and political aspects of Tibet, while his companion Ugyen was given a more scientific job: to collect detailed geographical survey of the route. And this two covert travelers would spy with the aid of specialized spying tools built in Dehra Dun, under the supervision of Captain Montgomerie.

As Das ascended the mountains, he lingered behind the slow-moving caravan, and worked with the sextant map the region. Then he would hurriedly jot down scribbling a brief note which he would then conceal inside his prayer-wheel.

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Along with his descriptive notations about the places where he travelled, he included what might serve as strategic details about geography, distances, and altitudes.

At other times, Das would carefully remove from the top of his pilgrim’s staff a thin glass object, and dip it fleetingly into a boiling kettle or cooking vessel. Along with his descriptive notations about the places where he travelled, Das included what might serve as strategic details about geography, distances, and altitudes.

Das shared a rapport with the locals, and got along well. But they did not know that this was no Buddhist monk and had unholy aspirations. They would have known if they counted the beads of the pundit’s rosary, for his prayer string  contained only 100 beads, instead of the customary 108. Das would have been dragged to the street and executed publicly if the simple trusting Tibetans had found that he hid secret scrolls in his hollow prayer-wheel.

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Sarat Chandra Das, circa 19th Century

After the successful first visit, the British sent Das and Ugyen-gyatso for a second time in 1881, and their stay lasted longer this time, for 14 months. Das’ detailed descriptions of mundane sightings proved of great value to the British. For a government totally starved of any information, simple linguistic details about a town, saying how it appeared was of great importance.

Das discovered Lhasa, the spiritual capital, and described it as such: ‘‘It was a superb sight, the like of which I have never seen. On our left was Potala’’ — the legendary palace — ‘‘with its lofty buildings and gilt roofs; before us, surrounded by a green meadow, lay the town with its tower-like, whitewashed houses and Chinese buildings with roofs of blue glazed tiles…’’

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Das discovered Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and described it as such: “On our left was Potala — the legendary palace — with its lofty buildings and gilt roofs; before us, surrounded by a green meadow”…

While at Lhasa, he penned down every single thing that he saw: the lintels, the tallow stirred into tea, the colourful offerings made at the feet of Lord Buddha’s feet.

After Das left for India, his espionage was discovered by the Chinese, and all of  his unsuspecting Tibetan friends were prosecuted. A monk, who assisted Das, was tied down and thrown into a river. Another man, who knew Das, was thrown into a dark dungeon for 20 years. This was the price the men had to face for trusting an Indian monk.

Back in India, the story was different. British officials were jubilant about the espionage, and Das was celebrated by his colonial bosses.