Nain Singh Rawat made invaluable contributions in cartography and surveying by making arduous journeys across the Himalayan region of Tibet and mapping the Tibetan landscapes which eluded humanity for centuries.
“How spellbinding that experience must be to be the first to visit the uncharted and unexplored territories no one has ever witnessed before?”
In 1830, in a hushed hamlet of Milam, a Bhotia village nestled in the valley of Johar, a boy breathes his first breath of the breezy Himalayan air. Little did anyone know this boy will become one of the most skillful explorers and cartographers to explore the Himalayan terrains.
Nain Singh belonged to the Shauka community which was famous for their explorations into the vast Himalayan landscapes for trade and foraging. As a young boy, he assisted his father in their traditional trans-border trade between India and Tibet. He visited different trade centers in Tibet and learned the Tibetan language, traditions and customs. This invaluable experience at a young age laid the foundation stone for his future endeavors amidst the Himalayas.
In 1863, the Survey of India under British regime launched their most ambitious project to map the British territories in India, named the Great Trigonometric Survey. They were looking for experienced explorers with a keen sense of the Himalayan landscapes. Having already completed their first ever expeditions successfully with the German explorers in 1855, Nain Singh along with his cousin Mani Singh were chosen for the influential Great Trigonometric Survey project. Although he left his profession as a teacher, he carried with himself the fitting title of ‘pundit‘ (a learned man) wherever he went.
The Rawat duo attended training for two years where they were taught the use of scientific instruments such as sextant and compass and ingenious ways for measuring and recording data. The childhood experience of the Tibetan exploration with his father proved valuable in learning the art of disguise and blending in among the crowd. His uncanny ability to recognize all major stars and constellations was gold to him and his fellow travelers if they ever lost their way.
For more than a decade, Nain Singh Rawat made invaluable contributions in cartography and surveying by making arduous journeys across the Himalayan region of Tibet and mapping the Tibetan landscapes which eluded humanity for centuries. He was Survey of India’s most prized asset as a ‘spy explorer’ and was first human to witness some of the breathtaking landscapes, valleys, mountains and lakes that shrouded in oblivion until then.
The ‘pundit’ made one last heroic journey for the Survey of India’s Great Trigonometric Survey project in 1874. He travelled from Leh to Tawang (Assam) via Lhasa by a different previously unexplored route. It was a journey of epic proportions that lasted almost a year and covered nearly 2100 kms, of which 1900 kms were completely unexplored before. Traversing through the Himalayan terrain, Nain Singh mapped a chain of lakes across central Tibet, none of which had been seen before. His priceless findings revealed that Tibetan river Tsangpo and India’s Brahmaputra River were one and the same. He also determined the location and altitude of Lhasa.
Providing his impressive services to GTS from 1863-75, the exploring pundit finally hanged his boots and retired from active service. He imparted his vast knowledge and expertise to the newer generation of explorers. In 1895 at the age of 65, Nain Singh suffered a heart stroke and left for his heavenly abode.
Nain Singh’s extraordinary feats of exploration were whole-heartily recognized by the British government. The world’s prestigious cartographic institution, the Royal Geographical Society honored this ‘Pundit of Pundits’ with a gold medal in 1868 and an honorary statement- “…His observations have added a larger amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than those of any other living man.” This was followed by the award of the Victoria or Patron’s Medal of the RGS in 1877.
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 in the history pages. Over a century later, Shekhar Pathak and Uma Bhatt rediscovered this acclaimed traveler through his journals. An explorer of legendary status, Nain Singh is still widely unknown to the outside world. His almost-surreal journeys should encourage newer generation to get closer to the ever so fragile nature which we take for granted.