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Indian ‘Spy’ Explorer: 12 Facts About Nain Singh Rawat

An Indian 'spy' explorer who worked for the British changed the exploration game

Nain Singh Rawat, one of the first of 19th-century Indian explorers, explored the Himalayas for the British. He determined the location and altitude of Lhasa, mapped the trade route through Nepal to Tibet, also a large section of the Brahmaputra. On 27th June 2004, commemorating his role in the Great Trigonometric Survey, an Indian postage stamp was issued featuring Nain Singh.

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Here are 12 facts about him you may not have known before:

1. He was born in a Shauka village, which is located in the valley of Johar in Kumaon Hills. The valley is famous for its ‘Bhotia explorers’ from the British Era.

2. Nain Singh used to help his father, visiting different centres in Tibet. He learned the Tibetan language, comprehended the customs practised by the local people. All of it proved to be beneficial in the years that followed.

3. In 1855, he was recruited by the Schlagintweit brothers (German geographers), they had approached the office of Survey of India, which allowed them to proceed with their survey.

4. Afterwards, Nain Singh along with three family members went on his first exploration trip, travelling to Manasarovar and Rakas Tal, and even further to Gartok and Ladakh.

He changed the exploration game, which was mostly dominated by Europeans, by his work in Tibet. Pixabay
He changed the exploration game, which was mostly dominated by Europeans, by his work in Tibet. Pixabay

5. After working with the German brothers, Nain Singh Rawat was appointed as the headmaster of a government vernacular school in his village.

6. In 1963, Nain Singh Rawat and Mani Singh Rawat (his cousin), after being selected, went to the Great Trigonometrical Survey office in Dehradun. They underwent training for two years. They learned to use scientific instruments and ingenious ways of measuring and recording, and also, the art of disguise.

7. He was exceptionally intelligent. He quickly learned the correct use of scientific instruments like the sextant and compass, he could easily recognize all the major stars and different constellations.

8. He had donned the guise of a Tibetan Monk, as a part of the secret ‘spy’ exploration mission, to walk from his home region of Kumaon to places as far as Kathmandu, Lhasa, and Tawang.

9. He collected intelligence under the most testing conditions. Travelling closely with the local population in caravans, Nain Singh mapped the vast expanses of Tibet and its river systems.

Nain Singh met the Dalai Lama in 1865. Pixabay
Nain Singh met the Dalai Lama in 1865. Pixabay

10. He left the Trigonometrical Survey in 1865 to head out for Nepal with his cousin. Though his cousin returned, he went on to explore Tashihunpo, where he met the Panchen Lama, and later in Lhasa, he met the Dalai Lama.

11. While on his second voyage in 1867, he was exploring western Tibet. Nain Singh stumbled across the gold mines of Thok Jalung. He was awestruck by the humility of workers who only dug near the surface for gold. They believed that digging deeper was a crime against the Earth and would deprive it of its fertility.

12. In his last and greatest journey, he travelled from Leh in Kashmir to Lhasa. This journey was complete between 1873 and 1875.

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Nain Singh Rawat was honoured with a land-grant of two villages, in recognition of his fabulous achievements.  According to Colonel Henry Yule, “his explorations had added a larger amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than any other living man”.

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