Heroes, Pundits and the Great Game

By Roger Davies / 17 June 2014 / GeoInt, History, Intel Analysis

The soccer World Cup and its attendant TV coverage remind me that once there were other definitions of the word “pundit”. And the Great Game had little do with soccer. Forgive me, but some heroic story-telling is called for – it’s quite a tale.

Back in the 19th century, in the days of the British Empire, the roof of the world was where every self-respecting spy and intelligence analyst wanted to be. The mountainous region of Northern India, Nepal, Tibet and surrounding territories was an area of intrigue as Russia and the British manoeuvred clandestinely to gain influence, knowledge and territory. Parts of it were truly “forbidden” country.

Today the “geo-int” specialist has it easy.  It’s pretty much a desk bound, computer facing job. At the click of a mouse thousands of maps can be called up, overlaid with millions of geo-located objects, with satellite imagery on tap.   But once the mountains of the Himalaya were dramatic, secret unknown territory.  And a “geo-int” specialist had to go there, in person. No maps existed, and those who needed intelligence were confined to traveler’s tales.  The British, with exploration in their national genes, were desperate to understand the region, locate and obstruct their Russian rivals and exploit the territory.  Bandits saw the European as an attractive target, and suspicions were raised when interlopers entered the mountains.   The (British) Indian Army had taken on a grand project  – what today we would consider a major geo-intelligence project, called the “Great Trigonometrical Survey” (always capitalised!).  The head of this project , Colonel Walker realised that only those who could pass as indigenous people could travel the roads of the roof of the world without attracting attention. So he employed firstly, two “pundits” – local Indians to whom a significant amount of intelligence training was given by a Captain Montgomerie and who were equipped with clandestine geo-int gathering tools.

They were taught “surveying” and better than that, they were taught how to do it covertly in an intense, 2 year long course at the Dehra Dun spy school.  In addition to surveying, they were taught tradecraft, developed cover stories, and developed disguises. They learnt astral navigation.  In 1865 they secretly surveyed the route from Dehra to Kathmandhu and then onwards to the forbidden city of Lhasa in an epic 18 month adventure. Amongst their clandestine intelligence equipment that they carried, or that was developed as a result of their experience were the following:

a. Special sextants hidden in secret compartments of boxes.
b. Thermometers hidden in walking sticks. Thermometers were used to accurately determine altitude by measuring the temperature at which water boiled.
d. Disguised compasses.
e. Prayer beads adapted to facilitate the counting of steps. The Pundits had been trained to march at even and exact pace and calculate distance accordingly, over all terrain. They would count their paces all day in order to determine distance travelled.
f. A prayer wheel that the pundit could pretend to be praying with,  caused other travellers to politely ignore them – but the prayer wheel, they found, was never searched or examined so could contain all the notes to record the mission in a long sheet of paper.
g. Liquid mercury carried in a cowrie shell to allow the creation of a level when poured into a wooden bowl. The level was needed to establish certain trigonometric readings with their secret theodolites.

Pundit Prayer wheel

Pundit Prayer wheel

As well as pure geo-int data, the pundits reported on what they had seen. Weather, habitations, treelines, local economy, trade and attitudes.  Complex processing of all the pundit’s data allowed for a remarkably detailed map to be constructed of each of their journeys.  Don’t underestimate the amazing volume and detail of their observations – some examples of which are in the annexes to this near contemporary report.  (from the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society.) The report keeps the names of these two early pundits secret – for their own safety as covert agents – but now we know that these individuals were Nain Singh, a quiet, reserved school headmaster aged 31, from Kumaon and his cousin Mani Singh. Nain Singh’s adventures as a Pundit continued on a number of missions until 1874. Nain Singh had a 33 inch pace. He knew exactly how many paces he made in a mile, and he recorded his steps for months on end.

A real Victorian hero - Nain Singh

A real Victorian hero – Nain Singh

You may think that there were hundreds or at the least dozens of these pundits, but that’s not true. There were just 20 of these remarkable men, who served over a 30 year period from 1863 – 1894.  Some details are here.   I think all were  remarkable men, and the adventures they had, the hardships in the mountains, and their ingenious tradecraft for months on end will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. As was the way of the colonial world, too much credit ended up in the laps of the Englishmen who trained them or who processed the data at the end of the mission.  But I believe, for example, that in actuality, Little Nain Singh, the quiet schoolmaster,  was as great a Victorian hero as any other man of the period.

Here are the names and the code letters of the 20 pundits. I think they are worth remembering:

Abdul Hameed (Mahomed-I-Hameed)

Kishen Singh (A-K, Krishna)

Nain Singh (The Pundit, No 1)

Sukh Darshan Singh (G.S.S.)

Mani Singh (G.M., The Patwar)

Lama Serap Gyatso

Mirza Shuja (The Mirza)


Hyder Shah (The Havildar)

Nem Singh (G.M.N.)

Ata Mahomed (The Mullah)

Kinthup (K.P.)

Kalian Singh (G.K.)

Rinzin Namgyal (R.N.)

Hari Ram (M.H., No 9)

Lama Ugyen Gyatso (U.G.)

Ata Ram Sarat Chandra Das (S.C.D.)

Mukhtar Shah (M.S.)


Abdul Subhan (A-S)


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