Coming from the at Gangetic plains, young Sarat Chandra was captivated by such beauty.
He explored the hills around town and made a trip to the neighbouring kingdom of Sikkim. But his destiny lay elsewhere, across snow-covered ranges to the north, in the mysterious land on the roof of the world. That is what he writes in his brief autobiographical sketch. However, there was the larger picture.
Across Tibet lay the two mighty empires of Russia and China, and the British were uneasy about their imperialist designs, particularly that of Russia. A thorough knowledge of this buffer kingdom — mostly unknown and ten times the size of England — was imperative for them to come to grips with the geopolitical reality of the subcontinent.
This had also deepened its mysterious charm. Since the early nineteenth century, the presence of foreign powers like Russia and Britain in Asia had prompted Tibet to tightly shut its doors to outsiders. It was almost impossible for Indians from the plains, let alone white-skinned Westerners, to enter this kingdom of snow.
But trade had been going on between India and Tibet along the high mountain routes since ancient times. It was monopolised by Tibetans and the hill tribes of the border region. The only other people who had access to these routes were the Buddhist monks, a tradition that had continued for centuries.
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The British began to exploit this chink. They sent spies into Tibet disguised as Buddhist monks in secret and dangerous missions. These spies were called Pundits. Pawns in the so- called Great Game played by Russia and Britain on the high chessboard of central Asia, these men were drafted from among the hill people. They were given a basic training in land survey and specially made instruments that they could conceal in their baggage to hoodwink the border guards. With sextants and theodolites in secret chambers of their boxes, compasses fitted on walking staffs, paper and hypsometers tucked in hollowed-out prayer wheels, and rosaries with one hundred beads instead of the sacred hundred and eight, they measured distances by keeping count of their paces and mapped swathes of the Tibetan territory.
Some of these Pundits had shown remarkable acumen and grit, a few had perished or been killed, and one of them, Nain Singh Rawat, had even won a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society for exemplary work. But these men lacked the formal education required to gather the kind of in-depth knowledge of the land, particularly its people and culture, that the British government in India hungered after. As an English-educated young man with a training in civil engineering, Sarat Chandra Das was cut out for the job.
But setting up a boarding school for hill boys in Darjeeling and installing a young Bengali engineer as its headmaster, must have been part of a larger design. The new school was on the radar of the government. Ugyen Gyatso was an assistant teacher in the school. He was a lama from the Rinchenpong monastery in Sikkim, which was affiliated to Tashilhunpo lamasery in Shigatse, eastern Tibet. It was Ugyen who procured from Tashilhunpo a passport for Sarat Chandra and accompanied him to Tibet.
He was married. Before setting off, Sarat Chandra had told his wife that he was going to Shigatse for a few days on some official business. This book, fist published in , is based on the extensive notes he had taken during his second journey. Much of its materials — which he had used to prepare two reports for the intelligence and survey departments — were strictly classified until the end of the nineteenth century.
In , the brilliant civil engineer Sarat Chandra Das was recruited by the British as a spy in Darjeeling. The Empire wanted to train local agents to gather. Journey to Lhasa: The Diary of A Spy review: Forbidden tales. R. Krithika. December 23, IST. Updated: December 22, IST. Share Article.
Sarat Chandra had read them carefully and had more or less followed the route Hooker had taken through Sikkim and Nepal during his foray into the Tibetan territory in Lama Sengchen Dorjechen was an unusual man. Being a part of the ruling establishment in a land caught in a time warp — a land that did not have material uses of the wheel!
He had even begun to write a handbook on photography in the Tibetan language. Sarat Chandra was taken by the Tibetans as one among the long line of scholars who had brought new knowledge and wisdom from India, the land of the Buddha. He himself, on the other hand, had seen Tibet as a high and dry repository of priceless ancient texts and belief systems that had been ravaged in India by bigots and tropical climate. The fascination and respect was mutual. And he returned with two yak-loads of rare books and manuscripts, splendidly pulling off a mission fraught with great hardship and danger.
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