“An utterly engrossing journey with Nain Singh Rawat, one of the greatest explorers of the last century, leading us across the charged landscape of the high Himalaya in what unfolds as a compelling personal and political adventure”


After travel to Tibet was restricted by the Dalai Lama in the mid nineteenth century, the British were determined to explore the Forbidden Land because they saw it as an integral part of the ‘Great Game’ that they played with Russia and its spies. To get over border restrictions, they inducted a series of Indians who they called ‘Pundits’ and who infiltrated Tibet under the pretext of studying Buddhism. One of the first of these was Nain Singh Rawat who was relatively overlooked by history in the wake of other Pundits like Saratchandra Das who penned diaries.

Rawat came from the Kumaon region and braved many struggles to reach Lhasa, included obstreperous Chinese border officials who doubted his identity. From a challenged background he managed to forge ahead crossing difficult terrain and carrying out his task. He was also meticulous in his measuring of temperatures at different altitudes, not to mention getting readings of the stars in a manner more accurate than his British counterparts. Rawat was one of the first outsiders to visit places like the Thok Jalong gold field which he declared as one of the coldest places he had visited.

Agarwal talks about the means by which he hid his notes in his prayer wheel and the special compartments in his bags which concealed his geological equipment. Occasionally he was forced to bury them underground when he suspected that they would be discovered. The Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama turn out to be teenage reincarnations with three questions that they ask all travellers who come for their blessing.

Deepa Agarwal writes a book for children interested in stories of explorers filled with rushing rivers, spies and robbers, emphasising the motivational and with several references to Nain Singh’s ‘silver tongue’ that enabled him to talk his way into caravans crossing into Tibet. Nain never gave up despite the obstacles that fate put in his way and the Nain Singh range of mountains to the south of Pangong Lake carries his name. The message is that children should do the same and the language is kept deliberately simple so that comprehension is easy. However, for those adults who have not come across Rawat, the slim volume will be of interest too.

What is obvious of course, is the magnitude of the Chinese threat that today has encompassed Tibet. Though not part of the Great Game the Chinese acted as watchdogs over the country.


Reviewed by:

Anjana Basu

Added 11th April 2020

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Anjana Basu