Sunday Levity: The first Pundits

Espionage and the lure of learned societies

Patrick French recounts the origins of the original Great Game in Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer.

As European features became increasingly recognizable to the inhabitants of the frontier, the British began to train educated Indians in the skills of espionage and surveying. The Pundits, as they became known, were taught how to use theodolites and altitude thermometers, and sent off for years at a time to unmapped regions, disguised as pilgrims or traders. They would take with them mercury sealed with wax inside cowrie shells (to provide a false horizon), prayer wheels containing trigonometrical charts and false-bottomed trunks packed with sextants and compasses. The Pundits were responsible for the first maps of western Tibet and southern Turkestan.

Several Indian Pundits never returned from their expeditions, and it is unclear what persuaded them to face the risk of a violent death in the service of the Queen Empress. Their motives were not financial, since the rewards the British gave for their services were miserable. Kishen Singh, who spent many dangerous years secretly mapping Central Tibet, was rewarded with a small plot of land and a Royal Geographical Society gold watch. Kipling’s Lurgan Sahib believed that the lure of London’s learned societies lay behind the endeavours of his spies: ‘Do you know what Hurree Babu really wants? He wants to be made a member of the Royal Society by making ethnological notes…Curious — his wish to be an FRS. Very human, too.’ [Patrick French in Younghusband]

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