Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

High spies

September 11, 2010

Bhupesh Bhandari
Business Standard (India)
September 11, 2010

New Delhi -- Military conquests are often led by
business. In the last years of the 18th century
and the first half of the 19th century, the East
India Company was convinced there were business
possibilities beyond the high Himalayas. Tibet
was a closed market. If it could somehow be
opened, then goods made in the company’s
factories could be shipped there in bulk. The
problem was that the Tibetans were a xenophobic
lot; it was impossible for a European to sneak onto the roof of the world.

The Company first sent a mission under Colonel
Kirkpatrick to Nepal to find out if ‘friendly’
relations could be established with the kingdom
and a route to Tibet secured. But the Gurkha
rulers of Nepal were openly hostile.
Kirkpatrick’s mission came to naught, but he left
behind a wonderful account of his journey to
Nepal (An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul). It
was then decided to find trade routes to Tibet
from Kumaon and Garhwal (now Uttarakhand). The
hitch was that these areas, too, were under Gurkha rule.

The first attempt was made by William Moorcroft,
a British veterinary doctor and a ladies’ man. In
1812, he walked up to the Mana pass beyond
Badrinath disguised as a Brahmin. He was
accompanied by Hyder Jung Hearsey, an
Anglo-Indian. Hearsey was born to an English
father and Jat mother. His father named him after
Hyder Jung, father of Tipoo Sultan. When Hearsey
returned from England, he anglicised his name to
Hyder Young Hearsey. He first joined service
under the Marathas, then signed up with Perron,
the French adventurer who wanted to set up
Perronistan in India, and then joined the forces
of the British freebooter George Thomas
(headquartered at Georgegarh near Jhajjar in Haryana).

On their way back from Tibet, Moorcorft and
Hearsey were stopped by a Gurkha contingent
somewhere in Kumaon. The Gurkha commander,
Hastidal, had been mauled by a bear. Hearsey
administered first aid and Hastidal was saved.
Three years later, the Anglo-Gurkha war broke
out. Hearsey was sent to cut off the enemy lines
at the river Kali, the current boundary between
India and Nepal. His men were routed. Hearsey was
captured and was sure to be beheaded when the
Gurkha commander recognised him. It was the same
Hastidal. Hearsey’s life was spared. (For a full
account of their journey, see Peter Hopkirk’s
Trespassers on the Roof of the World and The
Great Game, John Pemble’s Britain’s Gurkha War:
The Invasion of Nepal and Gary Alder’s Beyond Bokhara.)

For decades after, the British could not send
their people to Tibet. Then they happened to
chance upon Pandit Nain Singh, a teacher in the
high reaches of Kumaon. He came from a community
of traders who frequently crossed into Tibet, and
were well versed in its customs and language. He
was trained in spycraft by British officers in
Dehradun, and sent to Tibet under disguise not
once but three times. He walked all the way to
Lhasa in measured steps, once from Kathmandu and
the second time from Ladakh. His rosary had 100
beads to keep count of steps; mercury was hidden
in his walking stick so that he could measure altitudes.

It was his third journey which was prompted
purely by commercial reasons: the gold mines of
Thok Jalung. For many years, the British believed
there were large deposits of gold in Tibet. The
Tibetans could be sold woollens and salt in
return for gold. It was too lucrative a business
opportunity to let go. Pandit Nain Singh was
dispatched to find out the route to the gold
mines and see how big the deposits were. Off went
the intrepid spy, under a false identity of
course, through the Mana pass into Tibet. He
reached Thok Jalung. But the report he filed was
uninspiring: the gold deposits were not substantial.

Pandit Nain Singh was awarded the gold medal of
the Royal Geographical Society. He was also a
prolific writer. He kept diaries of all his
journeys (in Hindi), which were, unfortunately, lost over the years.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank