Walking with Nain Singh

Dr. Shekhar Pathak spent years studying the diaries of Nain Singh Rawat, who explored the Himalaya and was honoured by the Royal Geographic Society. Shyam G. Menon narrates the story of this explorer’s notes.

February 02, 2013 05:25 pm | Updated 05:25 pm IST

Nain Singh brought to light many details of the Himalaya, like the Eastern course of the Tsangpo, useful to establish that this river in Tibet and Assam’s Brahmaputra were one and the same. Photo: Shyam G. Menon

Nain Singh brought to light many details of the Himalaya, like the Eastern course of the Tsangpo, useful to establish that this river in Tibet and Assam’s Brahmaputra were one and the same. Photo: Shyam G. Menon

In the early 1970s, Dr. Shekhar Pathak and Kundan Singh Rawat were students at Almora. Pathak was the editor of the college magazine. When it was his turn to write, Kundan submitted a piece titled simply: “Nain Singh Rawat CIE.” That was Pathak’s introduction to Kundan’s less known side — he was the great grandson of Nain Singh Rawat, one of the Pundit brothers from Kumaon’s Johar valley near Munsiari, famous for the work they did in mapping and documenting Tibet.

In the early 19th century, the British were hungry for cartographic details of a mysterious Tibet closed to Europeans. The work Nain Singh produced dwarfs political motives that may be attributed to his journeys. It brought to light many details of the Himalaya, like the eastern course of the Tsangpo, useful to establish that this big river in Tibet and Assam’s Brahmaputra were one and the same.

Nain Singh travelled in disguise usually as a Tibetan monk, conducted surveys with simple instruments and concealed the data in prayer wheels. He trained to walk with strides of a particular length always so that distances could be measured. Years later, when Sir Francis Younghusband led British forces to Lhasa, his surveyors would discover that Nain Singh’s records were accurate and reliable despite the meagre resources he worked with.

Pathak had been previously drawn to Nain Singh Rawat during his periodic visits to the office of Shakti, a newspaper published from Almora. Their calendar had featured important personalities of Kumaon, including Nain Singh Rawat and Kishen Singh Rawat, the best known of the Pundits. “Pundit,” a title conferred on teachers, was also how the British addressed the Hindu surveyors. Kundan’s article interested Pathak. He helped edit the piece, little knowing where the curiosity would take him.

In October 1973, Pathak trekked to the Pindari Glacier and wrote a travelogue, later published in Shakti. It quoted from the book One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. The article was seen by Sunderlal Bahuguna, identified with the Chipko Movement, one of the most important environmental campaigns of modern India. In December 1973, Bahuguna spun the idea of a walk from Askot to Arakot, an east-west traverse of the Central Himalaya region now falling in the State of Uttarakhand. To maximise the education and awareness about villages and people en route, it was decided that participants — including Pathak — would carry no money. Although Pathak couldn’t do the route entirely given his college exams, four persons — Kunwar Prasun, Shekhar Pathak, Shamsher Bisht and Pratap Shikhar — walked much of it during May-July 1974. By December that year, Pathak had joined the Kumaon University to teach history. He was based mostly in Nainital; he would obtain his PhD in 1980 and go on to become one of the best known historians from Kumaon.

The interest in Nain Singh Rawat continued.

In 1975, Saaptahik Hindustan, a weekly, carried an article by Dr. Ram Singh, then a lecturer in Hindi literature with keen interest in history, on Nain Singh Rawat. The article quoted from the explorer’s diaries. This was the first time Pathak heard of Nain Singh’s diaries. According to Pathak, Kabindra Shekhar Upreti, who had taught many years in lands inhabited by the Bhotias, was instrumental in bringing the diaries to light. He was principal of the Government Intermediate College in Munsiari, when somebody showed him the diaries. After retirement, Upreti, moved to Nainital taking along with him the two Nain Singh diaries. “Seeing the diaries was a revelation,” Pathak said. The first of these diaries was quite autobiographical providing previously unknown vignettes of the explorer’s early years including his father’s life. Upreti had taken care to wrap the old diaries in a piece of cloth, a level of care that does not appear to have graced all subsequently recovered vestiges of Nain Singh’s work.

The year was probably 1976. Nainital had Nain Singh’s diaries, and a community of intrigued researchers but no photocopying machines to make copies of the diaries for study and ensure that the originals were undisturbed.

By 1982, Pathak was the founder of the People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (PAHAR). This organisation brings out a publication called PAHAR, of which Pathak is founder editor. Kamal Joshi, a keen trekker, student of chemistry and later photo editor of PAHAR, was at hand to help when the Nain Singh diaries reached Nainital with no photo copiers around. He set up a temporary dark room and photographed and printed each page of the diary, probably a hundred in all. Over three years — 1976, 1977 and 1978 — Pathak, his wife Dr. Uma Bhatt, a Hindi scholar, and their friends, copied Nain Singh’s diary on paper. Now they were getting an insight into the person and for Uma, a way to look at the explorer through his language and style of writing. According to her, Nain Singh wrote in a form of Hindi that can be described as Khadi Boli, which is not chaste Hindi but a Hindi mixed with Persian words. It is a more spoken form of the language and to that extent probably easily connecting with an audience. “Nain Singh’s diaries can be considered to be one of the first such travelogues in Khadi Boli Hindi,” she said.

In 1978, another diary surfaced in the house of a freedom fighter. This time, it wasn’t in Nain Singh’s handwriting; it had been copied and translated into English. Half of this diary was personal; another half was related to his first trip into Tibet. But there were sections missing. All the diaries were typed out. In 1985, one of Nain Singh’s diaries — on his second journey to Tibet — was published as a seven part-series in Nainital Samachar, a local fortnightly. In 1986, Pathak presented a paper on the importance of vernacular diaries with Nain Singh’s work as a case in point, at the Indian History Congress. PAHAR, the journal, also published portions of the explorer’s diaries. In 1985, Himalaya Today published a long article on Nain Singh Rawat authored by Dr. Pathak and Dr. Uma Bhatt.

Years of seeking to know about Nain Singh’s life made Pathak look for details wherever he went. In 1984 on a repeat of the earlier Askot to Arakan walk, at Madkote village, he was shown the original primer for surveying — a text book for surveyors — which Nain Singh had written and was published by the Survey of India in 1871. In 1994, while on a visit to Pakistan, some German friends helped him access relevant portions of the seven-volume report of the Schlagintweit Brothers, German geographers along with whom Nain Singh had done his first trip of exploration in the Himalaya. Pathak saw the full report of the Schlagintweit Brothers some years later in Stockholm and still later, at the Survey of India.

In 1991, Pathak himself went to Kailas Manasarovar; in 1996 and in 2006 he visited Lhasa, in 2002 he visited parts of Tibet to the north of Everest (he crossed from the Nepal side). The eastern extreme of Nain Singh’s travels — the subject of his epic last journey from Ladakh to Tawang — Pathak managed to get some idea of that in 1992-1993, through visits to Arunachal Pradesh. Some of these trips, Pathak said, had been emotional. Eventually, as a researcher at the Delhi based-Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Pathak gained access to the Survey of India archives at Dehra Dun and records at their old office in Kolkata (Calcutta).

Kundan Singh Rawat, the man responsible for inspiring Dr. Pathak’s 40-year-old journey with Nain Singh Rawat’s story, is no more. In 2004, the Indian government brought out a postage stamp featuring Nain Singh. Despite books by Dr. Pathak, Dr. Uma Bhatt and others, including mention in popular books by foreign authors on the Great Game and the exploration of the Himalaya, Nain Singh Rawat remains little known outside the State of Uttarakhand.

(This article is adapted from a piece the author originally wrote for and was published on the Facebook page of NOLS India, when he worked the 2012 fall season as the outdoor school’s intern.)


In 2006, PAHAR published a three-volume set called Asia Ki Peeth Par (On the Back of Asia: life, explorations and writings of Pundit Nain Singh Rawat) compiling Nain Singh Rawat’s diaries and the reports on his journeys submitted by the British. Nain Singh was born in the same year as the Royal Geographical Society was founded. The Society awarded him the Patron’s Medal in 1877. In deliberations preceding this and to impress upon the Society the magnitude of this exploration by a non-European, Col Henry Yule (who was the vice president of the Society from 1887 to 1889) argued that Nain Singh’s contributions were best compared to the likes of David Livingstone and “Grant”, most likely James Augustus Grant.

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