In early May, following a mysterious drone attack on the Kremlin in Moscow, service was disrupted on Russia’s largest ride-hailing app, Yandex.Taxi. It appeared that the Russian government was jamming signals of global positioning system (GPS) satellites which Yandex cabs used to locate riders and routes.
GPS is ubiquitous in our lives today, helping us find destinations and delivery executives find us, but far from being a neutral service, it is owned by the US government and administered by the sinister-sounding United States Space Force. Nations like China and Russia have developed their own satellite-based mapping systems as a consequence, and India began building its own after the US denied it vital GPS data during the Kargil conflict of 1999.
While satellites have taken over the role of mapping in the last 40 years, the most precise method of measuring terrain in the previous two centuries was the triangulation survey. Like GPS, national triangulation surveys were incredible technological and administrative achievements but often mired in political intrigue. This was especially true in colonised lands like India, as evident from an exhibition titled “Mapped!” (May 5-June 4), displayed at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai.
Organised in partnership with the Rotary Club of Bombay, curated by the heritage management firm PastPerfect, and supported by the Tata Group, “Mapped!” was the second exhibition culled from the Asiatic Society’s extensive collection. The first, Meandering Through a Mapped Canvas, happened at the same venue in April 2022.
“Mapped!” concentrated mainly on British dominions of the 19th century although a late 18th century map of the Mughal empire by James Rennell set the context. Around half the show was devoted to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS) and the rest to late 19th century hyperlocal maps of Bombay/ Mumbai areas like Chowpatty, Girgaon, and Kamathipura made for the Revenue Survey.
The principle behind triangulation surveys is simple enough. We can calculate the length of a triangle’s sides if we know both the length of the base and the angles between the sides. Having calculated the length of two sides in this fashion, we can now use them as bases of new triangles in a spreading network that comprehensively covers a large area. The first triangulation survey in India, which later expanded into the Great Trigonometrical Survey, was initiated in Madras in 1802 by William Lambton. In 1818, by which time the East India Company had established direct or proxy rule over the whole subcontinent, the scope of Lambton’s project was enhanced, and he was given the title of Superintendent. He died five years later, having got as far as the Deccan.
His successor, George Everest, continued the work for another 20 years, and the next Superintendent, Andrew Waugh, for a further 18. A project that was supposed to have taken five years to wrap up took over 50, being finally completed in 1871, long after the Company sarkar had been succeeded by the Raj. Neither drive, nor industry, nor government support was lacking: the delay was simply because the difficulty of the task had been grossly underestimated.
However simple the idea behind triangulation, in practice mapping a country as massive as India is only possible if the triangles are themselves enormous. Workers of the GTS had access to theodolites, precision instruments invented in the late 18th century to calculate horizontal and vertical angles between two visible points, but finding vantage points of visibility at great distances was far from easy.
In areas around present-day Tamil Nadu, Lambton used temple gopurams as markers, and a section of the Brihadeeswara temple was damaged when a massive theodolite was being raised up to its highest point. It was probably during the subsequent repairs that the famous European with a bowler hat came to be carved onto one of the gopuram’s facades, although the idea of the Cholas being in touch with Europeans will remain the go-to narrative of local guides.
Lucid and informative notes
Conditions for surveying grew worse in the dense forests of central India, the mangroves of the Sunderbans, and the flat plains of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Tracts of forest were cleared and settlements sometimes demolished by colonial surveyors, leading to tension among communities and, according to the lucid and informative exhibition notes of “Mapped!”, contributing in some small measure to the disaffection that propelled the revolt of 1857. While the surveyors were sometimes ruthless, they were also prepared to give their best to the task. They spent long periods in extremely inhospitable places, and dozens died in the effort, usually from malaria and other insect-borne diseases referred to in the 19th century—and in the exhibition notes—as “jungle fever”.
There were places the survey leaders wanted to go to but could not, such as Tibet, which was sealed off from foreigners. That is the ostensible reason why Mount Everest is one of the only two Himalayan peaks (the other being K2/Godwin-Austen) that does not retain its traditional name in English.
Apparently, a number of local names were floating around and the lack of access to the Roof of the World meant no definitive appellation could be found. And so, the second Superintendent of the GTS received the honour, above his own protestations, of being identified in the world at large with the loftiest spot on the planet.
- The Asiatic Society of Mumbai’s exhibition “Mapped!” concentrated mainly on British dominions of the 19th century although a late 18th century map of the Mughal empire by James Rennell set the context.
- On focus were maps of the national triangulation surveys, which were incredible technological and administrative achievements but often mired in political intrigue.
- The lucid and informative exhibition notes told the fascinating stories behind the maps.
The Great Game
But why would the British want to go to Tibet at all? It was out of paranoia that the Russian empire had eyes on Tibet and Afghanistan and would use those as launchpads for an attack on India. The Russians may have had designs on Central Asia but certainly had no interest in taking over India. Nevertheless, a shadow war ensued through much of the 19th century between the two powers, which came to be called the Great Game, a term popularised by Rudyard Kipling’s fictional masterpiece Kim. The Asiatic show had, among its many maps, a lone oil painting, a well-restored portrait of Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), one of the early Great Gamers who surveyed the Indus and its tributaries before being killed in the first Anglo-Afghan war.
Surveying Tibet being considered a priority, the colonial administration circumvented the restriction against foreigners by taking advantage of long-standing ties of trade and pilgrimage between Tibet and the Kumaon region in present-day Uttarakhand. They trained groups of surveyor-spies in Dehradun, who could easily be disavowed if caught.
These spies, who came to be known as Pundits, were unable to carry any sophisticated instruments like theodolites or build towers to enable triangulation readings. They relied on a few basic instruments like thermometers (concealed in walking sticks) to measure altitude based on the change in the boiling point of water, and their own two feet to measure distance. They were trained to keep their steps evenly spaced and count each pace as they walked.
“Tracts of forest were cleared and settlements sometimes demolished by colonial surveyors, leading to tension among communities and, according to the lucid and informative exhibition notes of Mapped!, contributing in some small measure to the disaffection that propelled the revolt of 1857.”
Pundits like Nain Singh, who travelled twice to Lhasa and also surveyed the Sutlej river, and Abdul Hamid, who took the route through the Karakorum range from Leh to Yarkand in Xinjiang, kept extraordinarily accurate measurements over distances of thousands of kilometres using this basic method. Riaz Dean, the New Zealand-based author of the book Mapping the Great Game, gave a talk outlining the contribution of the Pundits as part of an interesting programme of lectures and workshops accompanying “Mapped!”.
Nain Singh’s story
The crime that Nain Singh’s heroic survey assisted was beyond the scope of “Mapped!” but is a story worth telling. Lord Curzon, a passionate Great Gamer at the tail end of the era, sanctioned a large expedition into Tibet led by Colonel Francis Younghusband. It was an invasion disguised as a trade mission, with 3,000 mainly Indian troops along with perhaps 7,000 porters, cooks, and helpers, plus a batch of the world’s first fully automatic machine guns, the Maxim. The most sophisticated weapons at the command of their Tibetan counterparts were matchlock muskets of the kind European armies had abandoned 200 years previously in favour of flintlock rifles.
On March 31, 1904, the two forces confronted each other at Chumik Shenko. A small physical skirmish became the excuse for Younghusband to order the Maxims to be fired at will. When the blood had dried, the Tibetans had lost at least 600 men. The invaders reported 12 injured and no deaths. A decade later, in 1914, a tripartite convention was organised in Simla to demarcate Tibet from British India. One can surmise how independent-minded the Tibetan delegation was in the wake of Younghusband’s massacre. A map was made and Tibet signed off on it, but China did not.
The line separating India from Tibet in that map is known as the McMahon line, after the leader of the British delegation Henry McMahon, then Foreign Secretary of British India. After 1947, independent India kept faith with McMahon’s line, China never acceded, and the tussle continues 75 years on.
Peace between nations is usually a matter of agreeing on a map, but that is more difficult than it sounds.
Girish Shahane is an independent writer and curator based in Mumbai.