Around the 1860s, when Thomas Montgomerie of the Royal Engineers noticed that Indians traveled freely from Ladakh to Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan (modern Xinjiang), he came up with the idea of sending some of them with concealed surveying equipment. He hired and trained Indians in the art of surveying and sent them outside the borders to gather topographical data clandestinely. Publicly called “pundits” or “native explorers”, they were designated as spies in secret files.
During Montgomerie’s time, this region was part of the Great Game — the strategic rivalry between the British and the Russians for supremacy in Central Asia — and one episode involved an Indian spy, a British tea merchant, an Uzbek dancing boy turned King and a British explorer-adventurer. The spy, the merchant and the explorer reached Kashgar in Western China through different routes with different motives, but ended up as captives of a paranoid and wily king. Their fate would depend on how Russia would play in the Great Game.
It was a time when everyone suspected everyone else. It was the time of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.
The Great Game
In 1800, there was a big geographical buffer between Russia and India, but over the next sixty years that buffer almost vanished. Following the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), Russia became a dominant player in the region and after the two Sikh wars much of the Afghan territory came under the British. The Russians soon moved against the Khanates at Khiva and Bokhara and by 1853 they were near Kokhand (Uzbekistan).
As the buffer narrowed, the British were worried that the Russians would invade India. This was not a misplaced worry since Napoleon and Czar Alexander discussed a plan for land invasion of India when they met in 1807. But then in the immortal words of ABBA, “My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.” Following Napoleon’s death, the Russians never followed on with the plan, but the British feared that even if the Russians did not invade, they could create trouble in the neighborhood.
Hence there was an urgent need to map the routes outside the Indian border, especially those passes through which the Russians could arrive. British knew where Yarkand and Kashgar were, but nothing more than that. These places, which saw heavy traffic during the zenith of the Silk Road, were now like Radiator Springs. The mountains on one side and the Taklamakan desert on the other side now isolated this place that the British had almost no political, commercial or military intelligence; a Great Blank in the Great Game.
To rectify this situation, the British could not send their spies to this region; it would provoke the Russians. Also it was not safe. If an Englishman was harmed, the British could not retaliate. That is when Montgomerie, who had spent a decade surveying Kashmir, came up with his brilliant plan to send Indian travelers trained as surveyors. Even if the travelers were caught, the British had deniability.
It was hard to get a good spy. Montgomerie had once sent a trained Pathan to Chitral. What Montgomerie did not know was there was blood feud in the family and the Pathan was killed. In 1865 one Pundit Munphool went to Badakshan (northeastern Afghanistan and southeastern Tajikistan) and returned alive to submit a report. But he was not a trained surveyor and without precise information, maps could not be made.