The Pundits - 19th-century Indian surveyors and spies

"This was real James Bond stuff..." - Mark Shand

"No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise."

- William Congreve

Nineteenth-century India was in fear. The major worry was Russian invasion of their northern territories, sparse and distant from the "civilised" part of India. Much of the area was merely blank space on the British maps, and the border regions were almost unknown them, in particular the territory of Tibet, whose border with India was closed.

Desperate for intelligence on the area, officials knew that they needed maps above all else. But in order to make accurate maps, the cartographers needed surveyors in the area, but white Europeans would have struggled with the terrain, the weather and the local bandits and tribes. In addition, the whole Northern Territory was also under observation by the Russians (and to some extent, the Chinese) - white men would have been spotted almost instantly.

They called it "The Great Game", this to-ing and fr-ing with the Russians. They desperately needed trained people, who could blend in and move about. The scheme they came up with was simple - if they could not use Europeans, they would use locals. To this end, they recruited hundreds of natives of the area and trained them - because they became revered as knowledgable and wise, they were soon known as "The Pundits". The problem was that traditional surveyors needed equipment. Anyone, native or not, messing with chains and notebooks would stand out like a sore thumb. So they improvised.

Masters of Disguise

The solution was elegant. Rather than burden their surveyors with cumbersome and conspicuous equipment to measure and record, they taught them to measure paces. If a man knew the length of his pace, they reasoned, they would be able to measure by walking. They would count off tens or hundreds of paces on a modified Buddhist rosary, with 100 rather than the traditional 108 beads. Compasses and notes could be concealed in many ways, a prayer wheel often being the means. Altitude was measured roughly by measuring the temperature of boiling water when making tea, and levelling was acheived by examining a small bowl of mercury. An excellent memory was also vital - it would not do to be seen by a border patrol making notes. Rudyard Kipling recorded the training of one young Pundit in his book Kim and the memory game known as Kim's Game was just one of the tests and training methods used.

They were masters of disguise, often travelling as travelling monks or pilgrims, capable of speaking many languages and in some cases, using primitive ciphers and codes to further conceal their findings.

Some of the Pundits were well rewarded - a valued man could gain a British pension. One such man was Nain Singh. Once a schoolmaster, he was arguably the greatest of these surveyors and spies, and in fact his codename ("The Pundit") came to be used for all these adventuring explorers. He was later compared to other great men, notably Livingston. He is reported to have travelled over 1,400 miles in a single year.

The diligence and ingenuity of these men meant that rivers and mountains were mapped, in addition to population centres and military information. Their impact on the intelligence community as well as geographic and natural history information that they gathered cannot be underestimated.
River Dog - Mark Shand


An expert or authority in a field, usually with an outlet for sharing opinions, e.g. space in a newspaper or magazine, airtime on broadcast media, a weblog.

A new form of pundit has appeared in the field of broadcast journalism (also on the Web): usually focused on politics, the expert's field of expertise is not in political science but in having an opinion. The pundit's main job is to express his or her opinion unabashedly, and aggressively (Cogent analysis may be helpful in understanding politics, but it does not bring in viewers or readers like shouting at or interrupting guests during an "interview," or ad hominem attacks). It may be no surprise, then, that Merriam-Webster's dictionary <> has added this definition of pundit: "one who gives opinions in an authoritative manner."

Pun"dit (?), n. [Hind. pandit, Skr. pandita a learned man.]

A learned man; a teacher; esp., a Brahman versed in the Sanskrit language, and in the science, laws, and religion of the Hindoos; in Cashmere, any clerk or native official.

[Written also pandit.] [India]


© Webster 1913.

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