The Fascinating Life of Nain Singh

Nain Singh was an infamous pundit (i.e. explorer) who made three grand expeditions to Tibet between 1865 and 1876.  The Royal Geographical Society took a keen interest in the Singh family as Great Britain sought to map the forbidden region.  Having grown up in the Johar valley in northern India, Nain was well acclimated to the weather, cultures and languages of its mountainous enclaves.  He would prove to be the ideal agent for these covert operations.  Disguised as a traditional hiking monk, he became the first non-native person to extensively chart the high plateau, all while retaining his clandestine identity.  I would like to reflect on Singh’s accomplishments and legacy.

Photo of Nain Singh taken in 1876 for the Royal Geographical Society
Nain is considered to be the most notorious of the Singh pundits for several astonishing reasons.  Foremost, the intricate details of his character disguise and surveying techniques could only be compared to a modern day spy.  His begging bowl was really a scientific device, which when filled with mercury and then placed underneath a calibrated capillary tube could measure terrain elevations.  Singh artfully concealed the makeshift glass barometer in his hollowed-out monastic walking staff for good reason.  Any person caught entering Tibet with these sorts of contraband items would be punished, and moreover, the act of conspiring with a European nation was an unspeakable offense.  Although Singh probably did not realize it in 1865, cartography would become his family’s brand of espionage.

Nain Singh was neither the first nor last undercover agent to travel to the Tibetan plateau.  The medieval history of South Asia is teeming with stories of yogin spies.   It is said that these elusive warriors were hired for their ability to collect and run military intelligence.  On one occasion, a single yogi was responsible for reporting the location of foreign invaders in time for a Bhutanese patrol to mount a successful counter offensive.  In the case of Singh, he perfectly fit the profile of the feared yogi.  He was trained in using a sham 100-bead mala, not as a prayer counter, but as a pace counter.  Furthermore, Singh kept a collection records carefully concealed within a modified Tibetan prayer wheel.  If thoroughly inspected, it would be easy to detect the sacrilege in his guise.  And with each expedition, his chance of capture seemed ever more likely.

Singh’s third and final expedition would prove to be his most perilous.  Commissioned to trek from Leh to Peking, his secret identity was discovered by guardsmen inhabiting western Tibet.  Although he was later deemed a pacifist, then released, suspicions about his whereabouts did spread.  By the time he arrived in Lhasa, he came to understand that he was a wanted man.  After abandoning his traveling companions, Singh decided to trick his pursuers by rerouting his expedition through the wilderness.  Instead of arranging to board a Chinese caravan reportedly stationed at village along the Tsangpo river, he decided to take his chances through the treacherous corridors of the eastern Himalayas on foot to Assam (see map below).  Singh’s legendary trek covered 1,405 miles of which 1,200 were previously uncharted.

Map depicts Nain Singh’s final journey. Image published in The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia by Derek Waller
Nain Singh was celebrated upon making his miraculous return to British India.  The crown granted him the authority to rule two villages for his services.  Based on his strong affiliation with the imperialist superpower of the day, one may anticipate Singh’s legacy to be controversial at best.  However, I tend to conclude that today’s Indians see him as an enigmatic hero.  His ability to persuade the ruling elite of the day that the peoples of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal were nationally distinct from their neighbors to the south is worthy of praise.  In 2004, as a statement of appreciation, the Indian government issued Singh’s portrait on the national stamp.  Given our present-day fascination with spy fiction, I predict that pundits like Nain Singh will attract additional notoriety for decades to come.

For more information, please see the following resources:

Waller, Derek. “The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia.” University Press of Kentucky. 2004, Nov 17.

“Nain singh’s last exploration.” PBS Online. Available from:


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