Nain Singh Rawat bigraphy, stories - Indian explorer

Nain Singh Rawat : biography

1830 - 1895

Pandit Nain Singh Rawat (Hindi: नैन सिंह रावत), 1830-1895, was one of the first of the late 19th century pundits who explored the Himalayas for the British. He hailed from the Johaar Valley of Kumaon. He mapped the trade route through Nepal to Tibet, determined for the first time the location and altitude of Lhasa, and mapped a large section of the Tsangpo, the major Tibetan river.


On June 27, 2004, an Indian postage stamp featuring Nain Singh was issued commemorating his role in the Great Trigonometric Survey.

In 2006 Drs. Shekhar Pathak and Uma Bhatt brought out a biography of Nain Singh with three of his diaries and the RGS articles about his travels in three volumes titled Asia ki Peeth Par published by Pahar, Naini Tal: a belated but fitting tribute to the man.

Even today, after a half-century of modernization, Tibet can still be profitably viewed through the eyes of these early explorers of this mysterious land. Their explorations are still the window to the world of Tibet.

Nain Singh was a man of strong character — where others admitted defeat, he persisted. Due to the clandestine nature of the work and because they were ‘Spy Explorers’ pundits never gained the recognition due such an important feat. As these ‘Spy Explorers’ worked for the British, after Indian independence their work was not given due recognition. The clandestine nature made such important discoveries look unpatriotic. This must be the only reason why their accomplishments faded from public memory.

The life of Nain Singh Rawat paraphrases the entire struggle for power not only in the plains of India but through the crucial and strategic plateaus and valleys of Tibet, the high Himalaya and the Hindu Kush.

Life and career

Rai Bahadur Nain Singh Rawat was born to Lata Burha in 1830 in Milam village in the valley of Johar, at the foot of the Milam glacier where the river Goriganga originates. The Rawats ruled over the Johar valley, during the reign of Chand dynasty in Kumaon; this was followed by the Gorkha rule. In 1816 the British defeated the Gorkhas but maintained a policy of non-interference and friendship towards the Johar Bhotias. The famous Bhotia explorers mostly belong to the village of Johar.

After leaving school, Nain Singh helped his father. He visited different centers in Tibet with him, learned the Tibetan language, customs and manners and became familiar with the Tibetan people. This knowledge of Tibetan language and local customs and protocol came handy in Nain Singh’s work as "Spy Explorer". Due to the extreme cold conditions, Milam and other villages of the upper Johar valley are inhabited only for a few months from June to October. During this time the men used to visit Gya'nyima, Gartok and other markets in Western Tibet.

Each Indian trader of Johar, had a ‘mitra’ or colleague in Tibet. Initially, the splitting of a stone, each keeping one half, marked their partnership in trade. Henceforth, the Indian trader or his representative would carry the token to sell his goods in Tibet market only to his mitra’s representative who would fit his half of the stone to the Indian’s.

In 1855, Nain Singh Rawat, now a well-disposed and intelligent man of 25 years, of traditional Bhotia stature — short, stocky and stubborn — was first recruited by German geographers the Schalaginweit brothers. Baron Humboldt had sent these German scientists to the office of the Survey of India, which reluctantly allowed them to proceed with their survey.

Adolf and Robert Schlagintweit had met Deb Singh Rawat in the Johar valley, who showed them a thanks chit signed by William Moorecroft and inscribed ‘Northern foot of the Himanchal Mountains near Daba in Chinese Tartary, August 25th 1812.’ On his advice they recruited three members of his family for their expedition: Mani Singh Rawat, Dolpa and Nain Singh Rawat. Nain Singh’s first exploration trip was with the Germans between 1855 and 1857. He traveled to the lakes Manassarovar and Rakas Tal and then further to Gartok and Ladakh.

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