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The Great Game

The Khyber Pass along the ancient Silk Route, connects the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. Most invasions into the Indian subcontinent, such as those of Darius I and Genghis Khan, were led through the Khyber Pass - which if controlled, was deemed a strategic military chokepoint.

Terra Incognita - meaning unexplored, uncharted regions of the world, is a fascinating concept. History would have played out quite differently if explorers and empires from around the world, hadn't sought to 'discover' and chart those unknown realms. When we celebrate India's rich history, we often ignore 'one of the most stupendous works in the whole history of science', namely, the mapping of the Indian subcontinent.

What does it take to map the country from its peninsular tip to the height of Mount Everest? Today, armed as we are with our (not-always) trusty Google Maps, we cannot imagine a survey involving thousands of people - a shifting community of cartographers and khalasis (native survey helpers) who traversed the length, breadth and height of the country in what is known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS).

Yet what purpose did the GTS serve? It was an ambitious, mammoth step in the Great Game. What is the Great Game? Read on...

Cartography has a rich history; rock paintings and carvings which may have served as navigational tools, early Greek paper maps, Chinese grid-based maps from the Sui and Tang dynasties, and the iconic 16th CE Guang Yutu atlas containing over 40 maps. The Age of Exploration when merchants, mariners, mapmakers and explorers charted the regions they'd traversed in exciting ways, led to many cartographic advances. The stage was set for nautical cartography — to help land-based and seafaring travellers navigate the ends of the Earth. As empires swept across the globe, explorers and cartographers were locked in a deadly game of charting the unknown (so that it could be claimed for king/queen and country).

I've written before of how cartography has shaped our understanding of geographic, political, and demographic divides in the context of India, from the pre-colonial era to modern day. This time, I'd like to focus on a specific chapter in cartographic history - the Great Game.

In geopolitics, the term 'Great Game' signifies the rivalry between the British and Russian empires in the 19th CE in their quest to command territories across Asia, such as Afghanistan, Persia, and later, Tibet. This rivalry involved diplomatic dialogues, military incursions, mapping explorations, high-stakes espionage, and dirty politics. Yet it resulted in mapping the Great Arc — measuring the length and shape of the Indian subcontinent — which was termed 'one of the most stupendous works in the history of science'.



So how was India mapped across its length and breadth, and at different altitudes? It turns out that trigonometry, the topic you might have plodded along with during school (I know I did), had some practical use after all - the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS), wouldn't have been possible without it. When William Lambton proposed the GTS, he hoped to map not just the extent of the subcontinent, but also surmise the actual shape of the Earth.

At first, we're taught that the Earth is a sphere, yet it isn't a true, or mathematically accurate sphere. As it spins on its axis and as a result of gravitation, the earth is flatter at the poles and bulges at the equator - forming an oblate spheroid (for the nerds). In simpler terms, the Earth's diameter at the equator is 27 miles/~43.45 kilometres wider than its diameter from pole to pole.

As the survey progressed from south to north, it had to account for this 'spherical excess', and charting smaller triangles allowed for a more accurate measurement of the subcontinent.

The first triangulations from Fort St. George in Chennai, to the coast of Mangalore undertaken during the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, by William Lambton.

Image credits: Public domain.

When we celebrate journeys like Roald Amundsen's to the south pole, or the one to the north pole by Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, or presumably, that of Dr David Livingstone, we should also include the mapping of the Great Arc among such historic undertakings. Incredibly, this isn't the story of well-funded, well-equipped explorers but that of humbler adventurers who travelled on foot with meagre resources for years at a time, facing great risk of exposure as spies, as they ventured into political-disputed lands and forbidden capitals.

These native explorers or Pundits, as the East India Company termed them, shaped our understanding of geographies from Oxus river in Turkmenistan, across Afghanistan, to the forbidden capital of Lhasa, into the kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan, and further towards Kunlun Shan mountains in China. In the context of present-day India, their explorations ranged from the trans Himalayan zone of Kashmir and Ladakh, to Kumaon belt at the foothills of the Himalaya, stretching as far as Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Surely, these Pundits were among the most intrepid adventurers of all time.

Mapping the Great Arc was just the start. As Asia beyond the Himalayas was charted, it defined the frontiers of a high stakes game of empires, one that would shape the history and political divides of the world.



A bird's eye map depicting the approaches to British India through Afghanistan, stretching from Russian territory to the Indus river valley.

Image credits: Public Domain

To safeguard its territories, especially those in the Persian Gulf, past the Emirate of Afghanistan, and India, from the influence of the Russia, the British empire embarked upon the 'Great Game'. A game of diplomacy and frontier-mapping, alliance-building and espionage, trade and treaties, in a bid to create buffer states between its northern most reaches, while continuing to monopolize trade along the Silk Route, as well as the sea routes.

Someone once referred to the Great Game as two proud and expanding empires approaching each other, without any agreed frontier, from opposite directions over a "backward, uncivilized and undeveloped region'. The European, 'civilized' model involved charting maps, drawing lines, signing treaties, and playing by these newly-agreed-upon rules.

As the Great Game raged on, the Anglo-Afghan wars, the Anglo-Sikh war, the Anglo-Persian war, were the price this 'backward, uncivilized and undeveloped region' had to pay. These wars led to the drawing up of many agreements and treaties, which caused the region to be divided up arbitrarily. There have been numerous interpretations of the Great Game since, and some even say there was evidence of a growing understanding between Britain and Russia to divide Central Asia between themselves. These frontiers still dictate Central Asia's relations today.

"Frontiers are the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations.”

- Lord Curzon

I feel this is a chapter of our history that needs every Indian needs to know. While the extraordinary story of the explorers who mapped Central Asia and the murky politics of why such an exercise was undertaken are important, it is more important for what it can teach us about present-day geopolitics.



My inspiration for this blog was this brilliant book by Riaz Dean. Written in a racy style, paying homage to all the incredible spies and soldiers, civil servants and cartographers, who charted Central Asia in the backdrop of the Great Game. I enjoyed how the book talks of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, the incredible accomplishments of the Pundits against the odds they faced, and how the Great Game shaped the geopolitical fabric of Central Asia. It also left me with a sense of awe about the long shadow cast by the game on the geopolitics of today.

Based on rare British, Indian, Ladakhi, and Kashmiri archival sources, this book offers an academic insight into how the India-China border was shaped. In imposing their principles of drawing and imposing frontiers, especially at the crossroads of high Asia, namely Ladakh, this region that was once a gateway from India to the Central Asian region, is today, a politically and culturally fractured borderland. The book highlights how Britain's flawed legacy of border-making continues to haunt the region today.

For those interested in a more detailed version of the Pundits' explorations, this paper titled 'The Survey of India and the Pundits - The Secret Exploration of the Himalaya and Central Asia', is a great read - not too academic, and with some interesting maps.

AJ 1998 59-79 Ward Pundits
Download PDF • 7.30MB


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