Following various successful and failed voyages to India around 1600, the British established their first factory along the southeastern Coromandel Coast under the charter of the East India Company. They had attempted to pierce the hold the United East India Trading Company (the British called it the Dutch East, etc.) had exercised over the spice trade since 1602 and had mixed results.
Over time, both trading companies, along with their French, Danish, and Portuguese competitors, established private military and legal influence in the regions in which they had the commanding presence. These supranational entities, really just corporations in early form, gained the “ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies,” and any additional administrative tasks, all gained by corrupting local powers and subsequent brute force if they deemed it necessary.
In 1765, British military officers deposed the Shah of Bengal and gained sovereign rights over the area. While this was the official start British military colonialization of India, it was just a beginning.
India was seen by western European countries as another place rich in resources and labor. With that as a lure for many nations, the Russian and British empires tried to out-do each other in central, south, southeast, and eastern Asian infiltration by all means possible. By the mid-18th century, both empires were sending members of their military, often under the guise of cartographers or adventurers. Peter Hopkirk’s history of these missions for dominance in the region, The Great Game, is as exciting as any H. Rider Haggard novel set in the same general areas (n.b. as they are literature associated with colonial thinking, there are probably 19th C. European biases throughout).
Among the most daring of the characters Hopkirk reveals are the stories of the pandits whom British military, diplomatic, and geographic adventurers trained to conduct mapping for them. The word “pandit” comes from the Sanskrit पण्डित signifying a scholar or teacher particularly of Vedic scriptures, Hindu philosophy, music, etc. It is derived from a Sanskrit root “pand,” meaning to “collect, heap, pile up,” although specifically with regards to knowledge. They were experts, learned men who had already devoted their lives to knowledge.
There were many tribal fiefdoms in the areas the British wanted to map. Some of them were dangerous to any outsiders at all but certain death awaited any European who ventured there. The pandits learned to memorize their long routes into the mountains, along the courses of rivers, into Tibet and other Himalayan realms as far west as the Khyber Pass. One objective was to map potential trade paths into southwestern China. If they had been discovered by bandits or members of fiefdoms with paper evidence of their mapping, they would have been killed as quickly as if they had been English. If they had been discovered by other European “adventurers” (we’re really talking about spies here), they would have known the same fate. In some cases, the pandits simply memorized the number of steps they had taken before departing the initial path for one fork or another. They kept their stride to as specific a length as they could so that their steps could be useful if they returned to their spymasters. In some cases, they used prayer wheels to act as a mnemonic assist somewhat like a simplified abacus might be used.
One of the most celebrated Pandits was Nain Singh Rawat. He grew up near the Himalyas in the north central portion of India to the west of Nepal. He was one among many pandits but is noteworthy in that he documented his missions in personal journals that have been discovered and translated in recent years.
For more about various British mapping expeditions please try Peter Hopkirk’s book or take a look at this article from The Himalayan Journal.
Interestingly, the word to describe “experts” who opine about various topics in newspapers and on radio and television are called “pundits,” derived from the Sanskrit. Surely, Nain Singh Rawat and his fellow pandits could teach them a thing or two about expertise.
(With apologies to any experts on Indian history, British imperialism, or the “Great Game;” this is meant as a teaser for those unfamiliar with the depth and richness of the subject.)