Recounting the journey of a tailor-turned-spy who travelled from India to Tibet in the 1880s

21 April, 2019

While browsing through a small bookstore on the Mall Road in Shimla, Parimal Bhattacharya stumbled across an old document, which bore a Survey of India seal and was titled “Report of Pandit Kinthup’s Exploration of Yarlung Tsangpo, as narrated before the Hon’ble Members of the Tibet Frontier Commission, 25-28 March 1914.” He recalled having read about Kinthup before: a tailor turned explorer from Darjeeling, he had set out for Tibet in 1880. He had been dispatched on a mission by the British government, and ordered to find out as much as he could about the Tsangpo river. Although trade with Tibet was in full swing, very little was known about the region or the river at the time, and so the Raj sent spies—disguised as monks and trained in topographical survey-making—to Tibet. The following extract from Bhattacharya’s book Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet chronicles the beginning of Kinthup’s arduous journey, as he strived to determine whether the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same river.

When Kinthup was being trained for the Tsangpo mission, a Chinese lama was staying in Darjeeling. He had a passport to Tibet. Moreover, he could read and write; Kinthup was illiterate. So it was decided that Kinthup would go into Tibet disguised as the lama’s servant. The Chinese passport would give them free access there, the lama would also assist Kinthup to keep the survey records.

Though he couldn’t read and write, Kinthup had mastered the basic skills of topographic survey and the working of instruments. He also had an amazing memory. The two men set out from Darjeeling on a wet afternoon in July 1880. Kinthup was leaving behind his wife, two young sons and a newborn daughter in a tiny shack in Butcher Bustee. The code of espionage forbade him to share with anyone the details of his mission, which was expected to be completed in four months. Accordingly, the government had disbursed a small sum for the upkeep of his family during this period. Kinthup and the lama were given a purse containing 100 rupees and some silver pieces that could be exchanged for currency. The plan was that they would reach Gyala, a village near the western end of the Tsangpo gorge, up to which the earlier mission of Nem Singh had been able to reach, and from there press on into the gorge.

They entered Tibet from Sikkim, through the Donkia Pass, and halted by a lake called Cholamo for a couple of days, to follow the caravan of traders from Gyantse who’d come here to exchange goods with their Sikkimese counterparts. The two went to Lhasa, stopped at Sera monastery, where the lama spent a few days feasting with old friends. From here on they took on the disguise of mendicant monks and continued to travel by begging for food and halting at jikkiyops—travellers’ sheds erected by the Tibetan government to protect wayfarers from inclement weather and wild animals. Sometimes they spent the nights in caves. The rough life took its toll on the lama’s health, and they had to halt at a place for three weeks for him to recuperate. As the route grew difficult—with the mountains rising higher and closing in from all sides, the forests growing denser and trackless—a mean and choleric man emerged from the shell of the monk; he began to abuse Kinthup like some do servants. It took them three months to reach Gyala, a settlement of half a dozen houses by the river and the ruins of a monastery nearby. It was November, the river was low. They crossed it and pressed on along the western bank, on a path that grew more difficult at every step. Three days later they came to Pemakochung. But Kinthup couldn’t find a path that was close to the river as it forced its way into the heart of the canyon. They were forced to retrace their steps and follow a path that went around this section, bent back and rejoined the Tsangpo further downstream.

By now the lama was at his wit’s end. He had imagined the expedition to be a carefree picnic at the expense of the British government. This was too much for him. He continued to treat Kinthup badly. In the village of Thun Tsung, the lama fell for the charms of a woman from the Lopa tribe, the headman’s wife, and they stopped there for four months. By the time the two men reached the dzong—a type of fortress, or castle—of Tongkyuk, their purse had dwindled.

Here the lama became suspiciously friendly with the dzongpon, the castle chief, and they were given food and shelter in the servants’ quarters. After two days’ rest at the dzong, the lama said to Kinthup: “My soul is burning with desire for that Lopa woman. I must go and see her again for one last time. Don’t worry, I’ll return in a few days.” That night, one of the dzongpon’s servants entered Kinthup’s room and without a word began to rummage through his belongings. He was a thickset man with long hair bound in a topknot and piercing eyes. But he appeared to be completely deaf, as Kinthup’s loud protests failed to move him. To stop him, Kinthup lunged forward and grabbed him by the waist. The very next moment he found himself lifted off the ground by an animal force and flung upon the stone floor. The man towered above, snorting in anger, with a bare foot raised inches above Kinthup’s face, ready to squash it. The big toe on the foot was missing. With surprising confidence, the man now fished out a pistol and a compass from a secret pocket of the canvas sack that had eluded even the guards of Lhasa.

“Don’t!” Kinthup pleaded, still sprawled on the floor. “These belong to my government.”

“Shut your mouth or I’ll shove my foot into it!” the man said, speaking in a curiously quiet voice. “These will be returned when that lama comes back.”

Kinthup was shifted from the servants’ quarters to a corner of the stable, where he was given the job of cutting grass for the dzongpon’s horses. When it was found out that he could sew clothes, he was given the task of making quilt jackets for the dzongpon and his sons. Days passed, Kinthup waited for the lama’s return. He earned his two meagre meals by sewing clothes and doing other odd jobs. His drudgery continued for two months. A full year had elapsed since he had set out from Darjeeling. A large part of the Tsangpo’s course still remained to be charted.

One day, Kinthup went to the dzongpon. “I don’t know when my master will return, but I must leave now,” he said. “Please give me back the pistol and the compass.”

“Leave? Where to?” The dzongpon laughed, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “Neither will your master return, nor will you ever leave.”

“What do you mean?” Kinthup asked, shocked.

“That damned lama has sold you for 50 rupees and gone back to China. I’m your master now!”

Kinthup was now sent to the dzongpon’s village, a day’s march from Tongkyuk and perched on a cliff above a stream, to do the duties of a common slave. He was given a place to sleep in the sheepfold, among the animals, on the edge of a plot of barley. Above it, over thick stands of juniper and rhododendron, rose the snow-capped mountains. The stream, a tributary of the Tsangpo, flowed over rapids at a drop of a few hundred feet. Its restless noise beckoned Kinthup day and night. He had been able to save a spare compass that the lama didn’t know about; he’d take it out after the day’s work, when everyone had turned in. The needle would pulsate with the murmur of the stream and continue to buzz in his head like an insect. One day, he went to fetch firewood in the forest and didn’t return. It was a day in March, more than six months after he’d been sold to the dzongpon.

But even as he took to his heels, Kinthup never strayed far from the Tsangpo. He cut his path through dark forests and cliffs. Following the compass’s needle, keeping count of his footsteps on prayer beads, Kinthup pushed on for days, committing every bend and sandbar, every rapid and feeder, to memory. Sometimes, he spent the night in a deserted yak-grazers’ shed, but more often in caves and on treetops, surviving on wild mushrooms and leaves. After five days, he came to a spot where the Tsangpo leapt across a sharp fall, forming a cloud of spray, with a rainbow shimmering on it. At another spot he found fresh human footprints on the desolate riverbank. On the eleventh day, Kinthup entered an enchanting green valley ringed with snow-clad mountains. This was Pemako. The river meandered across the narrow fertile valley and, on the brow of a hill, was a monastery. This was Marpung.

Men from Tongkyuk were waiting there. They caught Kinthup as he entered the monastery. But the kind abbot gave them 50 rupees and released Kinthup, on the condition that he would serve there to pay for his freedom.

After the slavery in Tongkyuk, life in Marpung was easy. Thirty monks lived in the gompa. Kinthup darned their robes, worked in the kitchen and fetched provisions from the village below once every two days. From this enchanting valley, the Tsangpo rushed into the impenetrable gorge after a series of rapids. On clear days, the river could be seen from the monastery’s terrace, gleaming like a strip of molten silver. The calls of golden eagles were borne upon the breeze. At the end of the day, his work done, Kinthup would sit at the temple door and pray, his gaze fixed on the huge painted eyes of Buddha lit up by a butter lamp. Counting beads on his finger day after day to measure distances and the passage of time, he mumbled “Om mani padme hum” to rejig his memories of landscape and topography—the rosary itself seemed to have become a river. He’d wake up at night and see the glaciers shining like pyramids of crystal against a star-spangled sky. The murmur of the Tsangpo would rise from the mist-wrapped valley like a person talking in sleep. One day, Kinthup went to the Khenpo, the venerable abbot, and prayed for leave to go on a pilgrimage. By this time, he had spent four months in Marpung; it had been two years since he had set out from Darjeeling. The Khenpo granted his prayer.

Kinthup followed the river’s downward course, resuming his interrupted mission, toiling around giant boulders and across precipitous cliffs. Sometimes, he followed the tracks that herds of wild takin—a species of antelope—used on their winter migration. The more he pushed on, the more forbidding the path grew, sheer walls covered with stunted alpine bushes reached up to the skies, networks of thick lianas hanging from ancient trees cast the darkness of night in daytime. Not the call of a beast, not the warble of a bird, only the ear-splitting roar of the Tsangpo rushing down the narrowest of defiles. After eight days, Kinthup reached a bend where there was a strip of yellow sandy bank and, 200 feet above it, a cave. For five days, he worked from sunrise to sunset to carve 500-foot-long sticks out of rhododendron wood. He stored them inside the cave and returned to Marpung.

Two months later, after winter had given way to summer and the snow had melted over the passes, Kinthup prayed again for another pilgrimage—the great Tsari pilgrimage that took place every twelve years. This time, too, he was allowed to go. But Kinthup went to Lhasa instead and got in touch with a Kazi, a minor official from Sikkim. He talked the Kazi into writing a letter to Nem Singh in Darjeeling. The letter, addressed to Harman Sahib, narrated his plight and how he planned to throw five hundred specially marked wooden sticks into the river Tsangpo nine months later on a specified date. This was according to a plan Harman had himself devised. Men were to be stationed at points where the Brahmaputra entered the plains of Assam, and the finding of a single marked stick would prove conclusively that Tsangpo was Brahmaputra.

From Lhasa, Kinthup came back to Marpung monastery, to a life of clockwork labour, to the hypnotic eyes of the Buddha lit by a yak-butter lamp, to the calls of eagles and the riparian whispers rising up at night from the sleeping valley. Days passed, the moon waxed and waned, the rains returned to Pemako and turned it a resplendent green. Kinthup petitioned again, for another pilgrimage.

This time the Khenpo, addressed as Khen Rinpoche, granted him freedom. He also gave the Indian a leg of sun-dried mutton, cheese and a few Tibetan coins for the road. Kinthup offered a prayer in the temple, took leave of the monks, and set out for that cave in the gorge.

But the Tsangpo was swollen with rains, the tracks along its banks had vanished. It took him fifteen days to cover a distance that he’d trekked earlier in eight days. On reaching the spot before the assigned day, Kinthup found the narrow bank flooded and water almost reaching the lip of the cave. He tied the metal tags that Harman Sahib had given him in Darjeeling—which he’d been carrying all these years tied to his waist like amulets—to each of the sticks. Then he tossed them into the stream in batches of fifty for the next ten days. Seven miles downstream from this spot, the Tsangpo cut its way through a gully, rounded a bend to the south and entered the constriction between the Namche Barwa and Gyala Peri mountains, both seven-thousand metre mountains. For the next 50 miles, it ran along an unbelievably deep and narrow course, the heart of the Tsangpo gorge, into which sunlight scarcely entered in the daytime. There was no path or ledge across the near vertical cliffs that rose to dizzying heights. It would take one hundred and twenty years for man to cover these 50 miles. Long after both the poles, all the deserts, continents and much of the ocean floors had been explored, long after men had set foot on the moon, a team of European adventurers would kayak down this stretch. In 2002. By that time, however, satellite cameras had accurately mapped the river’s fascinating course.

This is an edited excerpt from Parimal Bhattacharya’s book Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet, published by Speaking Tiger.