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.

Keywords: Tibet spy