IN THE EARLY HOURS OF 15 JANUARY 1934, an earthquake of magnitude 8.4 rocked Nepal and Bihar. Fissures as much as five kilometres deep opened in the earth, exhaling a choking dust and swallowing hillsides and villages. Ten thousand people died without leaving their beds. Although Kathmandu was relatively unscathed, nearby Patan was upheaved; large portions of the prime minister’s private palace were razed, and the town’s Durbar Square filled up with rubble. In distant Calcutta, the bell tower and steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral collapsed, the crash accompanied by a tremendous clang. As the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates shifted into a more comfortable position beneath the earth’s surface, new lakes filled up behind landslides in the Himalayas and more people lost their lives in shuddering aftershocks.
Since the Gurkha War of 1814, the Kingdom of Nepal had been off limits to foreigners, especially the English; available maps had been entirely the work of Indian surveyors unsupervised by British colonial officials. But with the permission of the Maharaja of Nepal, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) sent a small team to investigate the devastation, led by an English geologist. The four men left Calcutta in early February and travelled for several months in bullock carts and on royal elephants, completing three separate traverses over ranges in both Nepal and Bihar before completing their trek at Darjeeling.
Comparing seismographs from Bombay and Kew, England, the long-legged, bearded and alarmingly pale-skinned team leader, 31-year-old John Bicknell Auden, had first judged the earthquake’s epicentre to fall in southeastern Nepal. On reaching the area to camp, however, he read the landscape as a detective might study overturned furniture to reconstruct a violent crime. He concluded that the epicentre was not in the Nepal Himalaya but in the Gangetic alluvium, further south, in north Bihar. In the seismological report he eventually filed with the GSI, Auden’s observations were largely geological. His account of the same journey for the Himalayan Journal, however, revealed a mountaineer’s agenda: to get a close-up view of Mount Everest’s southern face. He would be the first European to take in this view, and the first in over a century to visit the region.