Monday, November 15, 2010

Rai Bahadur Kishan Singh Rawat (1850-1921)

Rai Bahadur Kishan Singh Rawat

'Kishan Singh Rawat' (Kishan Singh Milamwal) was also known by the code names – ‘Krishna’ or ‘A-K’. He was among the great explorers of 19th century, who explored the forbidden regions of Tibet and Central Asia in the disguise of a merchant or lama! Kishan Singh became famous after his last and greatest survey expedition in 1878-82 from Darjeeling to Mongolia via Lhasa.

Early Life :
Kishan Singh was born in the border village of Milam, at an altitude of 11,400 feet, of the Pithoragarh district in 1850. His father Deb Singh Rawat (Debu Buda) was a wealthy and successful trader of the Johar valley. Pundit Man Singh Rawat (Mani Compssai) was Kishan Singh’s eldest brother, and Pundit Nain Singh Rawat (C.I.E.) was his cousin.

Career :

(A) Education Department (1862-1867) :
In 1862, Kishan Singh joined a government school in Garbyang (Dharchula) as an assistant, and also continued his studies side by side. After some years, he passed the ‘Tehsil Mudarisi’ certificate from Normal School, Almora. He also worked as a teacher for 2 years in Girl’s School, Milam and later, for 1 year in Garbyang government school. Because of his teaching profession, he got the title of ‘Pundit’, which was a common address for teachers during those days!

(B) Great Trigonometrical Survey (1867-1885) :
In 1867, Kishan Singh was recruited as a trainee surveyor in the Survey of India office at Dehradun. In the Great Trigonometrical Survey, he was mainly trained by G. B. Hensy and his cousin, the famous surveyor and explorer, Pundit Nain Singh Rawat. During the 2 years long rigorous training at the Survey of India, he learned different skills of surveying and use of various scientific instruments.

On the recommendation of Nain Singh, Col. Walker recruited Kishan Singh on his expeditions of Tibet and Central Asia. Kishan Singh Rawat actively served at the Great Trigonometrical Survey for about 18 years from 1867 to 1885. In his later years, Kishan Singh also worked as a trainer with the Survey of India.

Important Survey Expeditions :

(1) Kailash Mansarovar Expedition (1869) :
In 1869, after successfully completing his training at the Great Trigonometrical Survey, Kishan Singh went on his first survey expedition in Tibet, and explored the 400 miles long route from Katai Ghat (where Karnali river enters India) to Mayapur (where Sarju/Sarayu river met in Sitapur district, India), starting from Kailash Mansarovar Lake in Tibet.

(2) Shigache – Lhasa Expedition (1871-1872) :
On July 1871, Kishan Singh reached Chunta via Shigatse (Xigazê), and further went to Petinchucha in Tibet. In this region, he found 50 feet high hot water fountains with temperature of 166° Fahrenheit. On 13th January 1872, Kishan Singh explored the landscapes around Tengri Nor (Namtso/ Nam Co) lake. On 14th February, he reached Nambdo and explored the area near Bulchho Lake, which was famous for the abundance of Bauxite in this lake.

On 18th February, the caravan of Kishan Singh was robbed by a group of 60 armed bandits, and there was hardly anything left with them. On 9th April, they managed to reach Lhasa in the hope of getting some good help from the local traders. But Kishan Singh just got 150 rupees in cash from a trader after mortgaging his survey instruments. Anyway, he managed to return to Dehradun successfully overcoming all the adverse and difficult circumstances on his way back to India!

During this hectic expedition, Kishan Singh surveyed the 320 miles long route from Tengri Nor lake to Lhasa. He also measured the latitudes of 10 places, and the atmospheric pressure at 24 places in Tibet.

(3) Douglas Forsyth’s Second Yarkand – Kashgar Expedition (1873-1874) :
In 1873, Kishan Singh joined Sir Douglas Forsyth on his Yarkand – Kashgar expedition, but he was asked to return on the way via Khotan (Hotan) to survey the travel routes of Ladakh. After the survey of the region in this route from Yarkand to Khotan and Noh, he planned to go further to Rudok (Rutog), but was stopped at the border post where he was frisked by the officials. Then, Kishan Singh continued his journey further into Tibet.

In this expedition, Kishan Singh surveyed about 1250 miles long travel route, starting from Tankse (Ladakh) to Yarkand – Kashgar – Khotan – Tibet, and then, towards south-east to Leh (Ladakh) via Noh and Pangong (Pangong Tso) lake.

(4) Darjeeling – Lhasa – Mongolia Expedition (1878-1882) :
Darjeeling – Lhasa – Mongolia Expedition’ was the most famous, adventurous and historical survey expedition of Kishan Singh Rawat. On 24th April 1878, Kishan Singh started his fourth and last expedition with his assistants Chhumbel and Ganga Ram from Darjeeling.

On 5th September 1878, Kishan Singh reached Lhasa after a long journey via Gyantse (Gyangtse). He stayed in Lhasa for one year in the disguise of a trader, and surveyed the geography of the region. He also studied and researched about the political, social, religious, and economic aspects of the life in Tibet. During this period, Kishan Singh also learned Mongolian language, and made friendship with many Mongolian traders in Lhasa.

On 17th September 1879, Kishan Singh joined the caravan of some of his befriend Mongolian traders for his journey to Mongolia. After a week, they reached the Changthang plateau in the Northern Tibet. In the north of Changthang plains, Kishan Singh found many tents of the nomadic and unfriendly tribes (Changpa) of this region. On this route, he also saw some cave dwellers who used to hide in their caves when they see strangers!

When Kishan Singh was preparing for his journey further to Sachu (Kansu), a border post in the Chinese Kingdom, one of his servants, Ganga Ram stole some of his money along with two horses and a binocular, and ran away.

On 8th January 1881, with the help of some lamas, disheartened Kishan Singh finally reached Sachu, which was mostly dominated by the Han Chinese population. Due to the suspicious nature of these locals, Kishan Singh found it impossible to travel further to north. So, he decided to stay in Sachu in the disguise of a fruit trader with his honest companion, Chhumbel. In this way, Kishan Singh secretly surveyed this Chinese town for about 7 months. In August, he travelled to Thoden Gompa (a Buddhist monastery) with a local lama, and stayed there for 2 months.

On his return journey to home, Kishan Singh used his intelligence and skills to befriend many local traders and pilgrims in order to reach India. On 12th November 1882, Kishan Singh finally reached Darjeeling (India) after more than 4 years and six months since the start of his expedition. During this long and troublesome survey expedition, Kishan Singh travelled about 2800 miles of distance on foot, and explored such vast and unknown regions of the Central Asia, which were never mapped by any geographer!

This survey included the region, which is the origin of the three important rivers of Asia – Mekong, Salween, and Irrawaddy. In this expedition, Kishan Singh travelled from Darjeeling (India) to Lhasa – Mongolia – Gobi Desert, and further towards west, to the frontiers of the Tuhnwang Kingdom of China, and on his way back explored the eastern Tibet border region. At one point, the caravan leader wanted the caravan to go by horse to cross a bandit-ridden area faster. Krishna, unable to count his steps during this period, measured the distance (230 miles) by counting his horse's steps instead. From the scientific point of view, his fourth survey expedition was the greatest and most famous of his entire career!

Retirement and Death :
After his famous fourth expedition, Kishan Singh served the Survey of India as a trainer, and finally got retired from the service in 1885. For his distinguished service and extraordinary achievements, the British Indian government granted him a Jagir in Sitapur district, Uttar Pradesh with annual revenue of 1850 Indian rupees. Kishan Singh Rawat, the last survivor of the famous Pundit triad, died in February 1921, and his death marks the close of a romantic chapter of the Survey of India and of the exploration of Asia!

Legacy :
Kishan Singh Rawat was a great explorer, geographer and cartographer of the 19th century, who made his significant contributions to the geography of Asia. During his journeys, he successfully overcame the adverse and inhospitable circumstances, like the tough terrain, uncertain weather, suspicious natives, notorious bandits, and unfriendly tribes. This shows the various aspects of the character of this legend – bravery, intelligence, cleverness, patience, compatibility, confidence, and hard work!

Kishan Singh also got great recognition and awards from many of the scientific societies of Europe like his famous cousin, Pundit Nain Singh Rawat. But, also like Nain Singh, his feats were never properly acknowledged and recognised by any of the post-independence governments of India!

Social Work :
Kishan Singh Rawat also worked for the social and economic development of his native place, Johar valley. In 1913, Kishan Singh Rawat was selected as the guardian of the “Johar Upkarini Mahasabha”, a local co-operative society for the growth and development of the Johar region, and he actively served this society for many years!

Awards and Recognition :
· Kishan Singh was awarded with an inscribed gold chronometer/watch and a cash prize of 500 Indian rupees by the Royal Geographic Society (RGS), London.

· Kishan Singh was awarded with a gold medal by the Paris Geographical Society.

· Kishan Singh was awarded with a gold medal by the Italian Geographic Society, Rome.

· Kishan Singh was also awarded with the title “Rai Bahadur” by the British government of India.

· Kishan Singh was honoured with a grant of village in Sitapur district, Uttar Pradesh and annual revenue of 1850 Indian rupees by the British government of India.

Literature about Kishan Singh Rawat :
There are several books in which information about Pundit Kishan Singh Rawat and his great expeditions have been published.

1. Account of the Pundit's Journey in Great Tibet - Capt. H. Trotter, The Journal of the Royal Geographic Society (1877).

2. A Memoir on The Indian Surveys, 2nd Ed. - Clements R. Markham, W H Allen & Co., London (1878), p.189.

3. A Memoir on The Indian Surveys (1875-90) - Charles E. D. Black, London (1891), p.168.

4. Kishen Singh and the Indian Explorers - Kenneth Mason (The Geographical Journal, Vol. LXII-July to December, 1923).

5. Indian Explorers of the 19th Century - Indra Singh Rawat (1973).

6. Johar Ka Itihaas (History of Johar) - Babu Ram Singh Pangtey (1980).

7. Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa - Peter Hopkirk, Oxford University Press (1982).

8. Madhya Himalaya Ki Bhotia Janjaati (Bhotia Tribe of the Central Himalayas) – Dr. Sher Singh Pangtey (1992).

9. The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia - Derek J. Waller, University Press of Kentucky (2004).


  1. It's really inspiring, for we youth from the Shauka tribes
    that such great men were among us.

  2. Yah...there were many legends in our community whose memories have faded from the mind of the common people and they have just become a character in the history! The aim of this blog is to explore such legends and bring their feats before the younger generations so that they can know such genius were among us! Thanks for your interest in this blog! :)

  3. Michael Ward in his article The Survey of India and the Pundits published in Alpine Journal 1998 (republished in The Himalayan Journal Vol.55 in 1999), refers to him as "Kishen Singh, the greatest of the pundits" and adds, inter alia, the following description about him and his achievements to justify this sobriquet: "Kishen Singh faced a sad homecoming. On his return he found that his only son was dead and that his house had been broken up. He was kept on the books of the Survey at a salary of Rs. 100 a month and retired in 1885 on the income from the village of Itarhi in the Sitapur district with the title of Raj Bahadur. Twenty years later Tom Longstaff met him in the village of Mansiari in Kumaon where the Milam Bhotias spent the winter. Kishen Singh organised an expedition for J C Brown of the Geological Survey of India in 1905-6, but as the Tibetans had put a price of 9500 on his head, he himself never went near the Tibetan frontier again. Judge Usaris Ameer Ali, when Assistant Commissioner of Kumaon, visited Kishen Singh when he was in his seventies and found him very spry. An unassuming man, he kept chests full of books, diaries, maps and medals from the world's major geographical societies, but not the Royal Geo-graphical Society which had only honoured Nain Singh. It is difficult to overpraise Kishen Singh's epic final journey. His nationality and knowledge of Tibetan and Mongolian enabled him to explore regions which were inaccessible to Europeans. He provided the first route survey of eastern and northern Tibet, a description of the Chang Tang and of the Kun Lun range, an up-to-date survey of Lhasa, a description of Tunhuang, and information about the principal rivers of Tibet and of the gorge country of south-east Tibet. He also supplied details of the cultural and political facets of all the places through which he passed. All this was carried out secretly, and often when he was exhausted and in extreme danger. Truly Kishen Singh was the greatest of all the pundits."