The 2019 Kumbh Mela – A Travelogue

Sunset on Yamuna at Kumbha Mela

When I told people I was going for Kumbh Mela, the most common questions besides, “Why”, were, “Isn’t it so dirty?”, “Aren’t you afraid of stampedes?”, “What happens at Kumbh Mela?”, “Why is it called Kumbh?”. What made all these questions interesting was that, they were not asked by secular people, but by Hindus.

But the best question I was asked was, “What is the Kumbh Mela?”

On an impulse, I attended the 2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj and found answers to the above questions. This was not my first trip to Uttar Pradesh, but my first Kumbh Mela. Since I had been to UP before, I was not surprised by the questions of cleanliness. But, the Uttar Pradesh of 2019 is not the same as Uttar Pradesh of the 1990s. What shocked me was the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the planet.

We will get to the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela. Before that, it is important to answer the question: What is the Kumbh Mela?

The Origins

The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering of people in the world. No other religion or country has anything of this magnitude. Do a search and you can read the statistics yourself. It is larger than the population of many countries. Once in twelve years, the Kumbh Mela is held at four places — Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik-Trayambakeshwar, and Ujjain. In the middle of the twelve year period, the Ardh Kumbh Mela occurs at Haridwar and Prayagraj. This year, the Ardh Kumbh Mela ran from Makar Sankranti to Maha Shivarathri day.

There is a reason why the Kumbh Mela occurs every twelve years. The Mela occurs when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter are in certain zodiac signs. The moon takes one month to go through all the signs, the sun takes a year and Jupiter, 12 years. The Kumbha Mela occurs when Jupiter enters the same sign again and that is once is twelve years.

Nityananda Misra’s book on Kumbha

A good book to read about Kumbh Mela is Nityananda Misra’s Kumbha. In the book, he cites the many origin stories. According to one, the origin of Kumbh Mela is connected to the Samudra Manthan. When the Kumbh containing amrit came out, the drops of nectar fell into the locations where the Mela is held currently. Two other traditional accounts are also popular about the origin of the Kumbha Mela. As per the first, Garuda was assigned the task of carrying the amrita-kumbha to the abode of Vishnu. While flying to Vishnu’s abode, Garuda stopped at four places—Haridwar, Prayaga, Ujjain, and Nashik—putting down the kumbha on the earth for some time. As a result, these places became sacred and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started. As per the second account, once Kadru enslaved Vinata, the mother of Garuda. To release Vinata from bondage, Garuda brought the amrita-kumbha from the Nagaloka. As he was flying to the ashram of his father Kashyapa, Indra attacked Garuda four times. The amrita from the kumbha spilled at the four places and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started.

Another version I heard goes like this: our rishis observed that the confluence of rivers at certain latitudes during certain times had forces which affected people. This secret, known only to a few, soon became part of Hindu social consciousness. Now crores of people comes to partake in that royal bath and attain mukti. No one is inviting them to come. None of the people coming there are asking for any scientific proof for any of these origins. It does not matter what any text book says or if anyone rewrites them.

The Experience

Now with crores of people visiting the Kumbh Mela, the question on cleanliness was legit. What I saw though, surprised me.

Kumbh Mela 2019 The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop
The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop

This is what I saw when I got off at the Triveni Sangam, bus stop, along the banks of Yamuna at Prayagraj. What you see is the vast area of the Kumbh with the Yamuna, deep far inside. As you walk towards the Yamuna, there are numerous temporary shelters all around.

Kumbh Mela Changing rooms for women all around
Changing rooms for women all around

These are changing rooms for women after they take bath in the holy rivers. This is the view of the banks of Yamuna at the Sangam. For the amount of the people who were at that place, it is clean.

Kumbh Mela The shores of Yamuna.
The shores of Yamuna.

What about toilets and human waste for an event that handles so much people. Dhananjay Joshi, who attended the 2019 Kumbh Mela writes

I saw the bogey of hygiene busted. Uniquely designed penta-urinals for men dotted every walkway. At a discreet distance were arrangements for women. I saw safai-karmacharis equipped with pressurised water hoses involved with their work. Thoughtfully named as ‘swachchagrahi’, they had a place they could call their own. For all 2,000 of them, massive, clean, brightly lit and well-insulated dormitories ensured that these health workers took responsibility for their tasks with missionary zeal. Their decentralised teams toiled under a distributed leadership model working round the clock in geographically dispersed teams to keep the 2,00,000 toilets squeaky clean.

And no, human waste does not flow into the holy waters. The Kumbh I had read about scared me into being wary of wading the filthy e-coli infested water. The Kumbh I saw was equipped with massive sump pits that collected human waste. Automated trucks sucked this sludge into tankers that would ferry it to the nearest sewage treatment plant. At the Kumbh, I missed seeing the rodents and the roaches entirely.

The main attendees of Kumbh Mela are the Sadhus. These sadhus, who live in various places around the country, come to the Kumbh to meet each other, share their experiences, and meet common people. Nag Sadhus, who are completely naked, even in the coldest of winters are an important part of the Kumbh Mela. Besides the sadhus, there are lakhs of kalpavasis — people who spend time at the Kumbh living an austere life — and much more amounts of ordinary people like me who visit for having the religious experience.

The main event of the Kumbh is taking a bath in the river. This year, the royal baths were on Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya and Vasant Panchami. Among all these days, the bath on Mauni Amavasya is considered the most sacred. The baths in these sacred rivers connects a Hindu with the divine. Many millennia back, my ancestors would taken this holy bath, at the same location. By taking that bath, the connection between nature, humans, their ancestors, and the divine becomes real. The effect that it has on you cannot be described.

Kumbh Mela The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam
The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam

To get to the Triveni Sangam, you have to take a boat from the shores of Yamuna. There are many boatmen offering that trip for a price. This short boat ride, where you are escorted by gulls, take you to a set of parked boats around the Sangam area. This is where Yamuna meets Ganga and the invisible Saraswati. This is the point where you take a bath,

Kumbh Mela - Triveni Sangam
Triveni Sangam

Behind the Scenes

Kumbh Mela - the tent city
Tents at the Kumbh Nagari

The scale of Kumbh Mela is of Indian magnitude. Also, the problem of building facilities to handle vast amounts of people is not simple. There are other problems too. Most of the land where the Kumbh city is built is under water due to the monsoons. Once the monsoon drops off, there are two months to arrange the facilities for the crores of visitors. With our usual chalta-hai attitude, you expect a sloppy job. It is no ordinary task; but what amazed me was the perfection with which it was done. A 32 sq km area was organized as a city with 20 sectors with all the facilities you expect from a city.— police, hospitals, fire stations, clean water supply. Once the Kumbh Mela is done, the city is dismantled.

Crowd control is an important part of the event. To avoid stampedes and other disasters, the entire Kumbh Nagari and the bridges are monitored using CCTVs and drones. Misra writes, “If they concluded it was indeed overcrowded, they instantly relayed this information to the police personnel on the ground who would then divert the crowd to other bridges to balance the load. Sharma told Diego Buñuel of the National Geographic that it was crucial to keep the crowds moving, even if they were being sent the wrong way, as stopping the crowds would amount to hara-kiri.”

Kumbh Mela Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari
Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari

One of the common tropes about Kumbh Mela was about people getting separated, never to be found again. Or they discover each other after one child becomes a dacoit and the other a police officer. The arrangements that are done to prevent this at the Kumbh Mela is just phenomenal. As Misra writes, “At the 2013 Prayaga Kumbha, there were 17 lost and found centers (Bhule Bhatke Kendras) where people separated from their families could report themselves. The kendra would then make repeated announcements on loudspeakers and also put up the picture of the lost person on display screens and a website. On average, around 1,000 children were lost every day at the Mela and most of them were reunited with their families”. Also, “besides using CCTV cameras and public announcement systems, the administration also engaged as many as 160 volunteers who between them could speak sixteen languages and communicate with each other using a mobile application. It helped Bharat Bharati share photos of missing persons with the volunteers.”

Final Thoughts

Kumbha Mela The Divine Kumbh Mela
The Divine Kumbh Mela

What is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors? The Kumbh Mela is an experience that affects you both on the inside and outside. While walking in the Mela grounds, I knew I was part of a tradition that has continued for millennia. People of all age groups and gender belonging to various economic strata have walked these sacred grounds connected with a single purpose. The people on our boat were from Rajasthan. All of us reached the sangam and took the dip together. We spoke different languages, dressed differently, but there was a unity in our intent.

While I was leaving back to Kerala, the meta thought I had was about how Hindus preserve their memories. First, there is the story of the samudra manthan and how the nectar fell in various spots. The second one is about the triveni sangam. This is the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati. An invisible Saraswati, you say. The river, during it’s peak, did not even flow through that region. It flowed via Rajasthan, till natural events caused it to disappear. In 2019, we are still preserving these memories.

Preserving Long Term Memories

Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)
Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)

Here are few incidents that baffle the mind.
In Odyssey, Odysseus reaches home a decade after the Trojan war to find his wife Penelope being harassed by unruly suitors. Disguised as a beggar, he figures out the suitors’ intention and decides to act. In Book 20, the seer Theoclymenus warned the suitors, “The sun from out the heavens is lost, And clouds of darkness rushing spread.” Plutarch and Heraclitus, thought this line was a reference to a solar eclipse.
Using other astronomical data points in the Odyssey, scholars computed the date of the eclipse, which was total over the Ionian islands, to be April 16, 1178, B.C.E. Another recent attempt, using off-the-shelf planetarium software, came to the same conclusion. The question became this: if the poets who composed Odyssey lived five centuries after the eclipse, how was the memory preserved?
The second mystery comes from Australia. 21 disparate aboriginal groups talk about a time when the Australian coastline was inundated with rising sea levels. For example, the Narrangga tribe remembers a time when they could catch kangaroo and opossum when the area they were living was dry land. Mapping the references in the story to the geography, it was clear that the water level before the flooding was way below the present values. The conclusion by scientists: these memories were of a flooding that happened 7000 years back.
There are many incidents from India, but the one from Rig Veda is apt for the third one. In forty-five hymns, the rishis praised Sarasvati; for them, she was ‘great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers’, ‘limitless, unbroken, swift-moving’ and ‘surpasses in majesty and might all other waters.’ The location of the river is clearly specified in the Nadistuti sukta. The Sarasvati no longer flows as a majestic river, but the memories of it are alive, 4000 years after it dried up.
Going back to the first incident, scholars investigating the Odyssey mystery – how the memory of a distant event was transmitted over centuries — were puzzled. This violated a commonly held theory that oral transmissions lose fidelity after 500 – 800 years. In the Odyssey case, evidence pointed otherwise. Then there was another complication. Greeks were not known to be astronomically inclined during that time period. Looking for alternative explanations, scholars came up with a hypothesis. It is possible that the Babylonians, who were astronomical enthusiasts observed another eclipse in 1124 B.C.E, computed the trajectory of the eclipse that happened in 1178 B.C.E. and transmitted that information back to the Greeks.
The Technique
Convoluted explanations are not always the most elegant ones. The tyranny of simpler explanations suggests that there were techniques obvious to residents of traditional societies with deep civilizational ethos which can explain the preservation of memories over long periods of time.
Memories are preserved when societies have the ability to retell stories across generations and remain unaffected by military, religious and cultural assaults. Indigenous traditions have foundational ways — through stories, art, ritual — to preserve knowledge. Textual studies won’t reveal the secrets; these have to be experienced.

Native Australians had intimate knowledge of the lands they inhabited and the sea that surrounded them. Their authority figures passed that knowledge to the next generation through songs, stories and by recording them on totems. The stories were memorable like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesa. One tribe remembers a giant kangaroo and how its actions caused the flood; another tribe remembers a man who chased his wives and caused the sea to drown them; a third remembers a man who called on the sea to drown a woman stealing wattle gum. At any point, three generations were aware of these unforgettable tales. Similarly, it is possible that the Greeks too preserved it using the same mechanism.
While stories are imprecise and can change based on the story teller, the Vedic tradition has ensured large-scale precise oral memorization of the text over thousands of years. Despite invasions, colonization and desecration, these traditions are alive with thousands of students still learning Sanskrit literature, grammar, logic, philosophy and other subjects. In Sanskrit schools students spends time with a guru up to ten hours a day for a minimum of seven years, memorizing the Vedas. The guru ensures that the student strictly follows the conventions of body movement and arm gestures and articulation. Finally, the student’s mastery of the complex topic is rigorously tested.
This memorization affects brain plasticity as well. A recent paper published a study on the brains of Vedic pandits who have done extensive scriptural studies. Researchers found that the Pandit brains had massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increase in language, memory and visual systems as well as regions associated with long term and short term memories. The gestures — arm, wrist and hand movements — too had significance in learning. Due to these techniques, the memories of the homeland of the rishis who composed the Rig Veda, which has been along the banks of Sarasvati has been preserved unchanged despite the efforts of Eminent Historians to prove otherwise.
The Perils
These techniques have their weakness. Look back 500 – 800 years and it is obvious why memories got erased in that span. Enlightened Europeans, in the name of the God, Gold, King, and Queen, successfully conducted genocide against native populations around the world. Before that monotheism spread violently, pulverizing societies, while advocating love and peace. Many societies were conquered and cleansed. The conquerors imposed their story over the conquered. In some cases, the conquerors adopted the story of the vanquished and modified them to suit their framework.
A simple strategy the colonialists and invaders followed was to rename places, persons or objects to unlink them from the past. During World War I, the British Army with Indian soldiers was advancing towards Salman Pak, outside Baghdad. This place was the resting place of one of Muhammad’s companions. The Ottomans used that effectively to incite enemy soldiers. They printed pamphlets calling on Indian Muslims to leave the British Army and join fellow Muslims in the Ottoman Army. Fearing the impact Salman Pak could have on the soldiers, the British started referring to the place by its Sassanid name, Ctesiphon. In a similar vein, but not for similar reasons, Sargamatha became Mt. Everest, Shivanolipatha Malai became Adam’s Peak and Ram Setu became Adam’s bridge. Chennai became Madras, Thiruvananthapuram got anglicised, along with many other places.
The British dealt with this cleverly in India. They established centralized institutions and used that to launch attacks on Indic ethos. Their pen-wielding mercenaries replaced unique memories with “official history”. 1947 came; the English left and the Indians who took over, who had no idea about the Indic ethos, continued the same tradition. You cannot talk about Saraswati without getting a sign off from an Eminent Historian. They would decide if there was a Ram Temple. The society became bystanders while people whose salaries depended on them not understanding India became authority figures.
It was not any better in other countries. While the native Australians remember an ancient flood and ancient Greeks, an eclipse, most of their memories have been erased. They live on the ruins of forgotten and superseded civilizations. The Australian genocide by the settlers have wiped most of the natives; the Greeks no longer follow the religion and culture of their ancestors.

Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati
Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati

Despite all the trauma that the decentralized memories survive. Each society chose the memories it wanted to preserve, cross-pollinated it with other concepts and came up with paradigms for preserving it. They never outsourced the validation and preservation of the memories to central institutions regardless of their merit. Despite destroying temples and converting people, the memories survived.
Compared to any other country, India is the only place where there is an unbroken continuity between the land, the people and their stories that have been narrated across generations. Despite the propaganda by the colonials and Eminent Historians, Indian society and families practice traditional pursuits and maintain a culture that represents the unbroken narrative of India. Over time Indian society continued to reject what was taught in classrooms because it had little correlation with the culture that they lived in. Thus when Irfan Habib says that Saraswati is an imaginary river, people instinctively feel that he is pulling a quick one. This skepticism prevented the centralized monolithic machinery from gaining wide acceptance in Indian society, thus shielding India’s ethos of decentralized history. But for our memories to be preserved and transmitted, we should not remain bystanders and let centralized history writers decide what needs to be preserved.

In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.
These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.
These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?
The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.
Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.
The triad of freedoms
The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.
The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.
On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.
Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.
By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.
Fractional Freedom
Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).
Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.
In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.
In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.
Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.
The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.
Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.
The fight continues
Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.
Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.
Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.
This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.
India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.
Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.
(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)

In Pragati: An Outdated Syllabus

(Photo: Justin Gaurav Murgai)

(a shorter and sweeter version of this article appeared in the Nov 2010 issue of Pragati)
Recently M. Night Shyamalan kicked off a race row with his latest movie The Last Airbender (2010). In the TV series, the characters, Aang, Katara, Sokka are Asian, but in the movie, they were portrayed by white actors; the casting call specifically asked for Caucasian actors. Shyamalan was accused of “whitewashing” and “racebending.” Another movie which attracted similar attention was Walt Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) where actor Jake Gyllenhaal played an Iranian Prince. But in this case, most Iranians were pleased that a fair skinned actor played the role because it accurately represented how “Aryan” Iranians looked before Islam was forcibly imposed.
In Iran, the external Aryan ancestry is a non-issue, but in India it is a matter of angry controversy. The fact that it is a source of controversy in India has been bothering scholars in Western universities. In his course, History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Prof. Richard W. Bulliet, an Iranian specialist at Columbia University ridicules the people who oppose Aryan invasion theory and tells students that Indians believe that proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory are members of CIA who want to portray India as a wimpish state; he specifically mentions members of BJP as belonging to this group.
In the first lecture he mentions the similarities between Old Iranian and Vedic and their relation to the Indo-European languages. For him, this similarity indicates invasion, and this invasion theory is supported not just by philologists, but also by archaeologists and historians. This Grand Canyon wide gap between scholarly consensus and what is being taught in American universities is not surprising. Last Fall, in a course titled  History of India, at University of California, Los Angeles, Prof. Vinay Lal lectured about rejected 19th century racist concepts like “subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas” and how forts and citadels were attacked by the invading Aryans.
These professors are wrong — about the Aryan Invasion Theory, about race, about the people who dispute it and the reason they dispute it. Though nationalism and sometimes Hindu nationalism is blamed, the reason why Indians are suspicious of colonial theories will become obvious as we look at an example where “scientific” European minds applied pseudoscience and divided the Indian population.
First, let us look at the Aryan Invasion Theory. In his book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (2004), Prof. Edwin Bryant who looks at both sides of the Aryan debate concludes that, “there is general consensus among South Asian archaeologists that, as far as archaeological record is concerned, clear, unambiguous evidence of invading or immigrating Aryans themselves is nowhere to be found either in central Asia or in the Indian subcontinent.” Romila Thapar writes in Early India: From the origins to the AD 1300 (1995), that, “The theory of an Aryan invasion no longer has credence.”
Second, when it is mentioned that only members of the BJP are against the Invasion Theory, it is incorrect. Edwin Bryant is not an Indian; Romila Thapar is an antagonist of Hindu Nationalists. Truth is the casualty when he says that opponents of Aryan Invasion Theory have been ignoring archaeological evidence for Prof. Bryant’s survey shows that it is the lack of archaeological evidence, among other things, which prompted many historians to re-think. Instead of the invasion theory, many scholars now believe in a migration theory.
Finally, Prof. Bulliet says that opponents of the invasion might take refuge in the writings of his colleague Edward Said, the author of the seminal book Orientalism. On this point, he is absolutely right. It was the colonial historian who gave us the concept of race. 19th century Europe was the center of racial studies; scientists measured the volume of the skull for various races and found that the white race was the largest and hence of superior intellect.
From 1891, the British official, Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro were classified as belonging to various races, mostly non-Aryan.  Coming to the Vedic texts, a racial interpretation was assigned to various passages. The dark skinned and nose-less Dasyu was considered of a different race than the fair and high-nosed Aryan. This racial identification was objected to by Indian scholars like Srinivas Iyengar as early as 1914, but such dissenting voices were not the ones writing history.
Following World War II, Western anthropologists realized that race cannot be scientifically defined, based on cranial size or nasal index. According to Prof. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, who has studied the Harappan skeletal remains extensively, “Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.” According to Prof. Gregory Possehl, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pennyslvania, “Race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept in human biology.” Thus there is nothing to distinguish the invaders from the natives; in short, there is no Aryan or Dravidian race.
A century after Indian scholars raised objections, Western scholars are realizing that the racial interpretation was based on over reading soft evidence; it was a consequence of the 19th century racial insanity that ruled Europe. In 1999, Hans Hock reexamined the supposedly racial Vedic material and found them either to be mistranslated or open to alternative non-racial interpretations. Among multiple interpretations, the racial one was preferred because it favoured colonialism. Still the Professor at UCLA still talks about the snub-nosed Dasyus, even though Indian scholars have interpreted that the Vedic word means one devoid of speech, not nose.
Over the years, historians have accepted that various language groups are just that — language labels — and does not map to racial identity. In the 11th Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture given in Colombo on Aug 1, 2010, Prof Romila Thapar made this very clear. According to her the notion of separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities has no basis in history. According to Prof. Thomas Trautmann, “That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a matter of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?” But even in the last general elections, the Dravidar Kazhagam party leader exhorted his followers to reject “Aryan” candidates.
It is such non-benign theories and their consequences that has caused Indian scholars to view Western theories with suspicion. Prof.  Edwin Bryant writes, “I argue that although there are doubtlessly nationalistic and in some quarters, communal agendas lurking behind some of this scholarship, a principal feature is anti-colonial/imperial.” Thus the issue is not what members of BJP believe or do not believe; the issue is what is the latest scholarly consensus and why is it not being taught to students. Maybe the Prince of Persia can investigate if the CIA is involved.


  1. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question
  2. Michel Danino, Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Purtattva, Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society No. 36 (2005- 06): 146-154.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  4. History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Columbia University (Podcast, Lecture 1)

Takshashila: 2 Kings & a King Maker

(The glorious battle of Alexander, King of Macedon, and Porus, King of India. Russian lubok via Wikipedia)
In early 327 BCE, half of Alexander’s army marched through the Khyber Pass and reached the shores of Indus. After subduing the hill tribes, Alexander and rest of the army joined them in 326 BCE at Ohind at the border of Takshashila — a large and prosperous city between Indus and Jhelum. Alexander’s activities, mostly invasion, produced different reactions from three people — two kings (Ambhi & Porus) and a king maker (Chanakya).
After a 30 day rest, Alexander crossed the Indus into “the country of Indians” and on the other side he was met by an army in battle formation. This was highly unexpected. The king of Takshashila, Ambhi or Oomphis, had sent word that he would not oppose Alexander and would fight on his side. When it looked as if Ambhi had reneged on his promise, Alexander ordered his army to get ready.
Ambhi rode up alone towards the Greeks and he was met by Alexander who too rode up alone. Realizing that what came from Alexander’s mouth was all Greek, interpreters were summoned. Ambhi explained that he had come to put both his army and the kingdom at Alexander’s disposal. He also gifted elephants, large sheep and 3000 bulls to Alexander prompting the Greek to ask Ambhi if he as into husbandry. A satrap — Philip of Machatas — was appointed to govern.
Enjoying Ambhi’s hospitality, Alexander sent word to the neighboring kings to meet him and pay tribute. While few did, one king stayed away: Porus, who was not going to follow Ambhi’s foot steps. When Alexander’s envoy met Porus and asked him to meet the emperor and pay tribute, Porus replied that he would definitely come to meet the emperor, but with an army. Thus in the spring of 326 BCE the two armies met on the banks of Jhelum.
We only have the Greek account of the battle and hence the exaggeration has to be discounted. 20,000 infantry and 3000 cavalry of Porus was killed. All his chariots were destroyed, his generals were killed, so were two of his sons. According to the Greek historians — Diodorus, Arrian, Plutarch — the Greek losses were not so high. But still Porus was praised: “his courage matched his body vigor”, “he exhibited great talent in battle performing deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier.” This battle, Battle of the Hydaspes, was immortalized by Western painters like André Castaigne ,Charles Le Brun and artists in Russia.
Finally the two met. In the meeting Alexander asked Porus how he wished to be treated and Porus replied, “As befits a king”. This reply under adverse conditions impressed Alexander and he returned Porus back to the throne and turned him into an ally.
So was Ambhi a traitor for aligning with a foreigner? In his book India: A History John Keay mentions that though Porus surrendered only after giving Alexander a good fight, calling Ambhi  who surrendered without a fight a traitor is  harsh judgement. An argument is that there was no concept of India as a nation and if a king like Ambhi took help from Alexander to be safe against attacks by Porus, can he be blamed?
That argument would have held, if not for the efforts of Chanakya, who saw the cultural unity among the various kingdoms. As a teacher in Takshashila, he saw students — brahmin youth, princes, sons of rich merchants — come from far away places along the uttarapatha to learn the Vedas, arts (archery, hunting, elephant lore, political economy) law, medicine, and military science. This tradition went back to Buddha’s time. Jotipala, the son of a Brahmin priest in the court of the King of Benares returned after graduating in archery and military science and was appointed the commander-in-chief. Jivika, Bimbisara’s physician who cured Buddha, learned medicine in Takshashila. Prasenajit, the king of Kosala, who too was associated with Buddha was educated in Takshashila.
Chanakya wanted to convert this cultural unity into political unity against the invader. For him, kingdoms of Ambhi and Porus, had to unite against the foreigner. He condemned foreign rule as exploitation; for the foreigner the conquered country was not his own, but a place to tax and extract wealth. He also realized that the reason Alexander was able to advance was because there was no united front: there was no leadership or pooling of resources. Alexander was able to exploit this division and was stopped only by a mutiny in his camp.
One of the first activities of Chanakya and his protegé Chandragupta was to organize resistance against the Greeks satrapies. We know this because of the writings of Justin, who was describing the return of Seleucus Nicator, an officer of Alexander  to India to expand the Greek kingdom.

Justin identified the leader of the rebellion as  Sandrocottus or Chandragupta Maurya.
There were six satrapies: three on the West of Indus and three on the East. Following Alexander’s departure, the satrapies he established started collapsing. At the same time, under the leadership of Chandragupta, a war was declared. The satraps Philip and Nicanor were assassinated and by 323 BCE, India was free of Greeks.

  1. Abraham Eraly, Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation, 2005.
  2. A. Dani, Historic City of Taxila (Bernan Press(PA), 1986).
  3. Radhakumud Mookerji, Chandragupta Maurya and his times, 3rd ed. (Motilal Banarsidass, 1960).
  4. John Keay, India: A History (Grove Press, 2001). 

The Forgotten American Ice Trade

In the winter of 1846 – 47, Henry David Thoreau looked out of his small self-built house in Walden and saw a hundred Irishmen with their American bosses cutting ice slabs from the pond. On a good day, he noted, a thousand tonnes were carted away. These ice slabs went not just to New Orleans and Charleston, but also to Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Thoreau was amused: here he was sitting in America reading the Bhagavad Gita and the water from his well was being taken to the land of the Ganges.
A Business Opportunity
In 1831, a Boston businessman named Frederic Tudor, who wanted to make money without physical effort, came up with an idea. He would speculate on coffee prices; coffee consumption in United States was increasing and prices were going up at the rate of 20 to 30 percent. What could go wrong?
Within three years, this speculation would put him deep in debt of more than $210,000. He did not know that in 1833 when he met Samuel Austin, a Boston merchant. Austin’s ships regularly went from Boston to Calcutta, but on the trip to Calcutta it did not carry cargo, but empty ballast. Austin wanted to know if Tudor wanted to ship American Ice at a low freight rate.
If there was one person in United States who had the expertise to export ice to the opposite side of the globe, it was Tudor. He had  invented the ice trade in 1806 by exporting ice, cut from frozen lakes in Massachusetts, to the French colony of Martinique. At that time he had faced ridicule — from his father, relatives, and other Boston merchants — but ignoring them he proceeded. No merchant was willing to carry his cargo, but he overcame that by buying a brig for $4000. Inventing various techniques required for the safe transportation of ice, he delivered ice not just to Martinique, but also to Havana, New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah.
Continue reading “The Forgotten American Ice Trade”

Gama's Eastern Christians

An iconic scene during the Portuguese arrival in Malabar in 1498 is when the ex-convict Joao Nunes stepped into land and met two Moors from Tunis. The Moors greeted the ex-convict, “The Devil take you! What bought you here.” He replied, “We came to seek Christians and spices”.

While the Portuguese search for a direct trade route to India bypassing the Muslims is well known, less mentioned is this search for Christians. They searched for the Eastern Christians in Africa and India and interestingly found them everywhere they looked. They also encountered Muslims; encounters which did not go well. The joyous news of the discovery of Eastern Christians was duly reported to Dom Manuel.

Vasco da Gama’s king, Dom Manuel, over a period had developed a messianic streak, due to the death of a large number of people who had preceded him. He believed that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to confront the powerful. He wanted to take over the Holy Land and destroy Mecca to claim the title — the Emperor of the East. But he could not do it alone: to attack the Egyptian Mamluks, for instance, he needed help and for this the lost Christian kingdoms of Asia could become useful.

To understand this Portuguese obsession with finding Eastern Christians, we need to go along with Vasco da Gama on his first Voyage to Malabar and experience his encounters with people of other faiths.

In Search of Christians

(Prester John)

After navigating the Cape, the fleet reached Mozambique Island in March 1498 where men belonging to the “sect of Mohammed” told them that Eastern Christians lived on a nearby island. The other half of the island where the Christians lived was populated by Moors and there were constant battles among them. Then they were told that Prester John — the mythical Christian king — lived nearby in the interior and he could be reached by a camel trip. Though they were happy to hear about Prester John, they did not attempt to visit him.

During a conversation, the Sultan of Mozambique asked Nicolau Coelho, one of the captains in Gama’s fleet, about Turkey and their religious books. Then Coelho realized that the Sultan had assumed them to be Turks and not Christians. The Portuguese wanted to conceal their identity since they did not know how the reaction would be. Hence for celebrating mass, they would go off to an island.
Continue reading “Gama's Eastern Christians”

The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 3/3

Kashgar by Robert Shaw
(Another sketch by Robert Shaw in 1868)
(Read Part 1, Part 2)
The Kashgar Drama
The first man to reach Kashgar was Robert Shaw. Stocked with gifts and firearms, he went to meet Yakub Beg. Beg smiled and received him and exchanged pleasantries in Persian. Shaw explained that he was not part of British Government and just wanted to sell Indian tea in the empire. Beg was impressed with the gifts and dismissed Shaw saying they would talk details three days later.
That night Shaw probably dreamt of his tea business taking off. What could go wrong? The king had no relations with the Chinese or the Russians. The only hope  for Beg was to ally with the British and what better way to grow that relation than to allow a British trader to operate in Kashgar. But soon Shaw’s movements were restricted and he was confined to his quarters.He could have visitors and from them he knew what was going on. But Shaw realized that the third day meeting with Beg was not going to happen.
When Mirza arrived a month after Shaw, he was taken to see the lieutenant or jemadar of Yakub Beg, mainly to see what gifts he had bought. Mirza was pleasantly surprised that jemadar was none other than Nubbi Buksh,  the Sikh gunner. Originally from Sialkot, Buksh left Punjab — and according to some sources based on Mirza’s suggestion — towards Central Asia. Through Ladakh, he reached Kokand and served the Khan for a decade where he came into contact with the young Yakub Beg. When Yakub Beg took over Kashgar, Nubbi Buksh joined him.
Though Mirza was quite happy to see Nubbi Buksh, Buksh behaved with indifference and hostility. First he refused to recognize Mirza. Later when he did recognize him, he was suspicious of Mirza’s cover story as a trader. Buksh then opened Mirza’s luggage and took whatever he fancied. He also put Mirza in a house and entrusted some Afghans to keep an eye on him.
The next day he was taken to meet Yakub Beg. Beg, who was seated on a carpet with three chiefs received him graciously. After asking him a few questions, Beg asked him to have breakfast with other chiefs.In later meetings  Beg asked him about Hindustan, Badakshan and Afghanistan. Mirza made observations on Beg’s army, noted that the route towards Russia was well fortified, and even gathered information on the nearest Russian fort.
Also by then George Hayward arrived and traded house arrest in Yarkand for a house arrest in Kashgar.For three months, Shaw or Hayward never heard from Beg and court officials never gave an explanation for the silence. Beg’s chiefs asked Mirza if he knew the Englishmen and Mirza replied he did not. But soon MIrza realized that he too was under house arrest.
Desperate, Mirza decided to  establish a contact with the Englishmen. He sent a note to Shaw mentioning he had come from India and wanted a watch. He said his watch was broken and needed one to perform astronomical observations. Shaw, who also was under house arrest knew that Hayward had arrived, but was surprised by the letter he received from Mirza. He did not know who in India sent him. Maybe there was no Mirza and it was Yakub Beg’s idea to trap him. To be safe, Shaw replied that he had no watch to spare. Though he refused to entertain this unknown Mirza, Shaw exchanged notes with Hayward.
Beg on his part was worried about the Russians who were right near his border. The Russians, for whom the Crimea war had not gone well, were worried that if provoked Beg would take British help and escalate the situation.  At the same time Russia did not want to formally recognize Yakub Beg; they did not want to offend the Chinese. Just before Mirza, Shaw and Hayward arrived in Kashgar, Beg had sent his nephew as an emissary to Russia to understand their position.
While Beg was waiting for news from Russia, the three captives spent their time not knowing what would happen to them. They probably would have thought about the German explorer Adolf Schlagintweit who visited Kashgar in 1857 with his brother Hermann and Rudolph. While the brothers returned, Adolph stayed back to explore which turned out to be a bad idea; Wali Khan who had taken over Kashgar caught him and had him executed. Wali Khan himself was later arrested and poisoned by Yakub Beg.
Months passed. When Beg realized that Russians would not recognize him he then decided to throw his dice in the Great Game by siding with the British. On April 5th, he summoned Robert Shaw, called him his brother, praised the Queen, and asked for his help with the British. Shaw for his part again mentioned that he was a private citizen and not with the Government, but such minor details did not matter. Beg wanted to send an envoy to India and Shaw agreed to help him with that. By then it was clear that he would be set free, but he did not know what would happen to Mirza  or Hayward. He heard a rumor that Hayward was to be held hostage; he also got a note from Hayward about this.
Shaw told Beg’s officials that it would not look good, if he sent an envoy to India while he held another Englishman a hostage. Shaw just wanted Hayward to be freed and Beg agreed. Shaw left on April 9th and Hayward on the 13th.  When he came to know that both Englishmen had left Mirza thought that he would perish in this Beg eats Khan world. Mirza appealed to Beg directly skipping Nubbi Buksh and Yakub Beg let him go with appropriate gifts.

On June 7, 1869, Mirza left Kashgar and reached Yarkand where he met three hundred people on their way to Mecca. From Yarkand he went over the Karakorum and reached  Leh in August and from there to the GTS HQ in Dehra Dun.

Mirza’s return was a triumph; another bead in the rosary of his life. Using his wits, he had overcome great difficulties, cheated death a few times, and was able to conceal his identity and accomplish the task he had been sent to do. He surveyed 2179 miles among which 1042 miles – from Kabul to Kashgar — which was not surveyed before. He confirmed the path from Kabul to Yarkand which was verified to be accurate. His work put Kashgar and Yarkand in the right locations in the map for the first time and corrected those made by Jesuits and other travelers.
While Shaw, Hayward, and Nubbi Buksh reached Kashgar from Ladakh, Mirza started his trip from Afghanistan.  This was intentional so that Mirza could collect intelligence on the Afghan army and its battles outside Kabul. Mirza was praised for his professional skill and endurance by the RGS and though the work was done clandestinely, the results were published in the journals of the Royal Geographical Society.
Both Shaw and Hayward,  thought to be dead, were received as heroes. They supplied the British with political and commercial intelligence about Kashgar and Yarkand. Since Shaw and Hayward had traveled back and forth from Kashgar, they thought that the Russians could invade Kashgar and then India through Ladakh dragging machinery through 18,000 feet. But the War Office disagreed with this observation, but agreed that the path was vulnerable.
The End
George Hayward, the inveritable travel bunny made new plans; he wanted to explore the Pamirs. The Government tried to dissuade him, but Hayward was quite stubborn. The experiences of the past — because they were experiences of the past — did not guide him. He left in the summer of 1870 with few servants from Srinagar and reached Yasin in the Hindu Kush where he met the chief Mir Wali whom he knew from an earlier visit. But this time he had an argument with the chief and the furniture in his life got rearranged; he was killed by a single stroke of the sword. His body was found three months later by an Indian Sepoy.
In 1872 Montgomerie sent Mirza on another expedition to Bokhara. After passing Herat, he reached Maimana, but on the road from Maimana to Bokhara he was murdered by his guide.
Yakub Beg died in 1877 and various reasons — poisoning, suicide, stroke — have been mentioned as probable causes. After his death Kashgaria was conquered by the Chinese.
The Viceroy — Lord Mayo — thought the better way to deal with Kashgar was to make it an ally or a buffer state and he sent a diplomatic mission to Kashgar. Robert Shaw was only happy to join but never was able to make a market for tea in Central Asia. He died at the age of 39 in 1879 in Burma where he had been appointed a British resident.
Postscript: Kamla Bhatt has an interview with Jules Stewart, the author of Spying For The Raj: The Pundits And The Mapping of the Himalayas

  1. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and monthly record of geography (Edward Stanford, 1871).
  2. Robert Johnson, Spying for empire (Greenhill Books, 2006).
  3. Derek J. Waller, The Pundits (University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
  4. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002).
  5. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha International, 1992).
  6. Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, The roof of the world (Edmonston and Douglas, 1876).
  7. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005).
  8. All images from Wikipedia

The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 2/3

Path to Yarkand
(Approach to Yarkand. A sketch by Robert Shaw)
(Read Part 1)
In December 1868, Mirza left Badakshan towards Kashgar. The winter travel was not easy on him or his porters or the animals. Some days both the men and animals suffered from shortness of breath which made them slow and insensible. Once they walked for 9 miles and found that fresh snow had erased previous tracks leaving them stranded. That night they had to sleep in the snow.
Many centuries earlier the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang had a similar experience with his retinue and dozen people died in the cold. In his travelogue, the monk wrote about the steep and dangerous roads, the cold and biting wind, as well as the fierce dragons that molest travelers. The precaution, he suggested, was not to wear red garments or carry loud-sounding calabashes.
If the snow storm did not get Mirza, robbers could have. Near Kulm-Tashkurgan, they were attacked by bandits who wounded two members of Mirza’s group and stole some of their goods. He also could have been discovered as a spy. In Fayzabad one of his men ho did not want to travel in the intense cold denounced him as an infidel and spy. Mirza had to shut him up with a bribe.
In Kulm-Tashkurgan a man who looked European joined Mirza. Thinking that he was a European Mirza almost told him the truth, but then the man spoke  perfect Persian and Mirza kept quiet. Once when a Kirgiz man saw him use the compass and was suspicious Mirza escaped by suggesting that he was just trying to point it to Mecca.
Mirza soon reached the point where the Amu Darya split into two branches. One John Wood from the British Navy had come this far in 1838. Since Wood had explored the northern route, Mirza took the uncharted southern route.  Crossing the Pamirs he reached the Tashkurgan fort.
From this point everyone would treat the stranger as a suspect. It started with the Governor of  Tashkurgan fort who wanted to inspect Mirza’s goods to verify his credentials.  Mirza was able to get past that by offering some gifts, but still the Governor would not let him travel alone; he was to travel under the Governor’s escort to the nearby Kashgar.
In January, he resumed his march to Kashgar. He reached there in February and probably was relieved to see shops selling bread, hot tea and sour milk. It was much better than eating frozen meat in inhospitable locales. Even the landscape was refreshing with orchards of fruit trees and mulberry groves.
The city which was built between the two branches of the Kazul river was fortified with watch towers at regular intervals and had  houses made of sun burned bricks and flat roofs. It had quite a few mosques too. The residents resembled a Benneton Ad: among the 16,000 families were Turks, Tajiks, Afghans, Kashmiris and Hindustanis. Though it was banned, the people ate opium, sang and danced. The women were required to wear a black or white burqa and show only their eyes.
Yakub Beg
Yakub BegKashgar then was ruled by Yakub Beg. Beg had started as a servant of the Khan of Khokhan — some accounts call him a dancing boy — and rose to be the Governor of Ak-Musjid. As Governor, he allowed the Russians to settle there without the knowledge of the Khan and probably by taking a bribe. He then fled to Bokara in Uzbekistan and lay low for three years till he gained favor with the new Khan.  The new Khan sent him to help in driving the Chinese out of Kashgar and other oases which he did. By then the Khan had developed his own problems with the Russians. Since there was no one to chaperon Beg, he went rogue and declared independence.

Though he was a man of simple manners, Beg was suspicious of everyone; he had spies around in his country.  Always armed, he was afraid of being murdered. He was generous and divided his spoils among his followers and also  fed a large number of people after daily prayers. He was a strict Muslim; He prayed five time a day also mandated that everyone do so. He also kept away from wine, women and opium.

The region was divided among his friends and relatives and no accounts were kept. So long as Beg got his share, he did not bother them. Quite a few people went for the Hajj hoping that they would be less bothered by the officials due to their title. Some went for the Hajj and absconded.
The Englishmen

Around the time Mirza reached Kashgar, unknown to him two other Englishmen had reached there with different motives.
Robert Shaw was a tea planter who lived in the Himalayan foot hills. He had moved to India at the age of 20 after ill health prevented him from joining the Army. From traders who had been to Kashgar, he knew that Indian tea could have a market there since the Chinese were kicked out. British officials were prohibited from traveling beyond the borders, but since Shaw was a private citizen, he decided to look for new markets in Kashgar.

Shaw left Leh on September 20, 1868 with a caravan. But following him was another Englishman, an ex-army officer named George Hayward whose goal was to explore the passes between Ladakh and Kashgar as well as the source of Amu Darya for the Royal Geographical Society. Hayward knew about the travel ban, but did not care and disguised himself as a Pathan and left.

As Shaw was traveling, he got news of Hayward. Shaw had invested much into his business trip and did not want another Englishman jeopardizing it. So he sent a note to Hayward asking him to turn back. But Hayward was not a man to turn back. Finally they met over a camp fire and Hayward decided to give Shaw a two-week start to Kashgar. They did not part as friends and they did not part as enemies.

Shaw reached Yarkand and soon was joined by Hayward; the smart Hayward told the border guards at Yarkand that he was part of Shaw’s caravan. But in Yarkand, they ignored each other, but kept an eye on each other as well. Keeping an eye on both of them were the authorities at Yarkand, who were waiting for instructions from Kashgar. When Shaw finally left Yarkand and reached Kashgar on Jan 4th 1869, he was the first Englishman to do so; he reached before Mirza.

Now that all the actors had arrived, it was time for the Kashgar drama to start
(To be continued)

The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 1/3

Around the 1860s, when Thomas Montgomerie of the Royal Engineers noticed that Indians traveled freely from Ladakh to Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan (modern Xinjiang), he came up with the idea of sending some of them with concealed surveying equipment. He hired and trained Indians in the art of surveying and sent them outside the borders to gather topographical data clandestinely. Publicly called “pundits” or “native explorers”, they were designated as spies in secret files.
During Montgomerie’s time, this region was part of the Great Game — the strategic rivalry  between the British and the Russians for supremacy in Central Asia — and one episode involved an Indian spy, a British tea merchant, an Uzbek dancing boy turned King and a British explorer-adventurer.  The spy, the merchant and the explorer reached Kashgar in Western China through different routes with different motives, but ended up as captives of a paranoid and wily king. Their fate would depend on how Russia would play in the Great Game.
It was a time when everyone suspected everyone else. It was the time of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

The Great Game

In 1800, there was a big geographical  buffer between Russia and India, but over the next sixty years that buffer almost vanished. Following the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), Russia became a dominant player in the region and after the two Sikh wars much of the Afghan territory came under the British. The Russians soon moved against the Khanates at Khiva and Bokhara and by 1853 they were near Kokhand (Uzbekistan).
As the buffer narrowed, the British were worried that the Russians would invade India. This was not a misplaced worry since Napoleon and Czar  Alexander discussed  a plan for land invasion of India when they met in 1807. But then in the immortal words of ABBA, “My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.” Following Napoleon’s death, the Russians never followed on with the plan, but the British feared that even if the Russians did not invade, they could create trouble in the neighborhood.
Hence there was an urgent need to map the routes outside the Indian border, especially those passes through which the Russians could arrive. British knew where Yarkand and Kashgar were, but nothing more than that. These places, which saw heavy traffic during the zenith of the Silk Road, were now like Radiator Springs. The mountains on one side and the Taklamakan desert on the other side now isolated this place that the British had almost no political, commercial or military intelligence; a Great Blank in the Great Game.
To rectify this situation, the British could not send their spies to this region; it would provoke the Russians. Also it was not safe. If an Englishman was harmed, the British could not retaliate. That is when Montgomerie, who had spent a decade surveying Kashmir, came up with his brilliant plan  to send Indian travelers trained as surveyors. Even if the travelers were caught, the British had deniability.
It was hard to get a good spy. Montgomerie had once sent a trained Pathan to Chitral. What Montgomerie did not know was there was blood feud in the family and the Pathan was killed. In 1865 one Pundit  Munphool went to Badakshan (northeastern Afghanistan and southeastern Tajikistan)  and returned alive to submit a report. But he was not a  trained surveyor and without precise information, maps could not be made.