Meet Sarat Chandra Das: The spy who came in from the cold of Tibet and wrote a book about it

How did a middle-class Bengali become a British agent in the forbidden kingdom?

On the fringe of Darjeeling town, where the Hill Cart Road winds into a thick urban sprawl, is a neighbourhood known as Lhasa Villa. One needs to ask around to find the origin of this name, a nineteenth-century villa that still stands somewhere here. But only a dogged spirit with a pair of strong legs can find it in the forest of concrete and tin 50 feet below the road, at the end of a steep pebbled path.

It is an old derelict cottage, the remains of what had once been a pretty structure, now indistinguishable from the tenements that have grown around it. One must exercise the imagination to remember that a century ago this was a place of solitude, filled with the call of crickets and murmuring pines, and that a spy once lived here. He was a spy who had fallen in love with the land of his mission and remained its lifelong lover.

But Sarat Chandra Das was more than a spy.

Trained as an engineer, he went to Tibet in the late nineteenth century on a secret mission, became a well-known Buddhist scholar on his return, and even wrote a thousand-page dictionary of the Tibetan language. He also became a Rai Bahadur, a Companion of the Indian Empire, won a medal from the Royal Geographic Society and was supposedly the model for a character in a Rudyard Kipling novel.

Born in 1849 in a middle-class Bengali family in the Chittagong district of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, Sarat Chandra Das studied civil engineering in Calcutta’s Presidency College. A sharp and diligent student, he soon attracted the attention of his sahib teachers and, even before he had obtained the degree, was appointed the headmaster of Bhutia Boarding School in Darjeeling.

It was 1874. The school had been newly set up to teach the rudiments of English and science, particularly the skills of cartographic survey, to boys in the hills. Darjeeling, too, was a new hill station surrounded by verdant mountains and the majestic Kanchenjunga towering in the sky. Coming from the at Gangetic plains, young Sarat Chandra was captivated by such beauty. He explored the hills around town and made a trip to the neighbouring kingdom of Sikkim.

But his destiny lay elsewhere, across snow-covered ranges to the north, in the mysterious land on the roof of the world. After he had read a book of travel into Tibet by two Englishmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century (the book was lent to him by the deputy commissioner of Darjeeling) Sarat Chandra felt “a burning desire for visiting Tibet and for exploring its unknown tracts”. That is what he writes in his brief autobiographical sketch.

Old map of Tibet | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Old map of Tibet | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

However, there was the larger picture. Across Tibet lay the two mighty empires of Russia and China, and the British were uneasy about their imperialist designs, particularly that of Russia. A thorough knowledge of this buffer kingdom – mostly unknown and ten times the size of England – was imperative for them to come to grips with the geopolitical reality of the subcontinent.

But Tibet had always been wary of outsiders, except the Chinese, and the forbidding mountains and hostile tribes inhabiting its frontiers had kept it virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

This had also deepened its mysterious charm. Since the early nineteenth century, the presence of foreign powers like Russia and Britain in Asia had prompted Tibet to tightly shut its doors to outsiders. It was almost impossible for Indians from the plains, let alone white-skinned Westerners, to enter this kingdom of snow.

But trade had been going on between India and Tibet along the high mountain routes since ancient times. It was monopolised by Tibetans and the hill tribes of the border region. The only other people who had access to these routes were the Buddhist monks, a tradition that had continued for centuries.

The British began to exploit this chink. They sent spies into Tibet disguised as Buddhist monks in secret and dangerous missions. These spies were called Pundits. Pawns in the so- called Great Game played by Russia and Britain on the high chessboard of central Asia, these men were drafted from among the hill people. They were given a basic training in land survey and specially made instruments that they could conceal in their baggage to hoodwink the border guards.

With sextants and theodolites in secret chambers of their boxes, compasses fitted on walking staffs, paper and hypsometers tucked in hollowed-out prayer wheels, and rosaries with one hundred beads instead of the sacred hundred and eight, they measured distances by keeping count of their paces and mapped swathes of the Tibetan territory. Some of these Pundits had shown remarkable acumen and grit, a few had perished or been killed, and one of them, Nain Singh Rawat, had even won a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society for exemplary work.

But these men lacked the formal education required to gather the kind of in-depth knowledge of the land, particularly its people and culture, that the British government in India hungered after. As an English-educated young man with a training in civil engineering, Sarat Chandra Das was cut out for the job. And his “burning desire” for Tibet was matched by an eager nod from the top bureaucracy; it was never known which of these occurred first.

But setting up a boarding school for hill boys in Darjeeling and installing a young Bengali engineer as its headmaster, must have been part of a larger design. The new school was on the radar of the government. It was patronised by Sir Alfred Croft, the director of public instruction and Sarat Chandra’s mentor, and was even visited by the Viceroy.

Ugyen Gyatso was an assistant teacher in the school. He was a lama from the Rinchenpong monastery in Sikkim, which was affiliated to Tashilhunpo lamasery in Shigatse, eastern Tibet. It was Ugyen who procured from Tashilhunpo a passport for Sarat Chandra and accompanied him to Tibet. For the secret mission, Sarat Chandra’s salary was raised from one hundred and fifty rupees to three hundred rupees a month. He was married. Before setting off, Sarat Chandra had told his wife that he was going to Shigatse for a few days on some official business. Naturally, she had no idea where Shigatse was or what was the nature of the “business”; neither did she know that a pension of one hundred rupees had been fixed by the government for her if her husband didn’t return from the mission.

Sarat Chandra went to Tibet twice; first in 1879, for four months, and then in 1881 for an extended stay of fourteen months.

This book, fist published in 1902, is based on the extensive notes he had taken during his second journey. Much of its materials – which he had used to prepare two reports for the intelligence and survey departments – were strictly classified until the end of the nineteenth century. Before him, other English travellers had written about their journeys into Tibet, notably George Bogle, an East India Company officer, explorer Thomas Manning and the great botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Sarat Chandra had read them carefully and had more or less followed the route Hooker had taken through Sikkim and Nepal during his foray into the Tibetan territory in 1849.

Old map of Lhasa
Old map of Lhasa

Lama Sengchen Dorjechen was an unusual man. Being a part of the ruling establishment in a land caught in a time warp – a land that did not have material uses of the wheel! – he had an avid interest in Western science and had procured through Sarat Chandra some of its wonders, including smallpox vaccine, a photographic camera, magic lanterns and even a complete lithographic press. While Sarat Chandra studied Buddhist literature in the lamasery’s library, Sengchen took a sabbatical from his ministerial duties to learn arithmetic and English from him. He had even begun to write a handbook on photography in the Tibetan language.

Sarat Chandra was taken by the Tibetans as one among the long line of scholars who had brought new knowledge and wisdom from India, the land of the Buddha. He himself, on the other hand, had seen Tibet as a high and dry repository of priceless ancient texts and belief systems that had been ravaged in India by bigots and tropical climate. The fascination and respect was mutual. And he returned with two yak-loads of rare books and manuscripts, splendidly pulling off a mission fraught with great hardship and danger. He was feted by the British government for this, was sent to China as part of a diplomatic mission and he became quite a name in the Himalayan explorers’ circuit.

Satellite view of Tibet
Satellite view of Tibet

But there was a dark aftermath.

Soon after Sarat Chandra returned to India, his true identity and the purpose of his mission came to light in Tibet. The people who had hosted him and assisted him inadvertently during his stay were charged with sedition. They were arrested, mutilated and thrown into dungeons. Sengchen Dorjechen was drowned alive in the river Tsangpo in a public spectacle of capital punishment. Such brutality was wired into the Tibetan culture, and Sarat had witnessed it during his stay there. In this book there are descriptions of petty criminals begging on the streets of Shigatse—manacled, mutilated and their eyes gouged out. There are also other murky shadows of a closed theocratic society.

But that is only a small part of Journey to Lhasa. Page after page, what comes forth in this book is a spirit of inquiry and wide-eyed fascination for everything that the author had seen and come in contact with – from architectural details to aspects of cuisine, from customs of polyandry to etiquettes of drinking tea, from the rhythms of village life to the politics of Lamaism. And then there is the grandeur of nature, the animal world, the rich and varied aspects of Tibet’s material and spiritual life. It all reads as if a besotted lover is recounting all the details of his paramour’s beauty, spot by spot, but in a lucid and precise prose.

This lucidity and precision in describing a little-known land helped Francis Younghusband lead a military expedition there in 1903. Tibet was prised open like an oyster. Thousands of Tibetans defending their land with crude weapons were killed, the temples and lamaseries were sacked. And yes, a few of the still-surviving prisoners who had befriended Sarat Chandra were freed after thirty years of incarceration.

This also ended the Great Game and drew a curtain on a fascinating chapter of espionage that had continued for most of the nineteenth century. Overnight, men like Sarat Chandra became redundant, forgotten, a relic from the past. We find him making an appearance in the caricature of an English-educated Bengali spy in the figure of Hurree Chunder Mukherjee in Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel Kim.

In the autumn of his life Sarat Chandra Das was a bitter man, recounting in his autobiography the raw deal he had been given by the British government and quoting stoical lines from Hafiz’s poetry.

He even sued the government on pension-related matters and published his autobiographical sketch in Modern Review, a mouthpiece of Indian nationalists.

But Sarat Chandra also embraced Buddhism with zeal, wrote copiously on spiritualism and founded the Buddhist Texts Society. A year before his death, he visited Japan accompanied with Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese monk and a Tibetologist like him. Sarat Chandra’s home in Darjeeling, named Lhasa Villa, was a most sought-after address for the scholars of the world who had anything to do with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

As I write these lines, Lhasa Villa, or what has remained of it, still stands. But nobody remembers Sarat Chandra Das anymore, nobody knows what happened to those books, thangkas and manuscripts that he had brought from Tibet. Standing before the rickety cottage, it is now difficult to imagine that this remarkable man had spent the creative years of his life here. He had named it after the city of his dreams and had written here his books and a dictionary of the Tibetan language, in what was almost a Borgesian quest, cataloguing bit by bit the semantic dimension of a world that he had been able to trespass.

Excerpted from the Introduction, by Parimal Bhattacharya, to Journey to Lhasa: The Diary of a Spy, Sarat Chandra Das, Speaking Tiger Books.

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