The yellow moth fluttered in the musty air; the cat on the table shut its eyes; a Tibetan mask gazed with fierce eyes from a stool in a corner of the room. I strayed inside the shop, browsing the faded lettering on the spines of old leather-bound books, into the womb of a delicate, stilled time. Spectator 1882-92, The Bible, Collected Poems of Oliver Goldsmith, From the Caves and Jungles of Hindoostan, The Art of Nicholas Roerich...A pot-pourri of subjects, bound by a single thread of time; the books, the furniture, the prints, the shopkeeper, and even the cat appeared to be older than independent India. Indian Police... Journal... Magic & Mystery in Tibet ... The Nabobs... Kalachakra Tantra... Curry & Rice... Vignettes... The Way to Shambhala...Csoma de Koros... My eyes flitted past, until they came to rest on a word: Kinthup.

Kinthup! A bell tinkled somewhere inside my head, a door was pushed open a little.

But this was not exactly a book. It was a typed document – in royal size, bound in blue felt, and a seal of the Survey of India, with a map of the country in a circle and the imperial crown on top, embossed on the cover. On the title page was printed:

Report of Pandit Kinthup’s exploration of Yarlung Tsangpo 
As narrated before the Hon’ble Members of the Tibet frontier commission, 25-28 March 1914
With a note on the Vindication of Kinthup by captain GFT Oakes, RE
Office of the Foreign Secretary, Government of India Summer hill, Simla

As I picked up the weighty volume and held it, I felt a quickening in my veins.


When Kinthup was being trained for the Tsangpo mission, a Chinese lama was staying in Darjeeling. He had a passport to Tibet. Moreover, he could read and write; Kinthup was illiterate. So it was decided that Kinthup would go into Tibet disguised as the lama’s servant. The Chinese passport would give them free access there, the lama would also assist Kinthup to keep the survey records.

Though he couldn’t read and write, Kinthup had mastered the basic skills of topographic survey and the working of instruments. He also had an amazing memory. The two men set out from Darjeeling on a wet afternoon in July 1880. Kinthup was leaving behind his wife, two young sons and a newborn daughter in a tiny shack in Butcher Bustee.

The code of espionage forbade him to share with anyone the details of his mission, which was expected to be completed in four months. Accordingly, the government had disbursed a small sum for the upkeep of his family during this period.

Kinthup and the lama were given a purse of 100 rupees and some silver pieces that could be exchanged for currency. The plan was that they would reach Gyala, a village near the western end of the Tsangpo gorge, up to which the earlier mission of Nem Singh had been able to reach, and from there press on into the gorge.

They entered Tibet from Sikkim through the Donkia pass and halted by the lake Cholamo for a couple of days, to follow the caravan of traders from Gyantse who’d come here to exchange goods with their Sikkimese counterparts.

The two went to Lhasa, stopped at Sera monastery, where the lama spent a few days feasting with old friends. From here on they took on the disguise of mendicant monks and continued to travel by begging for food and halting at jikkiyops – travellers’ sheds erected by the Tibetan government to protect wayfarers from inclement weather and wild animals. Sometimes they spent the nights in caves.

The rough life took its toll on the lama’s health, and they had to halt at a place for three weeks for him to recuperate. As the route grew difficult – with the mountains rising higher and closing in from all sides, the forests growing denser and trackless – a mean and choleric man emerged from the shell of the monk; he began to abuse Kinthup like some do servants. It took them three months to reach Gyala, a settlement of half a dozen houses by the river and the ruins of a monastery nearby.

It was November, the river was low. They crossed it and pressed on along the western bank on a path that grew more difficult at every step. Three days later they came to Pemakochung. But Kinthup couldn’t find a path that was close to the river as it forced its way into the heart of the canyon. They were forced to retrace their steps and follow a path that went around this section, bent back and rejoined the Tsangpo further downstream.

By now the lama was at his wit’s end. He had imagined the expedition to be a carefree picnic at the expense of the British government. This was too much for him. He continued to ill treat Kinthup. In the village of Thun Tsung, he fell for the charms of a woman from the Lopa tribe, the headman’s wife, and they stopped there for four months. By the time the two men reached the dzong of Tongkyuk, their purse had dwindled.

Here the lama became suspiciously friendly with the dzongpon, the castle chief, and they were given food and shelter in the servants’ quarters. After two days’ rest at the dzong, the lama said to Kinthup: “My soul is burning with desire for that Lopa woman. I must go and see her again for one last time. Don’t worry, I’ll return in a few days.”

That night, one of dzongpon’s servants entered Kinthup’s room and, without a word, began to rummage through his belongings. He was a thickset man with long hair bound in a topknot and piercing eyes. But he appeared to be completely deaf as Kinthup’s loud protests failed to move him. To stop him, Kinthup lunged forward and grabbed him by the waist. The very next moment he found himself lifted off the ground by an animal force and flung upon the stone floor.

The man towered above, snorting in anger, with a bare foot raised inches above Kinthup’s face, ready to squash it. The big toe on the foot was missing. With surprising confidence, the man now fished out a pistol and a compass from a secret pocket of the canvas sack that had eluded even the guards of Lhasa.

“Don’t!” Kinthup pleaded, still sprawled on the floor. “These belong to my government.”

“Shut your mouth or I’ll shove my foot into it!” the man said, speaking in a curiously quiet voice. “These will be returned when that lama comes back.”

Kinthup was shifted from the servants’ quarters to a corner of the stable, where he was given the job of cutting grass for the dzongpon’s horses. When it was found out that he could sew clothes, he was given the task of making quilt jackets for the dzongpon and his sons. Days passed, Kinthup waited for the lama’s return. He earned his two meagre meals by sewing clothes and doing other odd jobs.

His drudgery continued for two months. A full year had elapsed since he had set out from Darjeeling, a large part of the Tsangpo’s course still remained to be charted.

One day, Kinthup went to the dzongpon. “I don’t know when my master will return, but I must leave now,” he said. “Please give me back the pistol and the compass.”

“Leave? Where to?” The dzongpon laughed, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “Neither will your master return, nor will you ever leave!”

“What do you mean?” Kinthup asked, shocked.

“That damned lama has sold you for 50 rupees and gone back to China. I’m your master now!”

Kinthup was now sent to the dzongpon’s village, a day’s march from Tongkyuk and perched on a cliff above a stream, to do the duties of a common slave. He was given a place to sleep in the sheepfold, among the animals, on the edge of a plot of barley. Above it, over thick stands of juniper and rhododendron, rose the snow-capped mountains. The stream, a tributary of the Tsangpo, flowed over rapids at a drop of a few hundred feet.

Its restless noise beckoned Kinthup day and night. He had been able to save a spare compass that the lama didn’t know about; he’d take it out after the day’s work, when everyone had turned in. The needle would pulsate with the murmur of the stream and continue to buzz in his head like an insect. One day, he went to fetch firewood in the forest and didn’t return. It was a day in March, more than six months after he’d been sold to the dzongpon.

But even as he took to his heels, Kinthup never strayed far from the Tsangpo. He cut his path through dark forests and cliffs. Following the compass’s needle, keeping count of his footsteps on prayer beads, Kinthup pushed on for days, committing every bend and sandbar, every rapid and feeder into memory. Sometimes he spent the night in a deserted yak-grazers’ shed, but more often in caves and on treetops, surviving on wild mushrooms and leaves.

After five days, he came to a spot where the Tsangpo leapt across a sharp fall, forming a cloud of spray, with a rainbow shimmering on it. At another spot he found fresh human footprints on the desolate riverbank. On the eleventh day Kinthup entered an enchanting green valley ringed with snow-clad mountains. This was Pemako. The river meandered across the narrow fertile valley and, on the brow of a hill, was a monastery. This was Marpung.

Men from Tongkyuk were waiting there, they caught Kinthup as he entered the monastery. But the kind abbot gave them 50 rupees and released Kinthup, on the condition that he would serve there to pay for his freedom.

Excerpted with permission from Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet, Parimal Bhattacharya, Speaking Tiger Books.