The Survey of India

Survey of India

Hamid Hussain

 “We travel not for trafficking alone.

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.

For lust of knowing what should not be known,

We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.” 

                                                                  James Elroy Flecker



Eighteenth century India and its neighboring regions were an exotic place for outsiders and not much was known about the geography and people of this large swath of land. An odd traveler or explorer published the details of his perilous journey among strange and alien land and people for the home audience.  Arrival of East India Company (EIC) for trade and later territorial expansion brought modern scientific methods of exploration and mapping that filled up the empty spaces on maps. 

 During military operations, officers collected localized information about terrain, availability of supplies to support troops and animals and information about local population.  However, this information was localized and limited to military operation at hand.  Knowledge about land and people ruled by EIC rapidly expanded.  Over the years, a small group of extraordinary British and native explorers contributed to sciences of geography and anthropology. This was an area where political, administrative, military and spying arts freely intermingled.

 In eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, India’s frontiers were changing with territorial expansion of EIC.  In these decades, frontier moved from Oudh, Gangetic plains, Sindh and Punjab to Northwestern and Northeastern frontiers. In the context of defense of India, area of British influence also expanded to Tibet, Chinese and Russian Turkistan and Afghanistan.  The Royal Geographic Society (RGS) became the patron of the advancement of the field of geography on scientific grounds and published works of explorers of India and its neighborhood.

 In 1800, three separate surveys were started in India: Revenue, Topographical and Trigonometrical (later named Great Trigonometrical Survey – GTS).  In 1878, all three were amalgamated into a single Survey of India.  James Rannell (1742-1830), William Lambton (1756-1823), George Everest (1790-1866), Thomas George Montgomerie (1830-1878), Henry Trotter, William Johnson, James Walker, Colonel Frederick Bailey (1882-1967), Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, Godwin-Austin, Captain Francis Younghusband and others were exceptional individuals.  They were driven by a sense of adventure, exploration and duty.  They were highly committed individuals willing to suffer extreme hardships in strange and unknown lands. They instilled same spirit among their native assistants. Surveying in frontier areas was a dangerous task as locals correctly concluded that surveying was the steppingstone towards loss of their freedom.  There was an Afghan saying that “First comes one Englishman for shikar (hunting), then come two to draw a map, and then comes an army to take your land.  So, it is best to kill the first Englishman”.


 A surveying school was established in Madras in 1794 for training of natives in surveying techniques. A number of Anglo-Indians were also recruited as sub-assistants.  In the first quarter of nineteenth century, some natives who received English language education at Delhi College became qualified assistants to British military, civil and survey officials. The status of this new generation was higher than the ‘munshi’ who traditionally acted as clerk, scribe, translator and tutor of British superiors.  The new title of ‘Persian Secretary’ elevated the social and financial status of the new generation and proficiency in English language was the single most important factor of this advancement. Two members of the first class of Delhi College became well known travelers and wrote their memoirs in English based on daily journals that they kept.  Mohan Lal served with Alexander Burns and Shahamat Ali served with Resident of Ludhiana Agency Lieutenant Colonel Claude Wade and later Resident of Malwa.

 Father of Indian Geography James Rennell mapped EIC holdings of Bengal and Bihar in later part of eighteenth century. Rennell acknowledged the contributions of his native surveyors. In 1770s,  Gholam Mohammad surveyed the roads between Bengal and Deccan, Mirza Mughal Beg explored northwestern India and Sadanand surveyed Gujrat. This is the earliest written record of work of native surveyors. 


McCartney mentioned his two native assistants Zaman Shah and Mahmood Shah who assisted him in mapping Afghanistan. Alexander Burns relied heavily on his secretary Mohan Lal and surveyor Muhammad Ali.  Mirza Izzatullah Beg was from an influential family that had served Mughals.  He became an authority on his own due to his unique background, intelligence, education, hard work and travels. He used rigorous methods of accuracy and left written record of his adventures.  In 1812-13, he travelled from India to Tibet, Chinese Turkistan (Yarkand) and Central Asia. He served under Thomas Metcalf (helping collecting intelligence in Multan and surrounding areas), Mountstuart Elphinstone (travelled with him to Kabul) and William Moorecraft (reconnaissance mission to Tibet, Chinese Turkistan & Bukhara). He rose to become key secretary of the Delhi Residency.

 William Moorecraft in his trips to Nepal, Tibet and Central Asia had company of some exceptional natives including Ghulam Haider Khan and Pundit Harbalam.  He also had assistance of two brothers; Bir Singh and Deb Singh.  They were Bhotias: Indians of Tibetan descent. Another native Harkh Dev was assigned the task of survey and recorded distance by a measured pace.  This technique was later to be refined and used by ‘pundits’ during survey of Tibet and Chinese Turkistan. Sarat Chandra Das was one of the famous pundits’ who was a Bengali scholar of Tibetan language and culture.  In the last quarter of eighteenth century, Nain Singh, Kalyan Singh and Kishen Singh surveyed Chinese Turkistan.

 Arthur Conolly (6th Bengal Light Cavalry) in his travels to Tsarist Russia, Caucasus, Afghanistan and Baluchistan was accompanied by Syed Karamat Ali. Mirza Shuja served with Eldred Pottinger in Heart in 1837 and later conducted military survey around Peshawar, Baluchistan, large swaths of Afghanistan and Chinese Turkistan.  He also performed sensitive intelligence gathering while teaching English to Amir Dost Mohammad Khan’s sons in Kabul.

 Hayder Shah was from Peshawar and served as Havildar in Bengal Sappers and Miners. He along with another native explorer Ata Mohamad explored Dir, Swat, Chitral and Badakhshan.  Later, he undertook another survey from Kabul to Bokhara. Naik Ghafoor Shah also of sappers accompanied Hayder Shah on one of the journeys. In 1860, Mullah Abdul Majid was sent on a mission from Peshawar, crossing Pamir Mountain range to khanate of Khokand. In 1863, Abdul Hamid was sent on surveying mission of Chinese and Russian Turkistan.

 A jeweler’s assistant Mohsin Hussain proved to be such an expert in calibrating and repairing complex and expensive survey equipment that when his cantankerous British superior Henry Barrow was discharged, Mohsin took over the task. Surveys generated huge amount of data that needed complex calculations.  A team of ‘eight human computers’ processed this data. This team of Bengalis that included an exceptional gentleman Radhanath Sikdar earned the respect of British. It was freely admitted that their mathematical genius would be ranked very high in Europe.

 There was a saying that “in the east, nothing is ever forgotten, but little remembered with accuracy”.  Native surveyors changed that tradition and added European new methods of keeping daily journals, written knowledge based on facts thus incorporating text-based knowledge to the art of oral tradition and memory. Later generations of educated natives of Survey of India continued the traditions of devotion to duty and work ethics and setting high standards of proficiency and hard life in extreme climatic conditions. They also put a high premium on the value of education and made education of their children a first priority.  Children of ‘servants of the map’ proudly served in the armed forces and civil services of the successor states the Raj.

 “Frontiers are the razor’s edge on which suspended the issue of war or peace and the life of the nations.”                Lord Curzon






Edney, Matthew,  Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997)


Meyer, Karl & Shareen Brysac.  Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999)


Dean, Riaz. Mapping The Great Game: Explorers, Spies & maps in Nineteenth century Asia (Oxford: Caseate Publishers, 2019)


Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (New York: Kodansha America Inc, 1994)


Ward, Michael.  The Survey of India and the Pundits.  The Alpine Journal, (Vol 103, 1998), pp.59-79


Mathur, Tapsi.  How Professional Became Natives: Geography and Trans-Frontier Exploration in Colonial India. Ph. D Thesis. University of Michigan, 2018


Hamid Hussain

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Defence Journal, June 2022

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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