Surveyor Follows Everest’s India Survey
In part one of Alan Volbrecht’s story, he became intrigued by the story of the survey of India and decided, as any good surveyor might, to follow the footsteps of those surveyors. We resume the narrative with his efforts to locate and visit the former residence of Sir George Everest.
I decided to book a car the day after my visit to the Survey of India campus to travel to Mussoorie in the Himalayan foothills in hopes of locating Sir George Everest’s home. The gentleman at the front desk of the hotel arranged for a driver to pick me up in the morning.
I know the Everest residence from the 1830s is an Indian National Monument, but no one I’d spoken to locally seemed to have any knowledge of it. That evening, I called the historian’s mobile number given to me earlier by R.M. Ghildayl, the supervising office surveyor. She was very pleasant and said she would try to meet with me the next day.
What follows is the account of my efforts from a journal that I kept during the trip.
05:30 – The best day of the trip begins. Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, a shower, writing in this journal, checking emails and I’m ready. My driver, Sandeep Kamar, shows up at 9:00 sharp and we’re off. We clear Dehra Dun morning traffic in the first half hour. The acrid smog of the Gangetic Plain stayed with us until we reached higher elevations in the Himalayan foothills. I had researched the Everest residence location before leaving home, as well as John Keay’s reference to the structure in his book, and felt confident we could navigate our way there. Nearing Mussoorie, we stopped several times to ask for directions and noticed that the Indian government had put up small signs to assist us. We finally reached what remains of the residence at 9:45. On a beautiful day, high above the heavy smog of the city, I spent an hour exploring the grounds. I realized what Everest would have liked about this area.
A masonry structure with iron gates and bars on the doors and windows, it was dilapidated, but not bad considering it has been here for close to 200 years. There are five fireplaces to counter the tough winters at this elevation (6,500 feet MSL). The house sits in a high saddle with views to the south of the Gangetic Plain and glimpses to the north of the high Himalayas beyond the nearby foothills.
On a knoll to the west is a poured concrete foundation, and 3-feet above ground sits a plaque commemorating Everest’s work on the great survey.
I had to wait in a short line to read the plaque: 2002 Bicentenary Celebration of the Great Trig Survey.
The plaque was erected by the SOI group in 2007 — 200 years after the survey was commenced. I spent an hour relaxing there with a cup of chai tea from the inevitable tea stand that was nearby. Not many visitors while I was there; maybe it gets more visitors on the weekend?
11:30 – Sandeep drops me off in the center of Mussoorie to wander around. I will call him on his mobile when finished to pick me up. After 45 minutes, I’m done, so I call him, he picks me up and we race back down the hill to Dehra Dun. On the way, we listen to Indian rap music and spend what seems like half of the time on the wrong side of the road passing cars and trucks on blind curves.
On the way down, I ask him to see if we could find the museum that I had tried to gain access to yesterday. No problem, he takes one hand off the steering wheel and makes a call to authorize more time. His office directs him to take me to an older Survey of India campus than the one I’d walked to yesterday. I’m relieved when he ends the call and puts both hands back on the steering wheel.
13:30 – We arrive at the old campus and check into the security office only to find out the museum is closed to the public and, as a foreigner, I will need a letter of authorization from the Surveyor General of India’s office to gain access. Great! They said permission usually takes several weeks, and I figured that was the end of my search.
Then I recalled Keay’s advice again to be persistent. I asked Sandeep to find out where the surveyor general’s office is, and we’re off again to a different section several miles to the north of the new SOI campus.
13:50 – We arrive at a guard shack at a different gate. The guard checks my passport information against his clipboard. He says my name is on a printed list of names of approved visitors. I’m stunned! The guard then says the people that I need to speak with are at lunch and I will need to wait. I ask Sandeep to wait until the meeting. Sandeep, who’s on the clock says, “No problem” and returns to his car for a nap.
14:10 – I’m asked to accompany a guard into the office of the Deputy Surveyor General of India. First, I have to surrender my ID, phone, and camera, and sign another ledger. I’m excited, to put it mildly, and I wish that I’d dressed a bit differently for the occasion. In the large hall leading to the deputy’s office is a large display area with the theodolite used by William Lambton, George Everest’s predecessor on the Great Survey of India. The guard allows me to have my mobile phone back for a couple of photos with the theodolite and then we continue to the deputy’s office.
I meet Lt. Col. Kumal Borkar, a very friendly Indian Army officer. Col. Borkar explains that his wife worked for a tech firm in the San Jose area before he met her. He orders tea for us both and presents me with my permission letter for access to the campus and museum. The letter has been ready for several days and they have been holding it until my arrival. I’m ecstatic!
We finish our tea, and he sends my passport out to be scanned for the umpteenth time. I sign several more forms and the ubiquitous Indian log book, and we say goodbye. Col. Borkar also calls the museum curator to tell him that I’m on my way.
The afternoon is getting short and I hurry out to the parking lot to meet Sandeep, who is fast asleep in the back seat of our car. We drive back to the old SOI offices near the center of Dehra Dun. I present my authorization letter to the gate guard, fill out a few more forms, have my passport scanned again, sign another log book and am escorted across the center of the SOI campus to the museum.
Arun Kamar, curator and chief historian of the Indian National Survey Museum, greets me at the entrance. Arun had assumed the historian position after the Sikh lady had retired several years ago. Since the museum is closed to the general public, Arun presented a two-hour, personalized tour of all of the museum exhibits including overall history and political intrigue associated with the trigonometric survey. Arun’s presentation included the training of mapping spies employed by the British East India Company to explore and map route possibilities through the Himalayan mountain passes that might be used by Russian military units as part of the “Great Game” between Russia and England at that time. (For more info, read “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk.)
Not only am I allowed to see all of the instruments associated with the original trigonometrical survey, but I had to resist the temptation to touch them. Arun is a former field surveyor, and while touring the museum, he filled me in on more of the SOI’s long history of the mapping of India for the British East India Company and the situation in India following independence in 1947. Arun remembered Keay when he was researching his book about the trigonometric survey.
Everest’s obsession with accuracy, precision and expediency led him to refine or redesign much of the equipment used by his crews. An example is the astronomical instrument used by Everest and others to determine geodetic positions at various control stations. This particular instrument, originally built in England in 1830, had its 24-inch vertical circle redivided by Everest at his workshop in Mussoorie. He was also involved in the design of many smaller theodolites for local mapping surveys within the country.
Everyone, including Everest, suffered the effects of malaria, cholera, dysentery and other diseases during their time in the country. Ill much of the time, Everest was forced to return to England in 1830 for five years to recover. He remained in poor health from his years in India until his passing in 1866.
The Survey of India was also responsible for tidal measurement and tide table predictions for mariners, particularly important given India’s many ports along the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea coastlines. This project included years of spirit-level leveling between tide gauges along both coasts with ties to the trigonometrical control survey network. Our tour included multiple mechanical computers designed to ease the burden of calculations and tide table preparations.
Moving on, we visited a library containing hundreds of field books and maps, most bound and wrapped in cloth. I wasn’t invited to look at any of them and didn’t ask to examine them. Looking back, I wish that I had.
Sir George Everest was succeeded by Andrew Waugh in 1843 as surveyor general. Prior to his advancement, Waugh had spent his years in the field including the determination of the heights of the highest peaks in the Himalaya and Karakoram Mountains. Peak locations and heights were determined by trigonometric methods from multiple points within a network along the foothills to the south. Peaks were observed from multiple points, most of which were 100 miles or more from each peak. I tried to imagine how a surveyor could spend weeks traveling from observation points along the network to make redundant observations of each of the prominent peaks and keep them straight with earlier observations by others.
Several weeks earlier, I passed within the shadow of one of Waugh’s peaks, Dhaulagiri, which measured at 26,826 feet MSL in 1822 and is noted as 26,795 feet MSL today. Mount Everest, then known as Mt. XV, was determined to be 29,002 feet MSL in 1847. Today’s value is reported as 29,029 feet MSL. It’s interesting to note that the 1847 value calculated by the SOI’s chief computer, Radhanath Sickdhar, was calculated to be 29,000, but he added 2-feet to that value thinking no one would believe his work if he reported it as such an even number. All in all, comparing today’s values with results from 150 or more years ago certainly is a testament to the great care taken by these earlier surveyors.
Two hours passes quickly, and we sadly have to say goodbye. I’m sure Sandeep isn’t sorry to drop me off back at the Hotel President. I drop my bag into my room and a enjoy a final dinner in the hotel restaurant, while watching a national cricket tournament between India and New Zealand with my waiter trying to explain the game to me.
I’m leaving Dehra Dun tomorrow and continuing my trip to the northwest, headed to Shimla, which is about a 10-hour ride back into the foothills by car, and from there, on to the Pakistan border. Shimla is the summer capital of the British Raj government to escape the unbearable summer heat of Kolkata (Calcutta). I was thinking of traveling by bus, but decided to hire a car instead. I ask the gent at the hotel desk to call Sandeep’s office to see if he was available to drive me. We agree on 5,800 Rupees ($90.00) for the trip. It’s quite a bit more than bus fare, but the schedule was much better and I would be able to stop along the way. I’m hoping Sandeep shows up well rested because now I know what to expect with his driving.
20:30 – I’m in bed early again – exhausted, but elated at how the day worked out. As fantastic as this trip has been, today was the highlight.
India is a fantastic country to visit: stimulating, great food, wonderful people and a rich history that predates any European history. Keay, in his earlier book “Into India,” says it best: “Even a few weeks in India has a way of closing one’s credibility gap. The improbable becomes commonplace and the fantastic just the noteworthy.”