Google’s thoughtless doodle on Nain Singh, the 19th century camouflaged trans-Himalayan explorer


As a gimmick, Google temporarily amends its logo to commemorate events, anniversaries, and the like. It calls the  altered image a doodle, Google must have a research team at work to identify country-specific dates. It must also have at hand the services of a powerful public relations network, because a new doodle invariably becomes a news story.

The original meaning of doodle is ‘a rough drawing made absent-mindedly’. Google doodles show sophistication in drawing, but can be thoughtless and unhistorical as can be seen from the commemoration of 187th birthday of the trans-Himalayan surveyor, Nain Singh.

The British colonial Empire made use of Indians whenever needed. This role was necessarily marginal. It was exaggerated after Independence, and now in the global age, dominated by Google, it is being unhistoricized as can be seen from the

Trigonometrical Survey of India that began rather modestly in 1800 very soon transcended its colonial utility to emerge as a vast and ambitious exercise of great geographical, geodesic, and geo-political significance. Indians were hired as mathematical calculators but were debarred from actual survey work within the country, for security reasons. There was however one type of survey which the Indians alone could do. And that was clandestine exploration of Trans-Himalayan regions, where Europeans would have been immediately spotted and put to trouble if not death.

The proposal by colonial surveyors  for a systematic clandestine survey of the Trans-Himalayas by the Indians was put forward in 1861. For Tibetan survey Hindus from the mountainous region were chosen because they could pass off as Buddhists while for Central Asia Muslims were the natural choice. With characteristic British thoroughness and disdain, the Indian surveyors were only taught how to take observations, but were not taught how to reduce the data lest they cheated. Although they were given jagirs, scientific medals, and titles like Rai Bahadur and Khan Bahadur, official records did not mention their personal  names. They were referred to as Pundit (irrespective of caste), Havildar, Mirza, etc., or by alphabets and dashes.

Nain Singh was known as the Pundit. His cousin ( not brother as mentioned in records) Kishen Singh was officially known as Krishna. His name was spelt backwards, and the first and the last letter were written down separated by dashes to create his codename: A__k.

On 25 May 1868, Nain Singh was awarded  a gold watch, worth thirty guineas, by the Royal Geographical Society. And yet he was almost irrelevant at the award ceremony. Nain Singh was not named. He was the  ‘wily’ and ‘skilful ‘ ‘Pundit employed by Captain Montgomerie’. The real hero for the Geographical Society was  Montgomery. The Pundit ‘ had proved himself in every way worthy of Captain Montgomerie’s selection’. For this, ‘tribute of gratitude and admiration’ was due to him. Others before him had employed the native agency ‘for the purpose of acquiring political and statistical information’. However, it was Montgomerie, who ‘discovered that they could use a sextant or a theodolite as well as Europeans. That was really a most valuable discovery.’ It was now hoped that further explorations would be carried out by ‘native enterprise directed by English enterprise’. Nain Singh was further honoured in 1877, when  the Society conferred its coveted  Victoria or Patron’s medal .

More substantially, the Government allotted him a jagir in the plains. He was also  created Companion of Indian Empire.

During 1865 and 1866, Nain Singh as a pioneer trans-Himalyan covert explorer made a 1200-mile route survey. During this survey  he traced the route of Brahmaputra from its source near Lake Manasarovar to Lhasa. In addition, he fixed the altitude of 31 distinct locations including Lhasa.  He also made observations of temperature of air and boiling water , by which heights of 33 points were fixed. He also provided  ‘ Notes as to what was seen, and as to the information gathered during the expedition’. For this and subsequent field work, he disguised himself as a Tibetan lama, equipped with a fake rosary and a fake prayer wheel. He had to go to extreme lengths to hide his true identity. He tried to keep aloof from others so that he could focus on counting his paces. He could make his astronomical observations only at night when no one was around.

Nain Singh Rawat’s 187th birthday

Google’s carelessly conceived doodle shows a tall dark man in a European dress, a frock coat and tight trousers. He has a tripod in front of him and is observing the Sun in full glory. If  Nain Singh had dressed like that and observed like that in Tibet, he would have been jailed or expelled. There then would have been nothing to be googled or doodled about him.




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