Asian Map-Makers

Response to a National Geographic article about the accomplishments of noted mapmakers. They published an editted version of the first paragraph in the June 1998 issue.

Dear National Geographic,

Your article omitted mention of some of history's most courageous mappers native spies recruited by the British Survey of India. These men, called "pundits," could travel where no European dared, and the information they returned was priceless. Disguised as traders or pilgrims, they had extraordinary skill in mapping clandestinely by counting their paces, using Buddhist rosaries to keep track. They carried a sextant, compass, and boiling-point thermometer (used to measure elevation) hidden in their clothing and baggage. With them they plotted routes that before had been only blank spaces on British maps.

One of many celebrated pundits, "The Mirza" (as he was known), was of mixed Persian and Turkish parentage. In 1867 he left to explore a route across present-day Afghanistan to Kashgar, and then south to Ladakh. Along the way he overcame high passes and deep snow, marauding bandits and mutinous servants. More than once he was arrested but managed to talk his way free. After a journey of nearly two years he returned to India, where he was acclaimed for his "pluck and endurance." A few years later, on a second expedition, the Mirza was murdered by his guides while asleep.


Pamela Logan