Explorer, scholar … spy?

Travelogues from colonial and pre-colonial times inevitably have great value as source material for historians. Unfortunately, very few such publications exist on Tibet. The first mention of the 'forbidden country' in the annals of politics and diplomacy outside of Asia can be found early on: in the travel diaries of Megasthenes, a Greek geographer, diplomat and traveller who visited India and other neighbouring areas in 290 BC. But the next study of the high plateau came some 2200 years later, when the British, driven by colonial ambition, undertook to explore Tibet.

During the late 1860s, the colonial authorities commissioned a team of Indians to explore the often treacherous terrain of Tibet, an expedition that resulted in rare documentation on the region's statecraft and ethnography. Part of the group was Sarat Chandra Das, who in 1879 penned the first detailed travel records on the area in his Narrative of a Journey to Tashi-Lhunpo, followed by Narrative of a Journey to Lhasa in 1881-82. These two were published in 1885 and 1902, respectively, and comprised the first modern source material to trace the politico-ethnographic history of Tibet. In 1901, the Royal Geographical Society of India published the two travelogues together under a single title, Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet.

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Himal Southasian