February 21, 2020
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A Bengali Scaled The Everest First

An Indian exhibition recounts the glorious past of British mapmaking in the subcontinent. But no one's talking about the Indian contribution.

A Bengali Scaled The Everest First
A Bengali Scaled The Everest First
How round is the earth? Until the 19th century, that was a serious question. For one, the earth is not a perfect sphere. And its imperfections would have a bearing on maps, and maps brought knowledge, and knowledge meant power. The British had a particular, and predictable, interest in that sort of thing. And so they decided to determine the curvature of the earth by measuring the length of India by way of a sample arc. It became, as British historian John Keay describes in his book The Great Arc, one of the greatest scientific experiments the world has ever known—the mapping and measuring of the Indian subcontinent.

It began 200 years ago at the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India when the first measurements were begun by Col William Lambton, surveyor general of India. By the time George Everest took over the survey after Lambton's death in 1822, the calculations were four years in arrears and many of them were going nowhere. Much of that changed in the mid-1830s with the hiring of Radhanath Sikdhar, a young mathematical genius from Calcutta's Hindu College.

Keay tells a British story not widely known. But within that story sits—discreetly—an Indian story that even now barely, and only incidentally, surfaces. That this most remarkable of experiments could not have succeeded without critical scientific contributions by Indians. That, the world still does not know. Worse, India did not seem to care.

Now Indian government departments have pulled money from their budgets to show the British the story of that experiment this year in Cambridge, Manchester, Birmingham and London. The exhibition called—what else—The Great Arc tells an audacious story spread over lengths up to 2,500 km and over a span of 50 years. And without contributions by Sikdhar and a group of young, talented Indian mathematicians, the mapping and measuring of India might have not gone anywhere.

Sikdhar was one of a team of eight Bengali mathematicians, or computers as they were called with accidental foresight. They were paid Rs 40 a month, not a lot even then, compared to Rs 400 a month for Everest and Rs 4,000 a month for the Viceroy. Seven of them seemed to have launched a strike of sorts, and left to join the Revenue department, with a nine-fold increase in salary. Sikdhar stayed on, with his income raised to Rs 100 a month. This, at least, the other seven calculated better than Sikdhar. But he was the chief computer, and the Survey was where his mathematical genius could find expression.

Sikdhar's tallest achievement was to measure the height of Mount Everest. This he did in 1852, and the result was announced in 1856. But it was not his only feat. More significant, if less spectacular, was his preparation of a set of tables on which calculations rested. Without Sikdhar's computing skills, much of the Trigonometrical Survey's work could have become a hugely aimless exercise.

Sikdhar's genius has not been owned enough by India, or even by the West Bengal government. It took a rare genius to make sense of those maddening measurements up in the Himalayas. Figuring the height of the Everest from triangles on paper and numbers in the head was not easy; certainly it had proved too difficult for the British.

Now there are even suggestions—from Indians—that the Everest should be named after Sikdhar. But they aren't serious. The world would have to agree. There never was a serious case for a 29,002-ft Mount Sikdhar, though the man it was named after never even got to see it. A colonial power that gave Sikdhar a grudging Rs 100 a month was never going to name it after an Indian. Independent India had other things on its mind. At most, this might have become the Everest's Indian name. But it was always possible to do other things than rename a peak.

At least some of the difficulty, says India's deputy high commissioner in London, Satyabrata Pal, is that almost all that is known about Sikdhar and the seven magnificent mathematicians sits in British records. If they wrote anything about the survey and of their role in it, nothing is known of it. Going by those accounts, Sikdhar led the life of a very British babu as chief computer. He possibly never maintained the political difference with the British that we now would like to set up for him.

But of course, his genius is the issue here. That is still not acknowledged enough. That anyone is talking about him at all now is also the incidental result of a British effort. Without the publication of Keay's book, Sikdhar would still be 'what Sikdhar' to most of us who have not read Bengali historians' accounts.

Keay speaks of Sikdhar as a mathematician "poached by Everest as his number-crunching genius", as an "undoubted mathematical star" and as "the Bengali genius whose arithmetical wizardry had so impressed Everest". But his references to Sikdhar through the book stretch to no more than a few lines. "It is quite probable that Sikdhar's computations provided the first clear proof of XV's (the number of the peak before it was given a name) superiority." And he says no more.

As important as Sikdhar's was the contribution of Syed Mir Mohsin, a watchmaker from Madras who joined the survey and rose to become chief mathematical instrument maker. He created the vital division of the horizontal circles of two astronomical instruments, and that became the basis of the observations for the calculations that followed. But there isn't a Mount Mohsin either, and there isn't likely to be one.

Or anything to mark Nain Singh, who entered Tibet disguised as a Lama and carried out surveys in secret for over 21 months. Or Kishen Singh, who surveyed the Tibet mountains because the British could not get there. Add the instruments, the calculations and the surveys in areas inaccessible to the British, and you begin to get the incredible story of a historic Indian contribution to science.

Whether this exhibition will establish Sikdhar's role in the minds of Brits who happen to see it this year, or of Indians who turn up to see it wherever it finds a home in India, is another matter. Sure, there is a panel on Sikdhar that speaks of him as Everest's right hand, and there is something on Mohsin written and hung behind some instruments.

The Survey of India, the Department of Science and Technology and the Indian Space Research Organisation are all spending a lot of money to take this exhibition around Britain. A transnational interest in science is fine, but politically and effectively, Indian money is being spent to tell a few Brits how great their scientific forefathers were. The draw at the exhibition is also the theodolites (the great theodolite alone weighed over half a ton!)—and other similar geometric instruments that were used for measuring India.

"The exhibition says what it has to say," says Sanjoy Roy from Delhi's Teamwork Productions, which is arranging the festival. "More can be done about anything. The exhibition is about people like Sikdhar and Nain Singh, forgotten by history." If that contribution does not stand out, it is because "in any exhibition, doing justice to just one thing needs a whole (new) exhibition. "

True, a touring show can do that much and no more. This one is inspired by a British story, named after it, and presented for the moment to Britain. And for that Indian story, India will have to begin to tell it to itself first.
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