I started this massive (646 pages) non-fiction, hardback work in March. I had to take breaks in reading it, because it was just too heavy to read in bed.
It deals with the fascination of Russian, British, Germans, and later, Americans with what is now northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet, and the Taklamakan Desert.
I learned about the origins of many words and concepts that came from this part of the world.
A pundit originally meant learned Hindu.
Pasmina (from the Persian word pashm or wool) was found in Tibet and its Buddhist state, Ladakh. The Asian goat, Capra hicus, rubbed itself on rocks and mountain shrubs and the fleece was collected from there. George Bogle was ordered to bring back some of these goats but was prevented by Tibetan officials.
In 1822, William Moorcroft, a doctor and authorized dealer to buy horses, spent a year in Kashmir. He learned about advanced wool-making techniques, that were eventually spread to India and then to Europe. He improved the making of shawls.
He admired an ancient teardrop pattern that become popular in Europe. He named it for a town in Scotland: the paisley.
I learned a lot about the explorers who loved being in Central Asia.
Mikhailovich Przhevalsky went to Lhasa in 1879. He traveled with blotting paper to dry specimens. He took photographs of actresses of St. Petersburg to give away to all officials in Tibet and made a strawberry jam for the Dalai Lama.
Sir Aurel Stein traveled along portions of the Silk Road four times and brought enough artifacts to fill several rooms in the British Museum. But he always searched for “literary remains. His most important finds were manuscripts, often pried from ancient rubbish heaps.” Stein once observed that India was rich in artifacts, but poor in written records, so any information that he could save was important to him.
Stein also added to the knowledge of the Silk Road, a region that supported the following religions: Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Manicheans, Nestorians, Zoroastrians, and now Islam.
Surveying and mapmaking were a very popular occupation. The rulers considered it as an affront and menacing military tactic. So, ways to accomplish this had to be done on the sly.
Captain Thomas Montgomerie (1830 – 1878) came up with the idea of using native surveyors and disguising them. Nain Singh was employed by to survey the Himalayas and became a Buddhist pilgrim. He marked the distances that he walked with the prayer beads (1000 of Nain’s paces was about half-mile.) His staff had thermometers, prayer wheels had compasses, and the strongbox had a sextant. He was able to survey southern Tibet and Tsangpo’s course for 600 miles. He was later awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal and trained other cousins in surveying.
Curzon, the Viceroy of India in the early 20th century, gave permission to the Swedish explorer and cartographer, Sven Hedin, to map Taklamakan Desert, which means “Go in and you won’t come out.”
Stein and two of his surveyors managed to map 30,000 square miles. His maps are still being used today!
The most perceptive remarks were made Sir John Lawrence, Viceroy of India in 1867. He didn’t want Britain nor Russia to be considered the rulers of Afghanistan. He “based his opinion on what he knew of Afghanistan – a country too poor to support a large occupying army, too fractious to be controlled by a smaller force. “We have men, and we have rocks in plenty,” he remembered Dost Mohammed once telling him. To attempt domination of such a people, Lawrence felt, was to court misfortune and calamity.”
Someone should have told these facts to the Russian government in the 1980s and the US government in the 2000s.