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On a September day in 1863, Abdul Hamid entered the Central Asian city of Yarkand. Disguised as a merchant, Hamid was actually an employee of the Survey of India, carrying concealed instruments to enable him to map the geography of the area. Hamid did not live to provide a first-hand count of his travels. Nevertheless, he was the advance guard of an elite group of Indian trans-Himalayan explorers—recruited, trained, and directed by the officers of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India—who were to traverse much of Tibet and Central Asia during the next thirty years.

Derek Waller presents the history of these explorers, who came to be called “native explorers” or “pundits” in the public documents of the Survey of India. In the closed files of the government of British India, however, they were given their true designation as spies. As they moved northward within the Indian subcontinent, the British demanded precise frontiers and sought orderly political and economic relationships with their neighbors. They were also becoming increasingly aware of and concerned with their ignorance of the geographical, political, and military complexion of the territories beyond the mountain frontiers of the Indian empire. This was particularly true of Tibet.

Though use of pundits was phased out in the 1890s in favor of purely British expeditions, they gathered an immense amount of information on the topography of the region, the customs of its inhabitants, and the nature of its government and military resources. They were able to travel to places where virtually no European count venture, and did so under conditions of extreme deprivation and great danger. They are responsible for documenting an area of over one million square miles, most of it completely unknown territory to the West. Now, thanks to Waller’s efforts, their contributions to history will no longer remain forgotten.

Derek Waller, professor emeritus of political science at Vanderbilt University, was the author of The Government and Politics of the People’s Republic of China.

A fascinating and historically important book about the frontier policies of the British empire, policies bearing some resonance even today as controversy over frontiers (the Durnad Line, the McMahon Line) in the region continues. -- American Historical Review

A necessary, important, and highly readable book which must rival any yet published in shedding fresh light on nineteenth-century exploration. -- London Independent

An excellent and very well-researched book; for the first time the explorations of the Pundits have been recorded in one book, and we can be grateful to Derek Waller for having done it so well. -- USI Journal

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Tibet, Central Asia


Asian History


Paperback edition 2004

The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia
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