Monday, December 6, 2010

A Bengali 'Scaled' The Everest First. (Part-I)

A Bengali 'scaled' the Everest first. No... I am not disputing the claims of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.. I am only referring to an unsung and forgotten Indian genius... Radhanath Sikdar. Radhanath who?? Well... read on.

An Indian exhibition (held in the UK in 2003) recounted the glorious past of British mapmaking in the subcontinent. But no one talked about the Indian contribution. The Survey of India, the Department of Science and Technology and the Indian Space Research Organisation... all spent a lot of money to take this exhibition around Britain. A transnational interest in science is fine, but politically and effectively, Indian money was spent to tell a few Brits how great their scientific forefathers were. The draw at the exhibition was also the
theodolites (the great theodolite alone weighed over half a ton!) - and other similar geometric instruments that were used for measuring India. What purpose this served (?) - your guess is as good as mine!

It may be no more than a coincidence that the British merchant ships arrived in India the same year (1608) telescope was "invented" in the Netherlands. But it does bring home the fact that modern science and technology have grown hand in hand with maritime activity, colonial expansion and Western domination over nature and fellow human beings. The British could not have built and retained an empire in India without the help of science and the 'natives'. The phenomenon can be conveniently discussed in terms of a three-stage model comprising the 'colonial-tool stage', the 'peripheral-native stage', and the 'Indian response stage', each leading to and coexisting with the next. Read more on this

The 'colonial-tool stage' began with field surveys and went on to include technologies such as steam, telegraph, railway and radio. The Western scientific interest in the subcontinent was latitude-driven in the sense that it was dictated by the geographical and ecological novelty of India. (In contrast in the current software-facilitated globalization-era... Western interest in India is longitude-driven.) The institutionalization of science as a colonial tool began in 1767 with the appointment of a surveyor-general in Bengal. Ironically when we celebrate anniversaries of scientific institutions like the Trigonometrical Survey, Geological Survey or railways we are also unwittingly celebrating step-wise entrenchment of the British in India.

The 'peripheral-native stage' can be taken to have begun in 1817 with the founding of the Hindoo College in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In this stage the Indians were assigned the peripheral role of providing cheap labour to the colonial science machinery. The peripheral native stage can be illustrated with the help of three biographies: Ardaseer Cursetjee (1808-1877); Radhanath Sickdhar (also pronounced Sikdar... 1813-1870) and Seebchunder Nandy (1822-1903).

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. (Note: The Great Arc refers to the systematic exploration and recording of the entire topography of the Indian subcontinent which was spear-headed by the Great Trigonometric Survey [GTS]).

It began over 200 years ago (in 1800) at the GTS of India when the first measurements were begun by
Lt. Col. William Lambton, surveyor general of India. He was an idiosyncratic British army officer to whom no memorial exists save his crumbling tombstone in central India (at Hinganghat in Wardha district of Maharashtra), which Keay had difficulty even finding. A mountain named after him in Canada during his early career was subsequently renamed. By the time Sir George Everest, a cantankerous British colonel, took over the survey after Lambton's death in 1823, 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.

Son of Tituram,
Radhanath Sikdar (1813–1870) was educated at "Phiringi" Kamal Bose's School and Hindu College (now called Presidency College) in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. Alone among the great Derozians he took to science as his life's mainstay. He worked for the Surveyor General of India, a division of the British Raj in India... and joined the GTS in 1831.

Colonel William Lambton in December 1799 put forward the proposal of the GTS of India. On February 6, 1800 formal orders were issued for the commencement of the survey. The actual work of the GTS of India was started on April 10, 1802 by the measurement of a base line near Madras. From this base line, a series of triangles were carried up to the Mysore plateau and a second base was measured near Bangalore in 1804. The series was taken across the peninsula from this place. Having connected the two sides of the peninsula, Major Lambton measured an arc of the meridian, and the series of triangles that were measured for this purpose were known as the "Great Arc Series". In 1818, Sir George Everest was appointed as assistant to Lambton. Both Lambton and Everest considered their work to be of global importance - the measurement of the arc had contributed to British, French and Swedish attempts to mathematically compute the exact shape of the earth. (Read: Mapping the Maps: 1800-1900 AD).

In 1823, on Colonel Lambton's death, Everest succeeded to the post of superintendent of the survey, and in 1830 he was appointed surveyor-general of India. When Everest "inherited" the position in 1823, the equipment originally employed by Lambton consisted of one 36" theodolite manufactured by London instrument maker Cary, a zenith sector by Jesse Ramsden, a Ramsden 100 foot steel chain, and a chronometer. The Cary theodolite, weighing over one thousand pounds, had been damaged in two separate mishaps, and was badly in need of repair. The micrometer screw on the zenith sector was worn out, and the steel chain had not been calibrated in twenty-five years. To further complicate matters, Everest became so dangerously ill that he could not carry on with the Survey, and work was suspended. England was the solution to these problems. In November of 1825, Everest returned to England, bringing with him the mathematical observations and calculations for the Great Arc thus far. For the next five years he worked on improvements for the survey and compiled an account of the work achieved between the parallels of 18 degrees 03' and 24 degrees 07'. Everest spent a great deal of time in the workshop of instrument-makers Troughton and Simms, where an additional 36" theodolite, a new zenith sector, and six small theodolites were under construction.

The next issue Everest addressed was the measuring of distances. He learned of Col. Colby's work with compensating bars on the Irish Survey, and visited him there in 1829. Being very much impressed with Colby's system, he acquired a double set of six bars for the GTS, and practiced with them at Greenwich. At the same time, Everest produced a clever document which summarized the repair and replacement needs of the Survey, showing that the most cost-effective solution was to have an instrument maker placed in India. His request was granted, and Henry Barrow was appointed to the job. Later, in India, it was Barrow who labouriously repaired the damaged Cary theodolite, earning his praise from Everest: "I must do that artist (Barrow) the justice to say that for excellence of workmanship, accuracy of division, steadiness, regularity, and glibness of motion, and the general neatness, elegance and nice fitting of all its parts, not only were my expectations exceeded but I really think it is as a whole as unrivalled in the world as it is unique."

In June of 1830, George Everest returned to India, this time as Surveyor General, in addition to his post as superintendent of the GTS. During the first year he spent little time on field work, as he organized general mapping surveys. By 1841, twenty-three years had passed from the time Everest had first begun work on the Great Arc. It would take him two more years to complete the computations, and compile the results before he retired and returned to England... where he became fellow of the Royal Society. In 1848, he was awarded high honors by the Royal Astronomical Society. In making the presentation, Sir John Herschel said: "The Great Meridianal Arc of India is a trophy of which any nation, or any government of the world would have reason to be proud, and will be one of the most enduring monuments of their power and enlightened regard for the progress of human knowledge."

Everest was knighted in 1861 and in 1865, Peak XV was officially named Mount Everest in his honour. He was chosen vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1862. Everest died at Greenwich (December 1, 1866)... having never ever laid his eyes on the great mountain that bears his name. (Note: Read more).

When in 1831 George Everest was searching for a brilliant young mathematician with particular proficiency in
spherical trigonometry, the Hindu College maths teacher Dr. John Tytler superlatively recommended his pupil Radhanath, then only 19. Radhanath joined the GTS in 1831 (December) as a "computor" at a salary of Rupees 30 per month (some accounts suggest Rs. 4o). Soon he was sent to Sironj near Dehra Dun where he excelled in geodetic surveying. Apart from mastering the usual geodetic processes, he invented quite a few of his own. Everest was extremely impressed by his performance, so much so that when Sikdar wanted to leave GTS and be a Deputy Collector, Everest intervened, proclaiming that no government officer can change over to another department without the approval of his boss. Everest retired in 1843 and Lt. Col. Andrew Scott Waugh became the Director.

After 20 years in the North, Sikdar was transferred to Calcutta in 1851 as the Chief Computor. Here apart from his duties of the GTS, he also served as the Superintendent of the Meteorological department. Here he introduced quite a few innovations that were to remain standard procedure for many decades to come. The most notable was the formula for conversion of barometric readings taken at different temperatures to 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the order of Col. Waugh he started measuring the snow capped mountains near Darjeeling. Compiling data about Peak XV (in the
Himalayas) from six different observations, he eventually came to the conclusion that the Peak XV was the tallest in the world. He gave a full report to Waugh who was cautious enough not to announce this discovery before checking with other data. After some years when he was fully convinced... did he publicly announce the same. The norm, strictly followed by Everest himself, was that while naming a peak, the local name should be preferred. But in this case, Waugh made an exception. He paid a tribute to his ex-boss by proposing that the peak be named after Everest. Everest agreed, and Sikdar was conveniently forgotten.

It appears that while Everest and Waugh both extolled him for his exceptional mathematical abilities, his relations with the colonial administration were far from cordial. Two specific instances are on record.

In 1851 a voluminous Survey Manual (Eds. Capt. H. L. Thullier and Capt. F. Smyth) was published by the Survey Department. The preface to the Manual clearly and specifically mentioned that the more technical and mathematical chapters of the Manual were written by Babu Radhanath Sikdar. The Manual proved to be immensely useful to surveyors. However, the third edition, published in 1875 (i.e., after Sikdar's death) did not contain that preface, so that Sikdar's memorable contribution was de-recognized. The incident was condemned by a section of British suveyors. The paper "
Friend of India" in 1876 called it 'robbery of the dead'.

It is also on record that Sikdar was fined a sum of 200 rupees (in those days... a princely sum) by the British court in 1843 for having vehemently protested against the unlawful exploitation or rather maltreatment of survey department workers (derogatorily referred to as "paharee coolies") by the Magistrate Vansittart. The incident was reported in detail in "The Bengal Spectator" edited by another great Derozian Ramgopal Ghosh.

According to
Lieutenant Colonel Walter Stanhope Sherwill of Scotland... Sickdhar's "hobby was beef, as he maintained that beef-eaters were never bullied, and that the right way to improve the Bengalees was to think first of the physique or perhaps physique and moral simultaneously". He certainly had moral courage. Whether it was due to beef or not is difficult to say. Although the colonial administration fined him Rs 200 for his "criminal" action he was hailed as a hero by his countrymen.

In 1854, he along with his Derozian friend Peary Chand Mitra started the Bengali journal "Masik Patrika" (tr: the monthly newspaper), for the education and empowerment of women. He used to write in a simple and uncluttered style that was rather atypical for that age.

He died on 17 May 1870 at Gondalpara, Chandannagar in his villa... by the side of the river Ganga.

Everest recorded in 1835 that Sickdhar "received an exceedingly good elementary education in mathematics... which he... had the good sense considerably to extend". He was given a personal monthly allowance of Rs 100 to dissuade him from leaving the Survey. On his part Sickdhar noted with pride that Everest admitted him "in his own table".

The following letter written by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Stanhope Sherwill of Scotland and published in "The Friend of India" in 1876 makes interesting reading. "A friend has just sent me a copy of the Friend of India of the 24th June, all the way from Germany, in order that I might be made acquainted with the sad fact that, when bringing out a third edition of "Smyth and Thuillier's Manual of Surveying for India," the much respected name of the late Babu Radhanath Sikdar, the able and distinguished head of the computing department of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, who did so much to enrich the early editions of the "Manual," had been advertently, or inadvertently, removed from the preface of the last edition; while at the same time all the valuable matter written by the Babu had been retained, and that without any acknowledgment as to the authorship.

As an old Revenue Surveyor who used the "Manual" for a quarter of a century, and as an acquaintance of the late Radhanath Sikdar, I feel quite ashamed for those who have seen fit to exclude his name from the present edition, especially as the former Editors so fully acknowledged the deep obligations under which they found themselves for Radhanath's assistance, not only for the particular portion of the work "which they desire thus publicly to acknowledge - so runs the preface of the 1851 edition, - but for the advice so generally afforded on all subjects connected with his own department.

"Yesterday only I mentioned the circumstance of the omission of Radhanath's name to one of the Tagores, an old and intimate friend of Radhanath's and who is now travelling in Scotland; he was pained beyond measure, but made the significant remark "you see, he is a dead man".

Nevertheless, in recognition of Sikdar's mathematical genius the German Philosophical Society's Bavaria branch of Natural Science made him a Corresponding Member in 1864, a very rare honour those days. Sikdar had retired from service in 1862.

Some Indians, including the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, are of the opinion that Mount Everest should be renamed after Sikdar.

The Department of Posts, Government of India, launched a postal stamp on June 27, 2004, commemorating the establishment of the GTS in Chennai, India on April 10, 1802. The stamps feature Radhanath Sikdar and Pandit Nain Singh Rawat, two significant contributors to society. Incidentally... Nain Singh (19th century CE/ 1830-1895) had entered Tibet (which was then closed to outsiders) disguised as a Lama and carried out surveys in secret for over 21 months. It makes for a fascinating read even after all these years... I tell you.

(More later...)

Some info gathered courtesy wikipedia, and Cultivation of Science in the 19th Century Bengal by Rajesh Kochhar.


Radhanath Sikdar and Mt. Everest. Pic courtesy:


  1. Roshmi didi...brilliant piece about a great but forgotten bengali...really fascinating!

    i wonder from where did you develop your "profound" knowledge in bengal history....

    may i know your qualifications if you dont mind? :)

  2. :o
    Very fascinating! Absolutely unknown territory of Indian history! Very nice! :)
    Long time waise. How are you? Oh and how's your baby? :)

  3. Roshmi , very informative post as usual , you obviously do a lot of home work and painstaking research in your posts . Was truly a pleasure knowing about the genius of Shri Radhanath Sikdar.

  4. the gyan bhandar out again.. reminds me of potli baba ki :P only dis time potli roshmi ki.. i had no idea f dis dude.. n his association wid everest.. well 2b honest i dnt evn knw d history behind all these things.. or shud i say history in general... alway nice 2knw facts on ur page.. mks me feel alil smart :P.. tho i'll forget most f it d moment i leave d page.. infact writing dis commnt here, i can recllct d details.. but in all nice read...

    as for d unsung heroes.. i gues der wud b many more like des n others unlike des.. still heroes in der own way , who r long lost n i wnt say forgottn .. for we dnt evn knw dem in d 1st place..

  5. @ Indian Pundit: :D :D Thanks IP! I'm flattered...

    P.S. Radhanath Sikdar isn't just a forgotten Bengali but a forgotten Indian as well. We are strangers to our own history...

  6. @ Preeti: Welcome back! Hope to see more of your 'karare and kurkure posts' :D

    P.S. I'm good. Busy playing mommy to my babyshona... who is growing up fast...

    He is trying his best to speak, stand and turn... and its such a joy to see him do all that and more :)

    He tries to snap his fingers, blow kisses at us... without success that is. But one should see him trying his best... you cannot stop laughing :)

  7. @ Sunil: Thanks a bunch Sunilji... for those kind words :)

    P.S. There are many unsung heroes in this country and/or events that has got buried and lost in the sands of time. It is a pity... we are strangers to our own history...

  8. @ Sobhit: Hahahahaha!

    "as for d unsung heroes.. i gues der wud b many more like des n others unlike des.. still heroes in der own way , who r long lost n i wnt say forgottn .. for we dnt evn knw dem in d 1st place.. "

    Yes... there are many unsung heroes in this country and/or events that has got buried and lost in the sands of time.

    Your statement sums it up succinctly. It is a pity... we are strangers to our own history...

  9. U will find many unsung heroes. Definitely it is really tragic that we are paying cold shoulder to our own grand historic past.

  10. @ Jagdish Bali: Thanks for stopping by my blog... and I agree with you.

  11. Great tribute to an unsung Bengali genius.
    When you mention about Nain Singh Rawat, I am immediately reminded of Sarat Chandra Das, the great scholar of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, who has only been remembered as a British agent in the Great Game and his scholarly constributions conveniently forgotten. I wish to see him alive through your pen.

  12. @ Bengali Hindu: Thanks and welcome to my blog. I'll write about Sarat Chandra Das too...

    P.S. Liked your blog. Following it...