Forgotten heroes

Published: Tuesday 15 March 2005

A Million Steps directed by Pankaj Butalia 22 minutes

For the imperialists of the 19th century, maps were lynchpins that held up their empires. 'The Great Game' -- played out between Russia and Britain as each vied for power and influence in Asia -- relied heavily on maps. In the mid-19th century, the Russian tsars made regular forays into Afghanistan sending the colonial state in India into deep paranoia.

Pankaj Butalia's short but compelling film focuses on the lives of a handful of people caught up in these imperial machinations. For Britain, Tibet was a place of mystery and potential strategic value. With scant geographical knowledge of the precise location of Russia's borders, the colonial state feared the tsarist forces could descend via the Tibetan plateau into India. Determined to outwit their Slavic rivals, the British commissioned Indian surveying teams to enter Tibet and map its unknown terrain. A Million Steps presents an illuminating glimpse of the lives of those involved.

Between 1865 and 1880, numerous Indians were commissioned to enter Tibet to survey the mountainous terrain. Disguised as Buddhist lamas, these men were equipped only with scant surveying knowledge and a number of rudimentary surveying tools. Cunning espionage tricks were employed. The pundits, as they came to be known, were taught to use a sextant, make astronomical readings, use a tea bowl filled with mercury to measure the horizon, and take precise thirty-three inch steps throughout their arduous journeys. Every hundred steps they would drop one bead from their traditional Buddhist rosary, which had been modified to carry a 100 rather than a 108 beads. Thus one complete rosary rotation equated to a 1,000 steps, or five miles (eight kilometres). Altitude was measured by measuring the temperature at which water boiled. Buddhist prayer wheels were modified to contain maps, notes of altitude and landmarks.

A Million Steps exposes the intense hardship of these forgotten journeys. Butalia splices comments of scholars on the 19th century expeditions with black and white footage of early 20th century Tibetan journeys. The latter -- though dated a century later -- evocatively convey the difficult trials of the surveying missions. Conditions were severe. Many pundits were robbed, deported, tortured or executed.

The price of discovery by Tibetan authorities was death, a risk taken for a paltry twenty rupees a day's pay. Yet, the commitment of the pundits to their missions did not abate, and those who withstood the rigours returned with astonishingly accurate measurements.

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