Kintup: The extraordinary explorer

In the year 1913, the British officers Colonel Eric Bailey and Henry Morshead, pursued an unauthorised expedition in the Tsangpo Gorges. For the first time, it established the definite route by which the Tsangpo River reaches the sea from north of Himalaya, through the Tsangpo Gorge. They traveled in the little known land extensively, and were amazed to find out how accurate the accounts of Kintup were. Following an arduous search, Colonel Bailey was able to trace him back . Many years had passed, and the aged Kintup was then working as a tailor in Darjeeling. Bailey tried hard to secure a pension for him, but unfortunately-did not succeed. Shortly after, Kintup passed away.

Well, who was Kintup?

In 1818, the British started the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. One of the main intentions of the survey was to obtain a better geographic knowledge of the remote Himalayan areas, particularly Tibet. The authorities decided to use ‘locals’ for surveying and spying the far flung corners of the mysterious Tibet. The native Indian surveyors cum spies were known as ‘pundits’.

Kintup was one of these ‘pundits’. He was a Lepcha man from Sikkim. In 1880, the colonial government of India sent Kintup, aka K.P., to solve the most interesting unsolved geological mysteries of that time- to follow the Tsangpo river and determine its ultimate destination, thus finding out if the Brahmaputra and the Tsangpo are different names for the same river.

Kintup set out in August 1880, with a Chinese Lama who had been living in Darjeeling. However, misfortune accompanied him. Within a year, on reaching the banks of Tsangpo, the Lama deceived Kintup and sold him to the headman as a slave and went off to China! After several months of tumult and struggle, he once again embarked upon his mission. With great determination he started following the course of Tsangpo through difficult terrains and unknown lands. Kintup could neither read nor write, but he had twice accompanied other Pundits and shown himself to be reliable and intelligent. He memorized a detailed account of the lands he traversed.

After reaching a predetermined spot on the Tsangpo, Kintup cut 500 one foot long logs of wood, to which he fixed special tags of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India . The plan was to float these down the Tsangpo so that it could be seen whether they emerged from the Brahmaputra – thus proving the two rivers were one and the same. Over a period of ten days, Kintup released the logs into the river- fifty at a time.

Four years after leaving, Kintup finally returned home. Sadly, his troubles did not end here. Firstly, he found that his wife had died during his absence. Secondly, he found out that the Pundit in Darjeeling to whom he had written from Lhasa to look over the 500 logs he had released, had died, and the letter he had sent had not reached the British Survey of India. His logs had sailed unnoticed down the Tsangpo / Brahmaputra River, and out into the Bay of Bengal. Worst of all, many people simply did not believe Kintup’s extraordinary accounts, and he sank back into obscurity, undertaking his previous profession of a tailor. His dedication remained unrecognized all through his lifetime .

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