Tsangpo, The River of Mystery

Colonel SK Bose (Retd)*

The great mystery of the 18th century cartographers was how did the Tsangpo (also known as Yarlung Tsangpo) reach the sea. The mighty river rose near Mt Kailash and flowed due east for 808 miles (1300 km) paralleling the northern slopes of the Himalayas, on the Tibetan plateau at an average elevation of 13,000 feet. For most part it is a wide, sluggish river navigable by a variety of boats. Then it enters the rugged mountains of the eastern Himalayas and disappears from view. From this point to where it emerges into the Assam valley, the river drops 11,000 ft in about 200 miles (320 kms). The local inhabitants believed that it turned south and flowed into Assam. That would mean that in Assam it became the Brahmaputra. This was also the view of the Catholic mission in Lhasa. But the Jesuits, in early 18th century, linked it with the Irrawaddy. The consensus of opinion favoured Brahmaputra, but conclusive evidence was needed. In trying to solve this mystery, two officers won the MacGregor Memorial Medal awarded by the United Service Institution of India and three others won everlasting fame. This is the story of how they unravelled the mysteries of River Tsangpo.

            The peculiar geographical feature of this part of Asia is that further east from where Tsangpo enters the mountains, there exist four great rivers, all flowing south in parallel courses set 50 miles apart from one another. The nearest was Irrawaddy, which rises in the mountainous region of North Burma (now Myanmar). The other three rivers are successively Salween, Mekong and Yangtze, which originate in China.

            The only way to solve the mystery of Tsangpo was to follow the course of the river. There were two alternatives, either proceed upriver from Assam or downriver from Tibet. The first alternative presents another set of difficulties. Four rivers join to become Brahmaputra. The eastern most of these is Lohit. A few miles from Sadiya, it is joined by Dibang and closely followed by Dihang and after some distance by Subansiri. The riddle was, which of these was the Tsangpo.So which river was to be followed upstream.

            By the early 1870s, the Survey of India had stepped into the picture and tried to adopt the method, which had worked earlier. They tried to find local people or pundits1, who could be trained to make a clandestine recce upriver, but could not find suitable people. The Survey of India, therefore, had to fall back on the most experienced of the Pundits, Nain Singh. During his travels in 1866-67, Nain Singh had traced most of the course of the Tsangpo from its source near Lake Mansarovar to the point where it was joined by the tributary from Lhasa. In 1873 he was dispatched to Lhasa to make his way to Peking (now Beijing).If that failed, he was to follow the Tsangpo downriver into Assam. No one then realised how tremendously difficult that would be. Nain Singh’s trip to Peking did not materialise, so he embarked upon his secondary objective and in late 1874 reached Shetang, 45 miles southeast of Lhasa, before lack of funds compelled him to return. The next to be sent out was Lala. He followed a different route, but could not proceed beyond Shetang.

            Lieutenant Henry Harman was then put in charge of survey operations in Assam in 1874. He planned a two-pronged attack. In the meantime he measured the flow of the rivers flowing into Lohit. The discharge of Dihang was 55,000 cusec, Lohit itself 33,800 cusec, Dibang 27000 cusec and that of Subansiri about 18,000 cusec2. These figures provided circumstantial proof that if Tsangpo was indeed the Brahmaputra, then Dihang was the connecting link.

            The team for this north to south ascent was Nem Singh and Kintup in 1878. They found that the river’s initial south easterly direction on entering the mountains, soon changed to due east and then the river made a sharp bend northeast, cut between the two highest peaks of the eastern Himalayas, Namcha Barwa 25531 ft (7782 m) and Gyala Peri 23931 ft (7294 m). They passed through Pe and reached Gyala Sindong. The rugged mountainous terrain intimidated Nem Singh and they turned back.

            But Harman was not pleased with Nem Singh’s results as his records were slipshod and sacked him before relenting and reinstating him and sending him to Nain Singh for further training. Just when everybody had accepted that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were indeed the same river, Robert Gordon, an engineer with the Public Works Department, Burma, again raised the issue of Tsangpo flowing into Irrawaddy. His arguments did not cut much ice and the limelight shifted back to Brahmaputra.

            Harman had since been promoted to Captain. While carrying out some triangulation work, he suffered severe frostbite and after some rest in Darjeeling, he decided to make use of Kintup once more in 1880. Kintup was described as “dependable, thickset, active of medium height and with a look of dogged determination. He had weather beaten features and a deep chested voice, with alertness of a mountaineer and the strength of a lion. He was 31 years old’’3. The most famous of the Pundits, was no doubt Nain Singh, but where sheer perseverance, doggedness and determination and dedication to duty was concerned, Kintup was unmatched. He was illiterate, but made up for it with his phenomenal memory. He was paired with a Chinese lama and was asked to follow the course of Tsangpo all the way to Assam. In case of inability to do so, an ingenious contingency plan was drawn up by Captain Harman. Kintup was to prepare about 500 specially marked logs and after sending a message to Harman, he was to throw them into the river. Harman would then station men at Dihang and Brahmaputra to try and intercept these logs. Finding even one of these logs would achieve the aim.

            Kintup and the Chinese lama set out in the summer of 1880. The latter seemed in no hurry. They reached Pe, where the river enters the mountains, and proceeded downriver to Gyala Sindong at the mouth of the Upper Gorge in March 1881. Another 15 miles downriver was Pemakochung, where there was a small monastery. It is near Pemakochung that Kintup reportedly saw the falls, which was 150 ft high. Beyond this point the lama and Kintup found it impossible to follow the watercourse.

            They retraced their steps to Pe and after climbing out of the gorge, decided to follow the course of the river from the northern side. They skirted the Big Bend and just beyond its peak, reached Jongjuk Jong. After a couple of days, on 24 May 1881, the Chinese lama left and was never seen again. Kintup was told that the lama had sold him as a slave to the Jongpon. On 7 March 1882 Kintup managed to slip away and fled southwards paralleling the Tsangpo, to Marpung. Here the Jongpon’s men caught up with him. Kintup went to the monastery there and sought refuge. The head lama paid Rs.50/- to the Jongpon’s men for Kintup, who now had to serve as the head lama’s servant. It was now August 1882. Kintup now decided to carry out Captain Harman’s contingency plan. He went to Gilling and prepared 500 logs and after a most arduous journey, reached Lhasa in December 1882. He managed to send a letter to Nem Singh to be handed over to Captain Harman. Unknown to Kintup, Captain Harman’s health had deteriorated by a combination of frost bite, overwork and harsh climatic conditions. He left India in December 1882, just before Kintup’s letter reached Nem Singh. His sisters took him to Florence, Italy and cared for him till his death on 14 April 1883.

            Unaware of these events, the amazing Kintup returned to Marpung monastery by a new route and managed to throw the logs into the river at the rate of 50 logs per day. However, since Kintup’s letter did not reach Captain Harman, no one was posted in Brahmaputra to watch out of the logs. He then crossed over to the western bank of the river and reached Onlet, just 40 miles from the then boundary of British India. The hostile Abors forced him to turn back. Kintup went to Pemakochung, and from there returned to Darjeeling via Lhasa and Sikkim on 17 November 1884, after more than four years. Derek Waller’s description of Kintups journeys tend to be confusing as in Maps 5 and 9 on pages 128 and 218 respectively of his book, the positions of Gyala Sindong and Pemakochung, have been erroneously shown as beyond the Big Bend.4 They are in fact located well before the Big Bend.

            Colonel Tanner had, in the meanwhile, assumed charge of the triangulation of the Himalayas after the departure of Captain Harman. He had no information about Kintup. Lieutenant General Walker, the only other man who knew about Kintup, had retired as Surveyor General in 1883, so it was only in 1886 that Colonel Tanner learnt about Kintup and sent for him. Kintup first narrated the account of his travels to Lama Ugyen Gyatso, which was then translated into English by Norpu, an employee of the Survey of India, and brushed up by Colonel Tanner, who then compiled a brief report in 1888, which formed part of the general report of the Survey of India. The full report of Kintup’s incredible odyssey was published only in 1889, full five years after his return. Kintup was given a reward of Rs.3000/-, but his observations were given less importance, because he was illiterate. Paradoxically the one item, which later moved to be a translation error, that attracted worldwide attention, was the one about the existence of a 150 ft waterfall near Pemakochung. There was great excitement among geographers, who had been anticipating something of this kind. Thus another dimension was added to the mystery of Tsangpo.

            Robert Gordon, however, had not given up, and twice tried to link Tsangpo with Irrawaddy, however the explorations of Needham and Captain Molesworth in 1886 made it impossible to connect Tsangpo with Irrawaddy.

            Attempts to proceed downriver along Tsangpo were given up and replaced by endeavours to go upriver from Sadiya. An effort by Major Davies and Captain Ryder of the Survey of India in 1899 from the east from China failed as they were turned back by the Tibetans. Another attempt was made by Needham, the Assistant Political Officer at Sadiya in 1901. He and his small party travelled up along Dihang upto Kebang, about 45 miles north west of Sadiya, when they were prevented from proceeding further by the Abors.

             The expedition of Lieutenant Colonel Younghusband in 1903-04 changed the equation. Tibet was subdued and there was no further need for subterfuge or clandestine survey. The Pundits were no longer required. In 1911, Williamson, who had taken over as Political Officer at Sadiya, and his party of 40, were murdered by the Abors. A punitive force was sent to teach the Abors a lesson. This force was given Kintup’s narrative to help them. One detachment reached Sining, overlapping Kintup’s journey by 40 miles. One member reported to the Royal Geographical Society that the names of settlements along the river agreed remarkably well with the names given by Kintup. Thus Kintup was vindicated and it was conclusively proved that Tsangpo was indeed, the Brahmaputra. This is what the Survey of India believed. But outside this organisation doubts continued. Kintup was after all only an illiterate native.

            The stage was now set for the entry of another remarkable explorer, Captain Frederick Bailey, who wanted to approach from the east. In January 1911, during his annual leave, Bailey travelled by the Trans – Siberian railway to Peking and crossed Mekong and Salween. He soon came up Zayul river (Lohit), which he followed upstream to Shugden Gompa. The area west of the monastery was very disturbed, with daily skirmishes between tribals and the Chinese. The Jongpon wouldn’t allow Bailey to proceed further. Reluctantly he retraced his steps downriver and after travelling through unexplored Mishmi territory reached Sadiya in August 1911. Bailey was reprimanded for overstayal of leave and docked twenty one days’ pay, but his contributions were recognised and he was awarded the Gill Memorial Medal by the Royal Geographical Society and the MacGregor Memorial Medal by United Service Institution of India.5

            In 1912, back in Sadiya once more, Captain Bailey was appointed intelligence officer of the Mishmi Exploration Survey. In February 1913, he reached Mipi 100 miles north of Sadiya. His last journey had convinced him that Tsangpo and Dihang were the same, but direct evidence was needed to convince the world at large. This time he had another goal. He wanted to find the 150 ft waterfall, mentioned in Kintup’s report. He realised that he could not make it alone.

            At Mipi Captain Bailey asked Captain Henry Morshead to join him. Morshead was only too happy to do so. On 16 May 1913, Bailey and Morshead set out northwards along the east bank of Tsangpo. They skirted the Lower Gorge, the Big Bend and the Upper Gorge, before meeting the Tsangpo at Pe. They now followed the river downstream at water level and reached Gyala Sindong. They had established beyond all doubt that Tsangpo-Dihang-Brahmaputra were indeed one and the same river. They proceeded further to Pemakochung. Two miles further they came to the waterfall. It was July and the river was in spate. They were disappointed to find that the waterfall was only a 30 ft drop – a far cry from the 150 ft fall that they had anticipated. This is now known as KINTUP falls.

             Bailey and Morshead advanced a further twelve miles beyond before being turned back by the rugged terrain. Their supplies had also run out. They retraced their steps to Pe and proceeded upriver to Shetang and back to India. Bailey found that though Kintup consistently underestimated his distance, his descriptions were accurate. Captain George Dunbar, leading the other survey team, carried a copy of Kintup’s narrative. On the whole the survey team were able to identify 130 of 150 villages east of Shetang as contained in Kintup’s report. At Marpung Monastery Dunbar donated Rs.50/- to the head lama, whose predecessor had given refuge to Kintup. Bailey and Morshead reached Simla on 26 November 1913. Bailey located Kintup and got him to come to Simla. He confirmed that he had given the height of the falls at 30 ft. Kintup was honoured by the Viceroy and presented with a parchment and a lump sum amount of Rs.1000/-. Kintup returned to Darjeeling and died a few months later. The Royal Geographical Society awarded Bailey the patron’s Gold Medal in 1916 and the United Service Institution of India awarded the Mac Gregor Memorial Medal to Morshead.6

            The next to enter the picture was the famous explorer, plant hunter and botanist, Captain Frank Kingdon-Ward, who had collected about 23,000 species of plants between Namcha Barwa and Yunan Plateau.7 It was now 1924 and his dream was to traverse the Tsangpo Gorges to look for waterfalls, especially a 150 ft one, notwithstanding Bailey’s denial of its existence. Thus was born the legend of the “Falls of Brahmaputra – the great romance of geography, as Kingdon-Ward called it. He and his primary sponsor, Lord Cawdor set out for Gangtok after making elaborate arrangements and reached the British Residency in Gangtok on 17 March 1924. The middle aged Political Officer who welcomed them was none other than the indomitable Major FM Bailey.

            In the ten years since his return from the Tsangpo Gorges, Bailey had seen action in the World War I and had been wounded twice at Gallipolli and had eluded the Russian Bolsheviks as a secret agent in Central Asia for more than a year.8 Recently married, Bailey had settled down into a serene and peaceful posting on Tibetan frontier in 1921. Kingdon-Ward himself had joined the Indian army at the outbreak of World War I and had risen to the rank of Captain by the end of the war. During World War II, Kingdon-Ward made good use of his specialised knowledge of northern Burma, while working for the Special Operations Executive in order to establish a safe corridor for downed allied airmen escaping the Japanese. Lord Cawdor joined the Cameron Highlanders at the outbreak of World War II and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

            From Gangtok, Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor crossed over to Tibet and reached Pe and followed the route traversed by Kintup and later by Bailey and Morshead and passed Gyala Sindong en route to Pemakochung. Two miles beyond, they came upon KINTUP falls and three days later reached the point where Bailey and Morshead had to turn back. Three more days of enduring incredible difficulties found them at another falls, which they estimated to be of 40 ft (12m) height. Later measurements showed the height to be of 70 ft (21m). It created a cloud of spray which created rainbows. They named the falls RAINBOW falls. They found it impossible to proceed further and climbed out of the gorge with great difficulty. Now they proceeded to Gompo Ne, where the Po Tsangpo comes from the north and meets the Yarlung Tsangpo, just short of the Big Bend. They tried to follow river upstream, but had to stop after a mile and retrace their steps as the terrain was extremely difficult. To circumvent this stretch, they climbed to 9000 ft (2700m) from 5300 ft (1606m) and made a wide arc before again descending to the river level. They could hear the river before reaching it. The noise was terrific. They saw two falls of 30 to 40 ft (9-12m) separated by 100 yds (90m). Kingdon-Ward named it “Falls of Brahmaputra”.9 It was renamed by others as ‘WARD falls’. Kingdon-Ward was disappointed at not finding the 100 ft falls he was looking for, but the falls he had discovered was spectacular enough.

            While searching for the waterfalls another secret of the Tsangpo was discovered, almost unnoticed so far. The stretch from Gyala Sindong to Gompo Ne, is known as the Upper Gorge. In 1996, the Guinness Book identified Richard Fisher as the first to identify the upper Tsangpo Gorge as the earth’s deepest, where the Tsangpo hurtles through a narrow cut between Namcha Barwa 25,531 ft (7782m) and Gyala Peri 23,931 ft (7294m). The two peaks are just 13 miles (21km) apart. The depth was measured as 16,650 ft (5075m).10 Colca Canyon (Peru) is the next deepest at 10,500 ft (3200m) and Grand Canyon, Colorado, USA, third at 6,998 ft ( 2133m).

            After 1924, interest in the Tsangpo waterfalls waned, to be briefly revived by the publication of Talbot Mundy’s novel, “Om The Secret of Abor Valley” in 1924 and James Hilton’s best seller “Lost Horizon” in 1933, which was made into a film in 1937, and remained dormant for more than 70 years. Ian Baker had lived in Nepal since the 1980s and the legends of the Tsangpo Gorges had captured his imagination, especially about the existence of beyuls. Buddhist sages have described remote sanctuaries called beyuls which mean secret or hidden lands, deep in the Himalayas, where animals and plants are credited with miraculous powers, aging is slowed and enlightenment can easily be attained. The greatest of these beyuls is said to lie in the heart of the Tsangpo Gorges. A venerable lama had told Ian Baker that there were three waterfalls in the Gorges and the gateway to the beyul was near the middle one. About 10 miles (16km) of the innermost gorges remained unexplored and Ian Baker was convinced that this is where the gateway could be found. The Royal Geographic Society sponsored his eighth attempt in 1998. He was accompanied by Ken Storm and Hamid Sardar in this trip. Their Tibetan guide showed them the place. With climbing ropes they rappelled down the vertical rock face and reached the middle falls. They measured the height from various positions and to their surprise, the average reading came to 108 ft. Here, at last, was the 100 ft falls that explorers had been looking for. A bend in the river had hidden it from where Kingdon-Ward had seen the ‘RAINBOW falls’ just 450 yards (450 m) upstream. Rather appropriately they named it ‘HIDDEN falls’. They also saw a staggering sight,11 an oval passageway leading into the overhanging rock face across the turbulent waters. Their guide confirmed that it was indeed the promised gateway to the beyul but also, that there was no way of reaching it. Probably that was in the fitness of things. Let the last secret of the Tsangpo remain a mystery.

*Colonel SK Bose (Retd) was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers on 7 Jun 1959. Presently, he is working as Trust Engineer with Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, Puttaparthy (Andhra Pradesh).

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXL, No. 581, July-September 2010.


MacGregor Medal