Kintup and the Everest of the Rivers
A lot has been written on the exploration of the Western Himalayas by various Explorers as it was a politically very active region in the 18th and 19th Centuries with various powers come into conflict to push their interests in these parts. In stark contrast very less has been written about the Eastern edge of the Himalayas and even fewer people have ventured into this enigmatic part of the Himalayas. The jungles which surrounded the Eastern Himalayas made them almost impossible to get to and the Weather didn't help as the Eastern Himalayas get 3 times the precipitation that the Western Himalayas do.
And was in the Eastern Himalayas that a great mystery evolved which took hundreds of years to finally decipher and figure it out. It was a great Geographical puzzle and it involved the main River that runs through North East India, the Brahmaputra. Its a huge River as we are aware of and early Explorers wanted to find more and one of the favourite Explorations of these Explorers was the charting of the Route of the River from its source right till where it met the Sea. There are two ways to achieve its objective. You either start from the point it originates or you start from the point it hits the Seas or the Plains. The problem with the Brahmaputra was that tracing it back to the source was almost impossible due to a number of factors. First was the simple fact that the forests in the Foot Hills were impenetrable. And more than that the Tribes and the Indigenous People living in these Hills were very hostile to any outsiders and stories of head hunting were common. And another third point was that at the Brahmaputra was composed of 4 main tributaries which entered India from the East. So which was the main and which one was a Tributary was another question.
And in the highlands of Tibet, which was mostly inaccessible to Western explorers and outsiders, was a great River called the Tsangpo or the Yarlung Tsangpo who’s point of origin was known to be the Mansarover Lake at the foot of the Holy Kailash Mountain but no one was sure of where the River disappeared once it went off the Tibetan Plateau. Westerners who had heard accounts of this great River were also intrigued as to where about this great River go and where did it discharge into the sea. You need to remember that this impenetrable Region into which the Yarlung Tsangpo disappeared was also called Pemako and nothing much was known about it to the outside World. And beyond Pemako draining off the Tibetan Plateau were not one but 5 Great Rivers of Asia who create deep Gorges as they cut through some of the Highest Mountains. The Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy, the Salween, the Mekong and the Jinsha or the Great Yangtze all flow almost parallel to each other in an area less than a 100 km wide. This Region is a true wilderness and you need to experience it to know how impossible it is to access.
I had travelled to this Region in 2018 and saw the breathtaking sight of the Jinsha or the Yangtze raving and frothing its way through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Of course Chinese engineering has meant that the area is now accessible and the Chinese Government opened up this area in 1990’s to the outside World. This area is now a World Heritage Area, called the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan World Heritage. And as mentioned besides these Three the other two Great Rivers also skirt around the Himalayas in the same region.
Coming back to where we started. This question puzzled western Explorers as well till someone put two and two together and said “Hey, maybe the Tsangpo is the Brahmaputra”. Now at that time this suggestion looked incredible as it was hard to believe that a River would loose all that elevation within a stretch of 150 kms. From the high Tibetan Plateau to the low Assam Valleys. But then it was the only plausible explanation and the two Rivers were connected. There was another school of thought which said that the Tsangpo was actually the Irrawaddy and that also looked like a possibility. Many papers were return and letters were exchanged on both the possibilities. The only way to get a definite answer was to send someone to Tibet and actually follow the course of the River and come up with conclusive evidence which would rest the matter for the future. Hence for many Explorers just like climbing the Everest was the ultimate prize, the same way exploring the Yarlung Tsangpo all the way to the Sea was called a feat equivalent of scaling the Everest, hence the term the Everest of Rivers.
Only there was a problem. Tibet was off limits and there was no chance of Tibetans letting in anyone from outside to Survey their Rivers. So the British decided on the next best option. The Pandits. The Legendary Pandits were Indian natives, mostly from the Mountains, who penetrated deep into Tibet under the guide of Pilgrims or Merchants or a Monks and surveyed the land for the British who ran the Missions from across the Himalayas. Many of us have heard of Nain Singh, Kishan Singh, Kalyan Singh and even Abdul Hamid and Hari Ram. And of course a large number of these Pandits just went into oblivion or disappeared in the Himalayan vastness their stories mostly untold. And then there was Kintup. Kintup the Tailor.
Kintup was a Tailor based in Gangtok in Sikkim and he was also an Explorer and could pass off very well as a Tibetan. The first time one of the Pandits, Nem Singh was sent to explore the course of the Yarlung Zangbo and Kintup went along as an assistant in 1878. Their Mission was to chart the Route all the way from the Tibetan Plateau to Assam. They partly succeeded but due to the inherent impenetrable ness of the Terrain there was still a gap of 160 kms which they couldn't explore. It is said that though Kintup wanted to push on but Nem Singh wasn't so keen on the same and both returned to India where their British bosses were not too pleased with Nem Singh’s decision to come back without exploring the complete course of the River.
In a couple of years an Expedition was put together again and Kintup was again a part of it along with a Chinese Lama who said he knew these parts. And just to be sure they came up with a ingenious Plan which didnt require Exploring the whole course but one that would still prove that the Yarlung Tsangpo was infact the Brahmaputra of Assam. The Plan involved floating down 500 logs with special carvings the Yarlung Tsangpo and stationing teams of people in lower Assam to watch out for these Logs and even if one log was picked up by the team it would mean that the mystery was solved. Sounded like quite a plan and so the Expedition was soon underway.
But as fate would have it the Chinese Lama turned out to be treacherous. And once they were in the Kham he revealed his secret as well as that of Kintup to the Tibetan Authorities and he was rewarded for the act while Kintup was thrown into the prison. But after a few months Kintup managed to escape and made his way to Monastery. His captors soon caught up with him but the Head Lama of the Monastery bought them off by giving them some money and now Kintup was in the employment of the Head Lama. He worked very diligently for the Lama and I assume he took a liking for his spirit and the Lama decided to give him his freedom. What Kintup did next speaks for the character of a man. Kintup decided to go to Lhasa and sent a message to his British boss from there narrating the misfortune that had befallen him during the Expedition but at the same time he said that he would carry out with his Mission and he would soon start sending the Logs down the Yarlung Zangbo.
And that is what he did. He collected 500 logs and carved them and floated them down the River at the rate of one log per day. But unfortunately there was no Team to look for them as his message had not reached India and it had been more than a year since he had left and had no communication with his Bosses. They had just given up on him. Another Explorer lost in the vastness of the Trans Himalayas. After having done that Kintup decided to again explore down the course of the River anyways. He spent a couple of Years exploring the the Region and came quite close to reaching all the way down to Assam but again the terrain and the hostile Tribes made it impossible and Kintup decided to return to India. And he was almost lost in oblivion until someone took interest in his Journals and these were finally published in 1889, many years after he had returned from a Journey that few could even imagine possible.
His Journal conjured up a magical World of Deep Gorges, Waterfalls and Impenetrable Jungle with hostile Tribes. A Region that the Tibetans used to call Pemako. It inspired many people to go Explore the Region but many people were also sceptical as there was no way to confirm all the information that he had got. He in particular mentioned a 150 feet high Waterfall with a Lake at its bottom. This is what was called the Hidden Falls. Kintup still accompanied the occasional forays into Tibet but it was finally only after 1905 when the British led by Col.Francis Younghusband defeated the Tibetan and the area was opened that the British realised that Kintup was right in all his observations. Though he wasnt literate but he had an excellent memory and was intelligent as well to minutely observe his surroundings. It took more than 15 years for observations to be validated and added to the Survey of India archives. The final validation of his extraordinary Journeys and Explorations was validated by a team of Explorers sent to run the Course of the River. They were also astounded to find out how accurate Kintup was. And yes he was still around in 1914. They found the Hidden Waterfall as well though it wasn't as high as Kintup had mentioned.
Anyways the area was closed for further Explorations after the Chinese took Tibet and in wake of the Sino Indian conflict the whole area was off limits. And as I mentioned before the area was opened for foreigners only in the 1990s and two Expeditions one Japanese and one Western tried to Canoe/ Raft down the Yarlung Tsangpo but both lost a member each and couldnt complete the Mission. It was only in 2002-2003 that the first Expedition finally succeeded in navigating the Upper Brahmaputra. The highest Falls was visited and recorded again in 1998 when it was found out to be around 108 feet. And then it later dawned upon the Explorers that Kintup who always got his Maths right hadn't misjudged the height. He was talking about a seperate Waterfall which was made by a Tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo as it fell over a Cliff.
The person responsible for this was Richard Fisher who first established this as one of the Deepest Gorges of the World. Fisher further goes onto mention about the “Everest of Rivers”comparison “"I did not want this incredible canyon to become an Everest-style killing fields." This canyon cannot be "knocked off" or conquered. Everest is a holy mountain as the Tsangpo is an equally important sacred canyon. Everest represents the male earth and the Tsangpo, the female hidden lands of this planet. It is a great blessing for all those who love the earth that, god willing, we have passed into a new era for the Tsangpo. This living canyon has withstood an almost military western style assault. "Today this chasm remains as elusive, beautiful and fresh as the first day I saw it in 1992," Fisher said.
As for Kintup he died in 1914 only months after he was officially recognised for his contributions and given a princely sum of Rs.3000 for his endeavors.
PS : The Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge it still remains a impenetrable area and even if you Google for pics you would find only a few and far between giving you an idea of how remote this Region still is.