The Great Arc

In history, regimes can’t be classified in binary. Their activities, actions and achievements have to be summed contextually. Even then, without accounting for multiple perspectives, judging a regime as good or bad should not ensue.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey

The British rule of India is one such regime which evoke extreme opinions. The Brits, from most accounts, did run their government in a typically high handed manner.

However, one cannot but admire their steadfastness and rigor in the pursuit of scientific exploration.

This is best highlighted in the book “The Great Arc” by John Keay which traces a century of work to measure the length and breadth of India. This is a book that must be made compulsory reading in high schools across the world, for it lays bare, a story on how humans satiated their thirst for knowledge in a still primitive age, how they overcame all odds while achieving their goals and finally how they strove for perfection in the middle of very trying circumstances.

Some notes from the book –

  • The whole business of measuring India’s “geodesy” started from Mysore after Tipu’s fall.
  • In the absence of any “droogs” (durga) near Tanjore, how they tried to use the Brihadeeswara Temple’s arch to mount their theodolite and how it fell damaging the instrument. (There is however no mention of any possible damages to the temple arch.)
  • In complete contrast, they do not even attempt to make use of the Taj Mahal fearing that it might be harmed.
  • George Everest looked condescendingly towards his boss William Lambton’s assistants Joshua de penning, Joseph Olliver, William Rossenrode as they were “mestizoes” or half-caste Britons. (a la Muhajirs?)
  • Radhanath Sickdhar, who was the Chief Computer towards the later part of the Survey, did not necessarily discover the peaks as is widely believed in India. His was a relatively smaller, but significant role in measuring the peaks while based in Calcutta.

The humongous magnitude of the survey can be probably inferred from the fact, that the persons who took charge after Everest retired and completed the survey probably weren’t even born when the survey was conceived by William Lambton.

Another important fact to be noted is that this survey was entirely bankrolled by the East India Company as a precursor to their expansion activities in India. This could be an indication to the amount of profits they may have been making from India.

Overall, a very important story for totally different reasons and perspectives. Only hope somebody writes a similar book on the Great Indian Railway.

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