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Mount Everest Sikdar

Why it's not Mt Sikdar

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Everest was named after a surveyor who had little to do with calculating its height while Indian mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, who actually solved the puzzle, was given short shrift.

In 1843, Surveyor-General George Everest retired from the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS) and went back to England. His protêgê Andrew Waugh then took charge of the GTS.

In 1849 Everest's close assistant Radhanath Sikdar (born 1813), who had till then been working in the Dehradun zone of the GTS as a senior officer for more than a decade and a half, was elevated to the rank of Chief Computer (the highest professional peak a 'native' was allowed to climb) and posted back to Kolkata. All important field documents had to pass the scrutiny of the 'numbercrunching genius' of this Bengali babu 'of Brahmin extraction', who was a product of the Hindu College, Kolkata, a disciple of poet-philosopher Henry Derozio and math teacher Dr John Tytler and a fiercely free-thinking beef-and-boxing enthusiast in the bargain. For his contributions to mathematics, Radhanath was to win in 1864 a Corresponding Membership of the Society of Natural History, Bavaria under the German Philosophical Society.

After the departure of George Everest in 1843, GTS had been trying to correctly determine the heights of the Himalayan peaks. The hunch was that an obscure peak, designated No. XV might be a contender for the highest peak. But surveyors JO Nicholson and John Hennessey could not solve the puzzle of conflicting readings. Now Radhanath plunged into the fray with all his celebrated mathematical might.

Light rays bend when they pass through different layers of air. The riddle lay with the correction to be applied to the long-distance telescopic observational readings for this bending. This is exactly where the other people had stumbled. Sikdar was the man who solved this problem. Between August and September 1851 he wrote as many as seven letters to Waugh, culminating in the long paper of May 1852. In June 1853, Sikdar zeroed in on the survey documents of the Himalayan peaks called the "Darjeeling Series". In May 1855, from 'Dehra Dhoon' came a letter from Waugh to Radhanath: "I am extremely desirous to collect together all observations available on the Snowy mountains so as to arrange in one view all the results of that kind of Geographical information. You will therefore oblige me by searching the records under your charge with the view of discovering any angle books containing observations to the Himalaya mountains or papers connected therewith. " Clearly, things were hotting up in the Himalayas, with Radhanath, the only Indian in the team, playing the pivotal role. At 29, 002 feet, Peak XV was indeed found to be the highest in the world and given the name Mont (later changed to Mount) Everest by Waugh. This was officially announced by his assistant at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata on August 6, 1856. But George Everest himself had all along been such a stickler for "local appellations" of the peaks. Why then this deviation, when names such as Devdhunga, Chomolungma, Jemokankar were available? Arguing that the acceptance of any of these Nepalese or Tibetan names would be politically troublesome for the British, Waugh brushed aside the objections raised by some members of the Asiatic Society and eventually persuaded the Royal Geographical Society, London, to christen the peak after his guru, whose contribution, ironically, to this particular measurement was precisely zero. On August 25, 1856, Waugh wrote a letter to Sikdar which bore the historic words: "I am glad that the name I have given to the highest snowy peak has given satisfaction to yourself as well as other superior members of the Department".

But was Sikdar really satisfied? His version of the story is not available. What is known is that the famously robust and energetic man gradually lost interest in his work and declared himself 'to be unfit both mentally and physically' for the job. In a letter of July 29, 1861, JT Walker, the then Surveyor-General wrote to Sikdar: "I very much regret that your failing health and growing infirmities have compelled you to form the resolution (of retiring prematurely), which will have the effect of depriving the Trigonometrical Survey of one of its brightest ornaments. "

Sikdar prematurely retired in 1862. Arguably the first Indian to imprint his identity in the field of modern science, today he is virtually a forgotten name. The Indian government did, of course, release a postal stamp in his honour in 2003. And yes, a nondescript road has been named after him in Chandan Nagar, Hooghly, where he died a bachelor on May 17, 1870. Can't we, in the 200th year of his birth, demand that the peak be renamed Mount Everest Sikdar?

The writer is author of Radhanath.
Sikdar: Beyond the Peak

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