The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Great Arc authors get their due
- Films on longest survey

Two centuries after a couple of Englishmen braved jungle fever, tigers, bandits, malaria and death to measure the length of India, the nation is giving them their due.

Colonel William Lambton’s name rings a rare mental bell today, but he died in that effort. Sir George Everest’s name has recall only because the world’s highest peak carries his name.

A bicentenary later, the Survey of India and the department of science and technology are felicitating Lambton and Everest through a year-long celebration comprising film screenings, exhibitions, a national seminar, a book launch and a treasure hunt for children.

In science circles, Lambton and Everest are cult figures.

In April 1802, Lambton began a mammoth task of measuring the length of India along the 78 meridian — from Kanyakumari to Dehra Dun. This line — called the Great Indian Arc — laid the foundation of topographical surveys in the world. The 2,400-km survey is also considered the longest measurement of the Earth’s surface ever to have been attempted.

Two documentary films on the mapping of the Great Arc — Tracing the Arc and A Million Step — were screened at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium on Thursday. Made by filmmaker Pankaj Butalia, the films reconstruct the duo’s four-decade journey from St Thomas Mount in Chennai to Mussoorie.

An exhibition on the Great Arc was also on display at the auditorium. This was a capsule of the main exhibition, which is touring Europe.

Talking about the film, Butalia said a lack of visuals had been a major handicap while reconstructing the life of the two surveyors. “We were going back to an era before the advent of photography. It was difficult to accurately visualise the backdrop in which these men worked,” he said. Butalia relied on slick graphics, portraits, re-enactments and documents to give the film its colour and action.

Actor Naseeruddin Shah’s easy-going narrative sets the film apart from the “regular, boring government-sponsored documentaries”, as Butalia calls them. In order to hit home with a lay audience, Butalia has simplified the complicated concepts of trigonometry, triangulation and geodesy — which made the mathematical framework of Lambton and Everest’s work.

The film is not just about degrees, angles and triangles. The human element is vividly highlighted. Walking through dense jungles, carting heavy instruments, public flogging of disobedient Indian workers and Lambton’s death near Nagpur are weaved into the narrative.

Lambton, an engineer, mathematician astronomer and an officer of the British army, began measuring the length of India from St Thomas Mount in 1802. He used the triangulation method. Using a theodolite, he measured the subcontinent’s “spinal column” — the 78 meridian — by dividing it into triangles. Survey teams were also despatched from Mumbai and Calcutta to measure the lateral distance to the arc.

Lambton died near Nagpur in 1823. His successor, Everest, covered the remaining distance to Mussoorie by 1845. The Himalayas fascinated Everest. He was the first person to assign a height of 8,840 m to the world’s highest mountain. After fresh observations and computations, the Survey of India, in 1954, declared its height to be 8,848 m.

Playing Everest’s Man Friday was a Bengali, Radhanath Sikdar. Sikdar also went by the name of “Everest’s human computer”. Some scientists believe that it was Sikdar who finally worked out the height of Mount Everest.

But Butalia’s films belonged exclusively to Lambton and Everest, where Sikdar found only a passing mention.

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