The beautiful wife of Abdul Wasi

The assassination attempt on Akbar which followed and her purported European connections

I had initially planned to spend time studying the so called European connections of the mystery wife of Akbar, the famous and powerful Maryam uz Zamani, the purported mother of Salim Khan more famously known as Jahangir. Fresh from a trip to Fathepur Sikhri, I assumed that things would become clear as to whether she had Hindu or Muslim origins or if she was of Portuguese or Armenian extract as some historians had alluded. After a study which proved tiresome and inconclusive, I decided to allow all that information swirling in my head to settle down for a while and get back to it later. Instead I decided to dwell a bit on another wife that Akbar had acquired a little later.  There was a lot of intrigue in this story, sufficient for me to jot it all down, and for you to peruse.

Akbar married his first cousin Ruqaiya, in 1552 (there were a couple of other marriages earlier). Even though he married the daughter of Jamal Khan next in 1556 and the daughter of Abdu’llah Khan Mughal in 1561, his second main consort was Salima Sultan whom he married in 1561. The third was supposedly his favorite, the famous Maryam Zamani whom he married in 1562. He also married Nathibai Sahiba in the same year. In total he had about 35 listed consorts and many more in his harem, rumored to be in total somewhere close to 300.

But the fourth listed consort (his 6th or 7th alliance actually) was the mysterious ‘beautiful wife of Abdul Wassi’. It is an interesting story which ended up with a failed assassination attempt on Akbar. Some call her a secondary wife, but the Ain al Akbari lists her as the 4th (many have incorrectly confused her with Bibi Daulat Shad the mother of two of Akbar’s daughters) wife, which she was. Note here that none of Akbar’s wives are named by the scribes of that time, and we know the real names of only a very few of them.

Let’s first get to know a character who was a noble in Akbar’s court, named Sheikh Badah. Now if you peruse the same source, i.e. Al Badaoni’s notes, in more detail, we can see that Badah had two sons, Sadullah and Abdul Fathah. The fourth wife of Akbar is described to be the wife of Abdul Wasi, and she is the daughter in law of Sheikh Badah. What is further confusing is that Abdul Wasi (a Shia) is from Bidar near Hyderabad in the Deccan while Shiekh Badah or Buddh (perhaps originally a Sufi from Bihar) is from Agra and a Sunni, so he cannot possibly be the third son of Sheikh Badaha. Let’s leave it there for now.

We do know that Al Badaoni was scornful of Akbar, but is still considered a serious scribe of the period, even though he entered Akbar’s employment as a translator only in 1574, ten years later than the occurrence of these events and so must have therefore written some of this based on heresy. His work Muntak̲hab_Ut_Tawārik̲h in three volumes is a general History of the Muslims of India. The second volume is the one that deals with Akbar's reign up to 1595 and is a text which when compared to Akbarnama (a work of praise), a frank and critical account of Akbar's administrative measures, particularly those connected to his conduct and religious leanings. This volume was apparently hidden till Akbar's death and was published only after Jahangir's accession. It is this Volume 2 which mentions the story of Wasi’s wife and the assassination attempt which followed. Let’s see what he has to say, but before that we should also see the intrigues in the Moghul palace and the attempts being made by Akbar to consolidate his powers and move away from the proxy rule of his guardian (not quite the wet nurse as popularly felt) Mahum Anga and his mentor Bairam Khan.

Initially Akbar did wise in appointing the Bairam Khan as his own Vakil (He was Humayun’s trusted aide earlier and was titled Khan Khanam during Humayun’s exile at Iran) or regent. It is believed that Bairam helped Akbar rule firmly and wisely under his regency but as time went by, became more and more authoritarian without consulting Akbar. After a couple of issues concerning elephants their relationship started to get strained, but Akbar then tried to strengthen their ties by getting his cousin Salima Sultan married to Bairam Khan as had been decided by Humayun years back. Soon after this, Akbar decided that things had come to a head and declared himself that he had broken off from Bairam Khan and assumed full power of the throne. Bairam Khan was asked to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and settle there. After a brief revolt, he formally begged Akbar’s pardon and proceeded to Gujarat in order to sail off to Mecca as ordained by the emperor. He was waylaid by a band of Afghans headed by Mubarak Khan and murdered. Anyway some time later, Akbar then married Salima, his cousin and Bayram Khan’s widow in 1561.

Some of you may recall that Mahum or Maham Anga was the de facto regent of the Mughal state after the exclusion of Bairam Khan in 1560 and until Akbar's assumption of full power in 1562, shortly before her death. Maham Anga was a daughter of Mubrika Begum, wife of Babur. The next two years saw the scheming of this grand old lady, in trying to attain control over the Mughal throne.

Sharafudin Mirza, a man of noble descent with the blood of Timur in his veins, did not get along well with his father Khwajah Mu'in and so went to seek his fortunes in the court of Akbar. Through the powerful influence of Mahum, Akbar's nurse, and Adham Khan, her son (No. 19), Mirza Sharaf was appointed Panjhazdri. Akbar gave him his sister Bukhski Bibi Begum in marriage, and made him governor of Ajmer and Nagor. Soon he was involved in intrigues of the Agra courts and in 970H or 1562, was in a rebellious mode.

In the spring of 1562 Sharafuddin Mirza conquered the fort of Mirtha (in Jodhpur state) from a Rajput princeling after a bitter contest. As it appears, Sharafuddin Mirza a jagirdhar of Mewat and related to the Akbar line through Baber decided to intervene in the affairs of Amber in Ajmer, but in timely fashion (and to make sure his nephew Shuja did not lay further claim on the throne), Bihari Mall, the raja of Amber appealed to Akbar and offered the hand of his daughter Harkhabai or Hira Kunwari in marriage.

It was during Ramzan 969 that Adam khan, Mahum’s son was put to death by Akbar for killing his foster father Atgah Khan, following which Mahum died of grief. Perhaps Sharafudin was involved in some scheming with Mahum and Atgah and had to flee. Anyway to sum up, he teamed up with Abul Maali who returned from mecca and started a revolt against Akbar.

Akbar who was hunting near Mathura, hastened to Delhi to quell the disturbance and also with a plan to bring more local chiefs to his side. Some time back, the lords of Agra suggested to Akbar that marriages with girls from noble families would be a good idea to cement their support.

Quoting Al Badaoni,

This was the cause of the circumstances which lead to the suggestions of Shaikh Badah, and Lahrah, lords of Agra. The circumstances are as follows. A widowed daughter-in-law of Shaikh Badah, Fatimah by name (though, unworthy of such an honorable appellation), through evil passions and pride of life, which bear the fruits of wantonness, by the intervention of a tire-women lived in adultery with Baqi Khan, brother of Buzurg Adham Khan, whose house was near hers. And this adultery was afterwards dragged into a marriage.

She used to bring with her to festive gatherings, another daughter-in-law of Shaikh Badah, who had a husband living, whose name was 'Abd-ul-Wasi'. And the story of the devotee's cat', which is told in the beginning of the Anwar-i-Sohaili, came true. Now this woman, whose husband was still living, was wonderfully beautiful, and altogether a charming wife without a peer. One day it chanced that the eyes of the Emperor fell upon her, and so he sent to the Shaikh a proposal of union, and held out hopes to the husband.

For it is a law of the Moghul Emperors' that, if the Emperor cast his eye with desire on any woman, the husband is bound to divorce her, as is shown in the story of Sultan Abu Sa'fd and Mir Choban and his son Damashq Kliwajah. Then 'Abdul-Wasi', reading the verse: "God's earth is wide, to a master of the world the world is not narrow'" bound three divorces in the corner of the skirt of his wife, and went to the city of Bidar in the kingdom of the Dakkan, and so was lost sight of; and that virtuous lady entered the Imperial Haram.

Then Fatimah, at the instigation of her own father-in-law urged that the Emperor should become connected in marriage with other nobles also of Agra and Delhi, that the relation of equality [between the different' families] being manifested, any necessity for unreasonable preference might be avoided.

And a great terror fell upon the city.

At this time, when one day the Emperor was walking and came near the Madrasah-e Begum, a slave named Fulad, whom Mirza Sharaf-ud-din Husain, when he fled and went to Makka, had set free, shot an arrow at him from the top to the balcony of the Madrasah, which happily did no more than graze his skin. When the full significance of this incident was made known to the Emperor by supernatural admonition and the miracles of the Pir’s of Delhi, he gave up his intention. The Emperor ordered the wretched man to be brought to his deserts at once, although some of the Amir’s wished to delay a little until the affairs should be investigated, with a view to discovering what persons were implicated in the conspiracy. His Majesty went on horseback to the fortress, and there the physicians applied themselves to his cure, so that in a short time he was healed of his wound, and mounting his royal litter went to Agra.

The Akbarnama expectedly mentions only this part - Though H.M. the Shahinshah from his farsightedness and reticence did not give time for the examination of the circumstances of that evildoer, yet so much was ascertained as that this presumptuous iron-hearted one was a slave of Sharafu-d-din Husain Mirza's father, and that his name was Qatlaq Faulad. That rebel (Sharafu-d-din) had sent him from Jalaur with evil designs to be a companion of Shah Abu-l-ma'ali. When the latter fled from India and went towards Kabul he sent this inauspicious one upon this business. In order to [cause] his own destruction he (Faulad) placed the arrow of strife on the bow of fate and prepared the materials of eternal ignominy, and did not perceive how impossible it is for evil thoughts of wretches to enter the protected sanctuary of him who is befriended by God. On the contrary, whatever evil thought they have entertained recoils upon themselves in ruin and destruction.

The assassination attempt
Anyway, Faulad was dealt with and Akbar took the girl to his harem. Neither her name nor her future days or actions are mentioned in any chronicles, but she remained in the annals of history as his 4th wife, or the beautiful ex-wife of Abdul Wasi. Akbar attributed his miraculous escape to the blessings and visit to Sufi Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah at Delhi, just before the event.

Sharafudin fled again, this time to Gujarat where he took asylum in the court of one Chengiz Khan. But after Akbar conquered Gujarat, he had to flee again and this time he fled to the Deccan plains, presumably Bidar where Abdul Wasi had previously gone. But he was captured on the way at Baglanah and handed over to Akbar. To scare him, Akbar made a show of trampling him under the foot of his tame elephant and then put him behind bars. He later sent him to Muzaffar Khan in Bengal and asked him to keep an eye on him and planned a return of his jagir should he show signs of repentance. If not, he was to be sent to Makkah.

So you can now conclude with some surety that Abdul Wasi and Sharaffudin were in cahoots and Bidar was where Sharaffudin was headed. Anyway it is felt by historians that Akbar forced Wasi to divorce his wife and cede her to him because of Wasi’s tie up with the rebel Sharaffudin. That is how the beautiful wife of Abdul Wasim became the beautiful 4th wife of Akbar, all in all, a scandalous alliance.

The story did not end there because of the storm raised over the identity of Akbar’s principal wife and later the Queen mother during Jahangir’s reign, the much talked about Mariam uz Zamani. A farman of Maryam is believed to establish that she was indeed the mother of Jahangir. It is also widely believed that Maryam was the Rajput wife of Akbar, the daughter of Bihari Mall of Amber. However even now though by conjecture most have accepted that such is the case, it is not an irrefutable fact. Portuguese clergy of the period stated that Maryam was of Portuguese origin and an Armenian writer assured his readers that she was indeed an Armenian Christian. Further intrigue was brought in with the discovery of a painting showing Akbar with Maryam and Maryam wearing a pearl necklace depicting a cross (then came to light a fine painting depicting the European wife). Adding fuel to the fire, yet another writer went to great lengths to assume that Abdul Wassi was actually Abdul Massi, a Christian and that his wife was Mary, thus giving this 4th wife a Christian identity. Let’s check on this last aspect and see if we can cast any new light.

F Fanthome states - There is a tradition which I am inclined to believe, that Mary, who had a sister Juliana by name, was the daughter, by an Armenian mother, of one Dr. Martindell or Martingell (in the imperial service), and that she was married to Akbar, while Juliana who practiced as a doctress in the seraglio was married to Prince Bourbon. In the list of the Emperor's wives given above, there is one who is mentioned (No. 4) as "the beautiful wife of Abdul Wassi," or, as I believe, Abdul Massi (Massi signifies Messiah). Now it is a fact established by inscriptions on graves in the Catholic cemetery at Agra, that during the Moghul reign Christians bore Mahomedan names and Mahomedan titles, and I conceive Abdul Wassi or Massi was a Christian. Under the circumstance, I should not be surprised if "the beautiful wife of Abdul Wassi" was no other than Mary herself. The way in which his (Abdul Wassi's) name is mentioned in the Ain shows that the man possessed no high social status, and a plebeian's widow, under ordinary circumstances, Akbar was not likely to marry. He could not have an opportunity of seeing such a woman. Probably on account of her sister, Mary had been to the imperial palace, and when she became a widow Akbar made her his spouse.

We can see that Fanthome was not in possession of real facts when he wrote the above, and it was just an assumption. So it can safely be discarded and the beautiful wife of Wasi again withdraws into the shadows. It is a pity that we can’t get a look at her or get to know details of her later life. Did she rot away in the harem where these wine guzzling and opium-consuming monarchs spent their evening hours consorting with a bevy of beautiful women? Historians state that Akbar turned a new leaf after the rumblings in Delhi and the assassination attempt, not coveting another’s wife thereafter!

But well, was there a Christian wife as alluded? Perhaps there was, unless there is a better explanation to the painting exhibited even today in Delhi. Who is then the lady, titled ‘Akbar’s European wife’ and shown the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi? Was she the Maria Masceranhas, Juliana’s sister and connected to the Bourbons of Bhopal or was she the Turkish sultana? As you can imagine, this brings us to another vexing subject, the Turkish Sultana (she as you know had her own palace hall in the Fathepur Sikhri), which I will get to on a later date.

In the next article, we will discuss the question of who Jahangir's mother was and if it was indeed the one entitled Maryam uz-Zamani. Was Maryam, as popularly believed, the daughter of Raja Bhara Mal of Amber, having been married to Akbar at Sambhar in 1562, or was she somebody else, as suggested by some historians? It is indeed a stimulating topic where various historians had made rapid conclusions suiting their respective ends, but not really tying all the loose ends.

The Ain i Akbari, Volume 1 - Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak
Muntak̲hab_Ut_tawārik̲h – Abdul Khadir bin Maluk Shah Al Badaoni
A Genealogical Table of the Mughal Family - Ellen S. Smart
Akbar the greatest Moghul – SM Burke
Reminiscences of Agra – Frederic Fanthome
Women in Mughal India – Rekha Misra

Maryam Zamani - Still an enigma (Jahangir's mother and guardian)

The Nanda Devi Episode

CIA’s Operation HAT in the Himalayas

I love cloak and dagger stories, and since the days of Ian Fleming’s 007’s books, I have devoured many a tale on espionage with the same eagerness I started with. I first came across this story while reading the Mallory camera incident some years ago. Naturally this was a great story to peruse and one that I simply had to retell. These days we have less of human involvement in espionage but the stories are no less mysterious and keep the nerves tingling.

This story involves the Americans, Chinese and Indians. Pakistan too figures on the periphery. The backdrop is the cold war era of the late 50’s-early 60’s tinted with the fear of a communist surge from behind the iron curtain. The need of the hour was actionable intelligence from behind the curtains, especially those related to USSR and China’d development of nuclear bombs and missiles. With that intention, the first high altitude (>70,000’) U2 spy plane forays to photograph activity and sites, was started. The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", was an American single-jet engine, ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, usually operated by the CIA.

While these ‘peeping’ flights were flying out of Incrilik in Turkey and Peshawar, a listening station was in place at Badaber in Peshawar, also known locally as ‘little USA’. For purposes of deniability, Eisenhower decided to use the services of British pilots initially, the Brits being forced to agree after the Egyptian invasion fiasco (Suez Canal crisis). After initial flights, CIA pilots, most famously Gary Powers, were flying them to cover soviet defense installations. On 1st May, however, during his next flight code named ‘Grand sham’ in order to photograph ICBM and plutonium production sites (information which was needed before the important Paris summit planned a few days later), luck simply ran out for Gary Powers, for the Soviets were waiting.

It was not ordinarily possible to intercept these super high altitude flights (pilots themselves flew with special preparations such as inhaling 100% oxygen for an hour to remove nitrogen from their systems, before the takeoff) with fighters but it was brought down by an S-75 Dvina SAM. Powers did not kill himself or destroy onboard cameras as he was supposed to, but ejected, was captured alive and the secret was out of the bag.

Not knowing about the capture, the Americans bluffed stating that the U2 was a NASA weather mission, but Khrushchev using the golden opportunity, produced details of the capture and trapped Eisenhower on the lie, forcing the latter to even contemplate a resignation. The Paris summit did not go well and the CIA’s Dulles was left incensed as his covert actions had been uncovered. The Pakistani’s fearing exposure, backtracked and stated that they had no idea of such clandestine operations being done in their backyard, when threatened by Khrushchev of retaliation.

Nevertheless the Badaber facility which had some ears over the bordering Lop Nor nuclear facility of China, coupled with the U2 flights, continued to provide limited information about Chinese nuclear activity which was ramping up, to the CIA. The 1963 limited nuclear test ban treaty was not signed by China and after an ideological fall out with the Soviets in 1959 the Chinese were forging ahead on their own. During the summer of 1964, the discovery of a test site on the Xinjian desert through intelligence from a blurry satellite photograph led to speculation that China would soon stage a nuclear test. In 1964, Khrushchev was ousted and the Chinese completed their Nuke test (596 or Chic-1). What troubled the West was how the Chinese got the U235, not realizing then that the Chinese had obtained it from the Lanzhou Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which the CIA knew about from U2 surveillance but whose efficiency they had underestimated.

The years 1960-65 were the years when the high mountains and areas bordering China, Pakistan and India saw much action. Pakistan’s Ayub Khan continued to argue with the Americans who he felt were cozying to the Indians and it was also not a happy time for India which had a miserable setback during the border skirmishes with China in 1962. Krishna Menon had lost his post and Nehru was in deep depression, but the Kennedy administration had tilted in offering support to India as well as subsequent information on Chinese troop movements using U2 flights from Taiwan and Thai bases.

Another problem was that the Chinese had managed to bring down a couple of U2’s with SAM’s and other U2’s had been lost in training (4 Taiwanese flown U2’s had been downed by the Chinese and Chinese Radio had offered $280,000 in gold to any defecting U-2 pilot with a U-2). One pilot was captured and U2 flights over China were suspended in 1962. It was time to find a new base closer to China, and of course it was ideally in India. Galbraith the American Ambassador discussed plans with Nehru and eventually Nehru consented, allowing U2’s taking off from Thailand to be refueled over Indian airspace. U2 pictures showing Chinese positions had been provided by the Americans to Nehru after the 1962 ceasefire and Nehru had understood their value, but his sense of non-alignment was still difficult to break.

The Thai U-2 flights did not quite pan out, and the Taiwan U-2’s were getting hit, so Galbraith requested a base in India, formally in the spring of 1963. President John F Kennedy reiterated it in his meeting with President Radhakrishnan.

Finally India yielded, handing over an abandoned World War II base in Charbatia at Orissa, which was in a bad shape, to the Americans. The first U2 flight from Charbatia took off in May 1964, but it was not meant to be, for while landing, the flight had difficulties (perhaps there were no Ford mustang car to guide it in! – see notes) and got stuck in mud. Getting it unstuck quickly without the press and the leftists knowing, was a harrowing experience for the Americans and after a few sorties decided to go back to Thailand. Anyway Nehru died three days later, and further operations were postponed.

The CIA record states “The pilots and aircraft left Charbatia, but others remained in place to save staging costs. In December 1964, when Sino-Indian tensions increased along the border, Detachment G returned to Charbatia and conducted three highly successful missions, satisfying all requirements for the Sino-Indian border region. By this time, however, Takhli had become the main base for Detachment G's Asian operations, and Charbatia served merely as a forward staging base. Charbatia was closed out in July 1967.

Then came 1965 and the 17 day Indian border war with Pakistan, following the botched ‘Operation Gibraltar’ by Pak forces. China hinted at nuclear retaliation to support Pakistan, but harsh warnings from the Americans and Russians resulted in their earning a rebuke even from Pakistan. As years passed by and Pakistan warmed up to the Chinese, India cemented military ties with Russia and intelligence ties with the CIA.

Seeing that a lot of equipment and aid provided to Pakistan was used for the war effort against India, the Americans placed sanctions on (both countries, but the effect was more on) Pakistan. The furious Pakistanis retaliated by refusing the extension of the expiring 10 year lease and this resulted in the shutting down of the Badaber base and the immensely successful Earthling radar system. The CIA then established the Checkrote system in Taiwan.

The closure of Badaber was a problem for the CIA which now lost its ears towards East
Asia. Meanwhile the Chinese were getting busy, they were developing intermediate and long range missiles and were getting ready to test those at Xinjiang. At the same time, U2’s were being lost. This was when the CIA decided to launch an eavesdropping operation with Indian support to monitor its missile launches (and tap their telemetry transmissions while in flight) from a land based station, high up in the mountains overlooking China. And so, Operation Hat was charted out. The mission plan was for mountaineers to scale the tall Kanchenjunga Mountain and install a signal receiver and re-transmitter, powered by a nuclear electrical generator, at the summit. While there were some ferret satellites up in space already, their passes over China were too few to pick up a launch. What happened next is detailed in the books referenced as well as the numerous news and magazine reports, but I will cover it rapidly, for completeness.

The CIA and the USAF decided to place a telemetry sensor atop the Himalayan Mountains to pry into the Xinjiang region. In India, the CIA had finally established a receptive audience with the Nehru administration and its Intelligence organization headed by BN Mullick, as Menon was gone. Various plans in supporting covert activities in Tibet were being put into place and the ARC with ex RAF pilot Biju Patnaik’s support was doing well. RN Kao was the new director for ARC Aviation research center. Ramji - RN Kao who had been head of Nehru’s personal security team was now responsible for collecting technical intelligence through the ARC.

Kao was contacted by the CIA and he passed on the probe to Mullick. Even though he was not the IB director, (Nehru had passed away by then) he still had control over China affairs. The CIA had in the meantime chosen Indian controlled Kanchenjunga (28,146’) as a likely candidate to place the transmitter. The team to do it would be a joint Indo US one and a search for India’s best climbers culminated with MS Kohli (he worked for the Indian Navy, and had been deputed to the ITBP due to his mountaineering skills) who had just scaled Mt Everest. Before he could even celebrate and recuperate, he was contacted by Kao and asked to get ready to go to USA for training so as to be part of the team intended for the operation. Just 26 days after Kohli’s climb, he and his team were on the way to Washington. Soon they were practicing on America’s tallest mountain, the Mt Mc Kinley (now known as Denali) in Alaska with a mockup of the 125 pound transmitter. Kohli concluded right away that this was not a feasible idea, it was simply not possible to climb Kanchenjunga with that amount of gear. Kohli kept quiet and the Indians returned home after the training.

After he was back, Kohli explained to Kao why the climb was virtually impossible. In addition to the physical part, the people of Sikkim would not allow their holy mountain to be defiled. The IB - CIA brass met and a final compromise choice was the Nandadevi (25,645’). Note now that the climb was being discussed and finalized as the Indo Pak war was raging. Was it going to work? Would the mountain gods cooperate? The device the CIA wanted high up on the mountain was a permanent electronic intelligence (ELINT) device powered by a nuclear SNAP 19C power pack fuel cell (a plutonium powered battery).

To cut a long and thrilling story short, the first attempt to place this device on the Nanda Devi in Oct 65, by the Indo US team failed, as the team had to retreat in the face of very bad blizzard conditions and an avalanche. Nevertheless they left the device in a small unmarked mountain cave titled camp four, after having hauled the device painstakingly just short of the peak.

Nanda Devi
In the meantime scientists met in America and after another round of calculations, decided that they could actually place the transmitter on a lower altitude, and so, the mountaineers were free to find another appropriate location to eavesdrop. But they had to retrieve the device already up in Nanda Devi and so another Kohli expedition returned the following year in May 1966 to recover the device, only to find most of it missing, save bits and pieces of the original equipment. Even though people did not realize it then, the loss was critical, especially the plutonium fuel cell which presented grave problems. Would the hot radioactive device melt its way through the glacier and end up in the rivers flowing down? Mallick and Kao were in a panic, and their necks were on the line.

Lal Bahadur Shastri had passed away earlier that year, and another emergency climb was carried out for a more detailed search, which yielded no results. A furious Mullick could not accept defeat and he browbeat Kohli’s team members to check again, this time telling them about the radioactive risks. 

This climb, a farce resulted in the death of a replacement doctor. With no conclusive results, this team abjectly climbed down. Kohli who was incensed, fired off a detailed report to Mullick. Meanwhile the Americans were also flustered with the going on and dispatched a couple of modified Husky helicopters to aid the search and to pick up soil samples for radio activity testing. But the fuel cell canister remained elusive.

In Oct 66, the Chinese tested their second nuclear device in Xinjiang. This was even more alarming for it was the warhead of a missile, the DongFeng 2. And then they tested their third device, on a platform. The urgency to gather detailed information on all these was never greater.

Another mission was launched in May 1967 with Kohli in the lead to place a similar device on the
Nanda Kot
Nanda Kot, while at the same time a few in the CIA opined that the plutonium cell was perhaps spirited away by Kohli’s ‘all Indian team’ of May 1966, for India’s nuclear programs. The Nanda Kot mission went well, for a change, and the transmitter was commissioned and ‘Guru Rimpoche’ went live.

In August yet another team headed by Kohli was sent up to check for the missing equipment at Nanda Devi, but bad weather put a premature stop to the effort, while at the same time, they received the bad news that the Nanda Kot transmitter had stopped working. So Kohli and his team made yet another bone chilling and back breaking climb only to see that snow had accumulated on the antenna. Their orders were to clear it, and as soon as it was done, the antenna was back transmitting data.

Part of the team continued looking for signs of radioactivity from the battery in the base camps of the Nanda Devi, with no conclusive success. The CIA and the IB were now in wait for important information on the next Chinese plans, which were testing an ICBM with a 6,000 mile range. Xinjiang was buzzing with activity and a test was imminent.

In the meantime, snow accumulated on the Nanda Kot transmitter and it went silent again. The irritated CIA bosses wanted a more permanent solution, and perhaps many more transmitters peering down from other vantage points in the Himalayas. Kohli and team climbed again, and got the device and its battery cell, back for the Americans. The CIA decided that they would do away with nuclear powered cells and came up with a new solution, a gas powered generator. It was also decided once and for all that the Nanda Devi device was ‘lost’.

M S Kohli
In December the team headed by Bhangu, who had accompanied Kohli on earlier trips, was directed to place the gas powered transmitter on the frigid slopes of Leh to test the system. It worked. In March 67, a new team went up Leh to place a solar powered transmitter in place of the gas powered one. That too worked without a glitch. To pick up signals on a missile launch along an Easterly corridor a second transmitter needed to be in place, and for this they chose a place called Pakila, East of Bomdila in Arunachal.

The Chinese fired the Dong Feng rocket in 1970 and extended DF 5 in 1971. The Leh transmitters picked up some data, but they were not particularly useful. In 1973, the Chinese fired an improved DF5 and this time around, the sensors picked all the data the intelligence agencies required. All the effort from the past three years had finally come of some use.

But it was too little, perhaps, too late, for Rhyolite satellites had taken over from the skies and would from then on, rule the roost.

Starting with Corona spy satellite (Discoverer program) mounted with cameras (Alistair MacLean’s thriller ‘Ice station Zebra’, is about recovering one of these satellites!), the race to collect intelligence from the skies galloped along at a furious pace. The missile trackers were the Rhyolites and these TRW satellites of the 70’s were an effective means providing a wealth of information, replacing fixed sensor mountain installations.

Today the space is littered with thousands of even more advanced spy satellites belonging to many nations interested in such matters. They work in tandem with all kinds of other electronic systems, so much so that people wonder if 007’s and honey traps exist anymore.  Old timers in the community I guess, maintain that there is still nothing better than actionable human intelligence.

The much decorated and accomplished Manmohan Singh Kohli left the forces to work with AirIndia, first in Bombay, then in Sydney. In 1978, the news of the missions leaked out as an Outside magazine article and by 1974, India had already detonated its nuclear device. In Jan 1977, Indira Gandhi lost the elections and with Morarji in power, the press were back in full swing, accusing of CIA meddling in Indian affairs. A top level committee was set up including MGK Menon and Raja Ramanna. Kohli was summoned to Delhi by the Prime Minister to provide a debriefing and a written report. The committee concluded that that the risk of contamination was very low and the story died a quiet death, ending with the Nandadevi biosphere being closed to all visitors.

A report from 2001 mentioned the successful trip of a 40 member Gharwal rifles team to Nandadevi and their recovery of eighty gunny bags of environmentally hazardous garbage. A congratulatory message from the Indian president followed, with his appreciation of the team’s attempts at preservation of the environment. Hmm? Food for thought, I suppose..

Spies in the Himalayas – MS Kohli and Kenneth Conboy
An eye at the top of the world - Pete Takeda
The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology - Jeffrey T Richelson
Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland - S. Frederick Starr
India: Foreign Policy & Government Guide, Volume 1 - International Business Publications
China’s Greatest Statesman: Zhou Enlai’s Revolution and the One He Left Behind in his Birthplace of Huai’an - Roy K. McCall
India's world: essays on foreign policy and security issues – Mohan Guruswamy

Photos - Google maps, Wikipedia


  •        The U2 was notoriously difficult to fly at lower altitudes and difficult to land. Because of the U-2's tendency to drift while landing, the US Air Force used high-speed chase cars like Ford Mustangs and Pontiac GTOs speeding down the tarmac and looking at the planes tilt and under-carriage, to guide the U-2 pilot down.
  •         Data collection is the primary purpose of the U.S. Rhyolite series of satellites (also termed Aquacade) orbiting at 22,000 miles above. The telemetry stream from a launch is intended to show the missile's designers exactly how the new machine is performing and, if it fails, what components caused the failure. This information once decoded, also reveals the detailed mechanics of the missile such as fuel consumption, acceleration, guidance, and the like.
  •        There is more to what meets the eye and one part which is not covered in books or other published accounts came up in comments (In his book Kohli mentions hearing about Pakistani paratroopers in Roorkee before they set out, but not this! There is also a mention of sighting of an armed spy with Mongolian features at the ND sanctuary, but that was not taken seriously) by Kohli in a recent interview to the Hindu – He said “Pakistanis parachuted down on Nanda Devi to check on us and some of them were caught too…. India and Pakistan were war-drawn then…India was planning to occupy Lahore on September 7 that year. The whole thing was foiled after the Pakistani Army got a whiff of it.” Well, well!

The 86 year old Captain Kohli, perhaps India’s greatest mountaineer, stated: “I am an ordinary person. My life story simply proves that every human being can scale the highest peaks of achievement in his or her chosen field. No one is born great. Only challenges make one so. I am a product of supreme challenges”. He is known fondly as the grand old man of the mountains. These days, he writes books and runs his unique hotel named The Legend Inn at Delhi. Ironically, it was Pakistani president Ayub Khan’s family which saved Kohli’s family during the harrowing days of the partition.