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Mt Everest – How It Got Its Name!


By Kulbhushan Kain

Many years ago, on one of my frequent trips to Mussoorie, I stopped for a cup of tea at my favourite restaurant “Whispering Windows”. Whispering Windows held many memories for me. During the sixties it was the most “happening” restaurant and had an iconic status. But on that day, it was a stopover and not my final destination. I was taking a breather before I was to make my way to the “Park House”. The Park House is about 6 kilometres away from Whispering Windows which is at the west end of the Mall Road (the east end being Picture Palace).

I was going to see the house which was owned by Sir George Everest, after whom is named the highest mountain peak in the world – Mt Everest. It was a house he had bought from General Whish in 1832 and which had panoramic views of the Doon Valley on one side, and the Aglar River and the Himalayan range on the other.

What I saw disappointed me. There were pits which were uncovered, the interiors were weather beaten, a decrepit fireplace which nonetheless had braved more than 150 years but was still intact. I am glad that Park House has subsequently been restored and is now a major tourist attraction.

Who was Sir George Everest who once lived in it?

Sir George Everest was from England and was educated at the Royal Military College, Buckinghamshire, before joining the East India Company as a cadet in 1806. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Bengal Artillery, and sailed for India the same year. In Bengal, he worked with Colonel William Lambton on the survey of Bengal. His work came to the attention of Lambton, the leader of the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS), who appointed him as his chief assistant. When Lambton passed away in 1823, he took over as superintendent of the Survey of India, and rose to become the Surveyor General of India in 1830.

It is said that Sir George Everest neither spared himself nor anyone else. No wonder, then, that he was able to plot such accurate maps with the limited technology available in those days.

Everest wanted to build an observatory at the Park but the government turned down his request “forbidding all civil and military departments to have their offices permanently in the hills”. Perforce, he had to move his staff into tents in Dehradun and the office of the Surveyor General was established on a ground near the Rispana River where the Old Survey Road now runs. The site was acquired from a Zamindar of Karanpur. Sometimes, George Everest would retire to his house at Mussoorie and do his calculations.

As an engineer, Everest made made several improvements to surveying equipment of the day. His teams made accurate measurements from the Himalayas all the way down to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, an awe-inspiring achievement considering it was done by taking measurements on the ground without the aid of high-tech lasers, satellites or aerial photos.

In September 1843, Everest left Dehradun which had been his home for 10 continuous years and sailed back to England. Before leaving Mussoorie, he appointed Captain Murray, one of his neighbours, as his attorney to sell the park and his house in Dehradun.

George was succeeded by Andrew Scott Waugh as the Surveyor General of India.

However, here comes the twist. Everest likely never saw the peak that bears his name. At the time of his retirement in 1843, British survey teams had not yet gone into Nepal to measure the mountains there. Thus George Everest had no direct connection with the mountain which bears his name. He was, however, responsible for hiring Andrew Scott Waugh, who made the first formal observations of the mountain. Everest had a mountain named after him simply because of his reputation and because workers on the survey adored him. In fact, it was a brilliant mathematician working on the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India named Radhanath Sikdar, who discovered that the mountain was the highest in the world in 1852 and reported his findings to Andrew Scott Waugh, Everest’s successor as Surveyor General.

Four years later, Waugh decided to name the world’s highest peak after Everest. Waugh felt it was an appropriate honour for the man who oversaw the largest part of the India survey, despite the protests of Everest himself.

It must never be forgotten that George Everest was supported by a team of hardworking and committed subordinates even though the peak is named after him. Perhaps the best comment came in a Letter to the Editor of the “Standard” in 1905 which concluded, “It was not Everest but his officers who placed his name just a little nearer the stars. There let it stay in witness to the faithful work not of one man, but of scores of men.”

Thus Everest became the English name of the world’s highest peak, even though the mountain was called Chomolungma by the Tibetans and Sagarmatha by the Nepalese.

In 1866, Sir George Everest died peacefully in England after a fulfilling life.

There is another irony which revolves around the pronunciation of the mountain in English. Most people pronounce the mountain “Ever-est”. The late surveyor, who was a Welshman, said his name was “Eve-rest,” with an emphasis on “Eve” with a long “e” sound.

Clearly, Everest is a difficult mountain to climb!

(Kulbhushan kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain@gmail.com)