The Great Arc

Wondering what to write about, I stood in front of my India bookshelf, closed my eyes, and chose a book. It was John Keay's excellent The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named. I opened it at random, and here's what I read. [The surveying team is moving north across India, and has reached Fatehpur Sikri and Agra. It is 1833]:
To the flat and domeless rooftop of [Akbar's] mausoleum Everest now ordered one of his signal teams preparatory to reconnecting the dead city of Fatehpur Sikri with its dead emperor at Agra. The tomb had been damaged by British military operations in 1803 and was presumably reckoned less sacrosanct than that of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jehan, whose Taj Mahal in the heart of Agra was also well within Everest's range of vision. As with other notable landmarks, the position of the Taj was duly observed and for the first time precisely recorded. But tempting though it may have been, Everest refrained from scaling its great white dome. Mercifully, that moist 'tear on the face of eternity', as Rabindranath Tagore would call it, never suffered the indignity of being dabbed at by a Survey flag.

On Akbar's tomb the task of raising and roping the twenty-two-foot flagstaff fell to the much-maligned Captain Alexander Boileau. Boileau had been making the most of his stay in Agra. The city's Executive Engineer happened to be his brother, so there had been no problem about obtaining authority to remove a pillar from one of the tomb's crowning cupolas when it interfered with his sight-line. Between such acts of casual vandalism, he had also taken the opportunity to propose to Charlotte, the sister of his brother's wife. When Everest moved on, the pair would hastily marry before Boileau himself was shunted north up the Arc.

... the use of flares, rather than terracotta lamps was ... now standard... the flares - like large fireworks except that each was sealed into a sheep's bladder - could be made up locally. The recipe involved 739 parts ('sulphur 136 parts; nitre 544; arsenic 32; indigo 20'; etc., etc.), and was not suscetible to improvisation. Any adulteration and the flare would not light, any variation and it might explode; ... Finally, each flare should weigh three pounds, so that '160 will be the load for a camel'.

Needless to say, Boileau's flares performed dismally. They deluged his men with lava and spluttered sparks to useless effect. A month later the wretched Boileau was reported absent without leave... Boileau was discharged.

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