An Internet Prayer Wheel
Nature does not know extinction.
All it knows is transformation.
Wernher Von Braun,
Quoted on the title page of
Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
Nain Singh walked twelve hundred miles in the employ of the
British Secret Service. Dressed as a pilgrim, he was dispatched
to survey the road to Lhasa. Singh was specially trained to
walk every pace at exactly 33 inches. His pilgrim's rosary,
on which he counted several million of those paces, was used to
click off the distances. The rosary had only one hundred beads on
it, instead of the sacred 108, and if any of the numerous guards,
police, and customs officials had bothered to count he would have
been instantly killed.
Singh's pilgrim outfit had a few other special modifications. His
tea bowl was used to hold mercury to find the horizon. His walking
stick held a thermometer, which he would dip into the tea water
just as it came to a boil and thus determine the altitude.
The biggest sacrilege, though, was Nain Singh's prayer wheel. A
prayer wheel is a holy object containing the
Tibetan mantra "Om! Mane Padme Hum!" ("Hail! Jewel in
times on a scroll of paper. The scroll is put inside the wheel,
and when it is spun the prayers are sent upwards.
and later in Dharamsala, huge prayer wheels will contain a
million prayers, all sent with a spin of the mighty discs.
Inside Singh's prayer wheel was his route survey, careful notes that
showed the altitudes, the landmarks, and the distances that
he walked. The route survey was brought back to Dehra Dun where
Captain T. G. Montgomerie, the man who hired Nain Singh, was
building a map.
The maps of India, indeed the maps of much of the world,
were built by such linear route surveys. A man on a horse
would be sent out in one direction and told to write down
the distances he traveled, any landmarks, and any other
Back at headquarters, the route surveys would be collated
together and slowly, maps of the country would be built.
Later, the process became more systematic with the Great
Trigonometrical Survey of India, a massive undertaking
that established well-known points of latitude and longitude
and then gradually built triangles between the points until
a full map of the coast and interior of India had been
The explorers, especially the romantic heroes such as
Singh, are the ones that we often remember, but it is
the process of collation and coordination that makes
the exploration possible and real. For every Nain Singh,
a Captain Montgomerie is needed.
A silent and invisible tribute to the late
When Jon Postel, the Editor of the Internet RFCs passed away,
I spent a long day thinking. I don't know why, but I immediately
thought of prayer wheels and explorers. Jon was the creator
and maintainer of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
While many people became rich and famous from the companies they founded,
it was Jon more than anyone who could lay title to creator
of the Internet. (Of course, doing so would be unthinkable
to Jon. He was always modest and circumspectyet always passionate
and stubbornin his beliefs.)
The IANA was the point that made the Internet possible. Here
was the registry of the known protocols, of the numbers that
had been allocated for ports, of the addresses that people
were assigned. Jon, as editor of the RFCs did more than just
coordinate numbers, he wrote protocols. The File Transfer
Protocol, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, and Telnet were
just a few of the 232 documents that he authored.
Only at the end of the day, as I remembered what
Jon Postel had done for us, did the link to exploration
begin to become clearer in my mind. And, as I thought of
exploration, I kept coming back to the prayer wheels of
That evening, I changed my sendmail configuration and
installed an Internet prayer wheel in memory of Jon.
Every connection to our system to deliver mail is greeted
on port 25 by a standard banner message. I changed
that banner message to add a small prayer for Jon:
also% telnet invisible.net 25
connecting to host invisible.net (220.127.116.11), port 25
220 also.media.org; ESMTP Sun, 25 Jul 1999 12:39:46 -0400 (EDT);
For Jon Postel. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is
The prayer, like that in a real prayer wheel, is hidden. The
220 message, as Jon had recommended in his seminal RFC, is used when
one mail program connects to another on the SMTP port. Yet, every time the connection
is made, a prayer for Jon is sent upwards. It seemed like
a fitting tribute to a man who shunned the limelight, who wanted
only to make the Internet and the world under it a better place.
Om! Mane Padme Hum!
Trespassers on the Roof of the World : The Secret Exploration of Tibet
(Kodansha International, 1995). Hopkirk has written numerous books
about the exploration of Central Asia, but this one is my hands-on
favorite. Hopkirk tells of "the unholy spies of Captain
Montgomerie," the pundits of India, but he also introduces us to
a raft of other eccentric characters such as Henry Savage
Landor and Susie Rijnhart. Hopkirk does extensive research but
writes for a popular audience. Definitely recommended.
Kim (Bantam Classics, 1983). Most of the world learned of the
Pundits from Kipling's classic novel. Though Kipling does go on
with his stereotypes of "asiatics" and "orientals," the story of Kim
is as touching as that of any Dickens waif.
Matthew H. Edney,
Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843
(University of Chicago Press, 1997). The other side of the
Pundit's exploration of Tibet was the systematic mapping of India
in the Great Trigonometrical Survey. The concept of India as a
single country, instead of a set of empires, city-states, and
wild areas, was largely a creation of the imagination of the British.
This scholarly book gives a fascinating look at route diaries and
at the internal politics of the Raj.
Japanese Agent in Tibet (Serindia, 1990). Sadly, this greatest
of all the adventure stories about strangers in Tibet is now out
of print. In 1939, Kimura spent four years in Inner Mongolia as an
agent of the Japanese government. To avoid conscription in the army,
he proposed himself as a spy, dressed as a Mongolian pilgrim, and
walked to Tibet. When he arrived in Lhasa, in September 1945, he
found himself "a spy without a master or a mission." So, he
walked to India, got himself a job with the British Secret Service,
and walked back to Tibet. Later, he learned how to smuggle gold,
became a trader on the roads to Lhasa, and finally returned to Japan
in 1950. Once home, Kimura became a leading scholar on Central Asia and was
instrumental in bringing Tibetan refugees to Japan for medical
attention and diplomatic training.
Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt, 1998). To truly appreciate
the trigonometrical survey and the route diary, there is no
better book than Pynchon's amazing tale of the establishment of
the Mason & Dixon line by the eponymous
surveyors Mason and Dixon. This
massive yet highly accessible book goes from the clubs of Oxford to the
wilds of the American West with detours in South Africa and
the American South. Pynchon's treatment of automatonsthe
high-tech toy of choice for that erain the form of
a neurotic talking duck is nothing short of masterful.