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Carl Malamud was the founder of the Internet Multicasting Service and is the author of eight books.

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By Carl Malamud, All Over the Map Archives»

Photo by Deb K. Roy
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 the Lotus!") written many times on a scroll of paper. The scroll is put inside the wheel, and when it is spun the prayers are sent upwards. In Lhasa, 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 significant information.

       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 built.

       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.

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Remembering Jon

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A silent and invisible tribute to the late Jon Postel

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       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 circumspect—yet always passionate and stubborn—in 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 Tibet.

       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 25
   connecting to host (, port 25
   connection open
   220; 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!
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Tibetan Prayer Wheel

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A Tibetan Pilgrim spins one wheel in his hand, and with the other spins the big wheels outside the Jo Khang Temple in Lhasa

Photo by Bart Gierson »

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Reading List

       Peter Hopkirk, 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.

       Rudyard Kipling, 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.

       Hisao Kimura, 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.

       Thomas Pynchon, 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 automatons—the high-tech toy of choice for that era—in the form of a neurotic talking duck is nothing short of masterful.

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