THE ``Great Game'' of intrigue and secret, long-range reconnaissance was played in deadly earnest by Britain and Imperial Russia in the 19th century as their empires swerved toward collision in Central Asia. It was a lack of basic geographic information about this exotic playing field that prompted the British East India Company to devise an ingenious system of native spies called ``pundits,'' or seers, who in disguise trekked the length and breadth of the high mountain ranges bounding the Indian subcontinent on its north. Derek Waller, associate professor at Vanderbilt University, writes about this little-known episode in British imperial progress in his interesting book, ``The Pundits.'' By the late 1940s, not much had changed since the day of the pundits: As US consul in Meshed, Iran, where the USSR, Iran, and Afghanistan come together, I expected at any moment to see Kipling's ``horsetrader'' pundit, Mahbub Ali, alias C-25, walk out of the pages of ``Kim.'' Certainly one could see shaggy-turbaned Turkoman tribesmen, freshly infiltrated from Soviet Central Asia, on some dubious mission prowling about the Meshed bazaar as they did in the time about which Waller writes.
The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, an ambitious project begun in the early 19th century to map the subcontinent of India by establishing a network of triangular measurements, also encompassed the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Himalayas - highest mountains in the world - and the sky-high plateau of Tibet even further north along the strategically important underbelly of China. At first, British officers, thinly disguised, were called upon to penetrate these unknown lands, braving not only the rigors of high altitudes but the hostility of suspicious natives who resented the intrusion of foreign infidels.
After several of these intrepid souls, including William Moorcroft who reached far-off Bokhara, had lost their lives, an imaginative British officer, Capt. Thomas Montgomerie, trained a cadre of native surveyors who, under cover of the Survey of India, were dispatched to such forbidden lands in more plausible disguise. They literally counted their paces to calculate distance and, using primitive sextants secreted in Tibetan prayer wheels, took accurate bearings. The pundits were the eyes and ears of empire.
Perhaps the most interesting Tibet explorer was Sarat Chandra Das, inspiration for Kipling's Huree Chunder Mookerjee in ``Kim.'' Different from the other pundits, Das was a highly sophisticated scholar. He provided a full-dimensional view of the politics, culture, and personages of Tibet. Unfortunately, careless exposure of his information in Calcutta revealed the nature of his intelligence mission to the Tibetans who, as a result, became enraged.
Such breaches of security set off a squabble between the British government, conscious of its political responsibilities, and the Survey of India, which wanted recognition for its geographic achievements.
Because of its emphasis on geographic exploration, Waller's book does not expand on the political drama in Lhasa ignited by Das's mission. Nor does the author mention a mysterious czarist agent in Lhasa, a Buriat monk named Aguan Dorjiev, who as mentor of the young 13th Dalai Lama used his influence to expose Das, branding him a British spy intent on ``robbing Tibet of its Buddhism.'' Dorjiev provoked the British to send a force to Lhasa in 1904 in a last and later-regretted spasm of imperial aggression.
It is time that the native pundits, who risked their lives in the service of the British empire, were given their due. Derek Waller's fascinating book, soundly researched, has ably made up for the neglect.