There is little reason for Mt Everest to be called Mt Everest. George Everest’s claim to the highest mountain in the world is tenuous at best.
The mountain’s height was measured by Radhanath Sikdar in 1852 as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. He named the peak Peak XV based on the nomenclature in use at the time. In 1865, it was confirmed that this was indeed the world’s tallest peak instead of Kanchenjunga. The British named it Everest honouring Colonel George Everest who had been the Surveyor-General between 1830 and 1843. His successor Andrew Waugh proposed it because the peak was “without any local name that we can discover”, unaware of or ignoring the Tibetan Chomolungma and Nepali Sagarmatha. Or perhaps the Calcutta correspondent of The Times put it more accurately when he said the peak “had no name intelligible to civilised men”, civilised of course being a euphemism for white. Everest had nothing to do with the peak. He had never even seen the peak named after him or been involved in measuring it. “It’s fascinating how he’s one of the few people, if not the only person who actually has his name attached to a Himalayan peak,” says Stephen Alter, author of Wild Himalaya. Everest’s connection to the peak was Sikdar. He had hired the 19-year-old Sikdar from Hindu College in Calcutta to be his “computer”.
There have been intermittent demands to name the peak after the mathematician who actually measured it. This year on Everest Day (May 29), the principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Group Captain Jai Kishan said ,“Why should not the Indian mountaineering fraternity call the peak Mount Sikdar seven decades after British rule came to an end?” Sikdar makes for an appealing choice. He was fined for protesting the exploitation of survey department workers in 1843. His name was left out of the edition of the Survey Manual that came out after his death though the mathematical chapters were written by him and Everest called him “his right arm”. Whether or not he really ran into his boss’s office shouting “Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world”, he makes for a far more appealing candidate than the crotchety Everest who once complained about being “bled to fainting” by a thousand leeches for his various maladies according to Stephen Alter. Alter writes that while the Great Arc, the ambitious project that measured the Himalaya and mapped the topography of the Indian subcontinent, contributed immensely to our understanding of geography, we should not romanticise it. It was ultimately a colonial enterprise to map the Raj’s dominions often using forced labour.
This business of righting history by renaming is tricky. This is not as simple as toppling statues and hoping that out of sight will mean out of mind. Names stick on stubbornly. Marine Drive and Connaught Place have not really been displaced by Netaji Subhas Drive and Rajiv Chowk. Mughals and the British are a part of Indian history and we cannot erase that by switching names. But renaming Everest would tower above mere streets and cities.
There is precedent. Kieran James Cunningham argued in the magazine Little India that President Obama restored the original native name Mount Denali to the highest peak in North America which a gold prospector had named Mt McKinley in 1896 after the then US presidential candidate. Cunningham called it “a major victory for indigenous populations against the whitewashing of landmarks sacred to their people.”
While there ain’t no mountain high enough to cover the sins of the Raj, renaming Everest could be a grand symbolic gesture. But there is a problem with Mt Sikdar. Mt Everest is not even in India so is it ours to name or rename? To protest cultural appropriation with another dose of cultural appropriation could be a Himalayan blunder. At best the mountain could end up with another name, an Indian name that would exist alongside its Nepali and Chinese names without dislodging Everest unless India can persuade China and Nepal into the Sikdar camp. India would do well however to make the name of Radhanath Sikdar as well known to generations as those of George Everest or Edmund Hillary. How many of us are aware of the museum in Sikdar’s name in his hometown of Chandannagar?
Deserved or not, Everest has a certain ring to it, evoking a sense of eternity though there is something to be said for leaving the majestic Himalayan peaks unsullied by human names. The irony, says Alter, is that we all pronounce Everest wrong. Everest pronounced his name not like “cleverest” but like “cleave-rest” and was apparently quite touchy about it being mispronounced. Perhaps that in its own way is the mountain’s revenge on the men who think they have conquered it.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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