Nepal and China make claims over Mount Everest or Sagarmatha?

Buddhi Narayan Shrestha

Senior Border Expert, Nepal

The physical demarcation of border between Nepal and China along the Himalayan range, which consists of also Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest), the world’s highest peak, is not an easy task. The basic feature of the region is the problem of accessibility, its remoteness, absence of settlement and the non-availability of goods and materials. But principle, procedure and technique adopted by the two sides, mutual understanding, cooperation, and friendship and goodwill between the two countries facilitated the demarcation of the border. The two parties worked in accordance with the Five Principles of Peaceful co-existence and in a spirit of fairness, reasonableness and mutual accommodation. As a result, after the completion of the whole work, the boundary protocol was signed on 20 January 1963.

History is witness that although contacts between Nepal and China dates back to hundreds of years, the demarcation of border through scientific method was done only in 1963 AD. Before the boundary treaty between the two countries was signed, there were debates, disputes and claims at several places of the frontier areas. Some of the disputes which dated back to the time of Bhimsen Thapa had remained unsettled. But the demarcation of the border formally solved and ended those historical debates.

About those historical debates the then Prime Minister Bisheswore Prasad Koirala had said at the House of Representatives on 1 October 1959 that the border between Nepal and Tibet have already been determined although there were disputes in some places. But three days later he said at a press conference that there are many unsettled disputes on the Nepal-Tibet border for a long time, some of them are even hundreds of year old and there have been debates on those areas. But, he had said, that we have agreed to accept the traditional and customary border as per our treaty with China.

Issue raised:

Prime Minister Koirala had counter-signed the Sino-Nepal Boundary Agreement in Peking on 21 March 1960 to form a joint border committee to demarcate the border between Nepal and China, to carry out survey of the border, to erect border pillars and to prepare a draft for the border treaty. On the way back home from Peking, he made a stopover in Hong Kong where he said at a press conference on 25 March 1960 that there was only some questions about a few miles of the territory, and that this was not a dispute over the border; rather there had been some irregularity in some areas for the last 50 or 60 years between Nepal and China. He said clearly that he had no information about encroachment of Nepalese territory by China in the last 12 months, and also that there would be no consultation with India on Nepal-China border agreement because it strictly was a matter to be resolved by Nepal and China only. But at the press conference he did not mention about China laying a claim to Sagarmatha. He alone knew why he didn’t reveal that at the press conference. But at another press conference in Kathmandu on 3 April, B.P. Koirala disclosed, which is off the record, that Mt. Everest also lies in the area claimed by China. In a somber tone, he said that China had made a claim on Sagarmatha. They argued that Sagarmatha belonged to them but Nepal had rejected their claim. He also said that there were some differences on border in other areas, but the claim over Sagarmatha was a new thing during the visit to Peking. As Nepal had rejected it outright, there were no further talks. But it was not known as to how much area of Sagarmatha was claimed by China.

B.P. Koirala continued to say in a somewhat tired tone, that there could be talks on China’s claim over Sagarmatha during the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai to Kathmandu. Prime Minister Koirala also hoped that the claim over Mt Everest and other border disputes could be resolved by the working procedure of the border agreement. He also said that the agreement to keep 20 kilometers area on each side of the frontier as non-military zone was certainly beneficial to Nepal.

On the dispute over Sagarmatha Tanka Prasad Acharya said on 8 April 1960 that Prime Minister B.P. Koirala, in his statement had said that China had recognized Nepal’s traditional border with her, but he had also said that China had made a claim over Sagarmatha. This looked very mysterious, he said. It does not matter if China has made claims on Sagarmatha but Nepalese can never accept this. All Nepalese have a firm belief that Sagarmatha lies within Nepal’s territory. Our old maps and dealings show this. In the meantime, B.P’s opponent Nepal Communist Party took out rallies with slogans and organised mass meeting accusing Prime Minister Koirala of selling Nepal’s Sagarmatha to China. This had stirred up the nationalist feeling and made a big issue. The opposition political parties had used this as a sensitive issue against Prime Minister Koirala and his Nepali Congress Party.

Presentation of maps: When Prime Minister Bisheswore Prasad Koirala had visited Beijing, China had said that Sagarmatha lies within the frontier of China. At that time both sides had presented maps showing Sagarmatha within their respective boundaries. But it is a matter of curiosity about the map put forth by Nepal, such as who had drawn it, and whether or not it had borne the name of Sagarmatha on it and how far from Sagarmatha the borderline was drawn. So far it is known that Nepal had presented the map drawn by the British India. The Survey of India during the British rule had started drawing and charting maps of countries from the central Asian countries of Iraq and Iran to China, South East Asia and Laos and Vietnam from the decade of 1860. That was the reason why the Chinese had said about the map presented by the Nepalese Prime Minister that it bore the name Everest in the map, which is a British name, and it contains no Nepali name; still, they had said that the name of the peak as Chomolungma in Tibetan colloquium had been in use for a long time. In reply Nepalese said that its Nepali name is Sagarmatha but the Chinese understood that the name was recently coined. At that time Nepal could not present its argument forcefully that it had named the peak as Sagarmatha a long time ago.

Before his China visit Bisheswore Prasad Koirala had consulted with noted historian Baburam Acharya. And Acharya had told him that his studies long time ago had found that the Nepali name for Everest was Sagarmatha, and it was recognized at the government level in 1956. Although Acharya had named the peak Sagarmatha in 1938 AD, Nepal could not make this point to the Chinese because the name was formally recognized only a few years ago.

Finding the highest mountain:

Scientists had found Sagarmatha as the world’s highest peak more than 150 years ago. The Survey of India has surveyed and measured the peaks of the Himalayas during 1849-50 from the Indian territory, 176 kilometers far away using the Great Triangulation Surveying technique. That time the peaks had no specific names and the peaks were given the Roman numerical. Sagarmatha was given the number XV and was called Peak XV While computing the data, the height of the Peak XV was calculated as 8,840 metres (± 3 metres), and was declared the highest peak in the world in 1855. The Survey of India carried out a survey for e second time in 1954 and computed it to be 8,848 metres; China in 1975 calculated it to be 8,848.13 mtr and the Boston Museum of Science/National Geographic Society measured its height and formally declared on 11 November 1999 as 8,850 metres, as this project was operated by Dr. Bradford Washburn, Honorary Director of Boston Museum of Science.

The peak, which was found under the joint efforts of the Surveyor General of India Sir George Everest, Bengali surveyor of India R Sickdhar and Nepalese corporal Tejbir Budhathoki, was named in 1865 by the Royal Geographical Society of London as Mount Everest in honor of the British surveyor. In fact, it was Radhanath Sickdhar who had measured the height of the peak and did major works and had found that it was the highest peak in the world. That means, Sickdhar was the discoverer of the Everest. But George Everest was given the credit, although he played only an official role in the whole effort because he was a British citizen.

Naming and meaning of Sagarmatha:

Baburam Acharya’s pride as an Asian was hurt, and he was sore at the British for naming the peak after its former Surveyor General by completely disregarding the actual person who had discovered the world’s highest peak. He presumed that as the peak belonged to Nepal and it must have surely a local name. He then visited districts of Ramechhap, Okhaldhunga and Solukhumbu to find the local and colloquial name of the peak. He inquired with as many local people he could find and may have also flipped over the pages of the old, dusty and historical documents and government papers in various local offices and courts. Finally, he found that the peak was called locally as Sagarmatha and the people in those areas still call the peak as Sagarmatha. Acharya’s article entitled ‘Sagarmatha or Chomolungma’ in the Volume 4, Issue No. 5 of the well-read literary magazine Sharada was published in 1938 AD. According to his research and investigation, Sagarmatha was formed by the combination of two words Sagar and Matha. He had maintained that the word Sagar is the transformation of swarga (heaven) in Vedic and Sanskrit letters, and it is in use in Nepali language. For instance, the Nepalese people say “Sagar Dadhyo” when the west horizon appears glowish at the sun-set time and it is always remembered by local inhabitants. Similarly, Math or Matha signifies the sky or the head, the tallest part of the body. Generally, Sagar denotes the heaven or sky and Matha is the head or crest. In this way Sagarmatha means ‘the head reaching up to the sky.’ Thus, it becomes pertinent and meaningful to call the peak as Sagarmatha in Nepali language, as it is the highest mountain in the world

These are some accounts of how Sagarmatha got its name. It has already been mentioned that Nepal had presented the map prepared by the British India during the Nepal-China border talks. Another thing is that it is not clear whether Nepal failed to present the map of its northern border drawn by Nepal herself to the Chinese or it did not have any. It may be that it had but did not dare to produce. As far as the map prepared by Nepal is concerned, Nepal had some maps showing various parts of Nepal’s border with Tibet. Those maps were drawn in Nepali handmade paper and most of them were Najari Naksa (eye sketch maps). Some of them should still be with the Royal Nepalese Army headquarters. Those maps made with manual techniques may have collected dust owing to lack of safekeeping. Some of the elongated big and long maps in strip size may have been kept safe in leather bags. As those maps were only Najari and sketched maps but not made scientifically, Nepal might have considered it inappropriate to produce them before the Chinese. It might also have felt some kind of shame on what the Chinese would say if Nepal presented those maps. Again, Nepal might have taken the maps made by the British as correct as and more accurate than those made by Nepal. That time it was rumored that since Nepal did not have its own name for Mt. Everest, the border maps were not made by Nepal but had only presented the ones drawn by the British.

At the press conference of 3 April 1960, when Prime Minister Koirala was asked in the presence of the Chinese Prime Minister whether he could disclose the border map presented by Nepal, Koirala had replied that doing so would not be beneficial in the interest of the public. Thus, it was clear that Nepal had failed to present a map drawn by her during the Nepal-China border talks. On the other hand, the Survey of India had, in 1856, published a map with the inclusion of details showing the sketch map (without scale) in Devanagari script of Jung Bahadur’s time, Kali River as Nepal’s western border line. Jung Bahadur’s map was sent to the British Foreign Office through the British resident in Kathmandu to include in the Survey of India Map. And this map is as the proof of Nepal at Kalapani-Limpiyadhura issue with India. Had it been presented the Nepal made map concerning Sagarmatha during the talk with China, the issue would have been resolved earlier and unanimously.

The final point of curiosity is that the map presented by Nepal failed to indicate how much was its border line in the north of the Sagarmatha peak. It is understood that the map presented by Prime Minister Koirala to the Chinese had shown the borderline on the water shed of Sagarmatha peak or on the crest of the peak. That map was drawn by the then British Survey of India. That time it was said if Koirala had presented and staked Nepal’s claim according to a map prepared by Nepal and stored in the Jaisi Kotha (Tibet Section) of the Foreign Department, Nepal’s northern borderline could have covered the middle bottom of the northern slope of Sagarmatha.

From the authors’ book on Border Management of Nepal, Published 2003. More to follow: Ed. 

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