Rai Bahadur Lal Singh

Rai Bahadur Lal Singh

When “The Great Game” (political aspiration to control Central Asia) was being played in Central Asia between political powers of Britain, France and Russia, it was Sir Aurel Stein (1862 – 1943) a Hungarian adventurer, who led an expedition to Taklamakan desert (present day Xinjiang, Uyghur Autonomus Region of China).  Prior to this it was believed that entry into Taklamakan was a one way road. Enter at your own risk and don’t expect to return. Rai Bahadur Lal Singh (1860 – 1930), a Sikh cartographer accompanied Aurel Stein as his key confidant in the expedition set out to confirm the theories about rich past of the Silk route (connecting China with Central Asia). Rai Bahadur Lal Singh’s motivation in this expedition was to map the remote Taklamakan territories.


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 3


The expedition was successful in discovering many Buddhist paintings and sculptures. Amongst these were the 100 wooden tablets of 105BC, written in ancient Indian script bearing Indian seals. The most noteworthy discovery was “The Caves of Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuamg”. The artifacts were contributed to Britsih Museum and later split across the museums in Britain, India and Hungary.


Sir Aurel Stein's Taklamakan expedition 


While the Chinese government views Aurel Stein’s expedition as a loot journey by a foreign devil, robbing the history of Taklamakan region but one may argue that artifacts lying in museums across the world survived destruction at the time of Chinese cultural revolution.


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 4 


Aurel Stein is recognized in photos clicked during the Taklamakan expedition, always with his dog, named Dash. In his team of explorers one would generally find two turbaned Sikhs. One of them being Rai Bahadur Lal Singh.


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 1 


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 5


There can be no doubt of Sir Aurel Stein’s high regard for Rai Bahadur Lal Singh. There was clearly an appreciation of his professional and technical capabilities. Stein himself had studied cartography as part of his military training in Budapest, and liked to think in terms of ‘archaeological reconnaissance’. But this was not the only thing they had in common. They were roughly the same age (Lal Singh was born in 1860, Stein in 1862) and they seem to have shared an appreciation of certain human qualities: of independence, self-reliance, resilience and a respect for and understanding of the physical world around them. While it is clear that they enjoyed the company of others (and that others enjoyed their company), they also welcomed a certain amount of solitude away from others. Stein had very fond memories of working with Rai Bahadur Lal Singh, and it would seem that the sentiments were mutual. On 11 August 1930, when Stein set out from Srinagar, he wrote in his notes: “Started from Macphersons at 3 p.m. down Chinar Bagh Canal, after farewell to dear old Lal Singh whose visits had been daily”.


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 2 

During my extensive travel in Tibet, a drive over two weeks, with my elder daughter (Tarni Kaur) from Lhasa to the remote western region of Indo-Tibet border at Guge Kingdom, many a times we wished we had more time at hand to extend the drive via Kashgar and enter Taklamakan desert, leading to Urumqi. We could not make it to Taklamkan but in photos below is the road we traveled at 15,000 feet, close to Sheeshapangma mountain, that would have led us to Kashgar and Urumqi.


Road to Kashgar from Lhasa



Road to Kashgar from Lhasa



Today, travel to remote areas of Taklamakan is made easy with development of a high altitude road but imagine the time Sir Aurel Stein and Rai Bahadur Lal Singh travelled these areas on foot, accompanied with their Bactrian (double hump back) camels.


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 8


Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 7

Rai Bahadur Lal Singh - Photo 6

Taklamakan continues to call me and I patiently await the day I will be able to follow the footsteps of Rai Bahadur Lal Singh, reliving the life of this adventurous cartographer.


  1. watching your photography is a treat….and then your indepth knowledge …..simplyu great!

  2. Jatin Walia

    An adventurous past with a interesting connection to a beautiful place.
    Not long before you will get to Taklamakan all the Best.

  3. Gurpreet Singh Anand

    This is quite a treat …I always pondered looking at Stein’s picture of accomplices of who are the sikhs in the expedition..now the riddle , thanks to your blog, is solved .I did enter with my family once and then to go back at our origins at the western beginning of it-The Taklamakan Desert in Turkmenistan also.And then went up from Kashgar on Karakoram highway to last point I was allowed as an Indian to Tashkurgan where Chinese Guards came one by one to have a
    look at our passports -they had not seen Indian Passports till then(1906)..what a view and what an engineering marvel of straight highway .
    And yes in Turfan in Buddhist caves they , the Chinese ,have dared openly written “Antiquities stolen by Foreigners” words stolen which I kept on asking guides in Egypt , Lebanon ,Turkmenistan and Syria to say but the lure of bakshish seals their mouths .

  4. gurnain singh

    it seems the first photo was clicked in kashmir as he is wearing kashmiri phirin..it also looks as if lal bhadur singh ji was from kashmir.

    • Amardeep Singh

      As you would read in the text accompany this blog post, indeed Aural Stein and Rai Bahadur spent time in Kashmir.

  5. virender mehta

    Well done Amardeep. Looks like my great grandfather did well.

    • Indeed Virender. Your Great Grandfather is an inspiration to all of us. As the Taekwondo teacher at Katong Gurudwara (Singapore), you are doing a great job too.

    • Kim Sander Wright

      I would like to connect with you, Virender, as it seems we are related!

      • Excellent blog,we await your journey to the Taklamakan area which will give us wonderful photographs .The historical context is well researched .

    • Amandeep Singh Mehta

      Contact Me Watspp AmanDeep Singh Mehta +918570918161

  6. Hardev Singh

    Thanks for bringing to light an amazing piece of history _ with your adventurous spirit and camera lens.

  7. Kim SandeWright

    R.B. Lal Singh was my great grandfather also. He was not from Kashmir but from Gudgerenwalla in what is now Pakistan, but was then India. The other Sikh gentleman that appears in the photos was his personal cook! I would love to retrace his footsteps some day and I found this excellent website while researching routes and looking for maps. Thank you.

  8. Geetali

    Amazing story of an inspiring, intrepid gentleman. I live reading about the characters who lived in the time of the Great Game. Happy to have learned about Sardar Lal Singh ji.

  9. Harpreet

    Another treat, thanks for sharing.

  10. kawal nain singh

    Excellent study and hat’s off Rai Bahadur Lal Singh. Want to know more about him

  11. Milton D'Silva

    Amazing story of human endeavours and the quest for exploring the unknown. Thanks Amardeep Singh for bringing this feature and commentary to us!

  12. Racchit Thapliyal

    Love what you do Amardeep- blending history with a medium you excel in! I am a glutton for history and travel, especially in South/Central Asia, and I’m going to follow your work regularly Just added your blog to my feedly RSS reader!

  13. Surupa Chatterjee

    Super Tale of history, trust, respect,friendship, travel and visuals….Yes you must go back there again and present us with part II….

  14. Raj Mehta

    Aurel and Lawrence have affected the thinking of millions about Kashmir also…This photo-essay is a quality tribute to one of them and to the intrepid spirit of Lal singh…

  15. wonderful. time capsule u dont find at regular sites. Looking forword to more such capsules espacially about sikhs of JAmmu And Kashmir.

  16. dipikasen

    Feeling so proud of being an Indian who has ancestors like Revered Lal Sing…hats off

  17. kishore kumar biswas

    How amazing is History ! It is the tale of gone days . is it only that ? perhaps not, it is more than that.It brings to us a ” part ” of our existence that is veiled behind our ” past ” . We carry within us the traits of our past , our roots , of which we generally remain unaware , unaware of the fact that our personality composed of our tradition.
    Here Amardeep with his usual brilliant pictorial notes takes us to our past ,to the forgotten gone days. Men with extraordinary qualities appeared in front of us. We feel how special they were, Sir Aurel Stein and Raibahadur Lal Singh , they were of indomitable spirit. They traveled through the toughest route just to explore more .They lived life of real hero .
    Thanks to Amardeep . He in this feature presented not only a part of history but also the glory of indomitable spirit of human being.

  18. rajdeep singh sabharwal

    We dont have words to describe how good and beautiful this collection is.


    Immensely absorbing.
    Amardeep, you have done a great service to Sikhs by exploring these historical places, about which we could never ever have learnt.
    Tibet is always considered out of reach for an Indian, due to control by Chinese.
    My only familiarity with Tibet was limited to the book “The Third Eye” by Lobsang Rampa.

    Congratulations for the great job done.

  20. Dharini

    As an Avid reader of a history I am always looking forward to you.

  21. Dinshaw B. Avari

    Amazing story Amardeep!

  22. It s a Wonderful Story and DISCOVERY of Lal Singh. I was in Hungary 5 times and learnt of a Hungarian who was a Linguist and studied Buddhism before his return to Budapest. Not Sure, it is Aurel stein?

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