In the second half of the 19th century, the term was used to denote native surveillors who explored regions to the north of India for the British.
One of the greatest projects of nineteenth century geography was the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. The English also wanted geographical information on the lands further north. This was not just out of scientific curiosity: The Russians were expanding their empire into Central Asia, and the English feared that might have set their eyes on India. Thus, the Russians and the English both tried to extend their influence in Asia. Knowledge of geography of the region was of course of utmost importance in this so-called 'Great Game'.
However, in some regions these surveys seemed impossible. Some of the Indian border countries, in particular Tibet, would not allow westerners to enter their country, let alone a British surveying team. In the 1860s, Thomas G. Montgomerie, a captain in the survey, realised that the solution to this problem would be to train natives from Indian border states such as Sikkim to be surveyors, and have them explore the region. These would raise less suspicion than Europeans, and might be able to make observations disguised as a trader or a lama (holy man). These native surveyors are called pundits.
A number of tricks were developed to enable the pundits to make their observations without being found out. They were trained to make exactly 2,000 paces to the mile. To count them, they used what looked like a buddhist rosary, but instead of the usual 108 beads had 100, every tenth being slightly larger. Every 100 paces a bead was dropped. A prayer wheel did not hold the usual buddhist prayer om mani padni hom, but maps and notes. Pundit Nain Singh also found that these could be used to ward off curious co-travellers: Each time someone came too near, he would start whirling the wheel around and thus pretend to be in religious contemplation. Usually this would be enough to stop others from addressing him. Another way of keeping their observation was to turn them into a poem, and recite that during their travels.
The pundits were given extensive training in surveying: They learned to use the sextant, determine height by measuring the temperature of boiling water, make astronomical observations. They also got a medical training. Despite the precautions and tricks, some of them were sent back, tortured or even executed. But with their travels they managed to map the Himalayas, Tibet and surrounding areas with remarkable precision.