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A lost boy’s miraculous Google Earth journey that brought him home

Lost and separated from his brother at a train station in 1986, 5-year-old Saroo found himself wandering in the infamous slums of Kolkata. Almost 25 years later, Saroo, who currently lives in Australia, found his family using Google Earth.

Geospatial technology has gone mainstream in the recent years. Time and again, we’ve discussed trendy gadgets and technologies being used in movies. From using drones to shoot Tom Hanks run after the bad guys in Inferno, to crazy blue creatures in Avatar, to Legendary Pictures and Microsoft’s partnership for using HoloLens augmented reality technology in movies. We thought we’d seen it all. Until now! Here’s an extraordinary story close to home, and satellite imagery has a magical role to play in it.  

Saroo Brierley with his birth mother back in India

In 1986, 5-year old Saroo Brierley fell asleep on a train parked at a rural station in central India. He woke up to find himself locked in an empty carriage accelerating through the countryside of India to an unknown destination. After two days and nearly 1600 kilometers, the train reached its final stop of Howrah station in the crowded city of Kolkata. Saroo was now far away from family and had no way to find his way back home. Living on the streets for months and wandering alone in the slums and train stations of Kolkata, Saroo survived a series of harrowing encounters before he was taken to an orphanage. In time, he was adopted by an Australian couple and brought to Tasmania. 

The Brierleys gave Saroo a loving home and another opportunity, but memories of his birth family haunted him. As he grew older, these flashbacks got distinctly louder, until his mid 20’s when he was finally forced to search for his lost home and family. This is when new world technology came into the picture. Saroo heard about a new program called ‘Google Earth’. He realized he could use the technology‘s satellite imagery to find familiar landmarks, which would lead him to the train station from his puzzling memories from the night he got lost.

For three years, Saroo religiously followed train lines from space, combing through thousands of stations until one day in early 2012, he finally found a needle in the haystack, so to speak. “I multiplied the time I was on the train, about 14 hours, with the speed of Indian trains and I came up with a rough distance, about 1,200km. I drew a circle on a map with its centre in Calcutta, with its radius about the distance I thought I travelled. Soon, I discovered what I was looking for: Khandwa. When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play,” said Saroo in an interview. A determined Saroo reunited with his birth mother after 25 years.

Lion is a 2016 drama film directed by
Garth Davis based on the book
‘A Long Way Home’ by
Saroo Brierley

Saroo’s extraordinary story was a source of inspiration to many around the world, including the Earth Team. “To celebrate the film’s upcoming release, we invite you to retrace Saroo’s journey through the Finding Home experience now available in Google Earth’s Voyager layer. The experience takes you behind-the-scenes of Saroo’s search—what he used to guide him, the odds he faced, and how with a lot of will and a bit of luck, he was able to find home,” stated a blog published by Google Earth.  

An autobiographical account of his experiences, A Long Way Home, was published in 2014 and adapted into the 2016 film Lion. The film bagged six Oscar nominations including ‘Best Picture’. And the Oscar goes to…