Zorawar Singh, Lion of Mountains | Historical Background: Emergence of Dogra dynasty in Jammu

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Eighteenth-century saw the Mughal Empire crumble under the ruthless invasions of Nadir Shah of Iran (1739) and Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan (1748-1767, 8 attacks) which weakened North India, politically and economically besides creating an atmosphere of chaos and lawlessness.  The area now known as "Jammu and Kashmir" comprised 22 small independent states (16 Hindu and 6 Muslim ruled), collectively referred to as Punjab Hill States. Following the decline of the Mughals, these hill states fell gradually under the control of the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh decided to take advantage of the political weakness of Jammu. In 1800-01, he attacked Jammu, compelling Raja Jit Dev to accept his sovereignty and pay an annual tribute. Ranjit Singh however found it impossible to control Jammu directly due to the belligerence of Mian Dido, a Hindu chieftain. So, he gave the responsibility of consolidating the Jammu region into a unified political unit to Gulab Singh, a Rajput Scion from Jammu and already a part of the Sikh Empire (often referred to as Lahore Durbar). Within a short time, Gulab Singh consolidated the entire Jammu region by winning Kishtwar, Rajouri, Chenaini, and other small principalities, making those an integral part of the Sikh Empire. Maharaja Ranjit Singh personally coronated Gulab Singh in 1822 as the Raja of Jammu at Akhnoor, by the banks of River Chenab.

Gulab Singh now enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy over his province and troops. At this point in time, Kashmir was already a part of the Sikh Empire, having been captured by the famous General Hari Singh Nalwa in 1819. Raja Gulab Singh continued to be a part of the Sikh Darbar till their defeat by the British in 1846. The Treaty of Amritsar (1846) between the British and Raja Gulab Singh saw the emergence of an Independent J&K State under Maharaja Gulab Singh.

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Painting of Zorawar Singh by Pt Ravi Dhar

Rise of a new Star – Napoleon of the East

Well before he became a Maharaja, Gulab Singh had spotted a dynamic young soldier in his army named Zorawar Singh Kahluria who was to etch his name in eternity due to his unmatched vision and valor.  General Zorawar Singh Kahluria (1784-1841), Governor of Kishtwar and loyal lieutenant to Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu, was pursuing a vision few men in history would have dared contemplated – extending India’s frontiers all the way to the edges of China.

Very little is known of the early years of Zorawar Singh and a lot of it is rooted in folklore. As per some accounts, he is said to have been born in 1784 (15 April or September?), in the Ansara village in the present-day Bilaspur district, Himachal Pradesh in a Hindu Rajput family of Thakur Harji Singh, second of his three sons. 

The surname ‘Kahluria’ comes from a tiny principality of Kahlur, within which his village sat. He grew up from being a mischievous and troublesome child to an equally troublesome young man, engaged in equestrian and gladiatorial feats.  At age 16, he is said to have killed his cousin following some dispute and had to run away to Haridwar.  By chance, he met Rana Jaswant Singh, a Jagirdar (feudal lord) of Galian and Marmethi (today’s Kishtwar) who was on pilgrimage and entered his service. It was in Kishtwar that the young Zorawar was trained as a warrior, honing his skills in swordsmanship, archery and other weapons in vogue then. 

While posted at Bhimgarh Fort in Reasi (Jammu province), Zorawar Singh came in direct contact with Raja Gulab Singh by a quirk of destiny. Impressed with his acumen, honesty and military mind, Zorawar was given charge first of Bhimgarh fort (Reasi), then, all forts north of Jammu and later made governor of Kishtwar, Riasi-Khalsai and Arnas, with the title of Wazir (equivalent to a general). He was given the right to levy taxes and direct military action in the region as he saw fit. As per KM Panikkar, Zorawar proved himself honest to such extremes that he never accepted any ‘Nazrana” (gift) from anybody for himself and forwarded those offerings to his master. He is said to have worn only those clothes as were gifted to him by the King and was content to live on the salary Raja Gulab Singh offered him, even as a Wazir. Such financial probity was a rare quality and enhanced Zorawar’s value in the eyes of his superiors.

It was at this point that Zorawar Singh began leading ambitious military campaigns. In 1834-35, he would make one of his biggest conquests, the Kingdom of Ladakh. Strategic trade routes between Tibet and Afghanistan passed through this kingdom. Thus far, the Raja of Ladakh had paid tribute to the Tibetans, the Mughals and the rulers of Kashmir at different points, and the kingdom had remained semi-autonomous due to its distance, terrain and climate. In 1834, a local governor, Raja Giapo-cho of Timbus, a vassal to the Buddhist Gyalpo (King) of Ladakh, sought Raja Gulab Singh’s help against his master. The Ladakhis had at this point stopped paying their annual tributes and Gulab Singh saw it as an excellent opportunity to gain a foothold and perhaps take over the valuable Ladakhi shawl trade.

Raja Gulab Singh ordered General Zorawar Singh into Ladakh with a contingent of 5,000 men; with a mission to conquer the higher lands ruled by Gyalpo. To the east of Kishtwar and Kashmir are the snow-clad mountains of the upper Himalayas — the rivers of Zanskar Gorge, Suru River, and Drass, and rise from these snows, and flow across the plateau of Ladakh into the Indus River. The General crossed the mountain ranges via the Bhot-Khol pass and entered the province of Purig (now Kargil). Gyalpo rushed 5000 men to Sankhu to check the Dogra advance. When Dogras reached Sankhu on 16 August 1834, they found their passage blocked. Ladakhis were mauled and routed from their positions in no time.

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Having cleared Sankhu, Dogras advanced to Suru and occupied it. Following a series of battles, the Dogra army secured a decisive victory over Ladakh in 1835.

A peace settlement was signed between the General and Gyalpo, who would now be a vassal of Raja Gulab Singh and hence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Zorawar’s success however caused much heartburn among other chieftains and noblemen of the Sikh Empire (including the Governor of Kashmir, Mahan Singh) who incited a revolt against the Dogra rule in all the regions conquered by Zorawar Singh’s army – from Purig to Ladakh and Zanskar. Dogra forts were besieged and garrisons slaughtered. Enraged, Zorawar Singh led an aggressive charge from Kishtwar through a different route and put the fear of God in the local populace for harming Dogra interests. Legend has it that exploits of Zorawar Singh continued to be part of Ladakhi folklore till the 20th century.

Second Part
Expanding his footprint - Baltistan:
In 1839-40, the General set his eyes on the province of Baltistan, another arid but strategic zone, to the west of Ladakh. Routes across the Karakoram Mountains passed through this region. The opportunity came in the form of family intrigue among the Baltistan royals. Zorawar Singh with an 8,000- strong Dogra army entered Baltistan via the Hanu and Chorbat passes. En route, he accepted the submission of various regional chiefs at Kharmang, thereby strengthening his army. Using all his experience and guile, he overcame the obstacles of terrain and entrenched Balti soldiers to capture Skardu, the seat of the Balti power.

Conquering of Tibet

Having consolidated his hold over the Northwest by 1840, Zorawar Singh turned his attention east, to Tibet, a region traditionally claimed by the King of Ladakh. Zorawar Singh put forward a Dogra claim to Western Tibet on the basis of the Ladakhi claims. He had first presented this idea to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1836, but the Sikh ruler had been disinterested. Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839 and his successor, Maharaja Sher Singh, was intrigued by the idea of a Tibetan conquest. Zorawar Singh also carried a strong, hill-efficient battalion now, made up of Ladakhis, Baltis and his battle-hardened Dogras. It felt like the right time to make his master the undisputed power in the north Indian hill terrain. Zorawar Singh invoked the historical claims of Ladakh to western Tibet up to the Mayum Pass (originally called Maryul of Ngari), which were presumably exercised prior to the 1648 Treaty of Tingmosgang.

In May 1841, Zorawar Singh marched a 5,000-strong army into the territory of Tibet. For Raja Gulab Singh, the campaign held promise because it could give him complete hold over the Tibetan shawl trade if he controlled the whole of the Changthang plains, which stretch from Ladakh to Tibet, where the goats for the rare and valuable wool (Pashm) were raised. The British, who benefited from existing trading patterns, were skeptical of this campaign, but the Sikh Court at Lahore, dominated by Dogras at the time, seemed unwilling to call back the brave General, even after British instructions. Mile by mile, the General swept all resistance away. Hanle, Tashigong, Rudok and finally Gartok were his. Zorawar Singh passed the holy Mansarovar Lake and was finally at Taklakot. The fort of Taklakot, with a garrison of 1,000 soldiers, was no match for the Shen-pa, as Tibetans called the Dogra soldiers. On September 6,1841, the fortress fell. Tibet, all the way to the Mayum Pass, was now in Dogra hands. All the captured forts were garrisoned, while the main force was encamped at Tirthapuri to the west of Lake Manasarovar. Administration was set up to rule the occupied territories. Minsar (or Missar, now called Menshixiang), which was a Ladakhi enclave by the1648 Treaty, was used to store supplies.

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A panicked Imperial Chinese Ambassador at Lhasa, Leng Pao sent his report to the Chinese emperor on 2 September, 1841:

“It has been learnt that south of Ladakh there is a very large aboriginal tribe named Ren-chi-shen [Ranjit Singh]. Subordinate to this tribe are two smaller tribes-- Sa-re-shen [Sher Singh] and Ko-lang-shen [Gulab Singh], who together are known as the Shen-pa ["Singh people", possibly referring Sikhs and Dogra Rajputs together]. After the death of the Ladakhi ruler [Tshe-pal Nam-gyal], a certain Ladakhi chieftain had secret connections with the Shen-pa, who then occupied Ladakh. Now this Ladakhi chieftain is once again in league with the Shen-pa aborigines who have invaded Tibetan territory, occupied two of our military posts at Gartok and Rudok, and claimed the territory west of the Mayum that had formerly belonged to Ladakh. Actually, they intend to occupy more territory than this.” 

To the horror of the British, agents of the Maharaja of Nepal came to meet Zorawar Singh at Taklakot. The British now feared a Sikh-Gurkha alliance against them and feared that such an alliance would help the Nepalis re-occupy British-controlled Kumaon (in present-day Uttrakhand), which they had won as a consequence of the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. But such a relationship did not materialise. The Nepalese were sympathetic to the Ladakhis and they also had ongoing relationships with the Tibetans. Even though they sent a mission to Zorawar Singh after his conquest of Taklakot, nothing came of it. Winter sojourn to the Dogras was refused.

Royal Falcon flies into the Sun
The British East India Company pressurized Maharaja Sher Singh to withdraw his forces - very reluctantly, Zorawar Singh had to obey. In fact, their agent, JD Cunnigham is said to have written to Zorawar Singh to wait for the winters to be over. Cunnigham, showing typical Machiavellian mindset of the British, was in touch with both Tibetans and the Sikh/ Dogra forces.  Zorawar sent back his wife and a part of his army to Ladakh. This withdrawal from several forward posts weakened the Dogra positions. Due to the onset of winter, all passes and mountain pathways stood blocked. Zorawar Singh marched back to Tirthapuri (northwest of Mt. Kailash) to wait out the snows to melt, but due to extreme cold, his soldiers were losing fingers to frostbite and burning ammunition for warmth. At that point, in November 1841, the Tibetans with a force of 10,000 soldiers under their finest general, Kahlon Surkhang, attacked via the Mayum Pass but faced defeat. Kahlon thought of moving back but he found Mastang La, another pass close by, which was still negotiable. The Tibetans surprised the Dogras with a sneak attack at Taklakot, winning it back after a fierce fight. Zorawar Singh, in a desperate move, divided his force into five columns and attacked Taklakot in waves. But the heavy Tibetan numbers forced the Dogras back with heavy casualties. Zorawar Singh next attacked To-Yo(Do-Yo) but his army fell into a trap laid by the Tibetans. On December 12, 1841, the General fell from his horse after a bullet hit him in the right shoulder. He rose back and kept fighting with his left hand till a Tibetan commander identified him and hurled a spear, killing one of the greatest generals in the subcontinent’s history. Zorawar Singh’s severed head was taken to Lhasa and placed at a thoroughfare to proclaim the end of a great battle and honour the valour of the Tibetan forces. Zorawar Singh’s efforts however did not go in vain as under the command of Jawahir Singh, a nephew of Raja Gulab Singh, Tibetans were routed and made to sign the Treaty of Chushul in 1842, restoring control of territory gained by Zorawar Singh to Raja Gulab Singh.

Third Part
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One-anna stamp, of Maharaja Hari Singh, shows Tibet being a part of Jammu and Kashmir. The full title of the Dogra Maharaja was Shriman Indar Mahindar Rajesahwar Maharajaadhiraj Shri Jammu Kashmir Naresh Tatha Tibet Deshadhipati. Its text says: Shree Ramjee Sahai Jammu Kashmir Tibet Aadi Rashtiya stamp.

General Zorawar Singh has done what nobody before him and since then has ever dreamt of – expanding the territory of India right up to Sino-Tibetan border. His exploits, his valour can only be seen in the correct perspective when we realize that he travelled on horseback all over the mountains where no roads existed, lived and fought in harsh climatic conditions with a handful of soldiers. Today, our troops have the benefits of mobility, transportation, warm clothing, proper food, communication – Zorawar’s army had none of these facilities and yet these brave-hearts did what nobody had done till then – expand Indian boundaries to Tibet. Seen in that context, Zorawar Singh stands out as a leader, a visionary and warrior of the highest class. He lost the chance to capture entire Tibet but he lost due to the snowstorms and bad weather, as the Tibetans so graciously acknowledged and due to the continuous interference by the British. How often does one see the enemy build a memorial as a tribute to a brave and ferocious warrior -a chorten (cenotaph) was built in Toyo, Taklakot, to mark the spot where Zorawar Singh was slain. It exists till date! 

Zorawar Singh’s masterpiece, a united map of Jammu and Kashmir State, was broken up in 1947-48, when Nehru took the matter of Pakistani invasion to the UNO, tacitly accepting the division of J&K. In November 1948, gallant Indian troops personally led by General Thimayya brought in a Tank Column over a height of 11,500 feet to capture Zoji La, the gateway to Ladakh but Skardu, Gilgit, Baltistan, Hunza, Chitral etc were left in Pakistani control as the folly of ceasefire came into effect on January 1, 1949. Thus, the gains made by valiant efforts of our soldiers, past and modern day, were lost by our political class who had no comprehension of Ladakh’s tactical and strategic importance. “It is a territory where not even a blade of grass grows, about 17,000 feet high. Ladakh is a useless uninhabitable land. We did not even know where it was”, Prime Minister Nehru informed the Rajya Sabha on December 5, 1961. The rest is history.

Personal & Family History:
Zorawar Singh’s family relocated to Riasi(Jammu) from Himachal. His brothers also shifted to Riasi. Zorawar is said to have built his own house at Bijaypur, 3 km west of Riasi. Zorawar married thrice – his first wife died very young. The second and third wives (Lajwanti and Asha) were real sisters from a village across the Chenab River (Pouni-Barakh).  Asha Devi accompanied Zorawar Singh on his expedition to Ladakh & Tibet and performed the Kailas-Mansarovar pilgrimage with him. Once the General decided to initiate his Tibet campaign, he sent Asha Devi back to Riasi under a suitable military escort. News of Zorawar Singh’s demise reached Riasi after almost 45 days of his death since winter snows had blocked all passes. Both his wives decided to perform Sati (self-immolation in husband’s pyre). Raja Gulab Singh sent his eldest son Udham Singh to dissuade them. While Lajwanti relented, the younger Asha was unable to withstand the pangs of separation and holding her husband’s turban in her lap, immolated herself on the banks of River Chenab, in true Rajput tradition. The pyre was lit by Thakur Dharam Singh, lifelong companion of General Zorawar Singh and Asha Devi is said to have blessed Dharam Singh before entering her pyre. The haveli built by Zorawar and lands associated with it passed on to his brother Sardar Singh and his descendants since the General did not have a son. A number of legends are associated with Asha Devi and her laments are said to be a part of Ladakhi folklore as per August Hermann Francke’s “A History of Western Tibet: One of the Unknown Empires” (Published 1907).

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Rupees 3 postage stamp of Zorawar Singh was issued by the Government of India on December 31, 2000

India needs to remember, with gratitude, Zorawar Singh’s contribution and valour. His fort at Demchok in East Ladakh stood guard till 2008 before the Chinese demolished it. Life and legend of Zorawar Singh, the lion of the mountains is still celebrated by jawans and officers of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, a regiment of the Indian Army that has its roots in the Dogra Corps, raised by Raja Gulab Singh himself as his personal force, in 1821. 

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The flag of the Chinese Imperial Army, captured in a battle in 1841 in Tibet, is still in possession of the JAK Rifles. A replica of the Chinese Imperial Mantalal Standard is kept in the Zorawar Museum at Zorawar Fort, Leh. The original flag, captured by Zorawar Singh’s army in 1841, is a precious souvenir of the J & K Rifles of the Indian |Army. The regiment celebrates Zorawar Day on April 25 every year.

Each year, on April 15, all the soldiers and veterans of this regiment gather to celebrate Zorawar Day, to honor the birth and memory of a hero, the Napoleon of the East.  As India now (2020-21) pushes back against China on the edges of Ladakh, amid a military build-up in the Galwan Valley, few realize that India’s borders with Tibet and the Xinjiang province of China, the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, are all the legacy of the great General Zorawar Singh.

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