Legend of Zorawar Singh

Col J P Singh
15th April is celebrated as Zorawar Day by Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, the erstwhile J&K State Force, to commemorate birth and successes of legendary Dogra warrior who was the architect of present Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. Zorawar Singh is said to be born on 15 April 1786 at Kahloor, Himachal Pradesh, now Bilaspur. Later as General of Jammu Raja Gulab Singh, he launched Ladakh campaign from Kishtwar by marching into the Ladakhi Province of Purig, the estate of Thi Sultans, on 15 April 1834 with an army of 5000 men and ended up having invested Gilgit-Baltistan and Western Tibet. Zorawar Day thus signifies birth and successes of a great Indian Warrior.

At the age of 16, he became a servant of Rana Jaswant Singh of Ramnagar where he learnt the art of archery and swordsmanship in a traditional way of a Rajput youth. Later he joined as a Sepoy of Kiladar of Reasi. Being brave, intelligent and enterprising, Kiladar Reasi assigned him the duties of carrying messages to Raja Gulab Singh. It was during one of these meetings with Gulab Singh when he brought certain flaws and wastages in Raja’s supply department and gave an alternative plan. When implemented, the new plan affected lot of savings. Hence Zorawar Singh was promoted as Inspector of Commissariat of Supplies for all the Forts North of Jammu. After the occupation of Kishtwar in 1821, Gulab Singh made him Hakim of Kishtwar. When Gulab Singh became ruler of Jammu in 1822, he elevated him to the status of Hakim of Reasi, Arnas and Kussal with the title of Wazir.
To recount Gen Zorawar Singh’s achievements, a look to the East of Kishtwar is necessary. To its East were the snow-clad mountain and valleys of upper Himalayas. Several principalities of this region were tributary to Tshe-pal, the Gyalpo (King) of Ladakh. In 1834 one of these, the Raja of Timbus, sought Raja Gulab Singh’s help against the Gyalpo. Finding the opportunity, Raja Gulab Singh ordered his able commander Zorawar Singh to march into Ladakh and invest it.
The Dogra General had been waiting for an opportunity to excel himself in warfare. The Rajputs of Jammu and Himachal had traditionally been excellent mountain fighters. Therefore Zorawar Singh had no problem in crossing the mountain ranges and entering Ladakh through the Suru River where his 5000 men defeated a local army of General Mangal and established Dogra control over Western province of Purig by mid August. After a brief pause to refurbish his force, the Dogra commander marched towards Leh. Gyalpo, sent Gen Banko Kahlon to cut off Zorawar Singh’s lines of communication. The astute Dogra General rushed back to Kartse where he sheltered his troops through the winter. In the spring of 1835, he defeated the large Army of Gen Kahlon and marched his victorious troops to Leh. The panic stricken Gyalpo sued for peace and personally negotiated with Dogra General for almost four months before a settlement was reached. As per the agreement, he was retained as Gyalpo but Ladakh was to be vassal state of the Dogra Kingdom. Ladakh was to pay a war indemnity of Rs. 50,000 to Jammu and send Rs. 20,000 as an annual tribute.
Soon after the two sides had signed the agreement, the Chief of Sod rose in arms against the Dogras. Dogra General quickly suppressed the revolt. Having restored order in Sod, Zorawar Singh triumphantly returned to Jammu at the end of 1835. This is considered as one of the greatest victories of Gen Zorawar Singh.
The impressive Dogra victory over Ladakh aroused uneasiness at Lahore Darbar. It made Sikhs apprehensive of Jammu Raja’s designs. Placating Lahore’s misgivings over Ladakh, the Jammu Chief told his overlord Maharaja Ranjit Singh that his expedition had actually helped expand Sikh Kingdom’s boundaries. Zorawar Singh was sent to pacify the Sikhs. Dogra General met the Emperor on 16 March 1836. In addition to explaining about Ladakh campaign, he put forth his intentions to carry the Sikh empire standard into Tibet and China. This startled the emperor but bolstered his confidence in Dogra General.
In 1837, on the instigation of Mahan Singh, the Governor of Kashmir, Gyalpo revolted against Jammu’s authority. This forced Gen Zorawar Singh’s return to Leh speedily. Moment he reached Leh, Gyalpo changed his stance and begged for forgiveness. Having imposed additional indemnity, the Dogra General exploited Ladakh’s internal feuds to his advantage and forced Gyalpo to abdicate in favour of a noble Ngorub Stabzin. Appointing Ngorub as Gyalpo, he returned to Jammu. In 1838, new Gyalpo Ngorub also revolted. Zorawar Singh marched back to Leh via Zanskar. Ngorub was deposed and original Gyalpo was re-installed as ruler. In 1839, Zorawar Singh returned to Ladakh yet again to face another challenge from the ousted Ngorub and other disgruntled nobles. Dogras promptly suppressed the rebellion, arrested the leading insurgents and returned to Jammu. In 1840, Sukamir of Purig raised the banner of rebellion against Jammu. Zorawar Singh reappeared in Ladakh 5th time and this time brutally suppressed the rebellion.
With Ladakh firmly under control, the challenge lay to the Northwest of Ladakh. The region was the principality of Baltistan which was predominantly Muslim. The decision to invest it was influenced by various favourable developments. Mohammad Shah, son of Balti ruler Ahmed Shah, had been bitterly estranged with his father. In 1835 he had approached Zorawar Singh for help to usurp his father’s throne. Because of preoccupations in Ladakh, Zorawar Singh promised future assistance. East India Company had not shown any interest in this region. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1939 gave Jammu ruler a free rein in Himalayas. Encouraged by the prevailing conditions, Raja Gulab Singh ordered Zorawar Singh to occupy Baltistan. With an army of fifteen thousand, comprising of Dogras and Ladkhis, Dogra General marched to Baltistan at the end of 1840. His bold speed-march in winters and crossing Indus over frozen waters caught the Balti troops off-guard and decisively beaten. Finally Zorawar Singh reached Balti capital of Skardu and besieged its strategically located Fort. Ahmed Shah surrendered. He was disposed and imprisoned. His son Mohammad Shah was made the ruler of Baltistan for an annual tribute of rupees seven thousand to Jammu. Objective attained, Dogra General stationed a contingent of Dogra troops at Skardu and returned to Leh.
Having consolidated his reign in the Northwest, Raja Gulab Singh revived an ancient Ladakhi claim over Western Tibet and in May 1841 let Gen Zorawar Singh enter unknown lands of Tibet with five thousand men comprising of Dogras, Ladakhis and Baltis. Sweeping all resistance on the way, he passed the Mansarovar Lake and converged at Gartok where he defeated the Tibetan force stationed there. Tibetan commander fled to Taklakot. Zorawar Singh stormed the Fort on 6 September 1841 and captured the strategic city of Taklakot. Envoys from Tibet and agents of the Maharaja of Nepal, whose kingdom was only fifteen miles from Taklakot, came and met the General. British feared presence of Dogra troops on Nepalese frontiers. They suspected emergence of an alliance between Jammu and Nepal and feared that such a coalition might endanger the Kumaon Hills which the British had conquered from Nepal after a bloody conflict in 1816. By October 1841 British trepidations had reached such a feverish pitch that they demanded Maharaja Sher Singh to order Dogras to evacuate Tibet by 10 December 1841. But before Jammu Raja could make contact with Zorawar Singh, the military situation in Tibet underwent a drastic change. In November, Lahasa sent a composite army of ten thousand Chinese and Tibetans to drive Dogras from Tibet.
The adversaries finally met face to face on 10 December, ironically the date set by British for Dogras withdrawal. The fierce battle began. On 12 December 1841, the Dogra General was fatally wounded. The death of the Dogra Commander decided the outcome of the battle. Living upto their bravery, Dogras executed the enemy General to avenge their General’s martyrdom and forced the adversary into a peace treaty. 12 December 1841 ended the saga of military adventures of the Dogra warrior who is also referred to as Napoleon of the East. Nation should pay tributes to the great warrior and his soldiers on 15 April to commemorate their legendary adventures.