Atholi-Machail-Zanskar Road Why it is important

Ashish Chouhan
The incessant flow of blood in the arteries and veins is crucial in keeping the human body up and running. Likewise, for the proper functioning of the nation, a sound network of roads and national highways is important. This network of roads not only connects our capital region to the hinterland but to the cities, coasts, and border fringes as well.
In news, we often hear about our Government planning for and laying the foundation of some critical infrastructure projects across the country. And why not we be, for these are the assets that not only grease our channels of the economy by helping us save millions in money and time but also in protecting the borders of our nation from the enemy’s intrusion. Last year, on the 24th of November 2021 when our Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari visited the Doda District of Jammu & Kashmir Union Territory, he formally approved the construction of multiple National Highways for the Jammu region.
In the list of highways that were announced, the name of Atholi-Machail-Zanskar Road also came to the fore, and with this the euphoria among the people of subdivision Paddar. The road that was announced would connect the Paddar subdivision of Kishtwar District in Jammu & Kashmir Union Territory to the Zanskar subdivision of Kargil District in Ladakh Union Territory. Recently MP Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal also reiterated the demand for this strategic road from Paddar to Padum in the Winter Parliament session.
Moreover, this road, which is now set to become reality, is of great significance not only to the people of Paddar and Zanskar but to the entire nation.
Historical Significance
In the first quarter of the 19th century when Dogra rule was expanding in the north, Kishtwar was a separate state. In 1821 AD, when the last ruler of Kishtwar, Raja Mohammad Teg Singh submitted to the Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh, his wazir Rattan Singh fled to Chamba.
The then Raja of Chamba, Charat Singh provided him shelter. Soon he was appointed as the official of Paddar by the Raja. In 1825 AD, Rattan Singh attacked Zanskar via Umasi-La and defeated the Gyalpo Raja there, adding Zanskar to the Chamba principality thereby earning the title of Palsar for himself. He was known Rattnu Palsar (Chief official) thereafter.
In 1834-35 AD, two generals of Maharaja Gulab Singh, namely Mehta Basti Ram and Wazir Lakhpat Rai under the command of General Zorawar Singh Kalhuria, the then Governor of Kishtwar returned to Kishtwar via this route i.e. Umasi La after conquering Zanskar. While returning they stationed some 20-30 troops at Gulabgarh.
Subsequently, when people in Zanskar rose in revolt against the Dogra rule, Ratnu Palsar grabbed the opportunity and arrested Dogra soldiers stationed at Gulabgarh, sending some of them to Chamba. This invited the wrath of Dogra General Zorawar Singh to Paddar.
In 1836 AD he came to Paddar with his battery of 3000 soldiers and crushed the forces of Ratnu Palsar, adding Paddar into the Dogra state, which till then remained the principality of Chamba ruler. After that, he went to Zanskar with the aid of locals in Machail via Umasi-La and annexed Zanskar.
He used this route extensively thereafter in his further expeditions in Baltistan, Ladakh, and Tibet until he succumbed to his injuries near Mansarovar in the battle of To-Yo in 1841 AD. Therefore it must not be forgotten that it was this route that facilitated the expansion of the boundaries of J&K to the shores of Mansarovar Lake.
Moreover, after the Independence in 1947 when a tribal attack happened in Kashmir in October, our Indian Army under the command of Colonel Hukam Chand Yadav used this track to suppress the attack from the Kargil side to save Churu valley. They successfully repulsed the tribal onslaught and pushed the enemy beyond Skardu.
Apart from that this route was also used during the Indo-China war in 1962 AD. Local porters who were adept to the harsh climate of the region helped the Army extensively in both wars.
Strategic Significance
Today we have two adversaries in the form of Pakistan and China in the North and North-East and in order to counter them effectively, it becomes imperative that we have strategically shortest routes available that can help us reach there with arms and ammunition. As of now, we have two strategic routes, one via Zoji-la which connects Kashmir with Kargil, and another via Chandigarh-Manali-Leh Highway which connects Himachal to Leh in Ladakh, which is also reachable from Paddar via Pangi-Killar-Kelong road!
If we look at the distance between Kargil and Zanskar, it is about 234 kms which means if we want to reach Kargil via Kashmir it would take us between 18 and 19 hours to reach there. But if the Atholi-Machail-Zanskar Road opens, it will shorten this distance to a merely 9 hours journey from Northern Command Headquarters, Udhampur. In other words, this route will reduce the present road distance of nearly 700-800kms (via Zoji-La) to 300-350 kms (Via Umasi-La/ Hagshu-La). Besides that, it will also provide the shortest link to Padum from Pathankot base via the Kathua-Chatergalla-Doda-Kishtwar-Paddar route.
Moreover, this route will also be one of the safest routes to rush defense supplies to Kargil and Drass areas. The proposal of a Defence road along this route was also envisaged during the Kargil War when Pakistani troops while standing in the hill-top positions were targeting our Army convoys moving from Srinagar to Kargil in Gumri and Drass areas. A survey was also conducted during that time by the Army and BRO.
The then Minister of State Chaman Lal Gupta also pushed the demand but due to some unknown reasons, this project failed to come to fruition. But now, we are near materializing this route via Hagshu-La, thanks to the current dispensation.
Memories of Galwan are still fresh in our minds. This route will give us leverage to deal with our adversaries more effectively in the north. Today when we are determined of taking POJK back, and when China is threatening us along LAC in the north and east, this strategic road will prove to be a weapon in the direction.
Economic Significance
The most important and revered shrine of J&K, Machail Mata also happens to be on this route. Every year lakhs of pilgrims pay obeisance at the sacred feet of Maa Chandi. This adds an enormous advantage to the business activities happening in the area. Nowadays construction of the road to Machail under PMGSY is taking place at a breakneck speed. More than 25 kms. of road has been completed and in the future when this road from Paddar connects Padum in Zanskar, business and touristic activity along this route will grow exponentially.
This route is also flanked by lofty, snow-laden peaks of the Himalayas viz. Mount Agyasol, Mount Spear, Shivling, Cerro, Barnaj, Hagshu etc. Every year scores of mountaineers from different corners of the world come here to scale these peaks. Apart from that this valley is also dotted with pristine lakes and lush green meadows. Many valleys open in this region like Bhuzonu, Barnaj, Bhuzas, and Dharlang. Each and every valley has magnetic tourism potential.
Moreover, world-renowned peacock blue Paddar sapphires also fall along the route, just above Sumcham village. This road will further help our Government in employing advanced machinery in the mines for scientific exploration. Other than that we must not forget that it was this route where the trade of Sapphires first started at the cost of stones. Salt, sapphires, and many other essential articles were part of the trade here centuries ago and will remain so in the future.
This route therefore will not only become a major trade artery between the two UTs but also a crucial path of touristic and cultural importance. Furthermore, it will also place Paddar at the trijunction of the three most important roads. All this will result in employment generation for the people.
Cultural Significance
Paddar is the only subdivision in District Kishtwar where a major chunk of the Buddhist population resides. As per the 2011 census, about 10% of the population in Paddar is Buddhist. They mostly live in the 3 valleys of Paddar viz. Gandhari, Kabban, and Machail. In Machail valley alone there are 7 Buddhist villages viz. Haloti, Hango, Losaini, Jashairi, Gorna, Dangail and Sumcham. People in these villages have a great affinity with the people in Padam, Zanskar. Culture of Buddhist people residing in these villages is akin to the people in Zanskar.
Not only this, we have lamas from Padum who still take care of monasteries (Gompas) in Paddar under the guidance of the famous Bardhan Monastery of Zanskar. Cultural interaction between these two places is not a recent phenomenon. It is happening since the 13th-14th century AD when Zanskar was under the Guge rule. Prominent Buddhist Gurus often visit Paddar valley. His Highness 14th Dalai Lama also visited Paddar in 2010 AD and blessed this land with his sermons.
There is also a silver idol of Maa Chandi in the famous temple of Machail which was installed there by the people of Zanskar centuries ago when they won the battle against the epidemic that hit there. This narrates the story of the amelioration and intimacy of these two cultures.
Thus it would not be wrong if we say that this road would enable two cultures of the same tunings by giving them the opportunity to prosper and grow on a larger scale.
Construction of a Defence road along this 70-80 km snow-bound Himalayan pass might not be an easy task but once constructed this would change the geo-strategic position of India vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. Furthermore, this will not only give justice to the legacy of the Napoleon of India, General Zorawar Singh but also ease the suffering of the people inhabiting this region. Therefore this road that enabled the discovery of Sapphire Mines and the enrichment of Buddhist culture for generations in Paddar must be constructed soon.