Gen Zorawar Singh Conqueror of Himalayas

Col J P Singh
Gen Zorawar Singh was born on 13 April 1786 at Kahlur, in neighboring Himachal. Very little is known about his early life except that he took up a job with Rana Jaswant Singh of Marmat, (Ramnagar) when he was 16. He learnt archery, riding and swordsmanship under Rana’s guidance.
Thereafter he met Raja Gulab Singh at Jammu who appointed him as Sepoy under Kiladar of Reasi. Reasi finally became his family abode where his descendents live and celebrate his legacy. Being smart and intelligent, he won favours of his Kiladar who appointed him as linkman between him and Raja Gulab Singh. In one of the meetings with Raja, Zorawar Singh brought out certain flaws and wastages which were occurring in Supply Department. When corrections were made, lot of savings were seen. Following this Zorawar Singh was appointed ‘Inspector of Commissariat of Supplies’ for all the Forts. When Gulab Singh became Raja of Jammu in 1822, Zorawar Singh was appointed Governor of Reasi, Arnas, Kussal and Kishtwar with a title of Wazir. It is not very certain whether Raja Gulab Singh had conquests of Ladakh in mind while positioning Zorawar Singh at Kishtwar, the gateway to Ladakh, but the co-relation can’t be overlooked.
Later as General of Raja Gulab Singh, what Zorawar Singh achieved is unprecedented. He launched Trans-Himalayan campaigns starting on 15 April 1834 with an army of 5000 and within 8 years conquered Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan, Kailash Mansarovar and Western Tibet. His Martyrdom on 12 December 1841 ended a saga of remarkable valour of a legendary military commander who took Indian boundaries up to Central Asian Republics.
My forefathers and other Rajputs of Jammu were the fighting force of Dogra Rulers who extended their Kingdom to far off places in Central Asian Hinterland in the nineteenth century. They took part in all the Trans-Himalayan campaigns in the course of expansion of Dogra empire. Survivors told stories of their conquests to people back home, from whom they continued to pass on. They are still alive in the form of folk-tales, folklore and folk-songs. Ironically they have not been documented, neither by the Dogras who kept fighting battles and wars, one after the other, and nor by other Indian historians who probably remained focused on the ingress of East India Company in the Indian heartland. Luckily British writers documented military adventures across Himalayas which stand proof of Dogras’ achievements and continue to be discussed in JandK. Luckily I am from the generation who has heard stories of achievements of forefathers and hence feel privileged to have some knowledge of glorious Dogra heritage. Some reflections of rich heritage with regards to disputed Aksai Chin over which my ancestors had trampled through have resounded in Indian Parliament many times since 1959.
To recount Gen Zorawar Singh’s Trans-Himalayan adventures for the readers, a look at ‘Table-land Ladakh’ and “Gilgit-Baltistan” would see the ancient Silk Route passing through their capital towns, Leh and Skardu. The average height of the area was 12,000 ft where air was rarified, lacking oxygen and making breathing difficult. During the winter the rivers freeze, passes get blocked and tracks get covered with snow. Snow storms and blizzards were common phenomenon. Food crops, fodder and fuel was not enough even for the local population. Hence the terrain, climate and altitudes made living and logistics difficult to support a military adventure.
In 1834 the Raja of Timbus, sought Raja Gulab Singh’s help against Ladakhi King. Finding the opportunity, Raja Gulab Singh ordered his able commander Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. The Dogra General had been waiting for such opportunity to excel. Gen Zorawar Singh entered Ladakh through the Suru River where he 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 General marched towards Leh. King 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 22,000 strong Army of Gen Kahlon and marched his victorious troops to Leh. The panic stricken King sued for peace. As per the agreement, he was retained as King with Ladakh as vassal state of the Dogra Kingdom. Soon after the two sides had signed the peace agreement, the Chief of Sod rose in arms against the Dogras. Dogra General quickly suppressed the revolt. Having restored order, Zorawar Singh triumphantly returned to Jammu at the end of 1835. This was 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, Raja Gulab Singh told Maharaja Ranjit Singh that his expedition had actually helped expand Sikh empire. Gen Zorawar Singh also met the Emperor on 16 March 1836 to explain about Ladakh campaign. He put forth his plans to carry the Sikh empire Flag still further into Gilgit-Baltistan, Tibet and China. This startled the emperor but bolstered his confidence in him. In 1837, on the instigation of Mahan Singh, the Sikh Governor of Kashmir, Ladakh King revolted against Jammu’s authority. This forced Gen Zorawar Singh’s return to Leh speedily. Moment he reached Leh, the King begged for forgiveness. Dogra General exploited Ladakh’s internal feuds to his advantage and forced King to abdicate in favor of a noble Ngorub Stabzin. Appointing Ngorub as the ruler, he returned to Jammu.
In 1838, Ngorub also revolted. Zorawar Singh marched back to Leh via Zanskar. Ngorub was deposed and original King Tse-Pal was re-installed. In 1839, Zorawar Singh returned to Ladakh yet again to face another challenge from the ousted Ngorub. 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 which was predominantly a Muslim region under Afghan patronage. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 gave Jammu ruler a free rein in Himalayas. Encouraged by the rifts amongst various Principalities and Royal households, Raja Gulab Singh ordered Zorawar Singh to invade Baltistan. With an army of 15,000, comprising of Dogras and Ladakhis, Dogra General marched to Baltistan at the end of 1840. His bold speed-march in winters and crossing Indus over frozen waters caught the Baltis off-guard and decisively beaten enabling Gen Zorawar Singh reach Balti capital of Skardu and besiege its strategic Fort.
Having consolidated his reign in Gilgit-Baltistan, Raja Gulab Singh revived an ancient Ladakhi claim over Western Tibet and in May 1841 let Gen Zorawar Singh enter highlands of Tibet with 5,000 men comprising of Dogras, Ladakhis and Baltis. Sweeping all resistance on the way, he passed the Mansarovar Lake and converged at Gartok. Tibetan commander fled to Taklakot. Zorawar Singh stormed Taklakot Fort on 6 September 1841 and captured the strategic city. Envoys from Tibet and Nepal met the General at Taklakot to negotiate peace. Unexpectedly, in November a composite army of 10,000 Chinese and Tibetans marched to Taklakot to drive Dogras out. The adversaries came face to face on 10 December. The fierce battle began. Temperature by then had fallen to minus 50 due to sweeping blizzards. Yet the Dogras gave a tough fight. On 12 December 1841, the Dogra General was fatally wounded. The death of the Force Commander decided the outcome of the battle. Living up to their bravery, Dogras executed the enemy General to avenge their commander’s martyrdom. On 12th December 1841 ended the saga of glorious military adventures of the Dogra Warrior. Tibetans raised a memorial for the fallen General which is visited by the pregnant women for blessings for a brave son; a rare honour extended nowhere else in the world. This leaves Napoleon far aside of Gen Zorawar Singh.
Of late, Sikh historians have started claiming Gen Zorawar Singh as Sikh and General of Maharaja Ranjit Singh thus glorifying his achievements much more than any other historians have done. The fact that he was sent to Lahore Darbar by Jammu Raja after his Ladakh conquest to mollify Maharaja Ranjit Singh and later Kashmir Governor Mahan Singh instigating a revolt against Dogra rule in Ladakh refutes their claim of otherwise well orchestrated acclamation.
With active LAC standoff in Ladakh, Gen Zorwar Singh will continue to be a role model for army commanders defending the Indian frontiers.