The Mughals were always proud of their Mongol roots, tracing their lineage all the way back to the great Genghis Khan. But there was a time when the politics of war eclipsed their ethnic pride and the Mughals actually confronted the Mongols on the battlefield in the 17th century.
This historic clash was the Battle of Basgo and it had the most interesting cast of characters – Hindu Rajas, Mughal armies, the Dalai Lama, the Kings of Ladakh and Bhutan, and Mongol forces – all pitted against each other. It was a massive power struggle and its echo can still be heard today. It is this battle that defined the traditional boundary between Ladakh and Tibet, and it stayed this way for centuries, till the British drew the ‘Johnson Line’ in 1865, fuelling a border dispute between India and China over Aksai Chin, that exists to date.
The year was 1679 and the flashpoint was the fight for control over monasteries in the entire region, between the Yellow Hats (a Buddhist sect headed by the Dalai Lama) and the Red Hats (supported by the King of Bhutan). While most history books lack details, we know of the battle thanks to the account of a Moravian missionary called Francke, who lived in Ladakh for a long time.
He wrote a book The History of Western Tibet (1907), in which he detailed what happened back in the 17th century. He calls this battle ‘The Great Mongol War’. There were myriad characters involved in this event, ranging from the Fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet (r. 1642-1682); to Gushi Khan of the Mongol Dzungarian Khanate; the King of Bhutan, the King of Ladakh, Gyalpo Delek Namgyal; Raja Kehri Singh of Bushahr; Raja Bidhi Singh of Kullu; the Mughal Governor of Kashmir Ibrahim Khan; and last but not least Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb himself.
In 17th century Tibet, the Dzungar Mongols had become the real power behind the office of the Dalai Lama. This had its roots in the struggle for power between the Yellow Hats and the Red Hats, the two Tibetan Buddhist sects, almost a hundred years earlier, in the middle of the 16th century.
Through the alliance with the Mongol Khans, the Yellow Hats had emerged victorious and their leader, the Dalai Lama, became the de-facto ruler of Tibet.
In fact, even the title ‘Dalai Lama’ was a title conferred by Mongol ruler Altan Khan on the leader of the Yellow Hat sect.
During the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), Tibet was involved in intrigue and feuds with various Tibetan Buddhist sects as well as neighbouring kingdoms. However, the Fifth Dalai Lama had found a powerful patron in Gushi Khan, the ruler of the Dzungarian Khanate in today’s Xinjiang province of China.
The Dzgunar Khanate was the last great nomadic Empire to emerge in Central Asia in the 17th century. Made up of a confederation of Mongol tribes, it controlled vast areas of what is today’s Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjian province of China. It was their control over the strategically important Aksai Chin (occupied by China since the 1961 Indo-China War) that allowed them easy access to Tibet as well as Ladakh.
The Fifth Dalai Lama was involved in continuous wars with Bhutan, which followed the Red Hat school of Buddhism. It so happened that, in the 1670s, the King of Ladakh, Gyalpo Delek Namgyal (r. 1675-1705), backed the King of Bhutan on the issue of who should have control over the monasteries in Bhutan, much to the consternation of the Fifth Dalai Lama. On the pretext that the Yellow Hat sect in Ladakh was being persecuted, the fifth Dalai Lama called on his Mongol allies and together they decided that an invasion of Ladakh would be the best way to settle the matter with the King of Ladakh. So a force of Mongols and Tibetans were despatched to Ladakh.
Interestingly, Raja Kehri Singh (1636-96 CE), ruler of the kingdom of Bushahr (in present-day Himachal Pradesh) and an ancestor of former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, had a running dispute with Ladakh over the Spiti region. Hence he decided to join the Mongol-Tibetan alliance, to settle the matter of Spiti with Ladakh. As a reward, Bushahr traders were given the right to free trade with Tibet.
The joint Mongol-Tibetan force was first met by a Ladakhi force around Pangong Lake, in Changthang, just across what was traditionally considered the frontier between Ladakh and Tibet. After a long engagement, the Mongol-Tibetan force got the better of the Ladakhi forces, who went on the run. The Tibetan-Mongols continued to pursue them and the Ladakhi King and his forces soon took refuge in Basgo Fort, the strongest fortress in the region. It wasn’t long before the Mongol-Tibetans turned up outside the fort.
The Buddhist monastery at Basgo, around 40 km from Leh, was built in the 11th century and a series of fortifications were gradually added to it over the years as Basgo played a strategically important role since it was close to the trade routes to Kashmir and towards the West. It was also the point where Upper and Lower Ladakh met and so was an important staging point for trade caravans.
Hopelessly cornered, the Ladakhi King had no option but to call for help from outside, and the only force he knew of, that could face the Mongols were the Mughals. Hence, he sent a message to the Mughal Governor of Kashmir, Ibrahim Khan, urging him to intervene against the invading army. The governor, in turn, referred the matter to Emperor Aurangzeb.
The Mughals sent a message to the King of Ladakh saying they were willing to help, on two conditions: first, that the lucrative Pashmina trade should be a Mughal preserve; and second, that the King would have to convert to Islam after the invaders were driven back. According to various Kashmiri Mughal historical sources, the King agreed. He even built a mosque in the main bazaar in Leh. That the King converted to Islam, even though only in name, is testified to by Francke after he went through all the circumstantial evidence available to him.
Soon, a Mughal force led by the son of the governor was despatched from Kashmir and it was joined by a force from Kulu led by Raja Bidhi Singh, who was a nominal ally of Ladakh. The Mughal forces and their allies crossed the Zoji La Pass and entered Ladakh from Kashmir. They crossed the Indus river over two wooden bridges at Khalaste and marched towards Basgo.
Finally, battle lines were drawn and the two armies met on a plain called Jargyal between Basgo and Nimmu. This is referred to as the Battle of Basgo, fought in 1679. Eventually, the battle-hardened Mughals along with their Ladakhi and Kullu allies proved too strong for the Mongol-Tibetans and their Bushahri allies.
The Mongol-Tibetans were pushed back and routed all the way to Spituk, also in the Leh district, where after a brief lull fighting erupted again until they were driven beyond Pangong Lake to a place called Tashisgang, in the Spiti valley. They built a fort there and shut themselves in. The Mughal army turned back, confident that their opponents were gone for good.
In the meantime, the Ladakhi King had moved west, to the Fort of Tinmogang, around 30 km west of the Fort at Basgo. The Mughals now turned up to get their pound of flesh. All the Pashmina trade rights were given to them and, according to Mughal chronicles, the Ladakhi King converted to Islam and took on the name ‘Akbat Mahmud Khan’. As a guarantee, the Mughals took with them to Kashmir as ‘guests’ a few members of the Ladakhi royal family, including one of his sons.
Ladakhi chronicles, however, make no mention of King Gyalpo Delek Namgyal’s conversion to Islam, probably because the King kept it secret as he did not want to upset his people or incur the wrath of the orthodox Buddhist Lamas.
Satisfied that their conditions had been met, the Mughals went back over the Zoji La Pass to Kashmir leaving the Ladakhi King in charge as before. Once the Mughals returned, the Tibetans with new reinforcements from the new Dzungarian Khan, Galdan Boshugtu Khan, attacked again in 1684. This time, the Mongol-Tibetans were victorious and the Ladakhi King didn't have the time or the inclination to call upon his Mughal allies; and neither were the Mughals prepared nor interested in intervening again.
In the aftermath of this attack, a treaty was signed between the Tibetans and the Ladakhis, which fixed the border between Ladakh and Tibet. It also restricted Kashmir’s hold over the Pashmina trade till Spituk. This border remained unchanged till the British drew a new one in 1865, called the ‘Johnson Line’.
Much of the ‘Line of Actual Control’ (LOAC) established between India and China after the 1961 Indo-China War runs along this old Ladakh-Tibet border.
It also fixed the sum in an annual tribute that Ladakh had to send to Tibet. Interestingly, there is a living remnant of the Mughal-Mongol War of 1679. Apparently, to commemorate the treaty which Raja Kehri Singh of Bushahr had signed with the Tibetans, a trade fair would be organized in Rampur-Bushahr every year since 1681. This unique Loi Fair or Wool Fair is held here till this day.
Today, Basgo is a sleepy village on the Leh-Kargil highway around 40 km from Leh, along the Indus, not far from where the Zanskar meets the Indus. The monastery and the fort here are still standing. Their popularity is slowly growing and the number of visitors interested in this historic place has risen.
Prashant Mathawan (Kiki) is a writer and a photographer who has spent his formative years living amidst the Himalayas in the most beautiful of its Vales, Kashmir. For decades, he has explored the deepest parts of the Himalayas and is a passionate follower of the history and culture of this region.