The Government of India has made a historic decision to separate Ladakh from Jammu & Kashmir, two entities that merged around 180 years ago. While the common perception is to think of these two regions as one, it might surprise you to learn that the history of Ladakh is very different from that of Kashmir. So, how and why were they brought under a common rule?
Far from the diktats of politicians, Ladakh is a land so beautiful that it derives its name from the mountains that define its spirit.
In the local Ladakhi language, it means ‘Land of the Mountain Passes’, from ‘La’ or mountain passes and ‘Dak’ or country.
For centuries, this harsh and arid but bewitching mountainous region was inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes such as the Dardi people near Kargil and Tibeto-Mongolian nomads in areas such as Leh, Lahaul and Spiti. The earliest known reference to any form of political rule in Ladakh is in a Kharosthi (Indo-Bactrian script) inscription found near the Indus river near the town of Khalatse. It refers to “the great king Uviama Kavthisa”, whom historians have identified as Kushana Emperor Kanishka (c. 127-150 CE), which tells us that Ladakh was once under Kushana rule.
Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang (c. 634), who visited Ladakh, described the perilous mountain passes and paths in the region. For centuries, Ladakh faced the brunt of Tibetan invasions and eventually became a tributary of Tibet. Korean Monk Hyecho, who visited Ladakh in 723 CE, describes Ladakh as being “under the suzerainty of the Tibetans….The country is narrow and small, and the mountains and valleys very rugged. There are monasteries and monks, and the people faithfully venerate the Three Jewels (of Buddhism)”.
Buddhism arrived in Ladakh in two phases – first from then Buddhist Kashmir in the 2nd century CE and then in the 8th century CE – from Tibet (under the influence of Guru Padmasambhava). While Buddhist Kashmir reverted to Hinduism and then embraced Islam, Ladakh has always remained Buddhist.
By the 15th century, Ladakh had been divided into small kingdoms such as Basgo and Leh. In 1470, the King of Basgo, Lhachen Bhagan, defeated all the tiny kingdoms and united Ladakh into a single kingdom. He established the Namgyal (meaning ‘victorious’ in Ladakhi language) dynasty, which ruled Ladakh till the 19th century.
From their capital in Leh, the Namgyal kings protected Ladakh from their expansionist neighbours, that is, the Tibetans in the East and the rulers of Kashmir in the West. While Lahaul and Spiti were lost to the Rajas of Kullu in the 17th century (and are currently part of Himachal Pradesh), the rest of the kingdom remained fairly intact and independent till the rise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in the early 19th century.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh had conquered numerous principalities in North-West India and established a unified and mighty Sikh Empire. In 1808 CE, Jammu was conquered from its Dogra Rajas and by 1819, Kashmir too was annexed to the Sikh Empire. Now, the frontiers of the Sikh Empire stretched to the gates of Ladakh.
Meanwhile, the power of the Namgyal dynasty had grown extremely weak. In 1802, Tseten Namgyal, the King of Ladakh, died of smallpox and the Ladakhi court was full of intrigue for the succession to the throne. Regional governors had declared themselves semi-independent and the central authority was greatly diminished. The local governor, the Raja of Timbus, approached the Dogra governor of Kishtwar (in Kashmir) for help. This was the opportunity the Dogras had been waiting for!
The governor of Kishtwar was none other than General Zorawar Singh Kahluria (1786-1841), considered to be one of the greatest generals in Indian history. Originally from Kahlur in Himachal, he was in the service of Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu, who in turn was in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Gulab Singh went on to found the Dogra dynasty that ruled Jammu & Kashmir till 1947. Due to its strategic location controlling the trade routes from Tibet and the Xinjiang province of China to rest of India, Ladakh was of great importance to the Dogras and the Sikhs.
In April 1834, General Zorawar Singh marched into Ladakh. Both the Sikh Durbar in Lahore and the British East India Company in Calcutta were notified by the Dogras before the invasion. In fact, as early as 1822, the Ladakhis had offered to accept British suzerainty in return for protection against the Sikh Empire. But as the land was considered ‘barren’, the British had no interest in intervening in Ladakh.
The 5,000-strong Dogra army entered Ladakh through the Bhot Kal pass near Kargil.
The local Ladakhi governor sent a desperate message to Leh, while his force of 200 men managed to block the enemy’s path for two days before being slaughtered. On 16th August 1834, the Ladakhi army was defeated in the Battle of Sankhu and they fled across the Indus river. While retreating, they destroyed the bridge to delay the Dogra advance. But, being a tactical genius, General Zorawar Singh got his men to cross the Indus river on inflated goat skins.
Meanwhile, the Raja of Ladakh sent a desperate message to the British for help. But Zorawar Singh and his men inflicted defeat after defeat on the Ladakhis. By April 1835, the King of Ladakh was forced to sue for peace. As part of an agreement, Ladakh decided to accept the suzerainty of the Sikh Empire and pay an annual tribute of Rs 20,000. However, when Zorawar Singh returned to Jammu, the Ladakhis revolted and massacred the Dogra garrisons stationed there. In November 1835, Zorawar Singh returned to Ladakh, forcing the Ladakhis to sue for peace once more.
In 1841, General Zorawar Singh hatched an overambitious plan to invade Tibet, but his army was defeated and the general lost his life. In the confusion that followed, the Ladakhis tried to throw off the Dogra yoke once more, this time with the help of the Tibetans. However, tired of the Tibetan intrigue, Raja Gulab Singh of Kashmir finally annexed Ladakh in 1841. The Namgyal ruler was given the small jagir of Stok outside Leh, which they held till India’s independence in 1947. Today, the Stok palace, still under the Namgyal family, is a heritage hotel that attracts visitors from around the world.
When the Anglo-Sikh War broke out in 1845, Raja Gulab Singh remained neutral. As a mark of gratitude, the British recognised him as Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, an area which included Ladakh, according to the Treaty of Amritsar (1846). This made Ladakh part of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, which was ruled by Raja Gulab Singh’s descendants till 1947, and then the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Now, with the proposed creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory as distinct from Jammu & Kashmir, the destinies of Ladakh and Kashmir, once so closely intertwined are set to part ways.