In 1841, a strapping man in his mid-50s stopped at the foot of Mount Kailash in Tibet, considered the abode of Lord Shiva, and took a dip in the holy waters of Lake Mansarovar. What distinguished him from the many pilgrims who head to this spot even today was that he had just conquered this harsh terrain, defeating the Tibetans on their own land.
General Zorawar Singh Kahluria (1784-1841), Governor of Kishtwar and loyal lieutenant to Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu, was pursuing a vision few men in history would have dared contemplate. He aimed to extend India’s frontiers all the way to the edges of China.
Dubbed the ‘Napoleon of the East’, his legendary conquests helped draw the lines we still hold to today.
As India now pushes back against China on the edges of Ladakh, amid a military build-up in the Galwan Valley, few realise that India’s borders with Tibet and the Xinjiang province of China, the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, are all the legacy of the great General Zorawar Singh.
The Early Years
Very little is known of the early years of Zorawar Singh and a lot of it is rooted in folklore. It is said he was born on April 15, 1784, in Ansara village in present-day Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. The surname ‘Kahluria’ comes from the tiny principality of Kahlur, within which his village sat. In the late 18th century, Himachal Pradesh was divided into numerous such tiny principalities, each ruled by Rajput chieftans referred to as ‘Pahadi Rajas’ or ‘hill kings’.
As a result of a family feud arising out of a property dispute, Zorawar Singh is said to have left his village and travelled to the Hindu pilgrim site of Haridwar, seeking employment. There he entered the service of Rana Jaswant Singh, the Jagirdar (feudal lord) of Galian and Marmethi (today’s Kishtwar district of Jammu & Kashmir). It was in Kishtwar that Zorawar was trained as a warrior, honing his skills in swordsmanship and archery.
The politics were changing in North India at this time. By the 1800s, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had united the misls (principalities) of Punjab to found the powerful Sikh Empire. Like many able-bodied young men of the region, Zorawar Singh joined the army of Ranjit Singh and then of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra as a soldier.
In the Service of Raja Gulab Singh
Zorawar Singh’s fortunes would change in 1817, when he joined the service of the young Gulab Singh, son of Mian Kishor Singh Jamwal, the Dogra ruler of Jammu. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army had conquered the Kingdom of Jammu in 1808, and ruled the region with the help of local vassals like Kishor Singh. A shrewd Gulab Singh had also joined his father in the service of the Sikhs and was constantly rising in the eyes of Ranjit Singh.
Gulab Singh had been offered the Jagir of Reasi by the Sikh ruler. It was there that Zorawar Singh started rising through the ranks as a soldier. He served under the Kiladar (Commander of the Forts) and through his military and administrative acumen, was soon appointed head of ration supply for all forts north of Jammu.
After the Kashmir region was acquired by the Sikhs from the Afghans in 1819, Gulab’s family was given complete command of Jammu along with Bhoti, Bandralta, Chaneni and Kishtwar. In 1822, the Sikh Maharaja also recognised Gulab Singh as a ‘Raja’.
Chief of the entire Jammu region, Gulab Singh now enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy over his province and troops. With his master rising in the favour of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Zorawar Singh benefited too. He was made governor of Kishtwar, Riasi-Khalsai and Arnas, given the title of Wazir (equivalent to a general) and the right to levy taxes and direct military action in the region as he saw fit.
Conquest of Ladakh
It was at this point that Zorawar Singh began leading ambitious military campaigns. In 1834, he would make one of his biggest conquests, the Kingdom of Ladakh. Strategic trade routes between Tibet and Afghanistan passed through this kingdom. Thus far, the Raja of Ladakh had paid tribute to the Tibetans, the Mughals and the rulers of Kashmir at different points, and the kingdom had remained autonomous.
In 1834, a local governor, Raja Giapo-cho of Timbus, a vassal to the Buddhist Gyalpo (King) of Ladakh, sought Raja Gulab Singh’s help against his master. The Ladakhis had at this point stopped paying their annual tributes and Gulab Singh saw it as a fine opportunity to gain a foothold and perhaps take over the valuable Ladakhi shawl trade.
So he was quick to deploy General Zorawar Singh with a contingent of 4,000 to 5,000 men; their mission was to conquer the higher lands ruled by Gyalpo. The General easily crossed the mountain ranges via the Bhot-Khol pass and entered the province of Purig (now Kargil).
Following a series of battles, he and his Dogra army secured a decisive victory over the Ladakhis. A peace settlement was signed between the General and Gyalpo, who would now be a vassal of Raja Gulab Singh and hence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Gyalpo would pay an annual tribute of 70,000 rupees as a war indemnity, 37,000 of it in cash and the remaining 13,000 in installments.
Trouble at Home
Upon his return, a fresh challenge awaited Zorawar Singh, and it came from his allies. Jealous of the Dogra conquests, the Sikh governor of Kashmir, Mian Singh, began trying to incite revolt in Ladakh. This was due to Main Singh’s rivalry with Gulab Singh of Jammu. Over the next five years, all the regions conquered by Zorawar Singh’s army – from Purig to Ladakh and Zanskar – would revolt against Dogra rule. Dogra forts were besieged and garrisons slaughtered.
Enraged, Zorawar Singh led an aggressive charge from Kishtwar with a force of 3,000 men. The swollen rivers slowed their advance, but he eventually crushed the revolts. Ladakh would no longer be a vassal state. It was annexed to Gulab Singh’s kingdom and the Raja of Ladakh pensioned off as the Jagir of Stok, a small village in Leh.
To Baltistan and Beyond
In 1840, the General set his eyes on the province of Baltistan, another arid but strategic zone, to the west of Ladakh. Routes across the Karakoram Mountains passed through this region.
The opportunity came in the form of family intrigue among the Baltistan royals.
Mohammad Shah, son of the Baltistan Raja Ahmed Shah, was seeking protection and recognition as the ruler, since his father had denied him succession in favour of his brother. On the pretext of providing protection to the prince, Zorawar Singh and an 8,000-strong Dogra army entered Baltistan via the Hanu and Chorbat passes.
After gruesome fighting on the way, he halted at Kharmang to accept the submission of the regional chiefs. This strengthened the overall force and the now-grown army marched towards Skardu, the seat of the Balti rulers.
There were difficulties along the way. Ahmad Shah had blocked every route, and his Wazir had posted troops at every pass. But the tactics and experience of the General worked to his advantage and he finally reached the capital.
The General and his men made it to Skardu (now in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir); the Balti capital was under siege. But the location of its fort at a very high altitude caused an issue. The General sent a few soldiers to occupy a smaller fort, higher than the main one but easier to capture. From there, they launched their final assault and Skardu was captured. The Raja was imprisoned and a war indemnity of 2 lakh rupees extracted.
Mohammad Shah was made the ruler, in return for the promise of annual tributes of 7,000 rupees. Zorawar Singh also garrisoned a new fort and punished the main actors from earlier Ladakhi rebellions, who had fled to Baltistan.
The Conquering of Tibet
Having consolidated a hold over the Northwest by 1840, Zorawar Singh turned his attention east, to Tibet. This was a region long claimed by Ladakh, and Zorawar Singh put forward a Dogra claim to Western Tibet, on the basis of the Ladakhi claims.
He had first presented this idea to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1836, but the Sikh ruler had been disinterested. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had died in 1839 and his successor, Maharaja Sher Singh, was intrigued by the idea of a Tibetan conquest.
Zorawar Singh also carried a strong, hill-efficient battalion now, made up of Ladakhis, Baltis and his battle-hardened Dogras. It felt like the right time to make his master the undisputed power in the North Indian hill terrain.
In May 1841, Zorawar Singh marched with a 5,000-strong army into the territory of Tibet. For Raja Gulab Singh, the campaign held promise because it could give him complete hold over the Tibetan shawl trade if he controlled the whole of the Changthang plains, which stretch from Ladakh to Tibet, where the goats for the rare and valuable wool were raised.
The British, who benefited from existing trading patterns, were skeptical of this campaign, but the Sikh Court at Lahore, dominated by Dogras at the time, seemed unwilling to call back the brave General, even after British instructions.
Mile by mile, the General swept all resistance away. Hanle, Tashigong, Rudok and finally Gartok were his. Zorawar Singh passed the holy Mansarovar Lake and was finally at Taklakot.
The fort of Taklakot, with a garrison of 1,000 soldiers, was no match for the Shen-pa, as Tibetans called the Dogra soldiers. In September 1841, the fortress fell. Tibet, all the way to the Mayum Pass, was now in Dogra hands.
To the horror of the British, agents of the Maharaja of Nepal were there to meet Zorawar Singh. The British now feared a Sikh-Gurkha alliance against them and feared that such an alliance would help the Nepalis re-occupy British-controlled Kumaon (in present-day Uttrakhand), which they had won as a consequence of the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16.
End of a Legend
The British East India Company convinced Maharaja Sher Singh to withdraw his forces but now winter had set in and all the passes were closed. Zorawar Singh marched back to Tirthapuri (northwest of Mt. Kailash) to wait out the snow, but even here soldiers were losing fingers to frostbite and burning ammunition for warmth.
At that point, the Tibetans had sent their finest General, Kahlon Surkhang via the Mayum Pass to counter the Dogra forces, but the Tibetan army could not cross it due to the Dogra blockade. Kahlon thought of moving back but he found Mastang La, another pass close by, which was still negotiable.
The Tibetans marched through that and made a surprise attack on the Dogras at Taklakot, winning it back. The general, in a desperate move, divided his force into five columns and attacked Taklakot in waves. But the heavy Tibetan numbers forced the Dogras back with heavy casualties.
Zorawar Singh now led an army to the ground of To-Yo where a furious battle ensued. It would be his last. On December 12, 1841, the General fell from his horse after a bullet hit him in the right shoulder. He rose back up and kept fighting, but Migmar, a Tibetan commander, identified him and hurled a spear, killing one of the greatest generals in the subcontinent’s history.
Zorawar Singh’s severed head was taken to Lhasa and placed at a thoroughfare to proclaim the end of a great battle and honour the valour of the Tibetan forces. But tribute was also paid to a brave and ferocious warrior. A chorten (cenotaph) was built in Toyo, Taklakot, to mark the spot where Zorawar Singh was slain.
His masterpiece, a united map of Jammu and Kashmir State, has since been altered and broken up, and the legend of Zorawar Singh is largely forgotten. But this lion of the mountains is still celebrated by jawans and officers of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, a regiment of the Indian Army that has its roots in the Dogra Corps, raised by Raja Gulab Singh himself as his personal force, in 1821.
Each year, on April 15, all the soldiers and veterans of this regiment gather to celebrate Zorawar Day, to honour the birth and memory of a hero, the Napoleon of the East.
Oppressive heat,impossible terrain, unfriendly locals and disease, this is the story of how Indians fought against all odds and changed the landscape of a nation, by laying their lives on the railway line. We profile their contribution to the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway.
Kashmir experienced its Golden Age in the 8th century CE under a ‘Serpent King’ named Lalitaditya Muktapida, who ruled from present-day Srinagar. Catch the story of the Karkota Kings, their intriguing origin story, exploits and expeditions, and fabulous archaeological legacy.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books