The Bold Voice of J&K

General Zorawar Singh—a stalwart Knight

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Sameer Sagar

The heroic achievements of lionhearted Miyan Zorawar Singh is one of the most audacious and significant record of the past achievements. How he traversed not only once, twice but six times over the snow clad ranges of Ladakh and Baltistan (about 15,000 ft above sea level) and conquered these areas including Western Tibet which all even in today’s day and age with so much technological betterment is still an extremely unenviable task to attempt.
Zorawar Singh Kahluria was born in 1786 in a Rajput family of Kahlur (now in Bilaspur District of Himachal Pradesh). Raja Jaswant Singh, then ruler of Marmat (in Doda District of J and K) was visiting Haridwar for a pilgrimage met him there and employed and brought him along to Marmat. It was here where he learnt the martial arts, fencing, archery and thus became an expert marksmen.
It is believed that Maharaja Gulab Singh met Zorawar Singh on the banks of Tawi river. Maharaja got influenced by looking at his physique and asked for his name. “Zorawar Singh”, he replied with dignity. “That is a martial name I do hope you can live upto it”, said the Dogra Maharaja. Zorawar Singh replied gravely, “Only time and opportunity can give an answer to that question”. Gulab Singh was struck by his answer and took him in his service. Initially the young warrior was sent for the defence of Reasi Fort. After a passage of time, viewing the remarkable service he got promoted to the post of Inspector of Commissariat for all forts north of Jammu region. Zorawar, therefore, made his early mark as a logistician. In 1820 Maharaja keeping in view Zorawar’s legendary administrative capibilities appointed him as his Wazir and the Military Governor of Kishtwar.
Military Governor of Kishtwar : Chain Singh used to be the Wazir of the Kishtwar province. He was cruel and inefficient in his conduct. Due to his misrule there was a big resentment amongst the locals and many complaints were sent to Jammu Durbar. Ultimately Zorawar Singh was sent to look into the situation in Kishtwar. Wazir with his great administrative capibilties streamlined the procedure of revenue collection by conducting a detailed assessment of the land under cultivation in each village and the quantum of crops produced each year. He then decided to levy a tax of one fourth of the produce to be given as land revenue to the State. The revenue was collected per year was stated to be 23,800 Harisinghia Rupees (Equal to half the value of Rupees in British India). With this economic movement, an arms factory was set up to train the Dogra Army with which he was to carry out his trans-Himalyan conquests. Kishtwar, with the adjoining mountain ranges of Zanskar, the Great Himalyas, the Pir Panjal Ranges and the Nagin Shur close within reach was the ideal and the most exciting training ground for such crusades.
The Ladakh Campaign (1834): Ladakh lies to the west of Tibet. It is inhabited by the Bhotpa race who speak a dialect of Tibetian. With its location, Ladakh opens a window to the strategic heartand of Asia. Conquering Ladakh was a monumental enterprise but one for which Zorawar Singh and his Dogra Army had prepared and trained very well. They were physically very tough and conditioned to withstand extreme snow and arctic conditions. Zorawar Singh’s one of the greatest asset was his army’s unit officer, some of them were Mehta (Colonel) Basti Ram, Singhe Mankotia, Mian Rai Singh, Mirza Rasul Beg and Sardar Samad Khan. All these were efficent tactical leaders and able logisticians.
In the initial stages the province of Marwah was conquered. Then the army marched towards the Suru Valley, on receiving this information the Gyalpo (King of Ladakh) ordered his army to block the Dogra advance but which was of no help. On 16th August 1834 the Ladakhis who had taken up defensive position were routed after a whole day’s fight. In order to win the goodwill of the locals, the troops were not allowed to cut the crops which were then ripe. This farsighted move of him was rewarded in short time when the local Zamindars came over him and placed themselves under his protection. The Wazir then built a small fort, which he named Kila Suru Kursi. From there on the General and his army proceeded towards Lang Kartse, there he defeated Minister of Stog at Sanku. From there the contingent proceeded onto Sod defeating Chief of Pashkyum and from thereof to Shergol and then to Mulbekh and finally at Bozgo where King of Ladakh and Wazir Zorawar met and Ladakhi surrender was settled.
After securing Ladakh, Zorawar singh went to Jammu where Raja Gulab Singh embraced him joyfully and called him his fourth brother. It was announced that now onwards all the State subjects would address him with the salutations of ‘Jai Deva’. Zorawar on so much of kindness, refused to draw any pay or salary henceforth and requested to be deposited in the royal treasury.
The Baltistan Campaign: Not long after the conquest of Ladakh, the general practice of regional magnification was put into practice. It was in early 1835, when Zorawar Singh orgainised his army into two groups. Strong Ladakhi group comprising of 6-7,000 people and the Dogra group under himself advanced towards Skardu. Baltistan is comprised of big mountain chain where 3,962 and 6,000 metres above sea level are common heights. Untraversable mountain ranges and extreme weather conditions provided enough security to the Baltis against the invaders from the plains.
The duo clashed with each other at various spots (Marwah, Hanza, Gond and Skardu) and everytime Baltis were routed and had to withdraw furthur north. Consequently after a few days of fight, all the Baltis Rajas had to submit to Dogra Army. By the summer of 1840 the whole of Baltistan(except Astore) was under Dogra contingent and thus consolidated his win with the help of his captains like Basti Ram, Bhagwan Singh, Mukhtar Munshi and few others.
The Tibet Expedition (1841): This last campaign of this brave warrior led him to Western Tibet- a region that is sacred to the folklore of four world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bon Po(religion of Tibet itself). This campaign was something of a miracle by any standards. Infact Zorawar Singh’s conquest over the ‘Roof of the World’ ought to be graded as a colossal landmark event in the history of entire world.
This time the forces were divded into three goups, there was an army of strong 4,000 of best Dogra troops plus 500 strong and sturdy soliders from Ladakhi and Balti forces each. Considering the weather conditions, supplies were stockpiled on ponies and yaks for logistical back up to this highly ambitious plan. In may 1841, the contingents forwarded along the borders of Kullu and Kumaon towards Toling via Chumurti and Daga. As the contingent reached Dogpacha which is a day’s march from Manasrovar Lake, the toops were excited that they’ll be seeing the one of the most sacred place. During a halt at night, Gonpo of Gartok attacked the Dogra forces which took the forces totally off guard but with the proving mettle as a leader, Zorawar Singh with his brilliant tactics was able to inflict heavy losses to Bhots and captured the ‘Mantalai Flag’.
After knowing about conquering about 550 miles of Tibetian territory by Dogra Army the rulers of Lhasa and Phi-si came into action. Accordingly a large force under Kahlon Surkhang was dispatched to Pi-hsi from Lhasa, From then onwards, the Tibetian Army with the help of some 2,000 Chinese soldiers were successful in outnumbering them and at each ocassion was able to subdue them. Due to the vast distances no reinforcements help was received to Dogra forces because all the passes were blocked by snow. In the end, after the Dogra Army fell into the ambush in the vicinity of To-Yo, they walked straight into the enemy ambush in which they had a furious hand to hand fight resulting in heavy loss to both the sides. Zorawar Singh himself fell off his horse after being hit by the bullet in his right shoulder. Despite that he continued to fight with his left hand but just then a Tibetian horseman came charging and thurst his lance through his chest, claiming the honour of killing one of the greatest Indian warriors of the time. Tibetian in the memory of this courageous general constructed a Cemetry cum Shrine at To-Yo where they consecrated his remains.
Covering some 800 kms of distance till Mayum La Pass with his forces in about four months time and battling at great altitude is notable and remarkable effort and because of his heroic achievements he was given the title of ‘Napoleon of India’. His praises of bravery are still sung around campfires in high Asia, the Roof of the World and in local Dogri ballads. Therefore there is a need that his epic deeds and accomplishments should be honoured and glorified.

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