History & Culture

Remembering Great Dogra Warrior Gen Zorawar Singh

Today the 13th April we celebrate as General Zorawar Singh Day. It is a Regimental Day. It is entered in the history of Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, the erstwhile J and K State Forces raised in 1820 by Maharaja Gulab Singh.
The Regiment had planned to celebrate its Bicentenary on 13 and 14 April 2020 but Corona intervened. However we shall first deal with Corona and then celebrate the Bicentenary of the Regiment which had established a great Dogra Empire, the chief architect of which was General Zorawar Singh.
Remembering him as my inspiration to join the Army. I decided to give a talk on General Zorawar Singh in the Defence Services Staff College Wellington in October 1961, just a year before the Chinese attacked us.
After I had finished my talk one senior officer Maj William from the United States Army asked me weather whatever I had said about General Zorawar Singh’s campaign / story was a myth like Ramayana or a real story. I told him that neither Ramayana was a myth nor the story of General Zorawar Singh. For General Zorawar Singh you read Ladakh by Cunningham or Founding of Jammu and Kashmir State by Panikar. That is the type of operation conducted by General Zorawar Singh and his Dogra Army from 1834 to 1841 which a hundred years later people would not believe that this had actually happened.
It was General Zorawar Singh who under Maharaja Gulab Singh extended the frontiers of the Country across the Himalayas to include Ladakh and parts of China and Tibet.
General Zorawar Singh was a Dogra Rajput from village Kalhoor now in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh who had left his home over some dispute of property and found himself in the service of Kishtwar principality where he was brought up and given all the training till he left him on some misunderstanding and joined Maharaja Gulab Singh Forces who put him in the Reasi Fort where he acquitted himself in whatever was entrusted to him. In fact it is here that he showed his ability by suggesting to Maharaja Gulab Singh whenever he met him that the State should not issue rations in kind but cooked meals. This had very good effect, there was no wastage, no theft and the soldiers health improved. After the occupation of Kishtwar in 1821, Maharaja Gulab Singh made him Hakim of Kishtwar and awarded him the title and appointment of Wazir.
To recount Gen Zorawar Singh’s achievements, a look to the East of Kishtwar is inescapable. To the East of Kishtwar were the snow clad mountains and valleys of upper Himalayas. Several principalities of this region were tributary to the Gyalpo (king) of Ladakh. In 1834 one of these, the Raja of Timbus, sought Gulab Singh’s help against the Gyalpo. Gen Zorawar Singh probably was waiting for an opportunity to excel himself in warfare. The Rajputs of Jammu and Himachal had traditionally excelled in fighting in the mountains. Having trained them himself harshly, Gen Zorawar Singh had no problem in crossing the mountain ranges and entering Ladakh through the Suru River where his 5000 Dogra soldiers defeated an army of local Botis. After subduing the landlords along the way, Zorawar Singh received the surrender and submission of the Ladakhis. But Tsepal Namgyal, the Gyalpo, sent Gen Banko Kahlon to cut off Zorawar Singh’s lines of communications. The astute Dogra General rushed back to Kartse where he sheltered his troops through the winter. In the spring of 1835, he defeated the large Ladakhi army of Gen Banko Kahlon and marched his victorious troops to Leh. The Gyalpo surrendered and agreed to pay 50,000 rupees as war-indemnity and 20,000 rupees as an annual tribute. Within a year he had gifted entire Ladakh to Gulab Singh. This is considered as one of the greatest victories of Gen Zorawar Singh. Yet another challenge lay to the Northwest of Ladakh. The challenge was Baltistan. Zorawar Singh annexed it with the help of the son of Baltistan ruler and Ladakhi soldiers.
Having consolidated his hold in the Northwest, Zorawar Singh turned his attention to Eastwards, towards Tibet. He had recruited Ladakhis for the invasion of Baltistan, he recruited Baltis in his Army for the invasion of Tibet. His force now comprised of men from Jammu hills, Kishtwar, Ladakh and Baltistan. In May 1941, this Army marched into the unknown land of Tibet. Sweeping all resistance on his way, Zorawar Singh passed the Mansarovar Lake and converged at Gartok where he defeated the Gompo at a place called Dagpacha. Besides inflicting heavy loses on Botis, Dogras captured the enemy ‘Colours’; the Chinese Flag which the Dogras named as Mantalai Flag which is the proud passion of 4 JAK Rifles (Fateh Shivji) proudly displayed in their Officers Mess. Gompo fled to Taklakot. Tibetan Gen Pi-his also fled to Taklakot.
Gen Zorawar followed them. The fort was stormed on 6 September and entire Taklakot was occupied by a Dogra Unit led by Kumedan Baste Ram Mehta by the middle of September. With this victory, entire Tibet West of Mayum Pass was in Dogra hands. Infact Gen Zorawar’s forces had gone in 550 miles into Tibetan territory in less than three and half months. The fall of Taklakot finds mention in the report of the Chinese Imperial resident, Meng Pao posted at Lahasa. Envoys from Tibet and agents of the Maharaja of Nepal, whose kingdom was only 15 miles from Taklakot, came to Zorawar for negotiations. At about the same time on the insistence of British, Maharaja Sher Singh is said to have issued withdrawal orders to Zorawar Singh. But by then it was too late. The negotiations could be concluded and withdrawal executed the winter had set in and all the passes had closed. Zorawar Singh thus withdrew to Tirathpuri for the winters. Due to continuous intense rains, snow, and extreme cold many of the soldiers lost their fingers and toes to frostbite. In the meantime Kahlon Surkhang followed Zorwar with a large force via Mayum Pass which soon closed entrapping the Tibetan force.
Entrapped Kahlon offered to retreat and vacate the areas conquered by Dogras. But another pass Mastang La, close by, was still negotiable through which another strong Tibetan force descended and surprised the Dogras at Taklakot in early November 1841 and invested it. The situation became desperate for Zorawar Singh. Zorawar’s only hope lay in recapturing Taklakot and effecting link with Baste Ram’s force at Chi-Tang. On 3 Dec 1942 he divided his force in five columns and attacked Taklakot in waves. Tibetans being far superior numerically, Dogras were forced to fall back after suffering heavy casualties. Determined to reach Chi-Tang, he personally led a determined attack on the strong Tibetan positions. Gen Pi-his withdrew to the vicinity of To-Yo where he laid an ambush. Most unsuspectingly Dogras walked straight into the ambush on 12 December 1842.
A furious hand to hand battle ensued. 200 Dogras and unknown Tibetans were killed. General himself was hit by a bullet in the shoulder and fell from the horse but arose and kept on fighting with the sword in his left hand to take up defensive positions. The Tibetans and their Chinese counterparts regrouped and counterattacked. Zorawar Singh and his soldiers came out of the defences and met them in the battle of To-Yo. When the hand to hand battle was going on, just then a Tibetan horseman came charging and thrust his lance through his chest claiming the honour of killing the greatest warrior of the time. On the death of their commander, his troops were thrown in disorder.
This was a big blow to Dogra General’s advancing forces. Hence the saga of military adventures of ‘Napoleon of the East’ ended on the 12th December 1841 soon after the Dogra soldiers had avenged the death of their commander by executing the enemy commander and forcing Tibetans into a peace treaty. Kumedan Baste Ram Mehta, from Kishtwar and the first Commanding Officer of Fateh Shivji, the unit he led in action in Tibet, took over the command in Tibet.
Serving and Ex-Servicemen of the Jammu Kashmir Rifles remember the warrior every year by celebrating his successes and commemorating his glory.
An assessment
General Zorawar Singh after he made up his mind he started preparing for the task. It was not an easy task and could not be planned at the spur of the moment. There is no doubt that it was a Dogra policy to expand across the Himalayas. Gulab Singh could not discuss this with the British nor with the Sikhs who were not in favour of expansion across the Himalayas. It was well conceived thoroughly executed from the selection training and execution till the whole of Ladakh and Gilgit and Baltistan were added to Jammu Raj which after 1841 after the annexation of Kashmir became the Dogra Empire of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Gilgit, Baltistan and Tibet ha.
On this day we remember the greatest Dogra General Zorawar Singh who had migrated from Himachal Pradesh and settled in Vijaypur near Reasi where his descendants celebrate this great Day every year.

 

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