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Beyond the Frozen Frontier : General Zorawar Singh’s Life & His Forays Into the Himalayan Mountains

In his Foreword to  Col Ajay K Raina’s book , ‘Beyond the Frozen Frontier : General Zorawar Singh’s Life & His Forays Into the Himalayan Mountains’ ,  military historian  and  film maker Shiv Kumal Verma  asserts that  if one looked at the challenge of the terrain, and the logistics of warfare, Zorarwar was miles ahead of the contemporary French general Napolean who , like him added many a  principality to his domain, but  finally lost to an adversary called ‘General Winter’. Like Napolean , Zorawar  also extended his battle zone  well beyond his established supply  lines   – a lesson which historians have reinforced  from the Gibbon’s narrative in  the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.


‘Beyond the Frozen Frontier’  is not only very well researched ; its   strength  also lies in opening newer avenues  for younger scholars to track  hitherto unassessed manuscripts and folios , not just in the Bharat Kala Bhawan in the BHU at Kashi , but also the many  unexplored   bundles  of historical records  in the Mubarak mandi Complex in Jammu. Reading the book also gives us an idea of  the very complex times in which Zorawar was born    . For though he  was born  into the  Kahluria Hindu Rajput family in the princely state of Kahlur (Bilaspur)  in the  present-day Himachal Pradesh in September 1784  he was named  ‘Zorawar’, a Persian word which means victory . And victorious he was in all but his last campaign . Raina also    shows how the late eighteenth  century was an amalgam of so many influences in the region of the present-day Punjab, Himachal   J&K and Ladakh. From the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries  there had been  a keen ‘spiritual’ as well as ‘temporal’  contest between Shia Islam and Buddhists , but by the  early seventeenth century , Leh saw the resurgence of Buddhism, while in the rest of the areas the Noorbakshia Islam  became the  norm.

This was also  an arena of multiple contests : the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh, the remnants  of the Afghans ,the growing power and influence of British in the cis Sutlej areas of Punjab and   hill states , the Tibetan Gyalpos in Ladakh   with the Chinese  and Nepalese   also trying to protect their turf  at Taklakot on the Manasarovar route. And though both  Jammu and Kashmir were under the Sikh Durbar of Lahore, their respective governors were often at loggerheads with each other over the control of the extremely profitable Pashmina trade .



Zorawar was    just a lad of  fifteen when Ranjeet Singh  took over the Lahore kingdom , and expanded it towards Afghanistan and Kashmir because  Sutlej River to the East was his settled boundary with the British. But Zorawar was not a direct recruit of the Khalsa army . He had joined taken up service  under Raja Jaswant Singh of Marmathi (modern Doda district and  placed under the commandant of the Reasi fort (Bhimgarh fort).  According to  G C Smyth ‘While delivering a routine message to the Gulab Singh, Zorawar told him of the financial waste occurring in the fort administration and boldly presented his own scheme to effect savings by making a provision for    cooked meals , instead of dry rations for the soldiers’  Gulab Singh was impressed by Zorawar's sincerity and appointed him commandant of Reasi.

Zorawar Singh fulfilled his task and his grateful ruler made him commissariat officer of all forts north of Jammu. He was later made governor of Kishtwar and was given the title of Wazir (minister  . Thus,   by his mid-thirties , he had gained the confidence of Gulab Singh, who in turn was the rising star of the  Lahore Durbar . Soon thereafter he was appointed as the Governor of Kishtwar, whose boundaries touched   principalities  Kargil and Leh which paid tributes to  the Gyalpo of Ladakh (King). In 1834 one of these, the Raja of Timbus, sought Zorawar's help against the Gyalpo. This was just the opportune moment Zorawar was looking for , although the hagiographic account  Gulab Nama  in honour pf Gulab Singh mentions the drought in  Kishtwar  which led Zorawar to extract  food reserves, ponies and  treasures  through war. In the spring of 1835, he defeated the large Ladakhi army of Banko Kahlon and marched his victorious troops towards Leh. The Gyalpo now agreed to pay 50,000 rupees as war-indemnity and 20,000 rupees as an annual tribute to the Lahore Durbar . 

After winning Ladakh , Zorawar Singh was presented to Ranjit Singh, and  together with Gulab Singh they sought permission to  invade Tibet  which would have extended the  borders of the Sikh kingdom with the Hindu kingdom of Nepal – a possibility which sent shivers down the spine of the  British. However, Ranjit Singh advised   both Gulab Singh and Zorawar  to exercise restraint . But this fiat did not apply to Baltistan,  which was taken by  the Dogra troops supplemented with Ladakhi contingents who had been recruited by Zorawar , and by  the    winter of 1839/40 the   fort of Skardu which was  captured  followed by that of Astor .After the death of Ranjit Singh , Gulab Singh left Lahore for Jammu, and was virtually ‘independent’ of the  Durbar. This is when  Zorawar mounted his Tibet campaign achieving victories right up to Taklakot .

In hindsight , it appears that this where  he ought to have stopped and consolidated . But when he left for his pilgrimage to Mansarovar , his flanks were exposed , and he died a fighter’s death in the peak winter of 1841 ( December 12, 1842). Such was the terror that the  Tibetans waited for a while before approaching his dead body, after which they severed his head from his body  and cut his ears : they feared that his body may have some ‘magical  powers’ of resurrection .  But he had fought so bravely that even the Tibetan adversaries decided to honour him with a chortem ( memorial).  But within a few weeks of his death, the famous treaty of Chushul was signed  which    proclaimed ‘ the relationship  between Maharaja Gulab Singh of J&K and the Lama Guru of Lhasa (Dalai Lama ) is now established’ and that both promise to ‘recognize ancient boundaries which should be looked after by  each side without resorting to warfare.’

But though Zorawar was dead, his legend lived on, and the Dogra troops have always looked up to him for inspiration . this heritage was acknowledge  by  Field Marshal William Slim, 1st Viscount Slim who wrote : The Dogra proved themselves yet again a hardened and courageous fighter. Like his predecessors, he has been proud of his military heritage and has shown himself well versed in the art of war. Nor did he fail to live up to his age-old reputation of combining courage with modesty and good manners as a gentleman should. I know from personal experience that in an army with many fine battalions, the Dogras have not merely upheld their brilliant reputation, but have added lustre to the pages of history of both their own regiment and of the Indian Army.    



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