General Zorawar Singh biography

General Zorawar Singh

personal details

Born: 1786, Bilaspur, now in himachal pradesh
General Zorawar Singh
General Zorawar Singh

Died: 1841, Tibet, China


Zorawar Singh was one of the greatest military generals India has produced. If Ladakh, the most spacious district of India, is today a part of India it is due to the daring and gallantry of one man, Zorawar Singh.

The early life of those who become famous in later life is usually shrouded in obscurity. Such is the case with Zorawar Singh. Very little is known about his birth and early life. The information which has been gathered about him is from descendants of his elder brother, Sardar Singh. He did not leave any male heir. I-Ie did not write about himself as he was almost an illiterate.
Zorawar Singh was born in September 1784 at Bilaspur, now in Himachal Pradesh. His father’s name is believed to be Thakur Harji Singh, belonging to a family of Kahluria Rajputs. Zorawar had two brothers, elder, Sardar Singh and younger, Daler Singh. As a boy, he was mischievous and troublesome. He was fond of horse riding and swordsmanship. When he was still a teenager, he killed a cousin over some property dispute. After that he ran away from home and reached Hardwar, the sacred city of the Hindus. There he met Rana Jaswant Singh, a jagirdar of Galihan, near Jammu. Rana brought Zorawar to his estate and engaged him in his service. While serving there, Zorawar Singh got trained in the use weapons and perfect in horsemanship. But after a few years he left the service of the Rana and joined that of Raja Gulab Singh, who was emerging as a favourite satrap of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. That was in 1815. Soon his personal valour, keen intelligence and integrity made him a favourite of the new master. He was put incharge of the Riasi fort. Zorawar Singh got a chance to show his valour there when the fort was attacked by the forces of Mian Dewan Singh, another contender for the possession of the Riasi estate. The fort was besieged by superior force but, though hard-pressed, Zorawar held out with great courage and fortitude till relief came from Jammu. Riasi was saved to the delight of Gulab Singh and the career of Zorawar as a brave and resourceful soldier received a big boost, and earned him quick promotions.
Soon after he showed another aspect of his character; an efficient and ingenious organizer. Zorawar Singh made a careful study of Gulab Singh’s Commissariat and found its management wasteful. He put up a scheme for better utilization of supplies to the troops. When implemented, it resulted in considerable saving. Gulab Singh was so impressed by Zorawar that he appointed him inspector of Commissariat supplies in all the forts north of Jammu under Dogra control. By 1823, he was appointed governor of Kishtwar and Kussal and after sometime he was given the title wazir i.e. general. Gulab Singh had already been recognized as Raja of Jammu by Maharaja Ranjit Singh with full powers to levy taxes and employ forces for the conquest of independent smaller states around. Most of these powers and authority were transferred to Zorawar Singh, his Wazir, by Raja Gulab Singh, who had by now full faith in him. Zorawar Singh lived up to the expectations of Gulab Singh and even surpassed what his master had expected. The following ten years Zorawar Singh, an organizing genius that he was, devoted in consolidating the territories which now belonged to Gulab Singh. He revised the tax structure which increased the revenue yield considerably. He renovated the Kishtwar fort to make it a formidable base of his troops for his exploits in the north. He used the high mountains around Kishtwar for imparting physical training to his sturdy Dogra soldiers. With the increase in state revenue, he was able to increase the strength of his forces and equip them properly. The fertile valley of Maru Wardwant provided the much needed provisions for his army which were stocked in the Fort. Thus Kishtwar served as a very useful base of operations for the conquest of Ladakh, Baltistan and Western Tibet. Zorawar was now ready to extend the boundaries to the Jammu state.
Ladakh at that time was ruled by an indolent and easygoing prince, Tse-pal Namgyal, who cared little for the administrative affairs and even less for the welfare of his subjects. There were also dissensions going on between two petty rulers. Zorawar Singh wanted to take advantage of the disturbed state of affairs in Ladakh and demanded the restoration of an estate supposedly held by a Kishtwar chief in former times. During the summer when the passes were open and the weather was congenial for Dogra soldiers, Zorawar advanced at the head of four to five thousand Dogra armies in 1834 and entered the Purig province of Ladakh, now part of Kargil Tehsil. The Ladakhis were completely taken by surprise because they could never imagine that the Dogra army could cross over a 14.000 feet high pass. They could thus offer little resistance initially. But soon a hastily collected force of about five thousand men faced the Dogra army and tried to stem their advance at Sankho. However, they were defeated as the Dogras had better arms and were superior in war-tactics and discipline as they had participated in many battles earlier. The victorious Dogra army occupied Kartse, capital of Purig province, and marched down the Suru River in the lower Ladakh. They inflicted another defeat on the Ladakhis at Paskkym and their leader was killed. From Paskkym, the Dogras marched to Shergol and thence to Mulbeh. There they met an envoy of the Ladakhi king with a letter from King Tse-Pal praying for peace. Zorawar assured the king of safe conduct if the latter accepted to pay Gulab Singh an annual tribute. Under the peace settlement, the kingdom was restored to Tse-Pal but he now became a vassal of Raja Gulab Singh and through him of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Ladakhi king, in addition to paying a yearly tribute of Rs. 20.000, was also asked to pay Rs. 50,000 as war indemnity. By then the Dogras had penetrated up to Leh and the peace terms were settled there. This, however, was not to be the end of confrontation. The Dogras had hardly returned to Kishtwar when news came of an insurrection in Ladakh. Zorawar therefore with characteristic energy and celerity again marched to Leh in November 1935 and subdued the rebels, collecting further war indemnity. To strengthen the Dogra position in Leh, Zorawar Singh got built a strong fort there. There were two more insurrections which Zorawar Singh had to subdue, the last one being in May 1939. Finally, the Ladakhi resistance was broken and they became peaceful subjects of the Dogra rule which lasted up to 1947, when it became part of India as a district of Jammu and Kashmir state.
Ladakh now became a convenient base for invading Baltistan and Western Tibet. To keep the Ladakhis away from further mischief, Zorawar decided to utilize them for the conquest of Baltistan on the western side of Ladakh. The people of Baltistan were Mohammedans of Shia faith. When compared to the peace loving Ladakhis, they were warlike and aggressive. Baltistan contains enormous mountain chains, most of which are eighteen thousand to twenty thousand feet high. Thus, the conquest of Baltistan was not an easy task but the indomitable General Zorawar Singh made the conquest of this region feasible. Zorawar’s advance was perfectly timed and an excuse for intervention was already there. Relations between its ruler, Ahmed Shah and his eldest son, Mohammad Shah, were far from cordial as Ahmed Shah had declared not the eldest son but another son as his heir. This had offended Mohammad Shah who sought the help of Dogra ruler, and Zorawar Singh found a valid reason for invading Baltistan. As in Ladakh so in Baltistan there was no standing army. Except for the cruel weather, which was the greatest enemy of the Dogras, the hurriedly formed Balti force was no match for the disciplined and better armed Dogra army. After undergoing some harrowing experiences, the Dogra army was able to subdue Baltistan including the district of Shardu. Before returning, Zorawar installed Mohammad Shah as the ruler of Baltistan but left a Dogra garrison in the fort to assert Dogra authority. This was in 1840.
In early 1841, he planned to invade Western Tibet and raised a force of about six thousand, comprising mostly Ladakhis and Baltis. He sent an ultimatum to the Tibetan governor at Gortok to submit on the ground that his province, Rudok, had once been a dependency of Ladakh. The latter tried to put him Off by sending him presents but that did not mollify the Dogra general, who advanced up to the Indus and overran the territory as far as the holy Mount Kailas and Lake Mansarowar, meeting little Opposition on the Way. While Zorawar camped at Tirathpuri, his trusted Colonel Basti Ram was sent to Taklakot, near the Nepal border. The small Tibetan force at Taklakot was subdued and the conquest of Western Tibet was complete. Zorawar and other high Dogra dignitaries proceeded to take a holy bath in Lake Mansarowar and made offerings at the Kailas temple.
In the meanwhile, news reached Lhasa about the Dogra conquest of Western Tibet. An army of about ten thousand soldiers, having a strong unit of artillery, was sent. Zorawar apparently did not expect any confrontation with the Tibetan army during the winter. But the Tibetan army knowing the topography and accustomed to the snowy landscape, managed to reach the Western part of Tibet. Zorawar Singh realised the gravity of the situation. He was surrounded in the depth of winter by an army three times the strength of his own. He could not expect any help from Leh as all the passages were blocked by snow. Zorawar broke up his camp at Tirathpuri and advanced towards Taklakot with the intention of affecting a junction with Colonel Basti Ram. But he could not reach Taklakot as all the by-paths had been blocked by the Tibetans. His own army was suffering due to frostbite and was being incapacitated due to extreme cold. The wazir, a man of indomitable courage as he was, fell upon the enemy. The first action was fought on 10 December, 1841 and fighting continued for three days. On the fateful day of 12 December, Zorawar personally led his troops in a final assault. He fought like a lion and might have defeated the army, but a bullet hit him on the shoulder. He fell down from his horse and before he could rise to his feet the Tibetans had closed in upon him. A Tibetan soldier impaled a spear through his chest. The brave general fell in the battlefield, sword in hand. Zorawar had lost his last battle not so much to the Tibetans as to the rigours of the Tibetan winter at a height of over fifteen thousand ‘feet above sea level. Even the enemy pays respect to the brave. The Tibetans built a smadhi (memorial) called ‘Singhba ka Chorten’ outside the small village Toye, near Taklakot, where Zorawar was killed. The monument is merely a pyramid of small stones collated together in multiple layers without the use of cement or clay, with the top layer whitewashed. The monument is maintained by the local villagers. The Hindu pilgrims who go annually to pay homage to Mount Kailas and to have a dip in the sacred Mansarover, have started visiting ‘Singhba ka Chorten to enliven the memory of the brave general whose contribution to history was to bring Ladakh within the political domain of India.
The Tibetans, encouraged by their victory over Zorawar’s forces, tried to take over Ladakh in 1842 but were repulsed by the Dogras trained by Zorawar Singh who were entrenched in the forts built by the great general. The Tibetans went back and agreed to a peace treaty which was signed by the Tibetans with the Dogra chiefs by which Ladakh became permanently a part of India.
Zorawar Singh had no son to perpetuate his line. He married thrice. His first wife died early. Then he married two sisters, Asha Devi and Lajwanti. Asha Devi accompanied her husband on his Tibetan expedition and had performed pilgrimage to Mount Kailas and Mansarowar Lake in the company of her husband. Before the final battle, Zorawar had sent Asha Devi back to Leh. When she heard the news of her husband's death, she performed sati. Several legends have sprung up about the great general and his wives in the Ladakh and Jammu region.
The brave Zorawar has not found his rightful place in Indian history. However, K.M. Panikkar pays tribute to him in the following Words: “Besides being an intrepid commander, as the Ladakh and Baltistan campaigns had shown him to be, he was also gifted with considerable political ability. His settlement of the newly conquered provinces bears witness to this. To have marched an army, not once or twice but six times, over the snow-clad ranges of Ladakh and Baltistan, 15,000 feet above sea-level, is a wonderful achievement. To have conquered that country after successive campaigns and reduce it to a peaceful province is an exploit for which there is no parallel in Indian history. His greatness will shine through the pages of Indian history as that of a great noble warrior”.

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