Military & Aerospace

Zorawar Singh: A Military Appraisal and Millennium Tribute
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Earlier Tributes

In his book on Gulab Singh: The Founder of Kashmir, KM Pannikar, the eminent Indian historian had this to say of the generalship of Zorawar Singh:–

“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, where the air is so rarified that people from the plains can hardly live with comfort, is a wonderful achievement.”

He goes on to state:–

“To have conquered that country after successive campaigns and reduced it to a peaceful province is an exploit for which there is no parallel in India’s history. His greatness will shine through the pages of Indian history as that of a great and noble warrior”.[1]

Captain Cunnigham the reputed historian of the Sikhs, writes: “The Indian soldiers of Zorawar Singh fought under very great disadvantages. The battlefield was upward of 13,000 feet above the sea and the time-winter, when even during the day the temperature never rises above the freezing point and the intense cold of night can only be borne by people well covered with sheepskins and surrounded by fires. For several nights the Indian troops had been exposed to all the bitterness of the climate. Many had lost the use of their fingers and toes and all were more or less frost bitten… on the last fatal day not one half of the men could handle arms.”[2]

A Matter of Relevance

Zorawar Singh can easily qualify as a great “Captain of War”. He was a military genius and a master of mountain warfare and “White Out” operations. A tactician and logistian par excellence, his trans-Himalayan campaigns deserve to be studied in very great detail by the Indian Army for which high altitude mountain warfare has been such a serious pre-occupation from 1947 onwards. It is well known that the very first operation that the Armed Forces of Independent India had to undertake was the defence of Jammu and Kashmir from the marauding bands of Pathan raiders let loose by Pakistan. This longest campaign of free India’s military history lasted for almost two years. Most of the battles were fought over the very same terrain that Raja Gulab Singh and Zorawar Singh had traversed in their campaigns of the 19th century. The second war fought by India in 1962 was again a mountain warfare campaign with the Peoples Liberation Army of China. Ladakh was once again a major battleground. The invasion routes adopted by the Chinese Army were a mirror image of the routes taken by Zorawar Singh for his invasion of Tibet. Indian military commanders of that era would have done well to study the military campaigns of Zorawar Singh in earnest.

The 1965 War was again centred over the mountainous state of Jammu and Kashmir. There were some excellent offensive operations in Kargil and the Uri-Punch Bulge that led to the capture of the Haji Pir Pass. The sweep of the battle thereafter turned towards Chamb and Akhnur and thence to the plains of Punjab. A study of Zorawar Singh’s and Gulab Singh’s campaigns would have been of immense profit to Indian commanders of that era too.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistan War saw its centre of gravity located in Bangladesh. Here India launched a textbook, tri-services Blitzkrieg that led to the capitulation of Dacca in just 14 days. It was an epic campaign and a decisive military victory that brought the historic process of the Indian military renaissance to its logical conclusion. In historical and civilisational terms, it was India’s greatest military victory after the defeat of the Greek Satrap Seleucus by the Imperial Mauryan Army in the 3rd century BC. In the 1971 War, the western theatre again witnessed fierce tactical engagements at the operational and tactical levels. As always, J&K was an active theatre of operations. Excellent tactical offensives were launched in Kargil and in the Shyok River Valley in Ladakh. Both of these areas had been hallowed by the traverse of Zorawar Singh’s conquering armies. The Ladakh Scouts excelled themselves as mountain troopers par excellence in this campaign. They launched a virtual Blitzkrieg along the Shyok River Valley that led to the capture of 18 villages. Colonel Chewang Ringchin (MVC & Bar and Sena Medal) once again stupefied the enemy by wading across the freezing Shyok river and subjugating enemy posts located at over 18,000 feet height. Zorawar Singh had first recognised the excellent potential of the Ladakhi – Nunoos for “White Out” operations. They are simply the best mountain troopers in the whole world.

The hotly contested State of Jammu and Kashmir will always be a battleground in any future war between India and Pakistan or India and the Peoples Republic of China, (or as a worst case scenario between all the three states).

The military relevance of the campaigns of Zorawar Singh to any future battles in this terrain is therefore patent and obvious. Despite technological advances, there has been no change in the terrain per se. Communication arteries in the mountains have perforce to be aligned along the gorges cut by the rivers. The degree of difficulty of the terrain implies that most campaigns at that high altitude will perforce have to be restricted to the foot mobility of Alpine Infantry and will need heavy firepower support from the Artillery for reduction of defences.

This precisely was General Zorawar Singh’s operational methodology. Those who felt that it is dated would do well to take another look at the War in Kargil that broke out in 1999 – the penultimate year of the 20th century. The operations were slow, tortuous, and infantry-predominant and could only make headway when a hundred guns were brought in to support every battalion attack.

The Indian Army therefore needs to study the campaigns of Zorawar Singh in painstaking detail. At the very least it will acquaint our younger officers with the details of the terrain and inspire them with what has been achieved by Indian troops almost two centuries earlier in the same forbidding realm with a tenth of the resources that are available today.

A Military Estimate

Torch Bearer of the Military Renaissance

Zorawar Singh the man and the military commander is a subject worth deep study because of the simple fact that he epitomises in his person a historical phenomenon – the phenomenon of an Indian Military Revival or renaissance that commenced in the 18th and 19th centuries and culminated in the brilliant, Blitzkrieg of Bangladesh in 1971.

It marked a revival of the indigenous military tradition after almost 10 centuries of slumber and decay. The Arab, Afghan or Uzbek military tradition cannot be called wholly Indian and indigenous (except for the secondary fact of the assimilation of these ethnicities into the Indian cultural mainstream). That is why the rise of Sikh militarism in North India and Maratha militarism in Central and South India can be seen as a resurgence of the indigenous tradition of arms. Zorawar Singh, thus exemplifies in his person this military resurgence and revival of an ancient civilisation. Hence the need to study in detail his military persona.   

A Change of Paradigm: From an Attrition Mindset to a Mobility Paradigm

The bane of Indian military history has been its inexplicable, “defensive-defence mindset”. After the demise of the Mauryan Empire, there are pitifully few examples of any forward defence or offensive orientation. The fractured and centrifugal Indian polity was more at war with itself than with external invaders. It allowed them to come inside the Indian plains before it chose to give battle. A deeply entrenched military paradigm of attrition (that had its origin in the Mahabharata War) impelled them to seek a decision on a vast, open and well defined battlefield, in a pure force on force regime, where huge masses of men, horses and elephants could be hurled against one another. Elephants were a prized shock-arm till the era of explosive warfare began. The huge and noble beast was targeted with Naptha fire arrows by the Arabs (known as Greek Fire), and by cannon fire by the Uzbeks and Pathans. It usually went berserk – (taking with it the Indian commander seated atop it). The Indian war paradigm unravelled. We were too busy fighting one another to improvise and learn and put up a civilisational defence against external invaders. There are three recorded battles at Panipat that decided the fate of the Indian subcontinent at various stages in history. The Indian defenders lost each one of them due to the over reliance on an attrition mindset and a pathetic failure to learn and innovate. The failure to catch up with the technical innovation of the stirrup and the explosive paradigm of the cannon cost us our freedom.

Both the Sikhs and the Marathas represent a return to mobility. Forced to adopt guerrilla warfare techniques to survive, they learnt to move quickly, focus and concentrate for a strike and then disperse as rapidly. As they grew into regular armies, both of them realised the criticality of cannons and artillery in the new “explosive paradigm” of war where ponderous elephants and incohesive hosts and large rabbles had little value. Both went in for standing, professional armies. The Sikhs realised the value of well-drilled European style Infantry equipped with muskets or rifles and swords (later bayonets). These organisational changes lent combat cohesion to these ethnic Indian armies of the 19th century. The basic human resource for war fighting in India has always been of excellent quality. The Indian peasant soldier is inherently brave, loyal, stoic and very tough. His ability to withstand combat stress is phenomenal and is a result of centuries of cultural imprinting that glorifies courage in combat. All he needed was good leadership, military organisation and an access to modern technology.   

The commonly held belief is that the British alone provided all these three inputs. Without them India would have continued to flounder in the dark ages. The colonial regime “emancipated” us and is supposedly the repository of all good that ever happened to the Indian civilisation. Such a sycophantic view is a trifle dated. (The British are no longer in charge.) What is more important is that it is historically inaccurate.

Indian military leaders of the 19th century like Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Gulab Singh and intrepid and outstanding Indian generals like Zorawar Singh and Hari Singh Nalwa are ample proof of the fact that Indians could by themselves provide the organisation, the leadership and the technology to win wars.

Zorawar Singh is brilliant because in a dismal Indian tradition based on attrition he proved himself to be a master of military mobility, in a terrain where such mobility is most difficult to achieve. The friction value of the terrain is highest in the mountains and the degree of difficulty rises exponentially with the altitude. Zorawar Singh’s campaigns here are masterpieces of mobility. The acme came with his Tibetan campaign. He covered a distance of some 770 km in a matter of four months. This works out to an average of almost 7 km a day. German Panzers operating in Russia during the Second World War had notched up mobility rates of 3.5 to 4 km per day. The mobility excellence of Zorawar Singh’s campaigns can thus be estimated from an operational analysis of his mobility rates.

Offensive Mindset. Coupled with this mobility versus, attrition mindset is the complimentary aspect of a defensive versus offensive orientation. From the 10th century onwards the Indian penchant for a “defensive-defence” mindset gets accentuated to a degree that is disgusting. Defeat can be the only logical outcome of such a tragic mindset. And defeat is what we got till that jinx was broken in the early 19th century by great Indian commanders who were bold, aggressive and masters of manoeuvre warfare. They were great risk takers, who thrived on ambiguity and pursued relentless offensive operations aimed more at inducing a paralysis of the mind of the opposing commander than a slaughter of his troops in the field. Zorawar’s deep, mobile operations in the Tibetan plateau led him 770 km from Leh (his logistical base). The speed and tempo of his campaign had such a psychological shock effect on the minds of the Tibetans that they called him a “Tantrik”, a master of magic and witchcraft. No other tribute from the enemy can testify so well to the shattering psychological impact of the Blitzkriegs that Zorawar had launched in high Asia.

Zorawar Singh’s Operational Style

Let us now go into the realm of operational art. What are the characteristics of the military style of General Zorawar Singh? He was undoubtedly a military genius and a great logistician. He had an innate feel for the terrain and an intuitive grasp of the military situation that could cut through the fog of war and enable him to take critical decisions with insufficient information. Some of the characteristics of his military style were:–

  • Reconnaissance in Force. Taking decisions in the fog of war is a key attribute of military commanders. It involves the aspects of situational awareness. A sound military decision flows from an accurate estimate or knowledge of one’s own situation, the enemy situation and an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Zorawar Singh ensured a superior situational awareness very often by a probing attack – a kind of reconnaissance in strength. In a confused situation the easiest way to define where the enemy is and in what strength, is to collide a sufficiently strong force against it. The physical collision and impact generates the requisite intelligence and clears the fog of war. 
  • The Spoiling Attack. Very often Zorawar Singh turned the scales in a situation where the military odds were heavily against him by a determined spoiling attack. His attack at Sod and Lang Kartse are excellent illustrations of this spoiling attack technique that not only preempted and forestalled an enemy offensive but also caused great disruption and disarray in its ranks by this surprise manoeuvre that invariably threw it completely off balance. Subsequent American theorists of the Air Land Battle Doctrine – made this kind of deep spoiling attack at unsuspecting enemy “follow-on” offensive echelons, the central tenet of their doctrine. Zorawar Singh’s operations at high altitudes bear this offensive imprint in clear detail. He was a master of Follow on Forces Attack (FOFA).
  • Assault Crossing of Rivers. Zorawar Singh surprised his opponents time and again by sudden and surprise assault crossings of the Himalayan rivers (when and where these were least anticipated). The best examples are the assault crossing of the Indus in his First Ladakhi Campaign in 1834. The Ladakhis had destroyed the bridge at Pashkyum and were sure that Zorawar would be stuck on the far bank for months. He surprised them by crossing the river using inflated goatskins. The second example comes in the campaign against Baltistan in 1840. The Indus was half frozen – the bridges had been destroyed. Winter had set in and Zorawar Singh’s armies were in a critical condition. Colonel Basti Ram pulled off a masterstroke by creating an ice bridge. He secured a bridgehead across with a handful of soldiers and held it against repeated attacks while the Main Force crossed over the mighty Indus. This assault crossing itself could be the stuff of any military legend. Colonel Basti Ram should be a role model for Indian battalion commanders. What we need to inculcate today is the bold offensive mindset and a risk taking orientation.
  • Establishment of Forts: Securing the Supply Routes. One of the key features of the operational style of the Dogra armies was their technique of rapidly building forts to garrison their axes of maintenance and advance and dominate the areas around. These forts were held by special garrison troops. (These consisted of soldiers who were considered fit for sedentary duties and were paid less than the soldiers of the regular army – or the Jangi Fauj). By the year 1842 the Jammu Rajas had a total of 34 forts manned by some 1,820 garrison troops. These tactically located posts had guns mounted on them. There were a total of 38 big cannons and 32 small guns (called bumboks) mounted on these forts. In keeping with this garrison tradition for enforcing control of territories – Zorawar Singh built a series of forts in Ladakh, Baltistan and later Tibet to garrison the conquered territories but above all to secure the route of maintenance. These forts acquired their tactical significance from their location and above all the firepower that was deployed in them (in terms of the light and heavy guns). Maintenance and logistical columns that followed the main force were routed through these forts. However, by and large, the invading force carried its logistical train along in terms of local ponies, yaks and fighting porters (in the tradition of a German Lager). The Dogra troops were experts at speedily constructing such forts from the locally available stones and materials. These forts were of surprising strength and could withstand repeated attacks, artillery bombardment and long sieges. These garrison forts are a key feature of Zorawar’s method of advance into unknown and uncharted realms. When pressed or in difficulty during his advance he could always fall back to his forts and adopt a tactical defensive stance to regain time and await reinforcements. (For a brief write up on the Dogra forts please refer to Appendix A).

Frontier Pacification

How did forts with such miniscule garrisons (15-60 men mostly) suffice to control such vast tracts of conquered territories and such long lines of communications? The answer lay in the enlightened and just military administration that Zorawar Singh put in place everywhere he went. Zorawar Singh was sharp enough to realise that the general cause of public discontent in those times was the arbitrary and exploitative land revenue system of the local rulers. Tribute was often collected through kirdars or revenue collectors who were venal, rapacious and ruthless. They lined their own pockets and fleeced the people. At times the rulers themselves were greedy and exploitative. Zorawar Singh devised methods of scientific land crop assessment and laid down norms for just taxation which often came as a great relief to the people of the occupied territories. This won over their support and pacified the rear areas. Not only that, Zorawar Singh was able to mobilise large local levies for his further wars of conquest.

Zorawar Singh the Man

Another outstanding feature of this great Indian commander was his unimpeachable integrity and honesty. After the conquest of Ladakh, his ruler, Maharaja Gulab Singh, hailed him as his own brother. Touched, Zorawar Singh refused to accept any pay or emoluments thereafter. These were all deposited in the State treasury. Despite his many campaigns of conquest, Zorawar Singh amassed no personal fortune whatsoever. He used to survive on the same rations that were issued to his soldiers. He was a stern disciplinarian and was ruthlessly against any looting or misbehaviour by his troops. In an era when soldiers of fortune (including British peers like Warren Hastings)
amassed huge personal fortunes, General Zorawar Singh provides a most refreshing contrast. He was spartan, deeply religious and a soldier’s soldier who was loved and respected by his men.

Zorawar Singh: A Millennium Tribute

This then is the immortal saga of General Zorawar Singh, one of the most intrepid and outstanding Indian generals of our times. He was a master of mountain warfare and his exploits in this realm have carved a place for him in the military history of the world as a tactical genius and a visionary. Vision is one of the prime qualities of a senior military commander. He must have a feel for the future. He must be able to anticipate events and set in motion the requisite preparations to meet them, years in advance. When he was the Military Governor of Kishtwar, for almost a decade, he had before him, a vision of campaigns of conquest in high Asia. He dreamed of it, he talked of it, he consciously prepared and trained an army to undertake the coming campaigns. Kishtwar provided him the perfect training ground. It is surrounded on all sides by high mountain ranges – the Pir Panjals, the Nagin Shur, the Khankhu Dhar and the Nagin Sheru ridgelines tower above the plateau. A little further afield were the 6,000-metre high peaks of the Sickle Moon and the Brahma complex – ideal to train his troops for the glacial conditions they were to encounter and overcome in their subsequent campaigns.

The Force of Personality in War. With the onset of the explosive paradigm – war has acquired a terrible character. The experience of modern war can be a terrifying nightmare. It takes a strong personality to ride out the maelstorm of war; to steady the nerves of men through the hail of shell, shot and steel; to keep a cool head through the screams of the wounded and the dying and the sights of blood and gore. Very rarely do we come across great commanders, who by genetic imprinting and temperament are tailor made to ride out the storms of war and conflict. The renowned British military historian, Sir Basil Liddle Hart, calls them the great Captains of War. Zorawar Singh in fact was such a Captain of War. He had nerves of steel – he was a born leader of men. He had that cool courage and competence that Count Carl von Clausewitz prized so highly as an asset in a great commander. The driving force of the trans-Himalayan campaigns was the force of the towering personality of its General.

He bestrode the battlefields of high Asia like a colossus. His armies were invincible as long as he led them. With him at the head they could not countenance defeat. He showcased an intrepid Indian military leader in a new “Avtar” – the conquerer, the master of the bold offensive, the daring gambler and high risk taker – Zorawar was a military commander par excellence.

The Intuitive Feel for the Battlefield. The Germans have a word “Fingerspitzgefuhl – Fingertip feel of the battlefield”. A great commander has that intuitive feel for the battlefield. In a situation of great ambiguity and uncertainty – he can form an intuitive construct of the situation by creatively filling in the gaps. He has an intuitive feel for patterns, he thinks in analogies and metaphors. The crux of the commander’s job is situational awareness – a total awareness of where the enemy is, an intuitive grasp of what he will do next, a creative synthesis of this knowledge with the awareness of one’s own force dispositions and the lay of the terrain. Great commanders are equipped by this penetrating power of intuition to pierce the fog of war – to impose order on a confused and jumbled mass of information. The armies call such a breed of soldiers the “expert war fighters”. They are men equipped morally and intellectually to ride out the storm of war. They have an innate feel for the rhythm of the battlefield. They can sense the presence of danger; they can feel the sudden fleeting window of opportunity and they act in an intuitive flash of understanding. Zorawar was such an intuitive general. He had an innate feel for the battlefield and an intuitive situational awareness of his own and the enemy’s situation. Time and again he turned the tide of battle by a well-timed pre-emptive raid or night attack or even a brilliant counter stroke that caught the enemy from a totally unexpected direction. He could sense the enemy’s centre of gravity and aim for it unerringly.

Vision and Intuition. These then are the key traits of inspired military leadership. Military academies the world over today, are producing a series of mediocre Montgomeries who are competent but not brilliant. They do win victories but not in a cost effective manner, they generally rely upon attrition and not manoeuvre; they simply try to bring about overwhelming asymmetries of scale that will ensure victory in a slogging match of attrition. Zorawar Singh belongs to the inspired class of the truly “Great Commanders” who achieved so much with so little. With just 5-7,000 men (less than an Infantry Division) he achieved feats which even two or three Corps could not hope to equal in a similar space of time today, despite all the modern force multipliers at their disposal. He conquered Ladakh. He quelled a series of revolts in this province and consolidated his politico-military hold over this region. He conquered Baltistan. He recruited the people of Ladakh and Baltistan, the conquered territories, to invade the Roof of the World. He advanced some 800 km into Western Tibet and secured the critical choke point of the Mayum La Pass. Can any modern Indian general aspire to replicate this feat today? It remains an unparalled exercise in military mobility, in a terrain that is most unconducive for such deep manoeuvres. Measured by these universal yardsticks of military excellence, namely:–

  • The Force of Personality to Ride the Storm of War.
  • The Vision to Anticipate the Future.
  •  The Tolerance for Ambiguity.
  •  The Intuitive Feel for the Battlefield.

Zorawar turns out to be one of the greatest and most inspired commanders of Indian military history.

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Beyond the Man: The Phenomenon

In the end one returns to the beginning. Zorawar Singh is more than just the man and the intrepid individual. He represents a historical phenomenon – the phenomenon of the Indian Military Revival; the phenomenon of the renaissance of Indian Arms after almost eight centuries of decay and slumber. The phenomenon that began in the 18th century with inspired Indian war leaders and revivalists like Guru Gobind Singh, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and culminated in the great victory over Pakistan in the 1971 War for the liberation of Bangladesh. The best proof of this thesis comes from the fact that after the disaster in Tibet of 10 December 1841, the Dogra armies did not perish with the death of their Commander. Ethnic Indian units like the Fateh Shibji Battalion preserved their combat cohesion (even after being decimated to the extent of 50 percent). Their colonel commandant led a skillful retreat out of Tibet to Kumaon and bounced back to Jammu. What is most critical, however, (and marks the most refreshing contrast to the rest of Indian military history) is the fact that within just one year, the ethnic Indian armies had rallied to counter attack and sent the Chinese-Tibetan forces that had captured Leh and Ladakh (and sparked off rebellion in Zanskar and Baltistan) packing. The Sino-Tibetan hordes were thrown back and all the rebellions quelled with an iron hand by another batch of Indian generals – Wazir Ratnu, and Dewan Hari Chand. Indian armies had finally come of age. They could survive the death of even immortal heroes like Zorawar Singh and rally magnificently to rout the diverse ethnic armies. The military system that Indian generals like Zorawar Singh had created at long last, could now outlast even those magnificent men. These armies would retain their combat cohesion in the face of fearful casualties. They would . function even when their Commanders were killed. The reconquest of Ladakh, therefore, is a befitting epilogue to the spectacular campaigns of General Zorawar Singh. This book is a millennium tribute to a great Indian military commander and hero. It is a humble effort to trace the footsteps of a master of manoeuvre warfare though the eternal snows of history. The footprints that Zorawar Singh has left in the glacial battlefields of the mighty Himalayas are indelible. They will never fade away from the memories of men, for in essence, they represent man’s immortal quest for transcendence and infinity. Zorawar Singh is a part of the legends of high Asia. His spirit hovers above the holy lakes of the Mansarovar and Rakshastal and the silver monument of Mount Kailash that is such a powerful beacon for the Indian civilisation. Zorawar Singh was the legendary general who marched his armies to the very extremities of the Indian civilisational landscape. The terrain over which he walked like a colossus is sacred to the Indian people. So are his footprints in the home of the eternal snows.


[1] KM Pannikar, Gulab Singh (1792-1858): The Founder of Kashmir, p. 82, Martin Hopinson Ltd., London, 1930.

[2] Cunnigham. Ladakh, p 353.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen GD Bakshi, (Retd)

is a war Veteran and Strategic Analyst.

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