Following the tragic events of June 15, many Indians heard of the Galwan River Valley in Eastern Ladakh for the first time as the site of the deadliest clash between Indian soldiers and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since 1975.
According to reports, 20 Indian soldiers, including a Colonel, were killed and several others grievously injured. The Galwan Valley area, which lies east of the Siachen Glacier, offers the only direct access point to Aksai Chin. The Galwan River Valley was also the site of clashes in the Indo-China War of 1962.
The Valley itself derives its name from the river Galwan, which originates in the Karakoram range through Aksai Chin and Eastern Ladakh to join the river Shyok, an important tributary of the Indus River. This river, and the Valley, holds significant strategic importance for both nations, but particularly India.
The current standoff on the border traces back to China’s objections over a bridge the Indian government is building across the Galwan Nullah (as it was first known).
The naming of a ravine
Interestingly, few Indians know Ghulam Rassul Galwan, a remarkable Ladakhi traveller and explorer, whose name the river has.
Through his remarkable autobiography, titled ‘Servant of the Sahibs’, he described his expeditions through the high Himalayas into Tibet and Yarkand (now situated in present-day Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China), and through the Pamir Mountains into Afghanistan, the Karakoram range and other parts of Central Asia. Galwan assisted many well known European explorers towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 1920s.
Galwan traversed these parts during a period in history known as ‘The Great Game’ when both the Russian and British Empire jostled for strategic supremacy over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia.
It was indeed a fascinating moment in history.
Galwan lived a remarkable life. It included accompanying the likes of Major HH Godwin-Austen, the English geologist responsible for measuring the height of K2 (the world’s second-highest peak) in 1887. He also travelled alongside Sir Francis Younghusband, the British empire-builder, spymaster and army officer responsible for the signing of the 1904 Anglo-Tibetan Treaty, for more than six years (1890-96) during different expeditions.
The name ‘Galwan Nullah’, or Galwan River as we know it today, came during the 1892 mission to the Pamir Mountains with Charles Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore and a Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army at the time.
While the purpose of that trip remains a minor mystery, what is known is that on the journey back, the caravan strayed away from traditional routes in Aksai Chin because of bad weather. Then there came a moment when a wall of mountains and steep gorges trapped them.
Unable to find a way out, a 14-year-old Galwan stepped up to find a possible way out of this maze. Much to the amazement of Murray’s team, the young teen used all his instincts and knowledge of treacherous terrain to find a relatively easier route through a ravine which kept the expedition going without much trouble.
Historian Abdul Ghani Sheikh writes that Murray was so pleased with Galwan’s efforts that he decided to name the newfound passage through the ravine as the ‘Galwan Nullah’ and the Valley as ‘Galwan Valley’.
This was a significant development because colonising Westerners would usually name major geographical features after themselves, no matter what the locals or common history called the features.
Traditionally, there has been little commerce in Ladakh itself. But for centuries carpets, creams, tea, salt, grain, pashmina or cashmere wool, silk yarn, cotton and indigo traversed through these parts in caravans, via the fabled Silk Route. This trade had always attracted merchants from Yarkand, Tibet, Kashmir, Central Asia and even Punjab.
But by the middle of the 19th century, politics brought armies from Jammu and the British as well. Ladakh’s royal Namgyal dynasty had been ousted from power by the troops of Jammu’s ruler, Gulab Singh. Gulan Singh sold his ambitions to the British as a ‘stable northern frontier’, and thus the State of Jammu and Kashmir was created in 1846.
Ladakh had now become part of the buffer zone between British India and the Chinese and Russian empires. After that, a steady stream of British and Dogra surveyors travelled around Ladakh, measuring the land and mapping it, their movement made possible through the labour of Ladakhis, their sustenance provided by villagers along their routes, according to this academic paper by Dr Martijn van Beek, a Ladakh scholar of Aarhus University, Denmark.
It was in such times that Galwan was born.
An Explorer Extraordinaire
Born Rassul Galwan into a poverty-stricken family sometime around 1878, Galwan emerged from the system of corvée labour known as ‘begar’ or ‘res.’
This system forced villages along major trade routes to supply labour, animals, fodder and sometimes even food, for official traders and travellers who passed through.
Because of his family’s precarious financial situation, Galwan also had no choice but to go on these long-distance and perilous expeditions from the age of just 12, for meagre sums.
The working conditions were dangerous. Many had to amputate their toes and fingers due to frostbite after each expedition.
He began as a servant for a Kashmiri merchant in 1889. For the next 35 years, he was either part of or leading expeditions with Western explorers, including the Italians and Americans. A multi-linguist, he spoke his native Ladakhi, Turki and Urdu, alongside a basic understanding of Tibetan and Kashmiri.
“From Leh to Kashgar was a 44-day difficult trek, which for many Western explorers was an adventure in itself. Galwan used to do it just to join an expedition at Kashgar or rush to Leh to collect his pay without a thought to his discomforts and danger or the majesty around him. To him the bitterly cold and endless wasteland from Pamirs to Takla Makan to Tengri Nor was a second home,” writes Romesh Bhattacharji, a retired IRS officer, in his blog Bame Duniya.
It was during one of these expeditions that Galwan also picked up English alongside American adventurer Robert Barrett during their travels in the early 1900s.
By the time he teamed up with Barrett, Galwan had risen to the rank of Caravan Bashi or the man-in-charge of the caravan. He oversaw the collection of money, buying and hiring of animals and men, estimated, obtained and doled out supplies and also acted as “a diplomatic representative for his sahib, dealing for him with governors and officials.”
It was on the insistence of Barrett and his wife Katherine that Galwan ended up writing the book ‘Servant of the Sahibs,’ published in 1923.
“When he joined my husband, he had an English vocabulary of a dozen words, and therewith an ambition to write ‘the story of his happened’ in English,” wrote Katherine.
When Galwan began writing about his travels and sahibs, he mailed them out in “thin sheets of manuscripts” over 14 years. “Unintelligible early chapters have been sent back several times for re-writing. At last, Rassul has acquired a style with which we do not tamper…The style is perfectly intelligible if read aloud,” she writes.
There is no question that the edited book has a colonial slant of mind. For example, given how hard tasks were over the years, Galwan wasn’t always complimentary of his Western bosses. But we only know this from stories his descendants share, not from his autobiography.
Still, without this book, by some accounts possibly the first English-language autobiography in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, we wouldn’t have known as much about his extraordinary life as we do today.
As years and travels went by, Galwan continued to rise in social and economic stature.
Towards the end of his life, he became the Akasakal of Ladakh, i.e. the chief native assistant of the British Joint Commissioner (BJC), who, under a commercial treaty between Britain and the Maharaja of Kashmir, was in authority over the traders in Leh to exchange their goods.
“As a result of his work, he had become a reasonably well-off person, although back then when life was a lot simpler, you didn’t need that much money to sustain themselves. Till the last years of life, he was always travelling. He became a traveller by default, but it ended up becoming a lifelong passion,” says Rasul Bailay, a journalist and great-grandson of Galwan, speaking to The Better India.
“Growing up, I heard a lot of stories about my great grandfather. These were part of family folklore. His hard work and sacrifice are what allowed successive generations in his family to live in material comfort. As Ladakh has grown in a major hub for tourism, the land Galwan owned in and around Leh has become valuable property, and this has allowed successive generations of our family to succeed,” says Rasul.
Rassul’s has painful memories of the Chinese. His father, an Intelligence Bureau officer, was taken prisoner by the Chinese PLA at the Hot Springs point near Aksai Chin, after a bloody clash, in 1959. (He was later released),
When the conversation veered to Monday’s tragic events, his views were clear.
“Galwan river valley is India’s land. As Indians, we are emotional about every inch of our territory. Ladakh was once an integral part of the ‘Silk Route’, but the context within which that phrase exists today in the form of ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative carries very different geopolitical connotations with an expansionist China. During my great grandfather’s time, the region was caught up in the ‘Great Game’ between the British and Russian Empire. Today, the players have changed, which are India and China. Things are unfolding in a different avatar. This is indeed the new ‘Great Game’,” he says.
Galwan passed away in 1925. But the history he saw and was part of, in many ways, is repeating itself.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)