Strategic Ladakh: A Historical Narrative 1951-53 and a Military Perspective

Strategic Ladakh: A Historical Narrative 1951-53 and a Military Perspective

by Rajendra Nath


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ISBN-13: 9789385563393
Publisher: Vij Books India
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.97(w) x 9.03(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Major General Rajendra Nath was commissioned in 11 Gorkha Rifles (Infantry) in 1947 from Indian Military Academy and participated in the 1947-48 Kashmir war. He was posted as Liaison Officer in Ladakh from 1950-51 by Army HQs. when Ladakh was an isolated area. He was the first army officer along with Captain Suri to reconnaissance the Aksai Chin area in Ladakh in 1950-51 and forward detailed report on the Chinese threat to the area and received tremendous appreciation from the Army Headquarters as well as the Ministry of Defence. He has served in various command and staff appointments during his service and has been Commandant Indian Military Academy. After his retirement, he took to Social Work and Writing on matters military. He has been associated with the Institute of the Blind at Chandigarh and the Society of the Blind for the last 32 years as Senior Vice President / Chairman of the Managing Committee. He has written a comprehensive book on India’s Military History from Rig Vedic times to 1971 Wars. He has also written/edited the books Musharraf’s War and Flashpoints in South Asia.

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It is said that man cannot get away from his past. The same way nations as well as peoples of different territories cannot break away from their past. In order to study the characteristics of any people, their capabilities and their attitude towards this ever changing world, it is essential to study their past history.

The Ladakh valley has been cut off from the rest of India by the lofty Himalayas. The communications between India and Ladakh are very remote indeed due to highly mountainous terrain, yet it is remarkable to note that contact between India and Ladakh has been very ancient. From Ashoka's time when the first Buddhist's monk came to Ladakh for spreading Buddhism, India has been in contact with Ladakh. The Buddhist monks from India were responsible for converting the Ladakhis to Buddhists. These monks came to Ladakh via Kashmir. However, Buddhism did not remain prominent in India for long time and Hinduism again became predominant. But while Buddhism gradually disappeared from India as well as Kashmir, it has been and still is the predominant religion of Ladakh. After 10century AD, Kashmir started coming under the sway of Islam. Consequently one finds that the cultural relations between Ladakh and rest of India have not been so strong after 11 century AD. On the contrary Tibet has been a Buddhist country ever since the Indian monks spread Buddhism there dating from Ashoka's time. The Ladakhi's after finding that Buddhism has completely disappeared from Kashmir while it no longer occupied any important position in India either, started having closer cultural relations with Tibet after 10 century AD. The nearness of Tibet might have also been a factor in bringing closer cultural relations between the two regions or nations (as they were then). At present one therefore finds that the present Buddhism of Ladakh has been affected by Lamaism of Tibet. All the Lamas of Ladakh used to go to Tibet for getting their religious education till 1950 when China occupied Tibet and this practice came to an end.

Sources of Information

The sources of information from which one can compile the history of Ladakh are of two kinds; some are foreign and some from Ladakh itself. The latter are of a twofold character. We possess records on stone as well as on paper. Of the former, which cover the period from 200 BC to 1400 AD, only comparatively little has become known up to the present, the reason being that systematic and thorough research in that domain has not yet been made. However, the whole area of Ladakh is full of old remains of 'Chortens', 'Manas', Monastries and other carvings on the stone that throw ample light on its past history. As regards the records on paper, although what is probably the most important work, the chronicles of Kings of Leh (Ladakh) have been edited, much still remains to be done. However, one finds that from 900 AD onwards, the chronicles of the kings of Leh (Ladakh) throw ample light and one can get continuous chronology of events up to the present times. The character of these chronicles is not the same during the different periods it describes. Its most ancient part can hardly be called a history, nor was it apparently meant to be such. It was begun as a pedigree of the kings of Leh, whose chief intention was to prove their descent from the famous line of the ancient kings of Lhasa. Thus the first portion of the work covering roughly the period of 900-1400 AD does not contain much besides mere names. About the year 1400 the account begins to become fuller. Still these accounts leave much to be desired. The writers were 'Lamas', and to them the greatest events during the reign of a king were his presents to 'Lamas' and monasteries or his construction of 'Chortens' and 'Mana' walls. Much ink has been expended on these events, while the campaigns of the kings are treated with extraordinary brevity and of their economic work we hear almost nothing. Thus we see that all these points which go to make a history of the country are missing and yet the native tone of the Ladakhi historians has often a charm of its own.

The other important source is the foreign travellers or writers. Of these Herodotus, Megasthenes, Hieun Tsang and Ctesias are famous and their accounts throw ample light on the past events of Ladakh. Besides the books like Rajatarangini and the accounts of Tsing dynasty of China also help in throwing some light on the past history of Ladakh.

An important question is this; are the accounts accurate and state the actual , or is the account distorted partly or wholly, as it often happens. The best test of the veracity of an historical account is its comparison with other entirely independent documents. Only in a very few cases are we able to compare the Ladakhi account of an event with that of a foreign country. In this connection, of great importance are the many inscriptions on rock and stone which are scattered all over the area and enable us to cross-check the events as enumerated in the various chronicles.

Early Inhabitants

The early inhabitants of Ladakh were undoubtedly nomads, who were not civilized as judged from the present standards. They moved from Ladakh into what is now known as Western Tibet and vice versa. There were no villages and no settled life existed. The people were satisfied by leading their simple life. They kept flocks of sheep and goats and that was their chief means of livelihood. They often hunted wild sheep and goats which were found in plenty in this area at that time. Even now the wild goats and sheep are to be found in many parts of Ladakh. They did not believe in any religion as such which exists in the world today. It is quite reasonable to believe that they believed in their own customs which were very strange and queer as per present standards and norms. Since the people were leading a nomadic life, the customs varied from one tribe to another. They wore clothes made out of the sheep or goat skin, while meat and milk were their chief items of food. They lived in tents of yak-hair and utilized the produce of their numerous herds of yaks in multifarious ways.

Their life probably in no way differed from that of Tibetan nomads of the present day. These ancient people had probably the poetical instinct as strongly marked as their children today, and similar songs to the one given here may have sounded through the valleys and hills of ancient Ladakh. A maiden tending flocks on a mountain side sings across the valley to a youth similarly employed (the translation is mine):-

"In the meadow, in the meadow, in the higher meadow blows Oh listen, lad, oh listen to my song A flower, far the sweetest that in field and garden grows Oh listen, lad, oh listen to my song Thou mayest kill the flower, sweet-heart,
The Present Inhabitants

The present population of Ladakh is the result of a long process of blending of atleast three distinct peoples, two of which are of Aryan stock, whilst one which is numerically superior to the other two, is of Mongol origin. The Aryan communities located in regions (then nations) are: the Dards of Gilgit, and the Mons of North India (most probably from Kashmir). The Mongolian is of Tibetan Region / nation. The irrigable valleys of Ladakh were brought under cultivation by the Aryan tribes of Mons and Dards, and the latter especially exhibited an extraordinary skill in the construction of water courses along almost inaccessible cliffs. The products of the fields were as welcome to the Ladakhi nomads as were the produce of the flocks to the Dard peasants, and the lively barter which took place between the two tribes apparently led to many matrimonial alliances as well. So a race evolved which combined the agriculturist and the nomad. What is beautiful, to our perspective, in the features of the present Ladakhis is due to their half-Dard origin.

Spread of Buddhism

It is known from tradition that Emperor Ashoka held the third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in about 250 BC. It was resolved in that council to send Buddhist missionaries to Kashmir, Tibet, and central Asian countries. Buddhism got such a firm hold in Kashmir that the fourth legendary council, under King Kanishka (125-152 AD) is said to have been held at Jalandara in Kashmir. Either after the third or the fourth council, Buddhism must have been carried to Ladakh and Western Tibet. The strongest proof of the colonization of Ladakh area by ancient Indians are inscriptions in Brahmi characters of about 200 BC which are found in Zanskar (now west of Ladakh) area. Among the ruins of Zangskar one discovers imposing remains of ancient Buddhist art, and more and the more one is convinced that the settlements of the ancient Mons in Zangskar and Ladakh area must have had some connection with the pre-Lamaist Buddhism.

It is interesting and important to note that the religious mission of the Buddhist preachers from India was not only to convert the local inhabitants to Buddhists but it was also an economic mission to better their lot and thus civilize the wandering nomads. Hence this mission was a civilizing and colonizing mission as well. It would have been well-nigh impossible to influence the wandering nomads without founding centres of Buddhist teaching with temples and monasteries. The almost empty land attracted more and more colonists, and the religious settlements grew into villages and towns in course of time. This is why that almost all the large villages and towns in Ladakh valley are situated near the monasteries. That is also the main reason as to why Buddhism which is now a form of Lamaism is so deeply rooted among its inhabitants. The conversion of the wandering nomads into settled Buddhists took centuries and was accentuated by the arrival of Mons and Dards.

The Arrival of The Mons

Though the exact date of the arrival of the Mons into Ladakh cannot be given, it is reasonably accurate to estimate the movement started in about 200 BC. The Mons were residents of North India probably of Kashmir. Some of them are stated to have come as Buddhist preachers. In many villages of Ladakh one finds one or several families who are called Mon. They are treated with little respect by the rest of the population. Their low position makes many observers believe that they belong to a nation or community, originally different from the Tibetans, who were conquered in former days. But to find out who the Mons really were is impossible in most parts of Ladakh, because after the settlement of Mons, and before the arrival of the Central Tibetans, the migration of the Dards took place, and thus the recollection of the people has been obscured. It seems that influence of the Mons was dominant in Western part of Ladakh. Zangskar was probably a great centre of Mons culture in ancient times. Even now one finds numerous ruins of monasteries as well as carvings on the rocks in Brahmi language. The main mission of the Mons was to settle the wandering nomads into small settlements / villages and then try to convert them into Buddhism.

The Migration of the Dards

Although the Mons had, besides preaching Buddhism, founded villages and towns in the almost desert like Ladakh, much arable ground remained uninhabited. This fact was recognized by the Dards of Gilgit.

As already stated Dards were an Aryan tribe, inhabiting the areas round about the present Gilgit. The migration of the Dards took place in about 100 AD. It is quite possible that the colonization of Ladakh by the Mons and the Dards met with little or no opposition from the Tibetan nomads, because their interests lay in different directions; and although a few irrigated plains were occupied by these Aryans, there remained ample pasture-ground for the flocks of the nomads. But it is possible as per accounts that hostilities sprang up occasionally between the Dards and the Mons and that the Mons were subdued in this struggle. Otherwise, it is hardly possible to explain why the position of the Mons in the social hierarchy became so much lower than that of the Dards.

Although no written records of the Dards of Ladakh have been found as yet, we know a great deal more about them than we know of the Mons. This is principally due to the fact that a certain number of them have not yet lost their language, and have withstood the tide of the Tibetan culture that has swept over them. There are two tribes of Dards still existing in the territories of the former Ladakhi kingdom who have preserved their original language. They are the Dards of Dras and the Dards of Da. Those of Dras became Mohammedans about three and a half centuries ago and in consequence most of their original customs and folk lore have been stamped out. Those of Da have become neither Muslims nor have they accepted Lamaism wholeheartedly and thus much of their originality has been preserved. We learn that the Dards were a well built and a warrior tribe. At one time they dominated almost the whole of Ladakh valley, and one can ask with astonishment how it is that they disappeared entirely from most parts of Ladakh. It is not likely that a nation whom Herodotus called the most warlike of all Indians, should have given in very easily to the later attacks of the Central Tibetans and there are tales which speak of the stubborn resistance put up by the Dards.

As regards the religion of the ancient Dards, it was probably the form of Buddhism which was prevalent in the days of immigration at Gilgit. The many stone images without dates which are found all over Ladakh testify to this, and many of them show a particularly strong resemblance of those found near Gilgit. The Dards were very famous for their sports and they are considered as the originators of 'Polo' as a game in this part of the country – probably they were the first to introduce this game in India. However, by the end of sixth century AD the opposition of the Dards had been completely crushed by the Tibetans who had become dominant once again. Unfortunately, though tried for; no historical account or trace or ancient lore is available of a major battle between the Tibetans and the Dards.

The Chinese Occupation of Western Tibet About 600-760 AD

Though it is stated that the Tibetans were once more dominant in Ladakh by the end of sixth century AD, there are no records available giving any information as to any king ruling over Ladakh or even of any small kingdom. During the seventh and eight centuries AD, several Chinese Buddhists made pilgrimages to the famous Buddhist shrines of North India. The diaries kept by the Chinese Pilgrims on their Indian tours are of the highest value for the study of ancient Indian geography and archeology. Unfortunately, none of them talks about Ladakh in their accounts. However, these references do throw some light on the events that were taking place in Ladakh at that time. Further information regarding Ladakh from Chinese sources is contained in the annals of the Tang dynasty. Those were the days when the Tibetans pushed on towards the West with a great amount of energy. The Chinese claim that during the reign of the Tang dynasty, Turkistan, Ladakh and even Kashmir became a part of the Celestial Empire. But there are no records available to prove the Chinese claim which seems to be rather highly exaggerated and factually inaccurate. Later many small kingdoms of Dards evolved in Western Ladakh, while the Eastern Ladakh region was under Ladakhi Kings. The chronicles of Ladakh make the following remarks about the political state of affairs existing in Ladakh at that time. "At that time Upper Ladakh was held by the descent of Qesar (Kesar), whilst Lower Ladakh was split up into various independent principalities." At Leh there reigned a dynasty of kings who derived their origin from the mythical King Kesar while at Saspool, about 40 miles West of Leh, King Bandel ruled; he constructed the ancient fort of Alchi Kargog. At Khalatsi (the modern Khalsi) a dynasty of Dard kings ruled. The Dard tribes had independent principalities at Da, Garkunu and Lamayaru. There was continuous warfare between these petty kingdoms; particularly difficult were the harvest seasons. It is, however, astonishing to find that even in those unsafe times trade was carried on through Ladakh between India and Sinkiang (now named Xinjiang by the Chinese).

In that period there were two religions co-existent in Ladakh: Buddhism and Bonchos. Bonchos was the age old religion of the Tibetans which was entirely different from Buddhism. Buddhism had entered the region by two channels; the ancient Mons had brought it from India (Kashmir) and the Dards from Gilgit. During this period Buddhism was strengthened by the emigration of many Buddhist monks from mainly Kashmir and also other parts of India.


Excerpted from "Strategic Ladakh"
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Copyright © 2016 Maj Gen Rajendra Nath, PVSM (Retd).
Excerpted by permission of Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Introduction, Chapter I Historical Background, Chapter II Geographical and Economic Survey, Chapter III Social Customs and Manners, Chapter IV Health and Hygiene, Chapter, V Economic Conditions and Infrastructure, Chapter VI Religion, Chapter VII Political Scenario, Chapter VIII Military Importance , Chapter IX Some Personal Recollections , Chapter X Indo Pak War 1947-1948 Operations in Ladakh , Chapter XI 1962 India – China War in Ladakh - Some Background Information, Chapter XII 1962 - India, China War – Focus on Ladakh 194, Chapter XIII Siachen Glacier and Ladakh 203, Chapter XIV China’s Future Strategy - It’s Impact on Indian Security, Index

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