Galwan, Galwan Valley and the Great Game


On expedition to Pamir, Charles Murrey and his team lost way in bad weather and treacherous trek. Young Rasul Galwan bailed the team out. Murrey was delighted and named the valley after Galwan

Makhdoom Mohi-Ud-Din

POPPING across screens of TV sets, computers and mobiles, Galwan Valley is making headlines. But few outside Kashmir know how did a valley in distant Ladakh get its Kashmiri name. Galwan, according to lexicologist George A. Grierson defines a caretaker of ponies in mountain pastures. It carries some connotations which have gained wider currency: thief, horse thief, obstreperous, truculent.

So who are the Galwans? Walter R. Lawrence puts them in “inferior races and tribes”. Mohammad Ud Din Fouq tries to give them a guise of “race respectability” comparable to the concept of “black respectability” of African-Americans. Lawrence takes recourse to orientalist tropes: “Galwans are the horse keepers considered the descendants of the Dums …….. their dark complexion suggests that they are not of the same race as Kashmiri peasants. Others think the Galwans are the descendants of Tsak tribe. Lawrence further hypothesises: “Originally they (Galwans) earned their livelihood by grazing ponies but as the time went by they found it more remunerative to steal them and eventually developed into established criminal tribe”. Continuing his imperial harangue Lawrence further writes: “they (Galwans) achieved notoriety in the days of Pathan rule and when Sikhs took over, the Galwans were terror to the country”.

Rasul Galwan, who has witnessed some sort of a resurrection following China-India stand-off in Galwan Valley, was a descendant of Khaira Galwan. Khaira, hero of many a legend was caught and hanged by Sikh Governor Colonel Mian Singh ostensibly for his band’s depredations. Rambir Singh, Dogra ruler banished Galwans to Bunji, a town in Astoor district of Gilgit-Baltistan. Banishing to Bunji, “Bunji Ladan, Bunji Barun” is a Kashmiri idiom now.

So how did Galwan Valley get its name? It has been named after Rasul Galwan, guide, trekker, explorer, polymath and writer of the book “Servant of the Sahibs”. Galwan was from Arghun community, descendants of mongrels, mixed-up race off-springs of Uyghur, Tartar, Kashmir, Pathan, Mughul and Dogra males and local females. Janet Rizvi, a Ladakh expert, makes a sense of this miscegenation in her excellent book, ‘Ladakh – Cross Roads of High Asia’. “Long tradition of inter marriages dating back to the days of caravan trade when its (Leh) bazaar was home to a colony of foreign merchants and local Buddhist girls are the basis of Arghun community,” Rizvi writes.

Competitive expansionism of three contesting empires, British India, Czarist Russia and Chinese put some bulwarks on trade across a vast land mass of Ladakh, Central Asia, Tibet and plains of Indian subcontinent. Unraveling national boundaries pushed up the geostrategic stakes of Ladakh. Rizvi gives the feel of expansive profile of the landscape known for treacherous ruggedness and mountain ranges, some of which cup up Galwan Valley. “Such is the complexity of the system and such the godforsaken barrenness of vast and remote expanses that the imperialist map makers of the nineteenth century had the utmost difficulty in fixing on the line of Ladakh’s border with the lands beyond; present alignment seems to have come about more by the accident than by design. Since the mid-1950 the Chinese have been in defacto possession of huge swathe of Aksai Chin, which for them forms the vital line of communication between Sinkiang and Tibet”.

In early twentieth century, Ladakh and land beyond became fair game for empires: Czarist Russia expanded her frontiers sometimes 20,000 square kilometers a year, knocking at the doors of British India at Pamirs. This colonial and strategic confrontation called ‘The Great Game’ was immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. The spoors of the travelers and traders, monks and missionaries, adventurers and explorers, aggressors and invaders, seated and settled can be smelt and seen in Ladakh and beyond. Imprints and inscriptions, engravings and epitaphs in the languages as diverse as Brahmi, Sanskrit, Kharoshti, Chinese, Tibeti, Sharda and Arabic at Khapalo, Khaltse, Tangshe, Chilas, Gilgit, Hunza brings out mixing and meeting of cultures, cuisines, costumes and traditions in bold relief.

Much earlier before Dogra rulers were coerced into accepting Officers on Special Duty and Residents, a steady stream of British adventurers and explorers made forays into Ladakh and Tibet. William Moorcraft, a veterinary surgeon with East India Company set off on an arduous trek in 1819 to Ladakh, Kabul and Bokhara. Moorcraft tried his hand in the politics of Ladakh. John Company was annoyed. Spurned Moorcraft died a stoic death. Dr. Henderson was known in north India for his wanderlust and venturing into unknown. He entered Ladakh from Skardu and spent three months in prison. “The great little man of Kashmir” C.E. Tyndall Biscoe went to Ladakh with Dr. Ernest Neve. Captain Chereneux Trench Commissioner of Ladakh enabled their 1896 visit.

Rasul Galwan trekked with Francis Younghusband to central Asia in 1890. Charles Murrey, Earl of Dunmore travelled to Pamir with Galwan. Younghusband and Murrey were tasked with the mission to report on the movement of Russian army. Galwan valley shot into headlines in 1962 India -China war. Radio made it popular then. On his expedition to Pamir, Murrey and his team lost way in bad weather and treacherous trek. Young Rasul Galwan bailed the team out. Swashbuckler, Murrey was delighted and named valley after Galwan.


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