Maharaja Gulab Singh
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Maharaja Gulab Singh
Jammu and Kashmir as a single entity was founded by Maharaja Gulab Singh, a Dogra warrior from Jammu, in the first half of 19th century. He was born on 21 October 1792 at Andarwah, near Jammu, the estate of his father Mian Kishore Singh. He was great grandson of Mian Surat Singh, brother of ‘Raja-e-Rajgan’ Ranjit Dev and grandson of Mian Zorawar Singh, brother of Mian Mota, the Wazir of Jammu. He was given no formal education but raised as warrior. At an early age he mastered the art of horsemanship and swordsmanship. He witnessed the fall of Jammu to Sikhs in his youth. His elders seem to have inculcated in him the yearning not only for regaining the lost power and glory of the family but to create a new kingdom up in the Jammu Hills.
Gulab Singh was still a child when political scene in Punjab underwent a radical change which subsequently effected the entire Northwest. Early 19th century witnessed the rise of a Sikh leader Ranjit Singh who systematically destroyed Sikh Misls and made himself the emperor of Punjab. To further expand his empire, in 1808, he sent a large force to Jammu. This invasion united the feuding Dogras who gave a bloody nose to the Sikhs. Gulab Singh barely 16, leapt in the Gumat Battle with a fiery zeal, fought gallantly and would often jump from the ground to hunt his foe. Despite such acts of individual bravery Dogras lost Jammu to Sikhs. But his gallantry didn’t go un-noticed. Sikhs’ conquest shattered his aspirations. He left home in search of new avenues. Learning that the deposed Afghan King Shah Shuja was raising an army to regain his kingdom, Gulab Singh left for Peshawar but didn’t get enrolled in the Afghan force. In the meantime Maharaja Ranjit Singh called him to Sialkot. His physique and poise impressed the emperor who enrolled him as a Cavalryman. Once during an inspection Maharaja contemplated in him a conqueror he was looking for his army. By virtue of his ability and valour, Gulab Singh rose to be an important support and advisor of the ruler. Soon his brothers Dhian Singh and Suchet Singh joined Lahore Darbar and by their ability and high ambitions combined with calculated use of intrigues and ruthlessness acquired influential positions. Such traits were abundantly exhibited by Gulab Singh on several expeditions dispatched by Maharaja to extend his Northern boundaries. In 1813, Gulab Singh did remarkably well in the otherwise disastrous campaign against Afghans in Kashmir which impressed the ruler. In 1818, during the siege of Multan Fort, he volunteered to rescue Ranjit Singh’s favourite Sikh warrior from the fort amidst incessant enemy fire. Maharaja lauded this brave act in his Darbar. In 1819 he crushed a Dogra uprising in Jammu hills and succeeded in neutralising Mian Dido, a Dogra Robin Hood by impersonating the rebel leader. In 1820, Dogra warrior seized Rajouri and Bhimber. In 1821 he conquered Basohli and Kishtwar. Emperor was so delighted with Gulab Singh’s territorial acquisitions that he decided to place Jammu solely under his charge. Maharaja Ranjit Singh thus personally travelled to Akhnoor where on 17 June 1822, he anointed Gulab Singh in a colourful ceremony on the Western bank of Chenab. Gradually he brought under his control most of the regions between Jammu and Kashmir. In 1830s he was given the responsibility to administer Gujarat and salt mines near Jhelum.
In summer 1834, Raja Gulab Singh ventured into Ladakh. Ladakh was under the political domination of Tibet till 10th century. Even after it emerged as autonomous kingdom, it continued to be under the supremacy of Tibet. When internal squabbles marred Ladakh, Raja Gulab Singh found an opportunity to realize his ambitions of acquiring new territories. Also tempted by economic benefits to be derived from Ladakh, he let his able General Zorawar Singh march into Ladakh in 1834 at the head of 5000 strong Dogras. By 1835, Gen Zorawar Singh had defeated 22,000 strong Ladakhi army and captured Leh. By this victory Dogra Raja secured control of important routes between Kashmir and Tibet over which lucrative Pashmina trade passed.
With Ladakh under firm control, Raja Gulab Singh turned his attention to Baltistan. This decision was influenced by a serious estrangement between Ahmed Shah, the Balti ruler and his eldest son Mohammad Shah who had sought Raja Gulab Singh’s help to oust his father. Encouraged by prevailing condition Dogra chief ordered Zorawar Singh to capture Baltistan. With an army of 15,000 including Ladakhi contingents, he marched to Baltistan towards of end of 1840. Balti troops were caught off guard and decisively beaten. Dogra General captured Skardu Fort and established Mohammad Shah as its puppet ruler. Having accomplished the given task, Dogra General positioned a contingent of Dogra army at Skardu and returned to Leh.
Whilst British feared Dogra chief’s advance to the North towards Yarkand, instead Dogra Raja turned to the East. He revived Ladakh’s ancient claim to the Western districts of Tibet. In May 1841, Zorawar Singh entered Tibet with a force of 5000 soldiers of Jammu, Ladakh and Baltistan. He swiftly occupied cities of Rudok and Gartok and by early September succeeded in occupying the strategic city of Taklakot. This cut off the trade route between Tibet and British Protectorate of Bashar. He positioned a Dogra contingent at a site opposite the Company held district of Almora. The British who had remained neutral to the capture of Ladakh and Baltistan, expressed grave concern over Zorawar Singh’s ingress into Tibet. British authorities tried to force Dogras withdrawal from Tibet. When failed, they blamed Dogra chief of entering into a treaty with Nepal endangering Kumaon Hills which British had acquired from Nepal after a bloody conflict in 1816. By October 1841, British trepidations reached such a feverish pitch that they commanded Maharaja Sher Singh to order Dogra chief to evacuate Tibet by 10 December. Confronted with the ultimatum of British the Sikh ruler asked Gulab Singh to withdraw. But before he could contact Zorawar Singh, military situation in Tibet underwent a drastic change. In early November Lahasa sent an army of 10,000 to drive the Dogras. After a few skirmishes the adversaries met on fateful December 10, the date fixed by British for withdrawal. A three days fierce battle commenced on the banks of Lake Mansarovar, Northeast of Taklakot. On 12 December 1841 Zorawar Singh was wounded in the shoulder. As he fell from his horse Chinese rushed to him and put him to death. Dogra General’s death determined the outcome of the battle. Dogras retaliated the death of their commander by killing the Chinese General. Hats off to the Dogras who fought not only the enemy but the cataclysmic weather conditions so bravely despite ultimate destruction staring at them.
The period between 1839 to 1843 was a period of great personal triumph for Gulab Singh. Between this period Dogra brothers remained king makers at Lahore. With a weakened Sikh govt at Lahore, Raja Gulab Singh moved swiftly from autonomy towards complete independence. Period between November 1845 to March 1846 were momentous for the Sikh empire. On December 11 Sikh army crossed Sutlej and attacked British. They lost the battle of Mudki on December 18 and of Firuzshahar on 22 December 1845. After their final defeat at Sabraon in February 1846, the British forces entered Punjab and halted at Kasur when Governor General Lord Henry Hardinge expressed desire to negotiate peace. As wazir of Sikh kingdom, Dogra Raja led the delegation. As per ‘Treaty of Lahore’ dated 9 March 1846, Sikhs ceded the entire hilly area between Beas and Indus including Kashmir in compensation for the indemnity. The Lahore transactions were followed by negotiations between Lord Hardinge and Raja Gulab Singh.
By an agreement reached between the two, Jammu Raja regained his territorial possessions and got Kashmir, Hazara and Chamba and proclamation as Maharaja. In return he was to pay 75 lakh rupees to the British govt. Thus by Anglo-Dogra treaty of 16 March 1846, singed at Amritsar, Maharaja Gulab Singh became an independent ruler of Jammu and Kashmir. His meteoric rise as a founder of Jammu and Kashmir is celebrated at Jeo Pota every year on 17 June and cherished widely.