Man seems to possess an inherent desire to record his presence in this world, to leave some trace of his existence,” Dr Azaz A. Baba wrote in his foreword to the autobiography of Ghulam Rassul Galwan titled Servant of Sahibs. That desire got fulfilled for Ghulam Rassul, the explorer from Leh, when the Galwan river was named after him.
This approximately 80-kilometre long river originates in the Samzungling area and flows west to join the Shyok river, which further joins Indus at Keris, near picturesque Skardu.
In 1899, Galwan, a 21-year old young explorer stood on the banks of a previously unknown river in northeastern Ladakh. He was the caravan in-charge of a British expedition to the areas north of Chang Chenmo valley.
The British had developed an interest in exploring these areas in the 1890s. They wanted to see if they could develop a caravan route through this valley and connect the Indian subcontinent to the Tarim Basin in the Xinjiang region of China. Tarim Basin mostly covered by the Taklamakan desert formed the spine of the ancient Silk Route. Now, China has invested in developing this area under Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Silk Road routes lost their significance 15th-century onwards, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing boycott of trade with China.
But that unknown river became the Galwan — one of the few rivers and natural formations named after regional explorers of the time. And that is the river everyone is talking about now as India-China stand-offs continue across the Line of Actual Control.
The Galwan family
Galwan talks about his maternal great-grandfather, Kara Galwan, with a lot of fondness in his autobiography. The word ‘Kara’ in Kashmiri means black and Galwan means robber. Kara Galwan operated in the Kashmir Valley during the rule of the Dogra rulers. Galwan portrays his grandfather as a sort of Robin Hood, who looted from the rich and distributed among the poor. The Maharaja’s army arrested Kara Galwan, and most of his relatives had to flee from Kashmir.
His grandfather, Mahmut Galwan fled to Baltistan along with his brother Gaffor and two sisters. A few years later, Mahmut married a Balti woman and the family moved to Leh. That Balti woman gave birth to Galwan’s mother, who was raised by her relative Gaffor Galwan, who had no children of his own. She got married to Shukur Galwan, who was raised in the same household by Gaffor. Shukur eloped to Yarkand shortly after marriage and left his young bride behind in Leh. She got married to a man named Ibrahim and gave birth to Galwan in 1878.
An explorer is born
In the year 1890, the British government commissioned a 27-year-old army officer named Captain Francis Edward Younghusband to explore the Pamirs in Central Asia. Patrick French, in his biography of Younghusband, has called him ‘The last Great Imperial Adventurer’. Captain Younghusband, who later retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, was born to a British military family in now-famous Pakistani tourist spot Murree. He joined the British army in 1882. He was made a captain in 1889, and sent to explore uncharted areas of Ladakh including areas north of Chang Chenmo valley.
He later wrote a book titled Kashmir on his service years in the Valley. In the summer of 1890, Galwan, only 12-years-old, met Captain Younghusband and accompanied him on his expedition to Yarkand. A life of exploration started for young Galwan.
Over the next decade, Galwan accompanied French, Italian and British expeditions through this mountainous corner of the subcontinent. It was the expedition to the northern areas that he led in 1899, which led to the exploration of his life, the Galwan river.
The weather is extremely harsh in that part of the world and can break strongest of humans. The temperatures can plummet to less than -30 degree Celsius. Food availability must have been scarce in that period. Galwan and his comrades, dressed in their traditional clothes, explored this cold desert for years. Like other explorers of his generation, Galwan was inspired by the idea of going into the unknown. He wrote in his autobiography that his happiness lay in exploring the territories from Yarkand to Pamirs. Galwan’s strong desire to take a shot at eternity was driven by an equally strong desire to understand the past. The man’s spirit is reflected through this song that he mentions in his autobiography —
“Don’t look up the mountains at the sun.
You will be cold: never be warm.
If look far away husband or wife,
Heart will be sorry, never be glad.
Come people, quickly down.”
From top hills to hill-tops
Galwan taught himself how to lead caravans, the nuances of mountaineering and working knowledge of Chinese and English. He owes his autobiography to the English he learnt while travelling with the sahibs. His autobiography remains a unique account of those legendary explorations by him and explorers of his generation to the Tibetan plateau, the Pamir mountains and deserts of Central Asia.
Galwan later became the Aksakal of Ladakh or Chief Native Assistant of the British Joint Commissioner (BJC). The BJC used to be the authority that controlled trade of goods and movement of caravans coming from Tibet, mainland India and Turkistan. Galwan died in 1925, two years after his autobiography was published. His life of journey and exploration lives on through the river named after him. His short journey of life can be summarised in his own words, “Everywhere he like he go. From top hills to hills tops”.
The author is an IPS officer and SSP, Anantnag. Views are personal.
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