Sikh Soldiers in Tibet – Year 1904

By Amardeep Singh
Edited by Pummy Dhanjal-Sehmbey

Sikh Soldiers in Tibet

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Driving on top of the world in Tibet, I was on a journey that took me westward from Lhasa to the ancient Guge kingdom. While travelling towards the Sutlej river basin in the Zanda valley, I stopped 254 km south-west of Lhasa. Here lies the Gyantse fort and close to it is the largest monastery belonging to the Sakya sect of the Tibetan Buddhism order. At the Pelkhor Choede Monastery, an old Chinese man approached me with curiosity. I reciprocated with a smile, which helped break the ice and we had a brief conversation.

Old Chinese Man : “You are wearing a turban. Are you a Sikh?”

Me : “Indeed. I am surprised you are able to recognize a Sikh in this remote part of the world.”
Old Chinese Man : “Sikhs are no strangers to this region. In the past they have led many military expeditions at these formidable heights, with reasonable success.”

Me : “Yes indeed, around 1841, under the leadership of Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab (Sikh Kingdom), I am aware that General Zorawar Singh’s forces came deep in Western Tibet. He fell at Taklakot where still a Chorten (Samadhi / Grave memorial) exists.”

Old Chinese Man : “You do know that era of the history. Well the Sikhs entered again in 1904.”

1904……the year has stuck with me since then. I had only heard about General Zorawar Singh’s successful expedition to Tibet in 1841 and his death at Taklakot, but what was this old man’s reference to the entry in 1904?

I thank the unknown old Chinese man for having ignited the spark of curiosity. I have since read some very old books and memoirs of British Army personnel to gain better insight into Lieutenant Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet in 1904 with the 23 and 32 Sikh Pioneer regiments.

It is common knowledge that the 900 years of loot and plunder of the Indian sub-continent, starting mid 9th century by the forces invading from Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia had simply broken the psyche of the ethnic Indian society. It was only when the Sikh empire came to power under the dynamic leadership of Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1801, that the attacks through Khyber and Bolan passes at the border of Afghanistan were finally sealed. Since the formation of the Sikh Empire, when General Hari Singh Nalwa maintained the outer posts of Sikh armies at the border of Afghanistan, there has not been a single attack into the Indian sub-continent.

After Ranjit Singh succeeded in his vision to safeguard the Indian sub-continent, he turned his attention to the expansion of the Sikh kingdom into Jammu and Kashmir. This was successfully integrated by 1819. Ranjit Singh then gave General Zorawar Singh permission to lead the expeditions to Ladakh and into Baltistan (a region now in Northern Pakistan, bordering the Xinjiang region of China) which were integrated by 1836.

It was after 1836 that Zorawar Singh turned his attention to enter Western Tibet. He travelled through Pangong Tso lake and went deep into the plateau, touching Lake Manasarovar and the Mount Kailash region. His last battle at Purang was in the peak winter season. This was a strategic mistake as the forces could not bear the harshness of the environment at these formidable heights. The General died fighting in the year 1841 and his grave is maintained at Taklakot in Tibet.

The Sikhs lost the second Anglo-Sikh war because the Dogra kings supported the British expansion by cutting the army supplies to the soldiers engaged in the battle at the banks of river Sutlej. When the Sikh kingdom fell into the British Empire after the second Anglo-Sikh war, the Sikh territories automatically fell under direct British control or influence. Due to the phase of expansion of the Sikh kingdom into the remote Himalayan areas is the only reason why Ladakh and Zanskar are today a part of the Indian Territory. Otherwise, geographically they are a mere extension of the Tibetan plateau. In 1904, the Sikh soldiers were provided with another opportunity, under the British India army, to make a strategic move into Tibet to help stop the potential advances of Russians into the region. If not for this forward move, the Russians could have succeeded in entering India through Tibet.

In the early 1900′s the “Great Game” being played in Asia had resulted in the expansion of the British Empire on the Indian sub-continent. In North of Asia, the Czars of Russia were becoming ambitious and expanding their reach into the Pamir mountain ranges, close to Afghanistan.  British secret services were getting an indication of an alliance being forged between the Tibetans and the Russians. Should the Russian reach extend into the Himalayan plateau, it would be too dangerous for British India.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, with regiments of 23 Sikh Pioneers and 32 Sikh Pioneers, entered Tibet from Sikkim. They were successful in conquering the Gyantse fort, which was built around 12th century, lying at 3,977 meters. They made it their base and from here they led a further successful expedition to Karo La pass at 5,010 meters. The success of this expedition resulted in a treaty between British India and Tibet, resulting in weakening the Russian aspiration of expansion under the “Great Game”. British Indian forces subsequently moved back from the Tibetan plateau.

Along the way from Lhasa to Gyantse, one can still find the remains of small stone fortifications built by the 23 and 32 Sikh Pioneer regiments to help defend from any attack on the outer posts. I was fortunate to see these on my journey. At these heights, an un-acclimatized body can result in hallucinations due to thinness of air. I found it hard to carry even two camera bodies with long lenses. One can only imagine what it would have meant to be a soldier at these heights. History quotes Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, in 218 BC, to invade imperial Rome as one of the most celebrated achievement of any military force in the ancient warfare. The Alps are infinitesimal in comparison to the advances that had to be made from the plains of India to the Tibetan plateau, crossing the formidable Himalayas.

There are three great books, written by the British army personnel of Younghusband’s contingent, and these are available on the internet. I encourage people to read these interesting historical texts, which are named below:

1) With Mounted Infantry in Tibet by Major Ottley
2) India and Tibet by Sir Francis Younghusband
3) Waziristan to Tibet by Cyril Lucas

“My high opinion of them as soldiers. Far superior to any other class of native soldiers that I have met during a continued service of forty years. They are brave and obedient, and, as sappers, far superior to anything I have ever seen. Next to British soldiers, I must certainly give them the preference.”….extract from Waziristan to Tibet by Cyril Lucas

Amardeep SinghAmardeep Singh

About Amardeep Singh
Life asks that we experience it through passions and this existence should not be limited to performance of daily chores. I see this creation through a language of pictures. Describing beauty around us in words is like oppressing the truth, visually though, it floats freely. I try to see the world beyond seeing!

Amardeep Singh is currently based in Singapore with American Express as Head of Merchant Pricing for Asia-Pacific region. He has lived in Singapore, Hong Kong and India, and has travelled significantly across the world.

Captivated by our previous article on Sikh Soldier’s in Tibet – Year 1904, we asked Amardeep Singh to share his knowledge and experiences. Read the full interview and view Amardeeps photos… Read More

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