It is surprising to see that, sometimes, at the points where multiple civilizations merge, there is a blackhole about which we literally know nothing. Take for example, Dandakaranya – Bastar area. We have Bahamani Sultanate on one side, Delhi Sultanate on the second and Kalinga on the third side. They fought with each other everywhere but left out this small patch of land in the centre of the happenings. Because of this, even though it’s in the centre of a happening area, we literally know nothing of that area. Bastar area is one such, Singbhum is another and Ladakh is another.
Take the case of Ladakh. It is a no man’s land between multiple very powerful kingdoms and which no one preferred to occupy, for whatever reasons. We don’t see it literally in the history of Central Asia with Arabs, Turkic Khanates, Tibet, China, Persia and Kashmir fighting with each other continuously. What exactly do we know about Ladakh before the collapse of Tibetan Empire in 842? Besides the fact that rhere were some indications that Kushanas ruled this area, what we have is only circumstantial – Tibet took Zanzun on the east of Ladakh in 635 and it snatched Baltistan from the Chinese between 721 and 737. China was active in that area till the defeat at Talas made the Chinese retreat. Again, there is a blank of two centuries till some remnants of Tibetan Empire established their base in Ladakh.
Ladakh’s history is only the history of it’s interaction with it’s neighbours with very rare intervention of global power brokers. While interactions with eastern neighbours Tibet and Guge are mostly religious with rare exceptions like invasion of Guge and Tibetan invasion of Ladakh, it’s interactions in all other directions is almost always military. With Kashmir and Yarkand turning Muslim, most of Ladakhi political history is only the dealings between Muslim kingdoms and Ladakh.
The first Muslim raid of the Ladakh area happened during the reign of Sikandar(1394-1416) where a Kashmiri force under Rai Madari crossed Zoji-la and invaded and conquered Baltistan. Ladakh escaped invasion because Madari rebelled and marched on Kashmir, only to be captured. The next was a raid during the reign of Zain ul-Abidin(1420-1470) almost immediately after he ascended the throne under his personal command. The raid proceeded till Guge. Adham Khan, the son of Zain ul-Abdin raided in 1451, hitting Baltistan. In 1483, another expedition was sent under Jahangir Magre and Sayyid Hassan to invade both Ladakh and Baltistan. But, due to some discord, two separate expeditions were launched. Magre reduced Baltistan and returned to Srinagar. Hassan’s army was massacred by the Ladakhis to the last man and he barely escaped.
By this time, the religions of the borders are established – Buddhism in East and in Ladakh, Hinduism/Buddhism in South and Islam in all other directions. Of the eight feudatories of Ladakh, Pashkyum and Sod in Purig, Suru and Dras turned Muslim while the king of Spiti was a Hindu and the rest, the rulers of Zanskar, Nubra and Gya were Buddhist.
Then, there was a raid in 1532 under Mirza Haidar Dughlat when he was passing to Yarkand. The detachment sent to reduce Suru was destroyed and the subsequent force sent captured the chief of the area Baghan and sold him as a slave. It looks like there was a continued presence, for, the king, Tashikun was executed because he was not able to contain a rebellion against Mirza Haider’s troops in Nubra in 1535. Tashikun seems to be an independent breakaway from Ladakh. Mirza Haider, after a failed expedition to Tibet, retreated towards Badakshan in 1536. He then became the king of Kashmir, raided Ladakh in 1545 and sent a full scale invasion, occupying Ladakh and Baltistan. He appointed Mullah Hasan as the governor for Ladakh and Mullah Haider for Baltistan. It was just a pretention of rule and when Mirza Haider died in 1551, even that vanished.
In response to Ladakhi raids, a raid was launched in 1553 under Daulat Chak and others. Nothing was achieved out of this. The next raid was during the reign of Ghazi Chak in 1562 under the command of Fateh Chak and Ahmad Khan. Fateh Chak raided the capital city and retired after promise of a tribute. But, Ahmad Khan, Ghazi Chak’s son tried to repeat the exploit but was surrounded. In an attempt to relieve his army, Fateh Chak was killed. Another invasion came from Yarkand, but was defeated.
Tsedban Namgyal, after invading Kulu, Baltistan, Guge, Tibet, he decided to attack Yarkand but was dissuaded because the main trade route passes through Yarkand and Ladakh. Jamyang Namgyal, his brother and successor tried to interfere in a dispute between two chiefs of Purig. The Magpon of Skardu, Ali Mir entered the fight against Ladakh. Whole of Ladakh was pillaged with much destruction to religious property before the Balti army retreated. The king was kept in honourable custody but he made Ali Mir’s daughter pregnant. Ali Mir, with no option, released the king and married him off to his daughter. The Balti king lost control of Purig but the Balti control over Ladakh stayed till the end of Ali Mir’s reign. The Ladakhi king, ashamed, turned religious. This actually opened another avenue in the Ladakhi politics, with Ladakhi kings taking Muslim wives, which we will be seeing with regular frequency.
His son, Sengge Namgyal tried to assuage the situation by invading Cigtan but the invasion was a failure – Gaga Tsanpa, the leader of the expedition was captured while the nephew and niece of the ruler of Cigtan who were in Ladakh were detained. A truce was brokered by Taktsang Gyatso by exchange of prisoners. However, the Mughal accounts state that on invasion of Sangi Bamkhal of Purig, Adham Khan, now a Mughal vassal solicited the aid of Ali Mardan Khan, the governor of Kashmir. He sent Husain Beg along with a massive army. The combined armies defeated Sengge in 1639 and he retreated to the fort of Karpu. To escape the siege, he accepted vassalage. Husain Beg accepted the proposal as he is apprehensive to cross Indus and be trapped there in winter. However, Ladakhi chronicles declare a Ladakhi victory as Sengge didn’t even send the tribute he promised. In retribution for this, the king closed the trade from Central Asia into Kashmir. While trade to India passed through Patna-Nepal-Lhasa, trade to Kashmir passed through Skardo-Shigar-Kashgar with Ladakh the only loser. This literally destroyed the prosperity of Ladakh.
In 1647, Kashgar raided under Babak Beg and Sara Beg to avenge an insult to their minister Zandaq Khan. There were two engagements, at Upsi and Chushot. They were bribed off. Shortly after, there was another raid, but of no consequence.
In 1663, Aurangzeb visited Kashmir. Fearing retribution, the Ladakhi king sent a voluntary embassy professing vassalage and with the promise of a mosque built and qutba read. It is possible the embassy is not voluntary but was sent on the face of an imminent invasion. When nothing was done by Ladakh, an envoy Mohammed Shafi was sent with a request for construction of mosque and conversion to Islam at the threat of an invasion. He was called the Zamindar of Greater Tibet. Qutba was read, foundations of a mosque were laid and steps were taken to diffuse Islam among the population. A heavy tribute was paid.
Parallel to this, in 1673, Sakya Gyatso, a Minister of Ladakh invaded Lower Ladakh and Purig, with the field of operations extending to Baltistan by the next year. Khaplu and Chorbat fell. Baltistan asked Kashmir to intervene, but the relief force was defeated in Lower Purig by Brug Namgyal. The Mughal troops under Nawab Ibrahim Khan and Timur Beg invaded around 1680 but were convinced to withdraw.
In the feud between Brug-pa of Bhutan and Gelug-pa of Tibet, Ladakh intervened in support of Bhutan in 1677. After making a peace pact with Bhutan in 1678, Tibet turned it’s full might towards Ladakh. Kehri Singh of Bashahr was bought off. In the Battle of Ralajung of 1679, Ladakh was defeated and the forces were pursued till Lungkhung where the Ladakhis stopped the Tibetan army. Some contingents retreated into the forts of Taklakot, Tsaparang and Tashigang. Both the troops were no more than thousand. But, Tibet sent overwhelming reinforcements, almost 5000 in 1680. The Guge fortresses were surrendered without a fight and they met the main Ladakhi army under the king at Changla Pass where the Ladakhis were defeated. In no time, the Ladakhi capital fell and the king ran the show from Tingmosgang till 1683. Next in line was Zanskar. The defence was entrusted to King Indrabodhi, who led the initial defence of Guge. He retreated to Tarla and conducted his affairs from there. Kulu troops who were summoned acted as mere raiders sparing none. Both the opposing armies came together to repel the Kulu forces.
Despairing of the stalemate in Bagso, the Ladakhi king asked the intervention of Kashmir. Fidai Khan was sent by the governor Ibrahim Khan who was reinforced by Purig, the Baltis and levies in lower Ladakh. In the Battle of Bagso, the Tibetans were defeated and chased into Guge. Fidai Khan extracted the charges and pending tribute, the king converted, under the name of Aqibat Mahmud Khan before Fidai Khan left. Along with that, one of his sons was to be sent to Kashmir as a hostage. The only territorial change was the village of Nabsat. As a consequence of this war, Raja Bidhi Singh of Kulu gained Upper Lahul, Purig and Balti acquisitions were reverted. Tibet invaded again after the Mughals left and destroyed the Leh Fort before the king surrendered. The Tibetans faced two problems now – a Mughal vassalage means Mughals can penetrate into Tibet proper if provoked and the king is a Muslim convert and can do serious harm to the religion. Tibet initiated the peace discussions with the condition that the king reconvert to Buddhism, which he did. The territorial change involved was annexation of Guge and Spiti. This war was the end of Ladakh as a local power. It’s a matter of providence that Mughals and Tibetans who will eventually be supported by the Dzunghars and China didn’t clash.
As a vassal of Mughal Empire and out of it’s own economic interests, it became imperative for Ladakh to keep the trade route to Kashmir open. And from now on, we see, the story of Ladakh is the story of Ladakh and Baltistan and their vassals till the Dogras came.
In 1715, there was a rebellion by the chief of Paskyum and in 1720, Sod and Kartse rebelled under Bahram Beg who surrendered after a week long siege of Sod.
In 1715, there was a rebellion in Baltistan where Daulat Khan, the son-in-law of the king rebelled. Shigar and Skardu supported him. The Balti king Hakim Khan solicited aid and the Ladakhis marched in his support. Though they were defeated at Rina, the rebellion was crushed by Ladakhis with Daulat Khan becoming a refugee. In 1719, the ruler of Skardu appealed for Ladakhi help against Shigar and the Ladakhis coerced Shigar into peace. But, in 1722, Shigar under Azam Khan occupied Skardu and occupied territories as far as Gilgit. Hatim Khan asked for Ladakhi aid. The Ladakhis marched through Nubra deep in winter with the support of frontier Balti chiefs. Kures was taken and the main relief force sent by Azam Khan to support Keris reached a day after Mahmud Khan, the governor of Keris surrendered. The force had to face the Ladakhis in open land and was crushed. This led to the unravelling of Azam Khan’s empire. He fled to Rongdo and the Ladakhis installed Ali Khan in Shigar and Mahmud Zafar Khan in Skardu. Many Buddhist relics and considerable war booty was brought back.
After the death of Nima Namgyal, his second wife, the daughter of Hatim Khan demanded her son to be made the king as against the heir designate. He was given a separate tract in Purig area and was installed in 1734. By virtue of being on the Balti border, he was the first who came in the line of fire in case of any hostilities as is seen in the same year where he forced Skardu to back down. Muhammad Zafar Khan, the ruler of Skardu attacked Khaplu in 1733 and again in 1734 after being beaten back. The prince, Krasis Namgyal defeated the fresh army and imposed vassalage on Skardu.
Against the wishes of the king Deskyong Namgyal, his sister is married off to the king of Kishtwar, the family which converted to Islam in 1687. It was not a happy marriage and the princess returned back. When the king of Kishtwar demanded his wife back. He was assassinated and the assassination was to be passed as an accident, but the information leaked. Kishtwar petitioned the Mughal Empire and a war was averted as Ladakh bribed off the Mughals. Around 1750, there was a quarrel between the Ladakhi king Phuntsog Namgyal and his uncle Kra-sis Namgyal. Ladakh and Skardu joined forces to take Shigar and before the fight became bitter, in 1750, the Dalai Lama advised peace. But, both of them sent requests to help from Kashmir. The Mughal governor sent forces but the Dalai Lama, fearing Muslim interference, coerced peace between the both. The Mughal Governor asked for a combined attack on Purig by Ladakh and Kashmir when Krasis Namgyal is away. Fully knowing of the Battle of Manupur(1748) where the Mughal army was defeated by Ahmad Shah Abdali and that Kashmir is not in a position to send an army, the Tibetan mediator, Katog Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu asked for an envoy as well. The pact was signed in 1752. It was decided that no two kings should exist in Ladakh and all the brothers of the eldest should be ordained as monks. Kra-sis Namgyal will rule till his death and after that, his kingdom of Purig will be annexed to Ladakh. Status quo on trade was promised for the Kashmiris.
During the destruction of Dzunghar Khanate, it is estimated that the rulers of Yarkand and Kashgar, Khojas who claimed descent from Prophet Mohammed will slip into Ladakh. The authorities in Lhasa prepared themselves to send an army into Ladakh in 1758, even possibly dragging it into a full war leading to it’s annexation. But, the imperial envoy sent to help identify the incarnate of the deceased Dalai Lama countermanded the rule. Finally, it turned out that the two princes, Burhanuddin and Khoja Jihan escaped to Badakshan where they were killed.
In 1759, Muhammad Zafar Khan, the ruler of Skardu occupied Shigar and imprisoned the ruler Husain Khan. With the support of Keris, he occupied Kures and invaded Khaplu. The chief, Mahmud Ali Khan asked for Ladakhi help – Keris surrendered, Husain Khan was reinstated and Sakrdu was forced to call off the fight. But the king fell into the influence of a low class Muslim woman whom he married. She was deridingly called Bhemo Gyal. She got the top nobles arrested and executed and got her brother Nasib Ali made the Prime Minister, after the Prime Minister is executed. There was an open rebellion where the royal palace was stormed– the Muslim wife is killed and possibly her brothers, but the king was not touched. He married a princess of Sod, but later in life, he got influenced by her, a Shia. He revived the old title Aqibat Mahmud Khan and stopped the religious practices in Leh. Having induced into buying horses by a Muslim trader, his penchant for horses strained the economy much to the level that he hired a Muslim goldsmith to mint silver coins in the Muslim fashion to fund his extravagance in 1781. There was another rebellion in response and the king abdicated the next year.
In 1785, Shigar and Skardu declared war on Ladakh. A fortress was built at Balaghar. Keris and Kures are taken, fearing invasion, the chief of Khaplu chief Mahmud Ali Khan asked for Ladakhi intervention. Ladakhi army advanced through Nubra and crushed the Balti Army at Dowani.
In 1792, Azam Khan, the chief of Shigar asked the King of Ladakh to help contain the Wazir Mama Sultan. But, due to the hot season, the march was delayed and in the meanwhile, the Ladakhi officials patched both the parties.
Next was in 1804 when the Balti king Muhammad Sultan seized Sikar. Ladakhi counter thrust ejected the Baltis. In 1806, continuing the offence, the Ladakhis besieged Nar castle which was surrendered to them. In 1810, Ahmad Shah of Skardu besieged Kaza and the Ladakhis raised the siege. In 1811, there was another Balti attack, Ladakhis advanced to Khaplu to push the Baltis back. In 1812, there was a succession dispute in Khaplu which the Ladakhis settled amicably.
In 1815, there was a fight with Ahmad Shah of Skardu over Keris. The Baltis were defeated again. He broke peace and captured a hundred Ladakhis as what the Ladakhis say and a complete Ladakhi army as what the Baltis say. The prisoners reverted back on negotiations.
The Sikh conquest of Kashmir changed the picture considerably – Ladakh was more closely governed than those in the Muslim days. In 1821, Ladakh solicited the help of the Sikh Empire in a possible Balti invasion which didn’t happen. It is possible the Sikhs didn’t respond when Ahmad Shah conquered Shigar, Keris and Khaplu giving the Baltis a success for the first time. Did the Ladakhis became complacent, did the Sikhs drain the coffers dry, did the Sikhs have a plan to use Ladakh as a bait to take Baltistan, we don’t know. But, it is clear Ladakh was considerably weakened, for it was not able to stop or counter multiple raids into Spiti and Zanskar between 1822 and 1825.
In the next year, a scion of the Yarkand Khojas led an invasion to retake his ancestral lands. After seeing some initial success, he was captured. His troops under Abdus Sattar, a prince of Kokhand retreated into Ladakh with terrible losses. The band of 300 out of the original 1000 were provided succor and Abdus Sattar was accorded the treatment of the head of a visiting ruler. A few of his followers left for Haj and the rest under Abdus Sattar settled in Leh. The king, to avoid any trouble from the Chinese, congratulated the Chinese of their victory and apprised them of the fugitives. China asked them to be extradited. Before even the Dalai Lama could know and intervene in their behalf, they were taken into Tibet and executed. It seems Ladakh allowed many of them to slip away and of the 102 delivered, 45 escaped, 19 died of illness and 38 executed in two batches. The refugees cursed the royal family, death by smallpox for the betrayal and the dynasty ended formally after the last king died of small pox as a Dogra commander.