Galwan: A valley named after famed Kashmiri warrior tribe which fought off foreign invaders

As reports about confrontation in the Galwan Valley hits international new-stands, with two nuclear armed countries coming face to face, the lesser known historical details are brushed under the carpet. Here, a history student brings to light the famed tribe this valley is named after, and how these warriors put a strong resistance to foreign powers. 

The recently formed Union Territory of Ladakh is in the news because of the confrontation between Indian and Chinese militaries along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) near the Galwan river valley. The face-off  has created a serious military and diplomatic tension between the two states. While both the states have their own perception of the boundary line, neither side is willing to back off.

The River Galwan originates from the Aksai Chin region and joins the Shyok river inside the territory claimed by India to form the upstream tributary of the Indus river.

What is lesser known is the fact that the river valley is named after a native explorer of Kashmiri descent, Ghulam Rassul Galwan whose forefathers belonged to the famed Galwan tribe of Kashmir.

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Rassul worked in the service of western travellers who travelled to Kashgar, Badakhshan, Yarkand and other Central-Asian lands and made a name for himself.

His grandfather came to ladakh after the Galwans were banished to Bunji, Gilgit by the Dogra ruler Ranbir Singh.

Rassul Galwan’s father was a Yarkandi while his mother traced her ancestry to the Galwan tribe of Kashmir.

But who are the Galwans?

According to Sir Walter R. Lawrence they were the descendants of Duums (village watchmen). He makes this assumption on the basis of their dark skin colour and unique physical features which differentiates them from the ‘local Kashmiri peasants’.

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The Galwans have traditionally been horsemen, whose occupation was horse trading, but Lawrence writes that they turned to horse robbery because it was more profitable.

Similar views about Galwans have been written in Tareekh e Aqwaam e Kashmir by Muhammad Din Fauq.

A strong notion about the Galwan ancestry traces their origin to Chaks, the last independent rulers of Kashmir.

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While Lawrence doesn’t want to believe this theory for want of sufficient proof, the author of ‘Kashmir’s Fight for Freedom’ Muhammad Yusuf Saraf writes that they were the descendants of Chak rulers who were banished to the forests after Kashmir came under the Mughal rule.

The Galwans had put up a fierce resistance to the generals sent by the Mughal emperor, and killed many in raids.

While wandering in the woods, the Galwans took to their occupation of horse rearing and trading as it gave them both money and mobility.

Saraf further praises them for putting up a brave fight against the foreign invaders who came to Kashmir Valley, especially the Sikhs. The author also accepts the change in fate of these warriors – from rebels to robbers.

Galwans are tall, dark skinned people with well-built physiques.

Interestingly, a village with the same name Galwan Pora exists in the Kashmir Valley’s Budgam district.

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In the years of their banishment, they seem to have struck fear among the ruling class, and were a ‘constant threat to life and property’.

One of the leaders who comes up in history texts several times is Khaira Galwan, considered a legendary figure. He was captured and killed by the Sikh Governor Colonel Mihan Singh, after one of his associates betrayed him and gave away his location.

The Galwans were mainly concentrated around Trehgam, Awantipora, Shopian, Bandipur and some areas of the Sind Valley.

The tribe has been documented as continuously harassing the Sikh Army in the valley by resorting to Guerrilla Warfare.

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Despite their reputation of being ‘notorious robbers’, as per the ruling classes, significant sections of the Muslim population in the valley were sympathetic towards them for their fierce resistance to regimes which were seen as tyrant.

In the local Kashmiri language, ‘su chu yehayi Galwan hyuh’ (he is like a Galwan), is a complement used for well built people who have a sense of morality. The words are not used for bullies, but in a positive context.

During the Dogra rule, the iron fist policy against the Galwans continued. Ranbir Singh tried to send them to Bunji in Gilgit to cultivate new lands, but the Galwans continued to come back to the valley.

Ghulam Rassul Galwan points to the forced migration of Galwans to the Northern Frontier areas in his autobiography ‘Servant of Sahibs’, when he says that his grandfather came from Baltistan to Ladakh and reluctantly traces his ancestry to the legendary leader Khaira Galwan.

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His autobiography describes his ancestry, childhood and his life as a traveller. It is written in very crude English, as his only exposure to the language were his Sahibs.

One of his employers, an American traveller Robert Barret, encouraged Ghulam Rassul Galwan to write his memoir and publish it.

His first journey outside Ladakh was with Sir Francis Younghusband, an explorer who later became a British resident to Kashmir.

In 1914 Rassul was made the Caravan Bashi of the Italian scientific expedition of Filippo de Filippi, which explored the Rimo glacier systems. His most famous expedition was with R.L Kenion, the British joint commissioner in 1899 where they surveyed
possible routes through the Changchenmo valley going east from the Shyok river.

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In the north of this area he explored a river valley which bears his name on the map, a tribute to his ‘outstanding services’.

During the Sino Indian war of 1962 the first bullets were perhaps fired in this area which led to a devastating war. Six decades after the war the area is still a flashpoint which has led to the build-up of men and logistics by the two armies on both sides of the perceived LAC.

While Ladakh has been peaceful as compared to the Kashmir valley, the tension between the two neighbours would end up changing everything. War in the ecologically fragile environment of Ladakh region is bad news for the entire South Asia, whose source of fresh water lies here.


Waris ul Anwar is a PhD scholar at the department of history, Aligarh Muslim University.


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