Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ghulam Rasool Galwan of Leh - A remarkable man

After whom a contentious river is named.....

After the recent Chinese incursion into Depsang Plains of North East Ladakh there were a spate of reports about how difficult life was in those isolated parts of North East Ladakh.  A couple of reports also mentioned Galwan River and how the Chinese had occupied it since October 1962. They still sit there around four kms away from Galwan River's confluence with the Upper Shyok.

Galwan River! How was such a name given to a river? For in Kashmiri it means 'robber'.

In October 1974 when I first visited the Upper Reaches of the Shyok I saw Galwan river spreading out across a large fan of moraine and debris. The river had broken into several clear channels gushing down  to mix with the Shyok. An Argun companion (mixture of a Ladakhi Buddshist and Central Asian Muslim parentage) told me that the river's name meant a robber.

Intrigued, I researched when I returned to Delhi. This was the only sub continental river that was named after a man who at the time was living. His name was Ghulam Rassul Galwan. His great grand father was a daring robber- Kara Galwan, which in Kashmiri means Black Robber. Once he had even raided the Kashmir Maharaja's bed room! Eventually he was hung. The name stuck to his children.

Our Galwan started his life as a porter with Sir Francis Younghusband when he was only twelve or so. In time he became Caravan bashi or incharge of caravans, put together by Western Explorers, that knocked around Central Asia, Tibet and Ladakh of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He was born around 1878, and died early on 13th March, 1925. One year after a lovable book that he had written of his life was published. It is in his own charming pidgin English. English that he had learnt during his expeditions with western explorers.

This is what Sir Francis Younghusband had to say of Galwan in the Introduction to Galwan's book: "He came of the very poorest. He started as a simple village lad. But in every situation he behaved like a gentleman."

He moved in a region where all who had been there - Dunmore, Younghusband,  Phelps, Church, Wellby, Roche, Sven Hedin, Bower, Littledale, Fillipo Filipi etc et al - would go crazy descibing the indescribable cold, solitude, misery, majesty and magnificence. Galwan strode that bleak, high, freezing world of mountains and deserts like a colossus, without whom those expeditions would not have gone so far or achieved that much.

Yet for him beauty was a camp where there was no work! From Leh to Kashgar was a forty four day's difficult trek, which for many Western explorer was an adventure in itself. Galwan used to do it just to join an expedition (like the Littledale's) at Kashgar or rush to Leh to collect his pay without a thought to his discomforts and danger or the majesty around him. To him the bitterly cold and endless wasteland from Pamirs to Takla Makan to Tengri Nor was a second home.

Of him the famous British explorer Dr. Tom Longstaff had written:
"Rasool Gulwan, our caravan leader was a great character. He had travelled through Tibet with Littledale, and with Robert Barrett, Phelps and Church and was rated very high by all of them. He was of the breed called Arghan, of a Yarkandi father by a Ladakhi mother. Inheriting the best characteristics of both the races, he was absolutely honest; he never took bribes nor offered them. "

Yet on pg 66 of his sometimes gossipy book Galwan naughtily admits to whacking commissions while buying supplies!

This book of his was written at the insistence of Mrs. KRE Barret and her husband Robert who had relied on Galwan for the success of their considerable explorations in Central Asia and Ladakh from 1902-5. Galwan's manuscripts were sent by snail mail till 1913. After editing by Mrs. Barrett, who lived in the US, the book was published by W. Heffers and Sons of Cambridge, UK, in 1924. The original manuscript of this book is at the Smithsoninan Museum, Washington D.C.. The quite unnecessary sub title of this book "To be read aloud" is an intervention by the editor, who seems to be making fun of his peculiar but attractive English.

 It has obviously been edited by a colonial mind, for he was not always complimentary of his Western bosses. His descendants mention incidents (obviously changed down the years) where Galwan described his bosses rather candidly. It was hard and thankless work being a Caravan bashi, and Galwan used to be berated and sometimes hit if things went awry. At the end of it all this brilliant adventurer was a labourer in colonial times and he was thought, by the Colonial administration, to have been suitably rewarded when the Deputy Commissioner of Leh in 1917 appointed him as a Head Governement Contractor. 

Below is a picture of the end of Chute Rungte Street. Once Galwan's house stood in lonely splendour such as this less crowded part of the street shows..>

His descendants now have a spacious guest house in Changspa, Leh..>

It is in a better, pleasanter and quieter suburb above Leh> 

Entrance to one of the rooms in Galwan Guest House>

His descendants also live there. Like his grand daughter in law, who was about 90 years old in 2008>

 This old lady has quite a few anecdeotes to tell of him, even though she may never have met him...>

The family will also proudly show off some of his things. Like this samovar, held by Galwan's great great grand daughter. He would not travel without this>

There are only four occasions that Galwan describes a scenery as "beautiful." I end with one of them. It is on page 215 and he describes a Valley after they have been turned back, north of Lhasa, from the Lake Tengri Nor (now called Nam Tso): "Now we camp there for a long time. Now the Goring valley was very beautiful, both sides tall mountains, and many of the mountain-tops covered with beautiful glacier and snow, and in the lovely valley very good pasture, good grass and little jungle of bushwood. That all sides look green, and in that valley run very clean water stream down."


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