The Indian Army has restored a fort built near Leh in the 1830s by the Dogra conquerors of Ladakh, and it is now offering a light and sound show to commemorate the military victory.

The major reason for the conquest 170 years ago was the pashm trade. The incredibly fine, valuable pashm wool that is used to make the world-famous cashmere shawls and other garments is harvested from mountain goats tended in the very high plateau regions of eastern Ladakh and Tibet. The trade in pashm through Ladakh and down into India had been a staple of the Ladakhi economy, and of the economy of the weaving industry in the Kashmir valley, for generations.

A variety of economic and political forces in the early 1800s threatened to change the immensely valuable, traditional trade routes from Ladakh into Kashmir. The economic issue was complicated by a treaty that the British had signed at Lahore in 1809 with the rajah of Kashmir that restricted him from extending his influence in any direction except to the north, toward the independent kingdom of Ladakh.

Rangit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Jammu and a nominal vassal of the rajah of Kashmir, decided in 1834 to send his army, commanded by general Zorawar Singh, on an expansionist campaign into Ladakh. His aim was to take control of the pashm routes and funnel the trade into Jammu, rather than Kashmir. According to Rizvi (1996), the king of Ladakh, Tshe-spal Namgyal, appealed to the British for help, but they felt bound by their treaty of 25 years before and refused to intervene.

Howard (1995) provides an excellent account of the military campaigns by Zorawar Singh into Ladakh and his several victories over the poorly organized, virtually non-existent Ladakhi army. The Jammu army, referred to as the Dogras, marched over the mountains in the summer of 1834, defeated the Ladakhis, over-wintered, and continued their successful campaigns to subjugate all of Ladakh in 1835 and 1836. Various local rebellions broke out during the next half-dozen years to throw off the conquerors, but all failed.

When the poorly organized counterattacks and rebellions by the Ladakhis were defeated, the moderate terms for surrender imposed at first by the general were replaced by harsher conditions. By the end of the campaigns, Ladakh had completely lost its independence to the Rajah of Jammu. Later, of course, Jammu became part of Jammu and Kashmir, which became a state of independent India.

Zorawar Singh foolishly extended his military campaigns into the highlands of western Tibet in 1841. The army suffered terribly during the harsh Tibetan winter. The supply lines of his army were extended too far and the cold was much greater than it had been during their winters in Ladakh. His decimated forces were badly defeated by a Tibetan army in 1842 and the general was killed. A hagiographic account in the Statesman, a major Indian magazine, considers him “a military genius and a pastmaster in mountain warfare,” but the fact that he failed miserably in an ill-conceived campaign that took his life shows, perhaps, that some Indians may have become too caught up in their legend of his greatness.

Whatever the case, in 1836—Howard (1995) says October 1835—the general gave orders for the construction of a fort in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. For a time it was staffed by over 300 Dogra soldiers. As so often happens, the emblem of the military defeat—the fort—has become a symbol for a new order.

The Indian army is shaping the new symbolism. It recently got involved in providing flood relief in Ladakh, and as part of their work, the officers decided to rebuild the historic fort. It had fallen into disrepair and a wall had collapsed during the flood. On September 11, the army inaugurated their handiwork, the restored fort of Zorawar Singh and the light and sound show that glorifies it.

Apparently the whole project showcases the military history of Ladakh. The light and sound show begins, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am Zorawar Fort and I was constructed by the great General Zorawar Singh in 1836. I will take you on a journey through the life and times of the great warrior …” The show, a first in Ladakh, is projected against the backdrop of the famous fort. Over 500 people attended a recent evening performance of the fort narrating its own history.

The glowing Statesman account, published last Saturday, lauds the special effects. “As the sound reverberates and the lights create a mesmerizing effect on the rampart, walls and the corners of the fort, which also houses a temple and a mosque, the Ladakhis watch with bated breath the synchronization of light and sound, something never before witnessed.” In addition to rebuilding the fort and starting the light and sound show for locals and tourists, the army also established a military museum at the fort.

The show celebrates the military history of Ladakh and the many contributions of Ladakhis to the Indian Army. Major Sumeet Arya, one of the army officers who led the project, emphasized the importance of this kind of entertainment in Leh, where, he believes, “the evenings are mostly boring for the people here and they have nothing substantial to do.” The major visited other well-established light and sound shows put on at historic forts in India, such as the Red Fort in Delhi, to learn how to do it.

At some point the show will be increased from its present schedule of two showings a week to a daily feature. The army is considering turning over the administration of the museum and the light and sound show to the Archaeological Survey of India, or perhaps to a local agency.

The important point, evidently, is to glorify the military tradition of Ladakh and the fact that the great general fortunately brought the former kingdom into what is now the Indian republic. Needless to say, the peaceful traditions of the Ladakhi people do not appear to play a part in the narrative. It seems that quiet evenings at home need to be supplemented by celebrations of military valor.