Victorious warriors win first and then go to war while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win –Sun Zi
It was but a matter of fortuitous chance that I happened to stumble upon a fascinating article on the 1962 high altitude battles between the Indian and Chinese armies in the remote Chushul sector of eastern Ladakh. The account of the valour and courage of the faceless Indian soldier on the battle front and the title of the article ‘Lest we Forget’, struck an uneasy chord deep within me as I realised most of us knew so little about the sacrifices made by our intrepid soldiers in these battles, at 4500 m and above. In my fervent quest for more inputs on the Ladakh war action, I burnt the midnight oil and scourged the Internet for information. The urge to travel to Chushul and spend introspective moments in its silent valleys, whose surrounding snow covered mountains and passes were the hapless amphitheaters of the battling soldiers in the winter chill of November 1962, soon transformed into a reality for Surojit Biswas, Pratik Mukherjee and me. This also afforded us the opportunity of making a circuit of the Changthang highlands-the mysterious land of the Changpa nomads.
But as our travel plans were being formulated, we encountered an impediment to our circuit plans. While permits were easily available for travelling from Leh to Pangong tso (and separately to the Tso Moriri lake area), and more recently till the villages of Man and Merak that lie south of Spangmik on the Pangong tso, the route beyond the Merak village (leading towards Chushul) is still largely out of bounds to civilians due to proximity to the Chinese LOc. The portion of our planned circuit on the Pangong tso- Man – Merak –Chushul stretch was now in jeopardy, much to our disappointment since we had read that this dusty track along the Pangong Tso towards Chushul was incredibly beautiful and passed between the shimmering waters of the pristine lake and the rolling snow topped Pangong range. After innumerable futile efforts in obtaining the elusive permit, we chanced through the Internet, upon a young and enterprising adventurer and wild life photographer called Gaurav Schimar, who much to our delight arranged the same for us from the District Magistrate’s office in Leh. Thus, finally in the middle of July, we embarked into the land of the lamas in our quest for the Changthang mystique.
Our earlier plans had evolved around crossing the wild and unkempt 5290 m Wari la directly from the Nubra valley via Agyam and Tangyar and then moving on towards the 5370 m Chang la from Shakti. We were however disappointed to learn that no driver was willing to undertake this enterprise. Even Gaurav Schimar dissuaded us from undertaking the Nubra - Wari la traverse saying that the route was too broken and at several places fast flowing rivulets criss-crossed over the terrain, leading to the high risk of Jeeps being bogged down along the route. Thus, we had no recourse but to avail the standard route from Leh via Karu. The precipitous rise from Shakti towards the Wari la loomed tantalising in the distance. We crossed the verdant village of Shakti and enjoyed the climb of our jeep to the picturesque Chang la. We moved past the tidy villages of Durbuk and Tangtse, beyond which unfolded the most spectacular landscape I had ever witnessed. Deep valleys bereft of any vegetation save the occasional green streak were surrounded by gargantuan mountains of varying colours, shades and contours. The first sight of the azure waters of the Pangong lake appears like a distant mirage in a stark canvas of undulating brown landscape. Pangong tso is intensely mercurial in its moods, and its silken waters appear to be incessantly flirting with the oblique sun rays and changing colour continually, from dawn till dusk. Lama Govinda Anagarika described it rather vividly- ‘Before us stretched a lake like a sheet of molten lapis lazuli, merging into intense ultramarine in the distance and into radiant cobalt blue and opalescent Veronese green towards the nearer shore, fringed with gleaming white beaches, while the mountains that framed this incredible colour display were of golden Indian red and burnt sienna, with purple shadows.’
The journey along the Pangong tso (4250 m) towards Man and Merak was enthralling and enjoyable. There is no real road save an undulating broken sandy track that was constantly changing shape due to erosion caused by seeping rivulets that emerge from the Pangong lake. We were now all alone in a desolate and arid landscape, save for the occasional army truck rumbling by. On our west lay the jagged peaks of the Pangong range (an eastern extension of the Karakoram), mostly unnamed, untouched and only few of them climbed. The Pangong range is formed at the confluence of the Lazun Lungpa and the Shyok river at Aghyam and reaches its zenith in the south where the Chushul valley cuts across it to join the Pangong tso. After Phurchuk la (4782 m), the range crosses into Tibet spanning the southern rim of the Pangong tso, terminating at Rudok. Kangju Kangri (6725 m) is the highest peak of the Pangong range which has several mountain peaks in its fold that are over 6000 m. These include Mari (6587 m), Kasket (6462 m), Spangmik (6250 m) and Harong (6210 m) amongst others.
The tents were pitched on the water front at Spangmik and we were fortunate enough to experience a brilliant crimson sunset and a memorable dawn over the cloud free Pangong waters. Across and beyond the eastern edge of the lake lay Chinese occupied territory. The winds were in slumber and the night spent in comfort, though the lassitude effects induced by low oxygen levels seemed to be pronounced here. As we meandered along the edge of the lake absorbing its pristine beauty, we found its sandy banks alive with innumerable birds including the bar headed geese, brahmini ducks and the black necked cranes. We crossed the bent of the Pangong lake (where it flows eastwards deep into Chinese territory) and moved on towards the Chushul village. Some of the tracts led straight towards the LOC and hence our driver expressed abundant caution as he drove along the bumpy trail. In the distance we could discern buildings that were probably the location of the flag meetings between the two armies.
Chushul (4337 m) is a nondescript village consisting of a handful of Ladaki houses built around shallow marshes and damp meadows that lie in a narrow and sandy valley. Snow bound for most of the year except for a short summer, it remains a typical and unassuming Ladaki village of the Changthang highlands. But it has a checkered past. In the early sixties, our immature political mandarins of India failed to assess the possibility of aggressive incursion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) across the ill defined and disputed Lines of Control with China in Ladakh and NEFA. In an amateurish bid to cement our border positions, our Government had dictated the Indian army to commence the practice of ‘Forward Posts’ creation along the ambiguous Lines of Control. These remote posts were located in difficult mountainous terrain and manned by small platoons of poorly equipped soldiers who were ill experienced in the subtleties of high altitude survival. In Ladakh, the first problem faced by a soldier is survival, fighting the enemy comes only after that. In a forceful and planned move in October 1962, the PLA suddenly attacked these small Forward Posts in Ladakh. Large numbers of Chinese soldiers supported by superior artillery fire attacked the outnumbered Indian soldiers, who resiliently fought back to hold their ground. The battles were ruthless and severe and the Indians resisted several waves of Chinese attack. One by one eventually, the pickets fell to overpowering Chinese artillery and machine gun fire. Very few survived. Out of ammunition, valiant Gurkhas charged at the enemy in Sirijap (on the bend of the Pangong tso), waving sharpened khukris and with bayonets attached to antiquated rifles. They fought valiantly ‘hand to hand’, to the last man, seemingly inspired by Lord Tennyson’s famous lines on the Charge of Light Brigade:
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
The Chinese too suffered heavy losses due to the spirited resistance exhibited by the indomitable Indian soldier. By end October ‘62, Chushul, which lay to the south of the Pangong tso, stood isolated as all posts to its north had been cleared by the PLA soldiers. Chushul was an important target for the Chinese as it lay on the road to Leh along the Chang la. To its south also lay a road link to Nyoma via the Loma bend that led to Leh on another route. Towards the east of Chushul existed a break in the mountains, called the Spanggur gap that afforded easier access for the marauding Chinese Infantry into Indian territory and thereby the road links to Leh. The Chinese had built a road from Rudok in Tibet right up to the Spanggur gap that was capable of carrying tanks. Thus, the defense of Chushul and its airstrip became imperative for the Indian army. Battles in the Chushul area were intense and uncompromising at the locations of Gurung hill, Spangur gap, Magar hill and the Rezang la. The Rezang la (c. 5000 m) is a pass on an isolated ridge; about 11 km south of the Spanggur gap and it dominated the life line of the Chushul garrison and the road link to Leh via Dungti, and thus had to be protected. The nearest Indian post to its south was at the Chhaga la. Since there was only one battery of 13 Jat located at the Spanggur gap, the Rezang la company was without artillery support. The Chinese attacked Rezang la with battalion strengths at the crack of dawn, but the quixotic soldiers of the Charlie company, 13 Kumaon repelled wave after wave of Chinese attack. The whole company however was almost wiped away in their valiant defiance that was sustained by them till late evening. They lost the battle but not their honour and they inflicted heavy casualty amongst the Chinese troops who had attacked them from all sides, before being overrun.1
We passed close to the defunct Chushul airstrip on the Dingrungtse plain, that had been bombarded by the Chinese artillery across the infamous Spanggur gap, behind which rose the towering massif of Matuna Nyungtso (6077 m).The Spanggur tso or Riyul tso is a large lake that is tucked away at the base of this massif, but could not be seen during our traverse. Prior to 1962, part of it was in India. A trade route went through Spanggur gap to Rudok along the lake. However today, the Spanggur gap, Table top, Gurung hill, Magar hill, and Rezang la are all under Chinese control. As we stood at the Chushul and thereafter the Rezang la War memorials, our throats felt parched and choked with sadness –It is almost fifty years since the ‘Last Stand’ of our fearless soldiers, yet all that we are left with today are these war memorials standing like totem poles in one desolate corner of Ladakh. The Rezang la war memorial records for our introspection:
‘How can a Man die Better than facing Fearful Odds,
For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods,
To the sacred memory of the Heroes of Rezang La,
114 Martyrs of 13 Kumaon who fought to the Last Man,
Last Round, Against Hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962.
Built by All Ranks 13th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment.’
We soon rose to the 4635 m Chhaga la from where the route leads down to the outpost and village of Loma. The Chhaga la post in 1962 had been the grim witnesses to the Rezang la battle. Throughout this stretch we espied innumerable army posts atop the border ridges and also sensed being watched through powerful binoculars. As we descended towards more level terrain, the wonderful sight of the meandering Indus flowing past stretches of green meadows in the back drop of scarlet coloured rocky outcrops was truly inspiring. We reached metalled roads once again and were now deeply entrenched in Changpa country, the land of the pastoral nomads and their herds of Pashmina goat. Brightly dressed in colourful clothing and bedecked with exquisite stones, they live in quaint little tents called Rebos and followed rather unusual and nomadic life styles. They sport long hair that perhaps do not acquaint with brushes for years. The hair is tied up in a pig tail over rather unwashed faces, but one that is well accustomed to the smoky rebo fires. They do strike rather unusual appearances and speak in a Tibetan dialect called Changkyet. Their religious origins can perhaps be traced back to the animistic religion called Bon. Equally unkempt and unwashed Tibetan mastiff dogs (who guard their animals) hung around outside the tents, eyeing us with intense displeasure. The Tibetan mastiff is tenacious in performing his flock guarding duty and is capable of bringing down predators like leopards and wolves without difficulty. They are extremely protective of family, flock and territory. Surviving the arduous winter months in the Changthang highlands must be truly a difficult proposition. The younger generation today however is possibly less interested in pursuing the arduous life styles of their ancestors, because I was pleasantly surprised to spot a motor cycle adjacent a rebo tent, enroute. They seem to be making full use of their animals; Using the wool, hair and the tendons to make clothes, tents and blankets, carpets, ropes and pack backs. The use the hide and stomach for boots and containers and dung for fuel. They sell the much coveted Pashmina wool, Yak cheese and culled meat to traders in Leh. In modern times, the romantic perception of Nomadism has changed from unplanned wandering to the more prosaic well established patterns of grazing migrations on grasslands at specified times of the year. The sentiment with the Changpas prior to the 1962 war had been ‘No frontiers, no army and no migrants’. There were only a few Skyangs for foliage competition and grass was plentiful. The 1962 war changed everything. Before the closing of the borders, they used pastures on both sides of the border. However, despite the intrusion of the forces of change, they have still been able to maintain their ethnic identity and way of life, and thus the freedom of being a wandering nomad.
We passed inquisitive Marmots peeping from their sandy burrows and crossed several Skyangs (wild ass) gamboling across the country, nonchalantly ignoring our intrusion. The Changthang highland is riddled with pristine lakes of all forms and shapes. The Pashmina goats scramble up the steep mountain ridges around these lakes. Smoke emerged from the top of the rebos as they cooked their midday meals adjacent to gurgling little brooks and streams. The landscape was expansive and barren, with touches of green along the edges of the lakes and the banks of the rivulets. There was a great deal of tranquility all around. Even the wind was calm and sedate. This was summer in its most comfortable disposition. In contrast, the long winter months are usually harsh on man and beast with sub zero temperatures and biting wind from the north, being the natural order. Loma led to Nyoma, a sub divisional headquarter that teemed with an abundance of colourfully bedecked Ladakhis, since a renowned Rimpoche from India was holding religious prayers there. For the Ladakhis, religion seems to be their strongest bond and central to their existence. We could not find any room for ourselves in this overflowing hamlet till our music addict driver Wangchuk and his fresh faced ‘Lama in the making’ brother (who was also part of our entourage) had to request their father Thuptan Zangpo (who worked in the local WWF office), to allow us to pitch a tent in the back yard of the WWF office.Thuptan readily agreed and even asked his sons to muster some food for us without any charge. The pure air of Ladakh and the Buddhist way of life, perhaps suppresses pecuniary instincts! On the way to Nyoma we had passed the new Advance Landing Ground (ALG) of the IAF. With the Chushul airstrip remaining defunct since the ‘62 skirmishes, such ALG’s would have an important role to play in the eventuality of future border disputes in Ladakh.
The next day we travelled through extremely picturesque country towards the Tso Moriri (4650 m), crossing the surreal Kiagar Tso (4845 m), that had snow clad peaks framed in its back drop. The terrain around Mahe, Sumdo and the Namshank la was full of Changpas tending to their livestock and absorbing the short summer warmth. Karzog (4527 m), where we spent the night, is located on the banks of the exotic Tso Moriri lake and over looks the Chhamser Kangri (66222 m) and Lungser Kangri (6666 m) peaks, across the lake. The Mata peaks (also referred to as Mentok now) are located above and behind the Karzog monastery. In the distance rose the snowy peaks of the Himachal. Trekking trails abounded around us over innumerable passes and ridges. The Tso Moriri lake and its marshy hinterland being protected territory for wildlife, was home to innumerable birds of all colour shapes and sizes. They chirped merrily in gay abandon on the lake’s edge. The high mountain lakes of Ladakh are the only breeding grounds of the exotic bar headed geese and the bar necked crane, outside China and Sikkim. We were fortunate in that we were able to peruse them in large numbers. On our last leg, we crossed the intensely briny Tso Kar (4535 m) whose banks were plastered with thick and white salt deposits. We then travelled over a dusty road toward the Tanglang la (5250 m) and thence to Leh, to complete our memorable circuit of the Changthang highlands.
In retrospect, the Changthang mystique had enamoured us three oxygen starved idiots totally for we were already planning our next trip into the Changthang highlands even before we returned to Leh! On this trip we had missed out on the last frontier town of Demchok, the Astronomical Observatory at Hanle or perhaps the rough safari along the banks of the Tso Moriri towards the wilderness of Chumur, and thus we wanted to go back again. The ghosts of Chushul and the lure of the Changthang mystique have now become irrevocably ingrained within us. We have learnt to appreciate the value of free air, the sacrifices and the toil that our faceless soldiers undertake on our frozen borders. In restless dreams, we relive the highland battles and the ‘Last Stand’ of our brave warriors of ‘62. Murmurs of discord keep surfacing from time to time at locations like Demchok and Chumur. But, perhaps we have now matured in the subtleties of Oropolitics for a wiser tomorrow.
A visit to Changthang highlands with an historical perspective of the 1962 war.
Brown headed gull. (Priyadarshi Gupta)
Chushul war memorial. (Priyadarshi Gupta)
Pangong Tso. (Priyadarshi Gupta)
Skyang, wild donkey. (Priyadarshi Gupta)