There are perhaps more tales about the origin of the place name Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) than are the number of alphabets to it!
Be that as it may, DBO was never a human habitation nor indeed a place-name in any recognised map-almanac. Nevertheless, DBO per se figures prominently in the vast body of literature related to explorations of the Western Himalayas (including intrigue and murders of a few prominent explorers in the vicinity of DBO and upon the Karakoram Pass per se!) and of course Indian Government documents of the nineteenth century, maintained exhaustive reports purporting to frenzied shadow-boxing between the then Super Powers, Russia and Great Britain, for ousting Chinese presence from and establishing their own political hegemony over the Emirates and Khanates of Central Asia.
To begin-with, Whitehall opted for Afghanistan as the convenient launchpad for facilitating British entry into Central Asia. And willy nilly, the adventure-inclined Subalterns of the Indian Army led by Lieutenant Arthur Conolly of the 6th Bengal Native Infantry, were inducted into Central Asia via Mazar-i-Sharif in NW Afghanistan, ostensibly on a “trek” to Bokhara or Khiva but in essence to check on Russian presence in the region. The Emir did receive Conolly affably in his Bokhara Palace but a few days later the news of the sighting of the Czar’s Cossacks in the vicinity of Khiva so un-nerved the potentate, that Conolly was at once thrown inside a vermin-infested dungeon and later, summarily beheaded.
The world learnt of that murder two years later once Alexander Burns (another Subaltern), chanced upon Conolly’s copy of the Bible, scribbled inside which was the message from Conolly to his sister (quoted above) which made “Great Game” a part of the English lexicon. Much to the dismay of the Rudyard Kipling fans, this exciting new idiom was not of Kipling’s making!
Forsythe at once led three forays to Khotan and Yarkand, each time via DBO but bypassing the Karakoram Pass from farther East, over the Kunlun Range.
The Russians were by no means sitting idle. Exploiting the advantage of terrain, they easily neutralized the meagre gains made by Connolly and Burns in the North-Western, Central Asian States. So the British next decided to shift focus East of Bokhara by circumventing the Karakorams Range from its Eastern-most flank and made Leh the pivot, for furthering their Central Asian policy. Over the next two decades, dozens of British operative crossed the Karakorams and traversed the region from Khotan in the East to Kashgar in the West, totally unhindered by any other Nation.
Both to encourage this ongoing effort and to collate the intelligence so gathered, the Governor-General (India) appointed and stationed Sir Douglas Forsyth at Leh, as the first British representative in 1862. Forsythe at once led three forays to Khotan and Yarkand, each time via DBO but bypassing the Karakoram Pass from farther East, over the Kunlun Range. He learnt that Yakub Beg, the Khan of Kashgar had decisively defeated and driven the Chinese out of Western, Central Asia as also totally prohibited barter trade with them, in this entire region.
So in his report to the Governor-General, Forsyth emphasized that “great untapped market lies in Central Asia, especially for Indian tea now that supplies from China had been prohibited.”
It was logical that Forsyth at that stage would invite Robert Shaw (who had a monopoly of Tea plantations in the Kangra Valley) to accompany him to Yarkand, in 1867. Shaw returned convinced that the Kashgar-Yarkand- Khotan Khanates had at least sixty thousand potential tea-consumers and that he had the capacity to fully meet that demand.
So, in September 1873, Shaw once again set out from Leh for Kashgar but this time at the head of a cavalcade comprising 6474 porters (rather an improbable figure but appears as such in Shaw’s text), 1621 horses/ponies and 550 yaks carrying bales of Kangra Valley tea and assorted gifts both for Yakub Beg and his hosts en-route, at Yarkand and Khotan.
Shaw took the longer but easier route, up North from Pangong Tso on to the now disputed Lingze Thang Plain and had the first pause at DBO, after about five weeks journey, so as to reorganize loads and to dismiss porters, horses, yaks and connected staff, rendered surplus.
That was probably the occasion when DBO first emerged both as a place-name and as the most strategically located staging-post, for entry-exit between India and the Central Asian Khanates which some seventy-five years later (the 1950s), gained recognition as part of China’s Sinkiang Province.
There is little evidence in the Western Himalayan Explorations literature, of any Chinese presence South of the Karakoram- Kunlun Mountain Ranges, whatsoever. In fact, the accepted Southern Boundary of Sinkiang lay notionally to the North of the line of Passes on the Karakoram Himalayas, always.
Here a question might legitimately arise as to why such boundary alignments were not marked out by way of pillars or verifiable, written mutual protocols etc? The answer perhaps lay in the fact that the very creation of and the forever, steady expansion of the British Empire in Asia, hinged upon the factor that frontiers and boundaries between Asian Nations and countries were ill-defined or not delineated at all, and were ripe for grabs as it were, either through diplomatic subterfuge and/or accompanied with a show of armed force.
But in certain areas such as Northern and Eastern Ladakh and also Arunachal Pradesh where till the mid-twentieth century, hazards of climate coupled with primitive connectivity had fostered the policy of acceptance of frontiers as determined by past usage, practice and custom.
Filling a vacuum
Be that as it may, the British seized the politico-diplomatic vacuum in the region and installed His Majesty’s Consul to the Khan of Kashgar, Yakub Beg, as a mutually agreed arrangement. Surprisingly, despite all such on-goings across India’s trans-Himalayan frontiers, there was simply no turmoil in this tract, until 1950. The last HM’s Consul to reach Kashgar in 1946 was Eric Shipton who was not a career Diplomat but had the aura of the man of the Himalayas; among the most distinguished mountaineers of his generation and also the pioneer of the South Col route, through the Khumbu icefall, to Everest.
There does exist one granite Obelisk inside the compound of the Moravia Mission, at Leh; the lone timeless witness to the hundreds of nameless and faceless Indians who perished in the DBO region.
That sizeable cross-frontier trafficking of men and merchandise from Ladakh to Central Asia, saw no let-up between 1840 and 1950 even though it levied a mind-boggling penalty on those daring human beings, animals and commodities who happily plunged headfirst into the Great Game.
The magnitude of adversity and its ramifications is best gleaned from a passing observation of Wing Commander Abdul Haneef (IAF) who “would look down from his Chopper cockpit as he flew over the Pass (Saser La, 17,753’) still littered with bones of camels, ponies and human wayfarers… the detritus of a by-gone era when arbitrary frontiers had not disrupted centuries-old patterns of trade and connectivity.”
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Usually, Nations do memorialize the sacrifices made by their citizens for national causes, and in the instant case too, there does exist one granite Obelisk inside the compound of the Moravia Mission, at Leh; the lone timeless witness to the hundreds of nameless and faceless Indians who perished in the DBO region. That Obelisk is to the memory of Dr Ferdinand Stoliczka, Ph D, an Austrian by birth but in the employ of the Government of India who had passed away and was buried at DBO on 19th June 1874 as a member of Shaw’s second mission to Kashgar.
The inscription on the memorial plaque makes poignant reading; “Though young when he fell, a sacrifice to duty he had already achieved eminence by his researches into the ecology and natural history of India. And his early death is deeply regretted by the world of science and by the Government of India, who in recognition of his able and honourable services, have caused this monument to be erected, 1876.”
So, history is witness to the fact that until the fateful proclamation of the PRC in 1949, there simply was no presence of the Chinese South of the Karakoram-Kunlun Ranges, nor any objections by any Nation-State to the frequent Indian presence in the DBO region. The Southern alignment of Sinkiang Province was ipso facto always North of the chain of the Karakoram Passes and thence eastwards over the crest of Kunlun Mountain Range.
So, whose perfidy is the DBO imbroglio?
This article earlier appeared in Tribune on Sep 10, 2013