His family belonged to the Kahluria clan of Rajputs—they migrated to the Jammu region where, on coming of age, Zorawar took up service under Raja Jaswant Singh of Marmathi (modern Doda district). In 1817 he joined the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the state of Kashmir had become part of the Sikh Kingdom after a campaign against its Afghan rulers . Zorowar Singh was employed by the ambitious Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and was placed under the commandant of the Reasi fort (Bhimgarh fort). While delivering a routine message to the Maharaja, Zorawar told him of the financial waste occurring in the fort administration and boldly presented his own scheme to effect savings.
Gulab Singh was impressed by Zorawar’s sincerity and appointed him commandant of Reasi. As promised, the Rajput youth fulfilled his task and his grateful ruler made him commissariat officer of all forts north of Jammu. He was later made governor of Kishtwar and was given the title of Wazir (prime minister). Like Kashmir, the Kingdom of Kishtwar was formed by a river valley (the Chenab flowing from Himachal Pradesh as the Chandrabhaga)—-the kingdom's ancient name was Kashtavat and it remained under Hindu rulers until the 17th Century when Raja Gairat Singh converted to Islam and received the title of Raja Sa’adat Yar Khan from the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Some of the people had also converted with their king but many remained true to their ancestral faith. Even though it was a newly conquered region Zorawar had no trouble in keeping the peace; many of the local Rajputs were recruited into his army. In 1835 the nearby region of Paddar was taken from Chamba (now in Himachal Pradesh) in the course of a battle. Paddar later became known for its sapphire mines. But this was a mere sideshow to General Zorawar Singh’s more famous expeditions, on which he had already embarked in the previous year.
To the east of Kishtwar and Kashmir are the snow-clad mountains of the upper Himalayas — the rivers of Zanskar Gorge, Suru River, and Drass rise from these snows, and flow across the plateau of Ladakh into the Indus River. Several petty principalities in this region were tributary to the Gyalpo (King) of Ladakh. In 1834 one of these, the Raja of Timbus, sought Zorawar’s help against the Gyalpo. Meanwhile the Rajput general had been burning to distinguish himself by expanding the territory of Raja Gulab Singh — also at that time, according to the Gulabnama, Kishtwar went through a drought that caused a loss of revenue and forced Zorawar to extract money through war.
The Rajputs of Jammu and Himachal have traditionally excelled in mountain fighting; therefore Zorawar had no trouble in crossing the mountain ranges and entering Ladakh through the source of the Suru River where his 5000 men defeated an army of local Botis. After moving to Kargil and subduing the landlords along the way Zorawar received the submission of the Ladakhis — however Tsepal Namgyal, the Gyalpo (ruler), sent his general Banko Kahlon by a roundabout route to cut off Zorawar’s communications. The astute general doubled back to Kartse where he sheltered his troops through the winter. In the spring of 1835 he defeated the large Ladakhi army of Banko Kahlon and marched his victorious troops towards Leh. The Gyalpo now agreed to pay 50,000 rupees as war-indemnity and 20,000 rupees as an annual tribute.
Alarmed at the gains of the Dogras the Punjabi governor of Kashmir, Mehan Singh, incited the Ladakhi chieftains to rebel but Zorawar quickly marched back to the Himalayan valleys and subdued the rebels, now forcing the Raja of Zanskar to also pay a separate tribute to Jammu. But in 1836 Mehan Singh, who was in correspondence with the Lahore durbar, this time instigated the Gyalpo to revolt — Zorawar force-marched his army in ten days to surprise the Ladakhis and forced them to submit. He now built a fort outside Leh and placed there a garrison of 300 men under Dalel Singh — the Gyalpo was deposed to an estate and a Ladakhi general, Ngorub Stanzin, was made King. But the latter did not prove to be loyal hence the Gyalpo was restored to his throne in 1838.
The advance brigade of 5,000 under Nidhan Singh lost its way in the cold and snow and was surrounded by the enemy; many soldiers perished from the cold. Then Mehta Basti Ram, a prominent Rajput from Kishtwar, established contact with the main force. On their arrival the Botis of Skardu were defeated and forced to flee. They were chased to the fort of Skardu which was invested by Zorawar for a few days. One night the Dogras scaled the steep mountain behind the fort and after some fighting captured the small fort on its crest. From this position the next day they began firing down at the main fort and forced the Raja to surrender. Zorawar built a fort on the banks of the Indus where he placed a contingent of his soldiers.
After placing Muhammad Shah on the throne for an annual tribute of 7000 rupees, a Dogra contingent under Wazir Lakhpat advanced westwards, conquered the fort of Astor and took its Darad Raja prisoner. However this Raja was tributary to Mehan Singh, the Punjabi Sikh governor of Kashmir, who was alarmed at the Dogra conquests since they only expanded the kingdom of Gulab Singh while not bringing any benefit to the Lahore durbar. His complaint at Lahore was forwarded to Raja Gulab Singh at Jammu and he ordered the Darad Raja to be released.
One column under the Ladakhi prince, Nono Sungnam, followed the course of the Indus River to its source. Another column of 300 men, under Ghulam Khan, marched along the mountains leading up to the Kailas Range and thus south of the Indus. Zorawar himself led 3,000 men along the plateau region where the vast and picturesque Pangong Lake is located. Sweeping all resistance before them, the three columns passed the Mansarovar Lake and converged at Gartok, defeating the small Tibetan force stationed there. The enemy commander fled to Taklakot but Zorawar stormed that fort on 6 September 1841. Envoys from Tibet now came to him as did agents of the Maharaja of Nepal, whose kingdom was only fifteen miles from Taklakot.
The fall of Taklakot finds mention in the report of the Chinese Imperial Resident, Meng Pao, at Lhasa:
On my arrival at Taklakot a force of only about 1,000 local troops could be mustered, which was divided and stationed as guards at different posts. A guard post was quickly established at a strategic pass near Taklakot to stop the invaders, but these local troops were not brave enough to fight off the Shen-Pa (Dogras) and fled at the approach of the invaders. The distance between Central Tibet and Taklakot is several thousand li…because of the cowardice of the local troops; our forces had to withdraw to the foot of the Tsa Mountain near the Mayum Pass. Reinforcements are essential in order to withstand these violent and unruly invaders''.
Zorawar and his men now went on pilgrimage to Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. He had extended his communication and supply line over 450 miles of inhospitable terrain by building small forts and pickets along the way. The fort Chi-T’ang was built near Taklakot, where Mehta Basti Ram was put in command of 500 men, with 8 or 9 cannon. With the onset of winter all the passes were blocked and roads snowed in. The supplies for the Dogra army over such a long distance failed despite Zorawar’s meticulous preparations.
As the intense cold, coupled with the rain, snow and lightning continued for weeks upon weeks, many of the soldiers lost their fingers and toes to frostbite. Others starved to death, while some burnt the wooden stock of their muskets to warm themselves. The Tibetans and their Chinese allies regrouped and advanced to give battle, bypassing the Dogra fort of Chi-T’ang. Zorawar and his men met them at the Battle of To-yo on 12 December 1841—-in the early exchange of fire the Rajput general was wounded in his right shoulder but he grabbed a sword in his left hand. The Tibetan horsemen then charged the Dogra position and one of them thrust his lance in Zorawar Singh’s chest.
The Sino-Tibetan force then mopped up the other garrisons of the Dogras and advanced on Ladakh, now determined to conquer it and add it to the Imperial Chinese dominions. However the force under Mehta Basti Ram stood a siege for several weeks at Chi-T’ang before escaping with 240 men across the Himalayas to the British post of Almora. Within Ladakh the Sino-Tibetan army laid siege to Leh, when reinforcements under Diwan Hari Chand and Wazir Ratnu came from Jammu and repulsed them. The Tibetan fortifications at Drangtse were flooded when the Dogras dammed up the river. On open ground, the Chinese and Tibetans were chased to Chushul. The climacic Battle of Chushul (August, 1842) was fought and won by the Dogras who executed the enemy general to avenge the death of Zorawar Singh.
“On this auspicious occasion, the second day of the month Asuj in the year 1899 we —- the officers of Lhasa, viz. firstly, Kalon Sukanwala, and secondly Bakshi Sapju, commander of the forces of the Empire of China, on the one hand, and Dewan Hari Chand and Wazir Ratnu, on behalf of Raja Gulab Singh, on the other —- agree together and swear before God that the friendship between Raja Gulab Singh and the Emperor of China and Lama Guru Sahib Lassawala will be kept and observed till eternity; for the traffic in shawl, pasham, and tea. We will observe our pledge to God, Gayatri, and Pasi. Wazir Mian Khusal Chu is witness.”
Zorawar Singh’s great military endeavors were balanced by a life of modesty and restraint. He was so honest that he would transfer to his master any gifts or tribute that came to him. This honest Rajput did not leave behind either vast properties or deep coffers for his descendants -— only a legacy of military achievement that caused the contemporary Europeans to term him the “little Napoleon of India”.