Revisiting Ghulam Rasool Galwan & his Autobiography SERVANT OF SAHIBS

Ghulam Rasool Galwan was born around 1878. His great grandfather 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.

Ghulam Rasool 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.

Rasool Gulwan 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.

Gulam Rasool Galwan was among the pony-men taken on by Lord Dunmore to Pamirs in 1890. He served a host of other explorers and travellers; Younghusband, Longstaff, Phelps, Church, Wellby and Littledale. In 1914 he was appointed as the caravan leader (a very prestigious post) of the big Italian scientific expedition of Filippo de Filippi, which explored the Rimo glacier systems and spent several months in the area.

His fame came from an earlier expedition with the British Joint Commissioner in 1899. He was part of the team, which reconnoitered possible routes through the Changchenmo valley going east from the Shyok river. With the Sahibs, he explored a large unknown river valley little to its north and this valley now bears his name, ‘the Galwan valley’. This is a rare instance of a major geographical feature being given the name of a native explorer who put it on a western map – a true tribute to the Arghons.

In 1962, the Chinese troops surrounded the Indian army posts in this very Galwan valley and the first shots were fired here to start the Indo-China war. Rasool Galwan finished his career as an Aksakal of Leh, a title for rich and powerful contractor.

Galwan had picked up English from his associations with the Sahibs. Encouraged by one of his employers, an American called Robert Barrett, he wrote his autobiography, SERVANTS OF SAHIBS. The book gives a lively insight to life on the caravan, towns and areas during those days and about the explorers and their habits.

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.

Ghulam Rasool Galwan died early on 13th March, 1925. One year after a lovable book that he had written of his life was published written in his own charming pidgin English that he had learnt during his expeditions with western explorers.

Rouf Ahmed can be reached at roufahmed008@gmail.com