We all know Ladakh for its sun-kissed mountains and the frozen lakes. But for centuries, this region of Ladakh, particularly Leh, was a layover along international trade routes— Mongolia, China, and Tibet in the east to Kashmir, Central Asia, and Europe in the West.
Salt, grain, pashmina or cashmere wool, charas or cannabis resin from Ladakh and silk yarn, cotton, and indigo from northwest China, were among some of the goods that made their way through these parts.
But Pashmina stood out for its role in determining the economic fate of Ladakh and its interwoven history. Kashmiri artisans, traders, and merchants were the first to bring the attention of the world to this fine fabric and exquisite designs with finished products like shawls and other apparel.
This fabric of Pashmina comes from the famous Changra goats that graze the high pastures of the Changthang region in Ladakh, and the highlands of Western Tibet. The people rearing this traditional fabric were known as Changpas. The movement of Pashmina happened thanks to the Mughal Empire. They used Pashmina to gift royalty.
The Mughals protected their interests and the Ladakhi during the reign of Aurangzeb from a Tibeto-Mongol invasion.
But as time progressed and the Mughal Empire disintegrated, Ladakh began to exercise a certain degree of independence within themselves. That said, it was unsuccessful in protecting the pashmina trade.
When the legendary Dogra general, Zorawar Singh in 1834, launched vicious military campaigns in the region, they were driven; by the desire to control the pashmina trade.
Zorawar Singh’s campaigns effectively brought an end to any aspirations of an independent Ladakhi kingdom.
After suffering defeat at the hands of the Dogras–vassals of the Sikh Empire, the royal prince of Ladakh escaped to a British protectorate and sought their assistance. Unfortunately, the East India Company had just fought brutal and expensive battles against the Gorkhas of Nepal and was unable to extend support.
Amongst this confusion, finally, it was the Treaty signed between the Tibetan kingdom and the Dogras in 1842, which officially marked the end of Ladakh’s independence. Under this treaty, Ladakh recognized Dogra dominion over the region, while reaffirming previous trade arrangements.
Matters came to a head once again when the East India Company defeated the Sikh Empire in the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845-46. When the British won the war, the Dogras under Maharaja Gulab Singh switched sides, and they signed the Treaty of Amritsar with the British in 1846.
The Treaty of Amritsar began an era of Dogra allegiance, and in 1858, when the British monarchy formally took over India, all princely states agreed to its authority.
“According to the Treaty of Amritsar, signed in 1846, the British were to get a war indemnity of Rs 7.5 million and an annual payment of ‘one horse, twelve perfect shawl goats of approved breed (six males and six females) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls.’
With this treaty, the Dogra king could rule over “all the hilly or mountainous country, situation to the eastward of the river Indus and westward of river Ravee,” writes Ravina Aggarwal, a noted anthropologist, in her book “Beyond Lines of Control: Performance and Politics on the Disputed Borders of Ladakh, India.”