A Road Called Sutlej

In 1842, a young officer in the English East India Company’s army, Lt. Cunningham was deputed to camp for the summer on the banks of the Sutlej river at Wangtoo, in the territory of the Rampur-Bushahr state, to keep an eye on the Khalsa general Zorawar Singh whose armies had overrun Ladakh, expelled the Tibetan authorities from Garo and come down into Spiti. The British were nervous that Zorawar Singh will cross the river and intrude into their territory on the eastern bank of the Sutlej. Zorawar Singh never crossed the river and Sutlej kept intact its reputation of being an important border marker due to the difficulty of crossing its turbulent stream.

However, one morning Cunningham found a caravan of a few dozen mules trundling along the route up from Wangtoo to Shipke. Enquiries revealed that the caravan hoped to go further to Garo and thence to Lhasa, where they were to deposit their wares of exotic birds, spices, forest products and handloom as the tribute of the Rampur king to the court in Peking! This trip was put a hasty stop to by the startled Cunningham, who reported to his superiors in Delhi that the Raja of that hill state claimed that they had sent this tribute to Peking “since times immemorial”.

A few years earlier in 1819, just after David Ochterlony and William Fraser had defeated the Gurkhas and conquered the region between the Sutlej and the Kali from the Gurkha kingdom, the British had organised an expedition to find a way through the mighty Himalaya mountains into Tibet and further into Central Asia and China. In a fascinating account, Captain J D Herbert, who led this exploration, discovers that the Sutlej was the only route possible for armies to move from the “plains of Hindoostan” to the “desolate” lands of Tibet. While he managed to identify a route for the army, he also reported on the difficulties of sustaining an army in the cold desert beyond and thus no British army ever traversed this valley. Earlier, in 1908, Captain F V Raper had gone up the Ganges only to find that this valley did not provide a good route into “Tartary”.

Hindustan Tibet Road and Sutlej

Hindustan Tibet Road and Sutlej

The rivers of the Himalayas have fascinated the people of the north Indian plains from antiquity. These mighty streams of water, irrigating their agriculture and nurturing their lives, arbiters of their prosperity, have been deified and have become well known all over the sub-continent, even in far off geographies where they do not flow. The most famous of these today is, of course, the Ganges – flowing out of Shiva’s hair, itself a goddess with the holiest of cities on its banks. The Indus, to the west, gave the land between the Himalaya and the oceans its name. Bringing up the eastern flank, the Brahmaputra, as the name suggest is the son of the creator of the world.

The Sutlej, however, is perhaps the most unique of the Himalayan rivers. Known to the ancients as Satadru it is the only river which cuts through the Himalayan mountain ranges to flow from Tibet into the plains of north India, as the British “discovered”. Of the three rivers which flow out of region around the Mansarovar lake in Tibet, the Indus traverses the entire northern aspect of the mountains till it finds a way out where the Himalayas meet the Pamir Knot, while the Brahmaputra flows east till the Himalayas meet the mountains of north Burma before finding a way into the southern plains. The Sutlej, on the other hand, flows through gorges in between the snow mountains of the Himalayas. Other than these three, all the other Himalayan rivers originate on the southern aspect of the snow mountains. (A caveat here about the origins of the Sutlej; while the actual source of the river is the Rakshastal lake, for centuries it has been assumed that this lake and its river have their source in the overflows of the Mansarovar lake).

Think about it for a moment. The Himalaya are the youngest and highest mountain chain in the world and of all the innumerable rivers which flow through it, just one manages to find a channel through this almost impassable massif.
Mythology has not recognised this “achievement”, nor has public perception (and perhaps for good reasons as the Sutlej never cradled a civilisation as the Ganges or Indus did). However, this geographical freak/feat has given this river and its valley an interesting history.

In the Western Himalayas, the Sutlej has been among the most difficult of Himalayan rivers to cross. When the Gurkha kingdom expanded towards to the east in the 18th century, the difficulty of sustaining supply lines over the Sutlej left it vulnerable beyond its west bank and soon those territories fell to the Khalsa; who themselves found it difficult to cross this river in the mountains. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the first bridges to ccross the Sutlej came up, but even today roads to cross this river are rare above the Bhakra Nangal dam – the point there the river comes into the plains.

If the Sutlej was a difficult river to cross, it was an easy route through the mountains; perhaps the only route open during winter when the passes are all blocked with heavy snowfall. For many decades, if not centuries before the coming of the Gurkhas, Sikhs and British, traders from Spiti, Shipke and Garo (and sometimes as far away as Yarkand) would come down to the Lavi fair, held on the banks of the Sutlej at Rampur in the first half of November and return with goods they had exchanged with traders from the plains, at a time when the all the passes had already closed.

In 1855, the road from the foothills of the Himalayas to Tibet was completed. It was the first all weather road deep into the Himalayas built by the British and followed the ridge of the Sutlej river till Rampur and from there it went along its banks right into Tibet. The Hindustan Tibet road, even today in the 21st century, is perhaps the only route which allows the Indian army easy access to the Tibetan border from the plains; perhaps one of the reasons why the Chinese army did not enter Indian territory here in 1962.

A little less than a thousand miles long, the Sutlej is one of the Punj Ab (five rivers) which give identity to that province. The land between the Sutlej and the Ravi has historically been the agri and cultural heartland of Punjab. Today the river has been domesticated, both in the disputed land of Punjab and in the relativey peaceful environs of the mountains. Its dark silver flow was broken by the Bhakra Nangal dam from where it spreads colour to the Green Revolution. Its muddy golden waters now disappear for a stretch of 27 km between Nathpa where it it diverted into deep tunnels only to flow out at Jhakri through large turbines producing 1,500 Megawatts of electricity. Between Karchham and Wantoo too, it is held hostage in similar tunnels which generate another 1000 MW of electricity. Thus, from Karchham – the point at which the Sutlej crosses the Great Himalayan Range – to Jhakri near Rampur town, the river is now largely history, the large dry boulders watching the growing traffic of tourist vehicles and army truck convoys trundling up and down the road this river provided host to a century and half back.


[This was published in the 31 August 2013 edition of Down to Earth as a special contribution to the section “Rivers, up close and personal”]


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