In 2000, when India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO) began the construction of 255-km-long Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) all-weather road, the idea was to connect Leh, the capital of Ladakh to Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), an Indian military base, located at the Northernmost tip of India in the Karakoram mountains. In the past month, the road has come at the forefront of the India-China stand-off. Daulat Beg Oldie is a name hard to forget. A quick examination of the etymology reveals the rather exotic origins of the name, translated from Turkic as ‘the spot where the rich man died’.
Also read: Explained: The strategic road to DBO
The 19th century British medical officer, Henry Walter Bellew, who worked in Afghanistan and wrote extensively on his explorations of the region, translated the name ‘Daulat Beg Oldie’ as the place where ‘the Lord of the state died’.
Both the etymologies, however, are indicative of the same person: Sultan Said Khan, the 16th century ruler of Yarkent Khanate. The Yarkent Khanate was a state in Central Asia existing between 1514 and 1705 CE, with its seat of government being situated at Yarkand, in Xinjiang, China. At its peak, the Yarkent Khanate ruled over large parts of Central Asia from Xinjiang. Khan who was the descendant of Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, was the first ruler of the state.
In 1531, Khan commissioned his general Mirza Haider to invade Ladakh as a prelude to his larger plan of conquering Lhasa in Tibet. While Haider was busy confronting the ruler of Ladakh, Khan himself decided to march down with a large force. However, as the ruler’s health took a turn for the worse, the expedition of Lhasa was entrusted to Haider, while he hurried back home. However, Khan died on his way back to Yarkand, at the spot that went on to be named after him as ‘Daulat Beg Oldie’.
Describing Khan’s expedition in Ladakh, historians Iqtidar A. Khan and Irfan Habib wrote in the book ‘History of Civilizations of Central Asia: Development in Contrast: from the Sixteenth to the Mid-Nineteenth Century’: “It was, apparently, designed to clear the route linking Kashmir with Yarkand and create a social base for Chaghatayid rule in the valley, where the majority of the population were Sunni Muslims.” They added: “Said Khan’s death during the march back from Ladakh to Yarkand in 1533 and the subsequent disturbances in Kashgar, however, did not allow sufficient time for this scheme to come to fruition.”
The memory of Khan’s ambitions, however, has been retained in the spot that has over the years acquired strategic importance for India. Less than 10 kilometers west of the LAC at Aksai Chin, a military outpost was created at DBO after the Chinese occupation at Aksai Chin during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. In July 1962, a few months before the Sino-Indian conflict, an airfield was commissioned at DBO. Located at an elevation of 16,614 feet above seal level, it is the highest airfield in the world.
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