Friday, 29 August 2014

Stories untold: rediscovering Kargil’s forgotten past

Stories untold: rediscovering Kargil’s forgotten past

“If the place is not recognised
It is from where the whole land is seen”-The Gesar Saga

For those who have lived through an extensively televised Kargil war, perhaps still think of it is a garrison town. History cannot be persuaded to forget its best and worst. And maybe, rightly so. But it can stagnate and stink to the point that a time-freeze envelops and obscures its very subject and place-names themselves become mnemonic references for the event. In a broadcast age when News can become a history, the danger of usurping of the previous and the potential plagues us.  

The blinkered collective memory is inexorable and rejects everything else as mundane and irrelevant.  But it is a bit of a conundrum. The fact that we begin with a mention of the war testifies to the durability and inescapability of a particular association. It may act as a constant reminder against future abrasions, even as we lament the typecast that comes with it.

There is also the danger of forcing something new to efface the old, just for the sake of prepping and posturing. But the intention here is to revisit the importance of Kargil in its glorious past, on the Silk Route and the curious mercantile intermingling owing to its geographic location. 
The Silk Route Trade Route – Overview.

The Silk Route(s) remains now as some forgotten trodden road in history. It became eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, but in fact, items of every description for daily as well as luxury use were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items from these, in return. The overland and sea Silk Routes which were famous even in the reign of Alexander the Great and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become the centuries-old, multidirectional,  transcontinental thoroughfare for the movement, on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot, of everything from silk to spices and of course-people and ideas!

An important stop on the “Treaty Road” from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’ as it was equidistant from Kashmir, Baltistan (in Pakistan), Zanskar and Leh. Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Its etymology has evolved from the word Garkill. Where “gar” means from all places and “khil” to stop. And true to its name, all historical accounts of British and European travellers reveal Kargil to be just that. Situated along the river Suru (a tributary of the Indus, which flows into Pakistan) it boasted of a fort build by the Ladakhi King in the 19th century. The old caravan bazaar ran along the river and a few mud houses by the slopes nestled in a green oasis of the Suru valley.
A view of the Old Caravan Bazaar in Kargil from 1930 and 2013.

The usual trade route began from Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan in Central Asia, Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley in Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs. From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal via trains from where on these goods were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries.

Ek Tajir aur Ek Sarai- An Inn on the Silk Route: 
Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai in Old Caravan Bazaar, Kargil.

It is on this very famed mercantile route that Munshi Aziz Bhat, a pioneer in many endeavours, decided to erect a Sarai-an inn in Kargil in 1920. Munshi Aziz Bhat who officiated as the petition writer of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat, rose to prominence during the period 1880-1950 when he established his own large scale trading business enterprise called “Munshi Aziz Bhat And Sons”.

Munshi Aziz Bhat built the first ever Inn in Kargil for the central Asian traders that came to be known as the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai was constructed in 1920 and “…it would seem that for the transporters belonging to the villages downriver from Drass, Kargil (rather than Srinagar) was the centre to which they went in the first instance in search of work. The hub of this activity was Munshi Aziz Bhat’s sarai, which was a depot for goods going in all four directions...there was in particular plenty of coming and going between Kargil and Skardu…”(Janet Rizvi, Trans-Himalayan Caravans, Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh p:260). 

The Sarai is a three storied square building where are the trading activities were carried. It can still be found in Kargil on the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazar. This Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-west India and the discovery and range of mercantile items here, as opposed to just antique artefacts, has been an unprecedented find in recorded history.

A Museum; a lost history:
 The Aziz Bhat Sarai was part of the family possessions and property bequeathed by Munshi Aziz Bhat to his family. However, it remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than a treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of the museum – Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artifacts.

On the classic persuasion of a fortuitous encounter with a researcher, Jaqueline who immediately recognized the value of the contents, the family eventually decide to not only safe-keep the memorabilia, but intensify efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. But for not the intervention and advice of Jaqueline and family elders, the artefacts would have been forever lost as pieces of expensive antiques sitting in a shop. All the artefacts were thus gleaned and curated from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, from family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties. 

This family-operated, public museum stands in Kargil today, and offers anyone who visits, a rare glimpse into a forgotten era - The Indian and Central Asian trader culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum stands with a vision to not only preserve the artifacts but also educate the people of Kargil about the rich heritage of its motherland, both tangible and intangible. The museum aspires to be instrumental in creating a sense of belonging and appreciation among Kargil’s youth for their rich cultural past. 

It is hoped that in today’s fast paced life, the museum becomes a place to go back to, and to find the long lost wisdom, learning and inspirations that our ancestors have left behind for us.

The museum doors remain open for everybody all through the week at the Munshi Residence at Lankore, Kargil. It is a must visit for students, families and visitors who are passing by the transit town of Kargil. For more tech savvy visitors, one can browse through the online gallery at

(The author is the Head of Outreach at Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum.) 

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