Twenty years after the 1999 war, locals and the administration are working to change the war narrative that has long stuck to this district in western Ladakh
Lounge travels to four community-run museums set up to preserve Kargil’s rich cultural heritage
Pakistani infiltrators watched my wedding from the top of these mountains," says Diskit Zomkar, 39, eating a bowl of thukpa—a soupy Ladakhi dish made with balls of wheat flour and vegetables. “They even threw stones, but people assumed they were falling because of wild goats," she adds. It was March 1999 in Garkone, in Kargil’s Batalik sector, when 19-year-old Zomkar married then 18-year-old Tashi Lundup. As villagers, dressed in their traditional gonchas and floral headgear, danced to folk songs of the Brogpa community and drank copious amounts of chhang, the local alcoholic drink made with barley, the Indian military was still unaware that Pakistani infiltration over the Line of Control (LoC) had been under way for a few months.
Two months later, after Tashi Namgyal from the same village discovered these intruders while searching for his missing yak, he informed the Indian troops. And soon, their village was taken over by the Indian Army. India was at war with Pakistan and Drass, Mushkoh, Kargil and Batalik were the epicentres of conflict. Shells landed perilously on homes, schools and in villages, young children were relocated for safety, and men and women risked their lives to remain on their land and serve the army—as porters of ration and ammunition to the high peaks, and carrying down bodies of soldiers, providing warm food and any other assistance they could.
“What really came to our rescue were the people of Garkone village and the adjoining villages almost as far as half-way to Leh, who volunteered to be porters for us," says retired Brig. Devinder Singh, who was commanding the 17 Infantry brigade in Batalik in 1999. “It was not only heartwarming but really helped us in those initial days. I think this was a very big highlight in the system and we thank them with all our hearts for this."
In the same year, 63km from Garkone, Ilyas Ansari was a 12-year-old student at a school in Poyen, Kargil. His uncle, Mohammad Hassan, reached his school at 10.30pm to take young Ansari home to Hunderman, a village along the LoC—where shelling was heavy and the perils of war far greater than at an already vulnerable Poyen. It seemed like a curious decision—to leave the main town to climb rugged mountains towards the border on foot, without so much as a flashlight to guide them for fear of being seen by hawk-eyed Pakistani soldiers—but one that revealed the potency of emotional disruption that conflict triggers, perhaps even more than the fear of death and physical injury.
During the 1971 war, Hunderman, then part of Pakistan, had been captured by the Indian Army and the villagers had undergone a change of nationality overnight. This resulted in divided families—brothers, fathers, paternal and maternal uncles remained in Pakistan and would never see their relatives again. Ansari’s father too was separated from his brother. “They learnt the pain of separation from the 1971 conflict," says Ansari, now 32. “They didn’t want to be separated from me in 1999, in case India saw a shift in borders again. They feared this more than death. So they took me home."
The Kargil war may have been India’s “first televised war", with young broadcast journalists in camouflage helmets providing sensational accounts from army bunkers, but this heightened media attention barely made even a passing mention of people like Ansari and Zomkar. Close to 25,000 civilians were displaced and others stayed on, both groups suffering the consequences of cross-border conflict—living in caves, hiding under rocks, being pulled out of schools, waiting for peace. Yet they remained largely ignored.
In their 2009 paper, Disarming Violence: Development, Democracy And Security On The Borders Of India, Ravina Aggarwal and Mona Bhan write “...following the Kargil War, even though there was a flood of contributions and donations all over India for families of soldiers and martyrs, barring the distribution of food packages, blankets, and firewood by Oxfam and Save the Children’s Fund, there was very little participation by non-state agencies in either providing immediate relief measures or assisting in refugee rehabilitation, sanitation, health and social reconstruction of Kargil."
Now, 20 years later, with infrastructural restoration completed, the people of Kargil are asserting a completely different kind of might—that of their rich and diverse cultural heritage, with locally run museums coming up across villages. Through these, locals and the administration are working to dislodge the war narrative that has long stuck like shrapnel to this district in western Ladakh.
Most recent among these efforts is Project Zbayul (which means invisible village in the local language) in Heniskot, a Buddhist village that was once home to an offshoot of the Namgyal dynasty (1460-1842). It is rife with local legends—secret monasteries, hard-to-spot rock statues and an invisible civilization that protects villagers.
Others have been set up over the last few years too—the Himalaya Aryan Museum: Labdakh Culture and Heritage in Lundup and Zomkar’s village of Garkone last year, one in Ansari’s ancestral home in Hunderman in 2015, and the Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian & Kargil Trade Artifacts in 2005. According to an official from the tourism department of the state government, a similar project in Padum, Zanskar, is also under way.
However, changing perceptions is not easy.
Two decades have passed since 26 July 1999, when Indian soldiers evicted the last of the Pakistani military from this side of the LoC—today, it’s observed as Vijay Diwas.
And while much has changed in the new millennium—Wikipedia has been launched, the status of Pluto has suffered a significant downgrade, the US has been hit by, and is recovering from, what was considered the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, and India’s second mission to the moon has been launched—the perception and idea of Kargil seems to have stood still. It is still associated with war, still imagined as a garrison town, teeming with bunkers and cross-border conflict.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Invisible Village
As our shared cab from Leh zooms towards Kargil, watching the landscape unravel is like playing with a flip book in real time. The mountains switch seamlessly between stark, bare and brown to lush green, rocky red or a royal purple. Prayer flags dance over stupas, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags hang from trees (when we visit, the party has just returned to power in Ladakh) and the harsh sun turns the snow on high peaks into a blinding white—reflected sometimes in the equally coruscating river below.
In this consistently beguiling tableau of Ladakhi landscapes, the village of Heniskot, historically known as Henasku, is hard to spot, in spite of a few signboards that indicate its arrival, and ours, to its home district, Kargil.
Situated behind a mountain, and until recently only accessible after a difficult trek through a steep gorge, Heniskot’s location has long protected it from invaders. “The Pakistan army reached Heniskot in the 1948 war over Kashmir but, deceived by the gorge, thought there was nothing on the other side and so carried on towards Leh without entering the village," says its 73-year-old resident Tsewang Dorjay.
Today, Heniskot is easier to reach. A work-in-progress road allows locals and tourists to travel up and down in capable vehicles. It also reveals the ruins of a fort and the 500-year-old home of the lhonpo, or royal adviser, which has survived the switch from monarchy to democracy, unlike the title of the lhonpo itself.
As recently as 19 years ago, Tsewang Spalbar, 65, a descendant of the original lhonpo, lived in this home. But today, the old three-storey structure has been restored and converted into the Cultural Heritage Museum of Henasku.
This museum is the result of dedicated research by Roots Ladakh, a travel agency and organization that works to preserve and promote Kargil’s cultural past, in collaboration with Little Local, which organizes volunteering vacations. Their teams worked with the community for three years to curate artefacts and restore the space. The latter was not easy—some precarious sections of the museum still feature endearing (but mortally important) warning signs like “Don’t cross the line if you want to be fine".
“Two years before this was set up, we took small groups of very specific, skilled people—photographers, researchers, one artist, an architect—to the village," says Muzammil Hussain, 32, who runs Roots Ladakh with his younger brother Tafazzul. In June, the team identified 11 home-stays, and, along with 35 students from Cept University, Ahmedabad, their initiative Project Zbayul turned the Lhonpo House into a museum featuring photographs and artefacts.
Heniskot’s legends find you even before you enter the museum—on the trail leading up to it are tiny black footprints painted on strategically placed rocks, almost as if left there by Lilliputians. Punchok Angmo, 56, from the royal family of Heniskot, explains their significance. "The belief is that Heniskot is also inhabited by invisible people called zbalu," she says.
Standing on the top floor of the museum, Angmo points to a small white speck among the rocky mountains. “That’s their home, no one has seen them in this generation, but back when people had only good in them, they would see a zbalu, and for luck you were meant to take away their white caps and sticks," she adds.
The village, shrouded in myth, has embraced a blend of Buddhist and Bonist (a sect of animistic shamanism) traditions. But Heniskot and its neighbouring areas also have a very real place in the recorded history of Ladakh. According to Mughal records, Janet Rizvi reveals in her book Ladakh: Crossroads Of High Asia, in 1639, the then king Sengge Namgyal was defeated while trying to reclaim this territory lost by his father, Jamyang Namgyal.
“It must have been here, around the year 1600, that a Balti army lay in wait for the king of Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyal, after perhaps tricking that inept ruler into crossing the Fatu-la in winter; and having outmanoeuvred him and defeated him, proceeded to overrun central Ladakh. And it was here that, 40 years later, Jamyang’s son Sengge Namgyal, Ladakh’s most famous king, met a force sent from Kashmir at the command of the Great Moghul himself, Emperor Shah Jahan," writes Rizvi. The fortifications, including the ruined castle of Stag-tse and Heniskot, stand out as evidence of the strategic importance of the area.
Angmo, still known locally as the “queen" or gyamo of Heniskot, is a dwindling reminder of the erstwhile political system. She says her father was a direct descendant of Sengge’s grandfather, Tshe-wang Namgyal, nephew of the famous Tashi Namgyal, who built the Leh Palace. Today, she works as a senior assistant in the agriculture department in Baroo, Kargil, to support her two children.
The system may have changed but “people are very respectful—the queen still sits right in front at village festivals, followed by the lhonpo, even though the queen’s rule may not officially exist any more," she says.
The fort and museum, however, provide material memory of these olden times. The Yar Khang (summer room) has weapons such as the raii (a metal sword with a round shaft) and starey (an axe with a detachable wooden handle), utensils such as the zangsbu (a copper bowl for serving and cooking), a large clay pot in which chaang was once prepared, agricultural tools, components of traditional attire and equestrian equipment, including saddles and a wooden ball used for playing polo.
In his 2017 Tedx talk in Surat, “Lessons In Cultural Restoration In War Torn Countries", Muzammil of Roots Ladakh describes his experience as a class VII student during the 1999 war—recalling vividly the destruction of homes, schools and lives. “A lot is lost in a war, but we overlook something far more important. More than anything, we lose our identity, our culture in a war," he says.
This is particularly true for him, given his deep ties to the region. Muzammil’s great-grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat, was the petition writer for Hari Singh, the maharaja of Kashmir between 1925-49. In 1921, Bhat also opened a four-storeyed serai (a resting spot for traders and travellers) in Kargil, which was an important point for trade on the Silk Route, since it was equidistant from Leh, Srinagar, Zanskar and Baltistan. Partition closed this road forever and Bhat died a year later, but Muzammil’s uncle, Ajaz Hussain, opened a museum named after him in central Kargil.
Having grown up in this context, Muzammil’s perspective as an insider, and then an outsider who studied in Pune, has shaped much of the work he does today.
Sitting in the café he set up over four years ago, he tells me over mason jars of cold coffee that as the state has worked to promote “war tourism"—recreational or research-based travel to war-hit areas to visit sights such as memorials—he is trying something a little different. “War tourism is already part of the larger narrative in Kargil. A lot of people are coming from Leh just to visit the war memorial in Drass. I don’t think we should ignore that, but let’s also talk about other things," he says. “Kargil has so much potential in terms of adventure tourism, wildlife, mountaineering, bouldering, rock climbing. And a rich cultural history."
But before any of that can be promoted, another more fundamental clarification is repeated ad nauseum in Kargil—on the streets, in the museums, hotels and restaurants. “What else can we see in Kargil before we head to Ladakh tomorrow?" a group of tourists asks Ajaz, 42, at the Aziz Bhat Museum, a short drive from Hussain’s cafe. Patiently, he tells them that they are, in fact, already in Ladakh—Kargil and Leh, bifurcated in 1979, are its two districts.
In The Importance Of Being Ladakhi: Affect And Artifice In Kargil published in 2013, Radhika Gupta describes this common misconception. “In India and abroad, Ladakh has for long been associated with Leh and its predominantly Tibetan Buddhist inhabitants. Few are aware that half the population of Ladakh is Muslim, of whom the majority are Twelver Shi’a, and live in Kargil," she writes.
This is the case for Ajaz and his family, who have spent years trying to fight the conflation of Kargil with the Kashmir Valley. “The land of Kargil is one of sacrifice, one where all Indians speak of unity and integration because of the war," he says.
Back in Lundup and Zomkar’s village of Garkone, physical traces of this war have disappeared but for the army posts and checkpoints that are conspicuous in the area. Now, in what is famously, or infamously, known as the “Aryan valley", the couple has also set up their own home-museum. And though conflict has been a part of their lives—an uninvited guest at their wedding and in their homes through the following months—the Himalaya Aryan Museum: Labdakh Culture and Heritage preserves what really matters to the community. It is a tangible memory of old Dardi culture in Garkone, a wood-and-stone manifestation of a history otherwise preserved through folk songs.
Adjoining their newly constructed Payupa Guest House, Lundup’s ancestral property, he says, belonged to the original settlers from Gilgit-Baltistan (now claimed by Pakistan as its fifth province)—built centuries ago by men from the Dard tribe (who find mention in the writings of classical Greek authors like Megasthenes and Ptolemy). The projection of this village to tourists as home to the last of the Aryans may be a misnomer, but Dard festivals are still celebrated here with pomp—the old festival of Bonona, for instance, is observed once in three years, the other two years reserved for festivities in the nearby village of Dah, and a gap in between for their now Muslim brethren across the border in Ganok, in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Last year, Lundup worked tirelessly to convert the dilapidated storehouse to a three-storey museum. Locals think of this is a heritage site since they believe legendary Buddhist mystic, Guru Padmasambhava, visited it centuries ago, and left his handprint on a stone beside the traditional metal stove.
Aside from this religious rock, the museum now houses old Brogpa attire, tools and utensils. Its stone and mud walls, low ceiling with wooden beams and small windows transport visitors to a time before concrete and cement. Detailed labels alongside each item and photograph, as well as researched articles about the history and festivals on a pin-up board, reveal the exhaustive and sophisticated effort put into the exhibit, despite the limited resources available to Lundup.
“Tourism is long term and sustainable. When people come from outside, we can show them our rare culture and even generate income for people," says Lundup, who curated the museum that was inaugurated last August by then Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju.
While this museum and the others in Heniskot and Hunderman are newer entrants in the movement to museumize Kargil, it was in 2005 that Ajaz, encouraged by researcher Jacqueline H. Fewkes, curated and set up the Munshi Aziz Bhat museum. Opened only a few years after the war, it’s located in the heart of central Kargil—its glass cabinets, filled with artefacts large and small, running across the periphery of the space and a bright red wall-to-wall carpet.
As Ajaz greets us in the museum, dressed in a navy blue shalwar kameez, he switches quickly from one aspect of Kargil to another. “After the partition of the family property, my grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat’s serai went to my paternal uncle, who wanted to demolish it and build a new structure in its place," he says. But a mason who had long been associated with the family found turquoise gems while dismantling the structure, and handed them over to Ajaz’s father. The senior Munshi asked the mason to keep these precious stones as a reward for his honesty, but as a result of this, the family went on to discover a rich reserve of items—left by traders from Germany, Tibet, Yarkand, Turkistan, England and elsewhere.
“The attempt was that the museum become a space that prompted a reimagining of the popular association of Kargil with only the war and conflict, but also highlight the forgotten cosmopolitan histories of the region before the 1947 partition and the drawing of borders, which impacted the trade routes of which Kargil was a major centre," says curator Latika Gupta on email. She worked on the project of re-curating the permanent exhibition of the Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum in 2014-15, the result of a collaboration between the museum, the India Foundation for the Arts and the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation.
The museum today has on display buttons from Hyderabad, shawls from Varanasi, and a Bible printed in England in 1938 in the local Purig language (using the Roman script since Purig doesn’t have its own). “We may not have ostentatious ornaments in gold but every artefact here has a story—you will see a lampshade, a sophisticated item that made its way from Yugoslavia to Belgium, onwards to Germany, and from Germany to Kargil, at a time when air travel hadn’t even been conceived," says Ajaz.
Ansari’s ancestral home, Unlock Hunderman: Museum of Memories, also features wares from all over the world, aside from remnants of the 1971 war. In the same room as the shell of a Bofors gun, bullets, and shrapnel, are tins of Polson’s French chicory coffee, New Light perfume bottle and a painkiller called Aspro, both made in Karachi, and other items from across the globe.
The making of an industry
These museums perform the dual role of preserving history and creating an additional source of income. “What happened in 1999 was that although the war was over, I feel people didn’t have confidence to start something here or invest in anything or start anything new. The apprehension was that anything can go wrong at any time," says Hussain.
But this is changing.
Tsewang Spalbar, and his five siblings from the lhonpo family in Heniskot, grew up poor. In 2000, he realized that the high location of Lhonpo House, which is now the museum, made it difficult to access water and resources and would have been a dangerous spot for children. Now he lives with his family in a house closer to the fields. “This old house was lying empty for 20 years and, because of this, now my family can earn supplementary income to support our children," he says. To this end, villagers such as Angmo have even opened their homes to travellers, creating a small but hopeful industry of tourism.
In Garkone, and Hunderman too, Lundup and Ansari hope their museums will attract tourists and help visitors understand the lives of people on the border, while simultaneously dispelling the impression of Kargil as a war-torn region. “This museum, aside from preserving our culture, sends out the message that Garkone is now a peaceful place—if it wasn’t, then how would we have been able to retain so many of our old artefacts?" asks Lundup.
So this year, as the nation pays tribute to the brave soldiers who fought on the front lines, and this summer sees the political leadership flock to the war memorial in Drass, the people of Kargil hope that the world can also recognize the rise of another set of heroes that made the region—the cultural traditions of its six ethnic tribes, their language, poetry and song, the heritage of times long before 1999, and the peaceful coexistence of rituals, religions and rich relics of trade. War may have brought Kargil into this generation’s public consciousness 20 years ago, but peace and historical prosperity can cement it.