A mere mention of the name Kargil evokes unpleasant memories of the bitter battle fought with our neighbour on icy heights in 1999 and understandably so. People might just know for a fact that the place once served as an important trading and transit centre in the Central Asian Trade network but who would give it enough credit for the significant role it played on the Silk Route. But endeavours like Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum, set up in this quaint town of Ladakh in Kashmir, aspire to keep that slice of history for posterity. And now, the private museum run by two brothers — Aijaz Hussain Munshi and Gulzar Hussain Munshi — is bringing its rare unseen and antique artefacts related to the Central Asian Trade, culled out from its exhaustive collection to the Capital for the first time.

Hubble Bubble or the hookah pipes from Yarkand, rugs from Kashgar, fabrics — dyed and raw silk from Khotan in China, natural dyes, costumes, jewellery, coins, shoes, utensils, ammunition and a few photographs are few out of the 100-plus objects that would be exhibited in the show.

Strategic location

The scenic valley, on virtue of its strategic location — Srinagar, Leh, Zanskar and Baltistan in Pakistan are all equidistant from here — witnessed many caravans transited here with exotic merchandise like silk, brocade, carpets, tea, gold, silver and opium, etc on their way to and from China, Tibet, Yarkand and Kashmir. Munshi Aziz Bhat, who was Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh's official petition writer, built Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai for the traders. He constructed a 100 feet by 110 feet square shaped structure. A first of its kind in the town, it was big enough to accommodate 400-500 strong caravan. “While the basement had a stable for horses, camels and yaks, the ground level was meant for goods and the cattle, the first storey had rooms and a kitchen hall. There were guards, servants, masons, carpenters and even sex workers in the caravan. Those days, barter system was in practice and sarai acquired some of the pieces as payment for its services and also, my grandfather (Munshi Aziz Bhat) had turned a trader. The sarai had transformed into a hub where different traders met, negotiated and struck deals,” says Gulzar Munshi over the phone line from Kargil.

Every region had its own speciality. If some traders brought salt and wood then Yarkand traders brought in gold and silver along and their Indian counterparts dealt in spice and wool. “There were Hoshiarpuri lalas, Baltis from Skardu in Baltistan and traders from Purik tribe like us who were very active in this business here. The presence of largely luxury items pointed towards the fact that the trade belonged to the elite classes,” adds Gulzar. The death of his grandfather in 1948 and the subsequent closure of the Silk Route resulted in the sarai being shut for years. “My grandfather had willed the sarai to my uncle and he decided to build a shopping complex. And it was only then, the sarai was opened after 52 years and it was decided that we will get to keep the goods kept inside. We didn't realise their importance even then until a scholar from Pennsylvania came searching for the dyes that came through this route. It was she who opened our eyes to this treasure; the finished goods like soap, shoe polish, shaving blades that came from Europe and the exquisite Central Asian stuff. Now, we have converted a part of our house into the museum displaying around 5000 of these exhibits. A local herb called ‘khampa' is used to preserve them but all this is still not enough. The government needs to notice it,” concludes Gulzar.

(The exhibition is on at India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg from July 24 to 29)