Along the steep, labyrinthine streets of Turtuk village, a perennial stream gushes. It rushes past stone-walled houses with colourful wooden doors down to fields of buckwheat and barley hemmed in by the jagged Karakoram mountains. In one corner of the village, I meet a group of elders immersed in conversation as they prepare to set out for their evening namaz. They tell me the unique story of their citizenship: after Partition, those born before 1947 went from being Indian to being Pakistani; then after the 1971 war they went back to being Indian — all this without ever having moved from their homes in this small village in north-eastern Ladakh.
Some 300 families live in this ‘border village’ right on the boundary of the Pakistan-administered region of Gilgit-Baltistan. Turtuk is just 10 km away from Thang, India’s northern-most village. While the other parts of Ladakh have a strong Buddhist and Tibetan influence, this region has a distinct Balti Muslim culture. And today, the lives of these people, their everyday culture, and the local Balti history is being documented in a quiet way by the residents of Turtuk.
I walk up the creaky wooden ladder of a low-ceilinged stone house to meet 70-year-old Mohammad Ali. Ali has transformed a part of his house into a museum called the Balti Heritage Site. The house, he says, was built in the 15th century, when the village was first established.
“ Yeh ginti mein nahi aata . (It is not possible to put a date to this),” he says when I ask about his ancestry. This region, in the valley of the Shyok river, was part of the Silk Route.
Trade in Turtuk
According to the Balti Heritage museum, Turtuk was once inhabited by the Brokpa tribe, and was later taken over by warriors of Central Asian origin, whose descendants are believed to still populate the village. With time, people from different regions came into Turtuk for trade, and the region thus has a rich racial diversity.
Ali, surrounded by memorabilia and everyday objects that his family has collected over generations — thick coats made of yak hair, agricultural implements made of ibex horns, stone vessels — says, “People have stopped using many of these objects.” He points to a stone dish. “This is probably 300 years old but now they are being replaced by brass and copper.” The houses used to be made of stone and wood, but some of the new houses have begun to use cement. “The wooden homes kept us warm in winters when temperatures drop up to minus 20 degree Celsius.” In an adjacent room, his family is busy, and they offer us freshly picked apricots.
History comes alive
“The idea of a museum came from my children, who had seen museums in other parts of India and wanted to create one for our own unique village,” says Ali. His seven children are now working or studying in different parts of the country. When the museum first opened in May this year, visitors were mainly from the village; then residents from neighbouring districts, including school children began visiting, and they were followed by a few tourists.
But it isn’t only the museum that brings alive local history, the village itself is packed with living heritage: the architecture, the dense neighbourhood fabric, the sustainable ways of life such as the traditional dry composting toilets. The wooden homes are naturally insulated, and built to follow the natural slope of the land, and often, when you pass by a closed door, you can hear a donkey braying or a cow mooing inside.
Inside the durbar
A few alleys away from Ali’s house, at the end of a cul-de-sac, is a building that seems nondescript except for the crest of an eagle guarding the gate. But inside is a courtyard with wooden columns, an intricate frieze of geometric and floral patterns, leading to a regal room upstairs. Sitting in this durbar, with a shawl stylishly draped around his shoulders and brandishing a carved walking stick, is Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, a descendent of the Yabgo dynasty and the ‘king’ of this former palace.
“You are now in Baltistan, not just in Ladakh. This powerful dynasty ruled Baltistan for over 2,000 years,” he says. Pointing to the family tree he has inscribed on the wall of the room, he describes the reign of the various kings, the splitting of the kingdom between three sons, and how it eventually becomes a part of Pakistan. Kacho continues to live in the former palace with his wife. He has converted the former durbar into a museum of the dynasty’s relics — headgear used by the kings and queens, old coins, swords and armaments — and he tells visitors his story and takes them on a tour of the palace which he says has been relatively unchanged since the 15th century.
The palace, he says, is relatively unchanged since the 15th century, except that a few walls have been replaced with glass so that the artefacts are displayed against a lush green landscape. Outside, on his terrace, he plucks green grapes from an overhanging vine and offers them to us.
Turtuk is much greener than most parts of Ladakh, surrounded by fields and orchards. “This is very fertile land; we grow apricots, grapes, apples, cherries, peaches,” says Gulam Haider, who runs a guesthouse.
In the freezing winters, Turtuk becomes isolated. “We stock up on food; the whole family gathers in the kitchen around the stove with chai and namkeen. If there is electricity, we watch TV, otherwise we visit relatives. It is aaram , no tension,” says Haider, whose guesthouse does not see any business in these months.
Turtuk was opened to tourists in 2010. It is still not a popular destination, but tourists have started trickling in. The village now has homestays. A map points out the wooden bridge, a blacksmith, a traditional cold storage. A few restaurants offer Balti cuisine such as kisir (buckwheat pancakes) and walnut dip, and praku, a locally made pasta-like dish. The village also has annual events like polo matches, and a cultural festival. Haider tells me of a visitor from Pakistan who travelled to Turtuk via Lahore and Delhi just to be able to stand on the opposite side of the border.
But a sudden influx of tourism could lead to Turtuk facing problems that other popular parts of Ladakh face: mounting plastic waste, rampant construction and water shortage.
“Places like Pangong Lake have colonies of fixed luxury tents that use diesel generators. There is no way of disposing the garbage generated. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen in Turtuk. Visitors need to be sensitive to local culture and environment,” says Kush Sharma, founder Rural Odyssey, which works on eco-friendly travel and rural livelihoods.
For now, life in Turtuk carries on as usual. Children are returning from school, people are walking back from work, and the muezzin’s call is echoing across the fields. And once the sun sets, the only sound will be that of the constantly gurgling stream.
An architect-urbanist, the writer is simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the madness of city life.