Not many people know that the landlocked Ladakh region, perched in high mountains and pushed into the peripheries of the world, was once a melting pot of linkages between the Indian subcontinent, Turkestan, Tibet, and China.
Ladakh region – also referred to the as cold desert – and till last year the northeastern part of disputed Jammu and Kashmir -- off late draws attention and headlines only when Indian and Chinese armies get engaged in the game of one-upmanship.
Last year on Aug. 5, India divided the region and carved out a separate centrally administered territory of Ladakh comprising Leh and Kargil districts with a claimed area of 97,872 square kilometers (37,789 square miles).
Since a large part of the region, Aksai Chin is in Chinese control, the existing area of two districts accounts for 58,321 square kilometers.
According to the 2011 census conducted by India, the region houses 274,289 souls, comprising 46.40% Muslims and 36.65% Buddhists. Leh district, which has 66.39% Buddhist population, also has 25 Muslim-majority villages.
According to Abdul Ghani Sheikh, a historian and author, due to trade and civilizational linkages, Turkish used to be the second language in the Ladakh region, till a century ago.
The center of Great Game in late 19th and early 20th century between British, Chinese and Russians, Ladakh enjoyed special status for offering South Asia direct land access to Turkestan cities of Yarkand, Khotan, and facilitating the free movement of goods, merchants, explorers, spies and soldiers across different routes crisscrossing mountain passes.
Elderly people sitting on the footsteps of the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa -- a Buddhist monastery -- and at the historic mosque in downtown Leh, get nostalgic and their eyes twinkle with the mention of Turkistan, Yarkand, Kashgar and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet autonomous region in China.
“Reopening the Karakoram Pass would be hugely beneficial for Ladakh and will make Leh once again a major trading center,” said Rinchen Dolma, a researcher at the Central Asian Studies Centre at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar.
He said an important link of the ancient silk route used to pass through the fabled land of high mountains with extreme weather conditions, where one perspires and shivers at the same time.
1947 events isolated the region
The events of 1947 that partitioned the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, the mountainous region that runs from Ladakh to Pakistani-administered controlled territories of Gilgit, Baltistan, Hunza and Chitral and Chinese-controlled territory of Aksai Chin became peripheries and cut off from the world.
According to Salim Beg, former director-general of the Tourism Department of Jammu and Kashmir, Leh which was an important trade center for Central Asia, became a periphery.
“Hadud-e-Alam, a 9th-century Persian manuscript, mentions Ladakh’s trade links with neighboring countries. From the 9th century onwards, the geographic proximity of Ladakh to the Central Asian towns, whose people embraced Islam around that time, can be gauged from the fact that they traveled to Makkah for Hajj via Leh,” he said.
Beg, who is also a historian and convener of Art and Cultural Heritage Trust, said the Turkish language had emerged as lingua franca and gained popularity in Leh and Nubra, the village en route the Leh-Yarkand road.
Many Turkic words found their way into the Ladakhi language and are still part of it. Some Turkic traders, all Muslims, settled in Leh and married Ladakhi women. These families, called Turk Muslims or Argons, have grown and branched out and are fully integrated into Ladakhi society. Besides Turkic or Argon Muslims, other ethnicities in the region are Moons, Mongoloids and Dards.
Till the early 90's, Muslims and Buddhists in the region lived amicably. Muslims even shared Buddhist-sounding and hybrid names like Muhammad Tshering and both communities considered epic poets Gyalam Kesar and Norbu their heroes. Even the villages lying between Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil, the tradition of inter-community marriages were a common feature.
The relations took a bitter turn following a series of agitations when Buddhists revolted against Srinagar's rule and demanded status of the union territory. The demand was rejected by the majority Muslim population. Buddhist leaders engineered a social boycott of Muslims, which lasted for years.
In 1994, India conceded Leh a measure of autonomy vis-à-vis the Srinagar constituting Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. In 2003, then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed extended this measure to nearby Muslim-majority Kargil, too. In the 30 councilors' team, 26 councilors are directly elected from the respective constituencies; four councilors are nominated from the minority group and women.
In 2012, in the Buddhist-majority Zanskar tehsil of Kargil district, clashes were reported between Muslims and Buddhists. The trigger was that 22 lower-caste Buddhists belonging to four families had converted to Islam. Zanskar Buddhist Association enforced the social boycott of Muslims in the region that lasted till 2015.
The region is also home to many unique customs, even though many of them are fast disappearing.
Several historians have identified Dards as the only authentic descendants of the Aryans left in South Asia.
In 1979, two German ladies had come all the way to tie the nuptial knot with pure Aryan partners, to bear Aryan children since many Germans also consider themselves superior to other races.
But before they could find partners to cohabit they were arrested by the police as the area was close to China border and out of bounds for foreigners.
Though banned in 1950 through a law, some remote areas in the region still practice polyandry, where a woman has many husbands. Dolma Tresing, a NGO worker, explains that the polyandry was practiced to prevent the division of landholdings.
“In most of the cases two or more brothers would share one wife. The main reason was also low birth rates. In polyandrous marriages, the norm was that a woman would bear more children,” she said.
"Some practices are typical to the Buddhist culture. We offer our younger sons to the monastery where they pursue religious education. Monks play a significant role in our lives. Monasteries are not mere seats of religious power, they also shelter the poor. Most villages have one such monastery (gompa)" Tsering Namgyal, headman of a village in Nobra tehsil, told Anadolu Agency.
Kargil suffered most
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Asghar Ali Karblai, former chairman of Kargil Hill Development Council, said the Kargil part of the Ladakh region has suffered the most in the India-Pakistan conflicts of 1947, 1965, 1971 and was the focal point of the 1999 conflict.
"Unlike in Kashmir and Jammu regions, many villages in our area have kept shifted during these wars. The cluster of seven villages in the Turtuk area was part of Pakistan till 1971. Now they are in Indian control. The villagers still have families on the other side,” he said.
Abdul Hamid Sheikh, a researcher at the Centre of Central Asian Studies, said that revenue documents of the region are still stored in the Mahafiz Khana (Record Keeping Center) of Skardu town on the Pakistani side. For any land dispute and litigation, people use their contacts to get copies of those records from Skardu.
Further, the region remains cut off from the rest of the world for six months as two of its links Zoojila pass to Srinagar, and Leh-Manali road gets closed in early September till May. Since just 620 square kilometers of area in the region is under cultivation, supplies have to be stored to use them for six months.
Karblai said that the region has been demanding the round the year opening of its 192-kilometer (119-mile) Kargil-Skardu road to allow them to reconnect with the world.
The Khardung La pass in Nubra Valley is barely a three hours’ drive from Kashgar, Khotan, and Yarkand – three main centers of the Silk Route. "Ours is a story of missed opportunities", Namgyal said.
Haji Abdul Razaq, a retired teacher-turned-historian of Nobra valley, recalls that in the pre-50s era he would easily travel with his father to Gilgit-Baltistan, now in Pakistan, and Yarkand, a town in China's Xinjiang.
"Leh and Nobra were major halting points for traders coming from Central Asia. My father was in charge of one of the stores on the Silk Route. From trading of jewels to rubies to carpets to stones, the route turned Ladakh into a cultural melting pot," recalled Razaq, who still possesses rare stones and jewels traded through the Silk Route.
"After the 1960s war with China, the routes were closed once and for all. The wars with Pakistan and China have divided many families and snapped cultural ties with Central Asia. They closed Ladakh for the outside world," said Razaq.
Nobra valley's prized possessions, two-humped camels are last living memories of the Silk Route. These camels were first brought by Turk traders to Nobra through the Silk Route in 1870.
The Silk Route traders traveled via Ladakh through the Eastern Karakorum passes carrying cargo comprising silk, carpets, silver, coral, velvet, brocades, charas, and other drugs. These were then transported to Kashmir and Punjab. In the other direction, spices, shawls, honey, dyes, shoes, and precious stones moved towards Tibet and Central Asian cities.
Alongside the exchange of goods, a composite culture had evolved in the region. However, post-1947 with the closure of the international routes, the region suffered in fortunes. “This also resulted in a progressive loss of their status and cultural spaces. A feeling of disempowerment and alienation has crept in the region,” said Beg.
Museum to depict Turkic connections of the region
A few years ago, Beg together with the help of the local populace converted the area near the 17th century Tsa Soma Mosque in Leh into a museum to depict Turkic connections of the region. According to Beg, the restoration of the mosque took three years and the museum building was completed by 2014.
This three-story building with galleries and projections is a masterpiece and a unique representation of traditional Tibetan and Central Asian architecture built with local stones, wood, and locally available mud for binding.
“The Turkic Argon families have donated antiques, artifacts, and manuscripts to the museum. The ground floor of the museum has a photo display of the geology and antiquity of Ladakh. The largest and most significant collection has come from the Jamia Masjid. Precious Yarkandi carpets, highly valued manuscripts, and other items that were stored or used in the Jamia Masjid were transferred to the museum. These include a sacred staff donated by the Head Lama of Hemis Gumpha,” he said.
Historian Sheikh said when the mosque was built in the 17th century, the Head Lama of Hemis Monastery, Stagtsang Raspa had presented the wooden staff to the imam. It was kept at the mosque as a relic. The carpets were made especially for the mosque by wealthy Turkic traders.
Galwan Valley and Daulat Beg
Galwan valley which is in news off late due to the ongoing confrontation between India and China was discovered by Turk Argon Muslim Gulam Rasul Galwan, who accompanied British and other expeditions across the Karakoram, Pamirs, and Tibet as a porter.
In 1892, Galwan went to Pamirs with Earl of Dunmore. During their return journey, the caravan strayed from the traditional route in Aksai Chin due to bad weather conditions. This was a difficult challenge for the expedition leader, Galwan.
Sheikh writes that his instincts and immense knowledge of treacherous terrain led him to a new path passing through a ravine which resulted in rescuing the caravan from a very critical and existential challenge. Denmore was pleased with Galwan and named the valley as Galwan valley and the ravine as Galwan Naalah.
Similarly, the plains of Dault Beg Oldi, India’s forward military base, is named after Turk noble Sultan Said Khan, alias Daulat Beg, from Yarkand. According to former MP of Ladakh Hasan Khan, Beg’s caravan was held in a snowstorm here, while returning from a military expedition of Ladakh and Kashmir.
Four centuries later when British Surveyor General Walter Lawrence reached the place to enumerate and prepare maps, he found human and animal bones strewn in the plains, where temperatures dip to minus 55 degrees Celsius in winters. Locals told him that they were remains of Daulat Beg of Turk Oldi tribe. He named the area after the Turk noble.
According to Dolma, the British interest in Ladakh began with the Great Game, which was the product of an intense Anglo-Russian rivalry during the 19th century. It led the British to make Ladakh as a buffer zone to keep an eye on expansionist Russia.
Sheikh in his book History of Ladakh and its Culture and Civilization writes that Kashmir’s Dogra ruler Maharaja Ranbir Singh along with rulers of Gwalior and Nepal in 1872 had written a letter to Czar of Russia Alexander II, offering him help in case he invades India.
The contents of the letter which was sent through Fargana’s Russian Governor Gen. Sakojay Leif, fell in the hands of British spies, which led them to send their representative Henry Cayley in the region and ban rulers form having any diplomatic or external contact. Sheikh writes that Czar in his reply had said that he was planning to attack Ottoman Empire and occupy Istanbul.
“After conquering Istanbul, we will rest for two years and prepare for launching the war on India,” said the historian, quoting Russian reply to the Kashmiri ruler. Russia ultimately launched a war against Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1877.
Since then a lot of water has flown through Indus that traverses the Ladakh region and becomes the main river of Pakistan. In the words of Dolma, it is in the interests of both India, China and Pakistan to realize the strategic importance of Ladakh, not to fight but revive linkages and the glory of Sikh Route, to ensure peace, prosperity, cross-cultural and human security.
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