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Rediscovering Kargil – Treasure Hunt Style

Coins issued by East India Company bearing the figure of Emperor George V

Who doesn’t like a good treasure hunt fable? There is an element of intrigue to the idea of digging the ground to find a precious chest of gleaming jewels or gold coins lurking within. Only in the case of Munshi Aziz Bhat’s family, it turned out to be a true story. The story starts nearly hundred years back in the scenic town of Kargil in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir where Bhat worked as a commissioning agent on the Central Asian Silk Route bartering goods such as spices, rice and silk with merchants from the Americas, Germany, China and Japan. In 1920, he built a sarai (inn) – The Aziz Bhat Sarai – where passing caravans could stop and refresh. It was a three-storeyed building – the ground floor was for lodging livestock, the floor above with seven shops served as the trading area for exchanging goods, and the topmost floor had rooms.

Brocade clothing with Otter or lynx skin inner, these caps are the stately gears of the Mongolians & Tibetan aristocracy

The sarai blossomed into a business hub because of Kargil’s equal proximity to Leh, Srinagar, Baltistan and Zanskar. But when the boundaries were demarcated in 1947, the activities came to an end, closing the sarai down.

Fast forward to 2003, when the family discovered they were literally sitting on a pile of treasure. Ajaz Hussain Munshi, grandson of Munshi Aziz Bhat, recalls, “In 2003, when we split the family assets, the sarai went to my uncle. He decided dismantle the sarai and use the land for commercial purposes. While demolishing the walls, the family mason found a turquoise stone along with a few other things. My father asked the mason to keep the gem stone as a reward for his honesty.”

Tibetan Carpet used by the head lamas of great monasteries, depicting a black-headed crane, named as cha Tung Tung in the centre

The mason’s accidental discovery turned into a historical moment – for the family and the town of Kargil. It led Ajaz Munshi and his brother Gulzar Hussain Munshi, a civil engineer, to probe further only to find a rich collection of gems, rugs, coins, toiletries and textiles. Although the brothers knew that they had stumbled upon a priceless piece of Kargil’s heritage, they were confused what to do next. Then, Jaqueline Fewkes, UK-based researcher, recommended preserving the artifacts and setting up a museum.

“None of us were authorities on Central Asian Trade or had any experience setting up a museum,” says Ajaz Munshi. And they had their day jobs as well. But the brothers took painstaking efforts; attended seminars, read books and educated themselves on preservation techniques and the Silk Route trading practices.

The result was ‘The Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian & Kargil Trade Artifacts’. It was set up in 2004 in the modest attic of Gulzar Munshi’s house. Today, Gulzar Munshi works as the director, Ajaz Munshi as the curator and their nephew, Muzammil Hussain Munshi manages outreach at the museum. “We’ve catalogued more than 3000 items into around 35 sections. The items include coins, armouries, caps, jewellery, shoes, dresses and more,” explains Ajaz Munshi.

His favourite picks among them? “The variety of caps from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Baluchistan, Mongolia and Kashmir that give a glimpse into the cosmopolitan character of Kargil and its importance as a trade centre,” he shares. Today, the sarai building is in a dilapidated state. The front portion has been demolished but the rooms inside remain, carrying traces of the town’s unique identity and how it stood at the crossroads of something special.

“Kargil has mostly been projected as a war zone. To some extent, this may be true since many didn’t know about it before the 1999 Indo-Pak war. But we have a huge cultural history; we have six different languages spoken here. Unfortunately, none of this has been documented,” laments Ajaz. But the museum has changed that narrative in its own way. It may have started to tell the story of just one trader and the Silk Route, but today it has extended to envelop the complex ethos of this town.

Text by Ramya Srinivasan (Twitter Handle)
Images by The Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian & Kargil Trade Artifacts

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