Free Press Journal

Kargil: The trade town


Kargil has much more to offer than the war of attrition with Pakistan says Ratnadeep Banerji. It stood a trade node on the Silk Route.

The mention of Kargil rankles one about the atrocious Kargil War. The present town of Kargil remained a major halt on the trans-continental trade route today known as the Silk Route. Soon after the Indian independence, the geopolitics of the Asian continent changed and mercantile trips on the Silk Route got effaced out. 

The Silk Routes of trading traversed the entire length and breadth of Asia on its way to Europe even before the days of Alexander and the Han Dynasty in Pic 2China. Amongst the several trajectories during different periods of time the usual trade route in the 19th and 20th century began mostly from regions of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in Central Asia in the present Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley right from Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs.

From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal by trains before being were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries. The same route received back the produce and manufactured items in return. Kargil was an important staging point for traders, being a link between India, Central Asia, Tibet and Baltistan.

The traders could be foreign merchants, ordinary peasants, nomads, porters and even princes. The Yarkandi traders from Sinkiang (Xingjiang) or Central Asia going to Ladakh brought with them Pashmina, salt, carpets, bales of cotton and silk fabric, porcelain crockery, dyes and medicines amongst a host of other commodities and luxury goods.

Pic 1Town of Kargil

 ‘Kargil comes out of the word Garkill – ‘Gar’ means from all places and ‘khil’ means to stop. Thus Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Situated atop the Karakoram plateau, Kargil falls equidistant from Srinagar, Leh, Zanskar and Baltistan (Pakistan). Kargil has nurtured several tribes and languages. The major tribes of the region are Purik, Balti, Bhoto, Shina, Dardi and Kashmiri. Before the Dogra rule, the region of Kargil was called Purig and was an independent state.

The legacy of Munshi Aziz Bhat

In 1915, Munshi Aziz Bhat tried his potluck into business in partnership with a Punjabi silk merchant Karan Singh that he later dissolved and Pic 5in 1920 established his own large scale enterprise with the help of his two elder sons and named it as ‘Munshi Aziz Bhat and Sons’. Soon enough, Munshi Aziz Bhat became the core large scale trader in the region.

Their enterprise imported from Europe and then sold in the shop sundry items like soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. The carpets were imported from Central Asia. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today.

The items were bartered between the traders from all over the world but later with the influence of East India Company and Christian Moravian missionaries, goods began to be traded in money and silver coins. The shops was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that “one could even find Birds’ Milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai”.

Pic 4He also built the first ever Inn in Kargil for central Asian traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai, built as a three story square building in 1920 still stands by the banks of river Suru in Old Caravan Bazaar. It was the main hub of activities, a depot for goods meant for all directions including Tibet, India and Baltistan routes.

It also housed Bhat’s seven shops. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for boarding and lodging.’ says Azaj Hussain Munshi, the grandson of Aziz Bhat who is now the curator of Munshi Aziz Bhatt Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artifacts.

Munshi Aziz Bhat was appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat. As a petition writer for the Maharaja he had managed to network with Princes, Kings and high ranking officials from all around the world, including the Moravian missionaries and East India company officials who frequented the town for business and strategic concerns.

‘My great grandfather passed away in 1948 just one year after the Independence of India and closure of the great silk route. Today, Pic 6we have a small family-operated, public museum in Kargil with a vision to preserve Munshi Aziz Bhat’s legacy and offer a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian business culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries’ says Muzammil Hussain Munshi.

Kargil remains aplomb in all historical accounts of British and European travellers. Manju Kak with Saranyu Trust says, ‘These routes also fostered the fascination of western explorers. Tibet was the mystic Shangri La, the mythic land of gold.

When Kumaon Garhwal fell under British rule after the defeat of the Gorkhas in 1815, Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, sent 28 year old George Bogle to penetrate the Himalayas.’ The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year.