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A Tale of Two Museums

Shaping cultural spaces in Leh and Kargil

By shailza rai | 1 April 2018

In 2001, a large collection of artefacts from the trans-Himalayan caravan trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were discovered in a dilapidated serai in Kargil’s Old Bazaar. It did not immediately occur to the owners—the Bhats, a prominent family in Kargil—to build a museum to house them.

The Bhats had lived in the city for four generations, working in the fields of politics, commerce and welfare. But it took three years, some debate and a few coincidences for the Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artefacts to open to the public. The curator, Aijaz Hussain Munshi, told me when we met in June 2017 in Kargil that the family had nearly forgotten its role in the caravan trade until his older brother, Munshi Abdur Rehman, decided to dismantle the old serai and build a new market for his sons. “While the workers were taking the structure apart, a mason stumbled across a turquoise stone,” he said. “The man brought it to my father, Munshi Habibullah, who lauded the mason for his honesty and asked him to keep it for his daughter’s wedding. After this, we all went to the serai and dug out boxes after boxes of artefacts.”

The museum includes one section with Munshi Aziz Bhat’s documents and personal belongings, another with clothes and travel gear used by traders and one with a jade collection, including a cup made of Sang-e-Qaif, a rare form of jade. It also showcases everyday items sold in the serai such as locks, blades, needles, shoe polish, soap and tea. There are exhibits of trade documents and coins and an imposing collection of over 8,000 trade letters and bahi-khata—trading account books—from as far back as 1902.

Initially, the family did not know what to do with these artefacts. They planned to keep some as decorations but send the rest to antique goods dealers. A chance meeting in 2002 between Aijaz and the American researcher Jacqueline Fewkes—whose work on the Silk Route had brought her to Ladakh—changed their minds. Over the course of her research, Fewkes had found 65 letters in the Leh Archives which were written by Central Asian traders to Munshi Aziz Bhat, Aijaz’s grandfather, as well letters from Munshi Habibullah, Aijaz’s father, to the traders. When the family, including Munshi Habibullah heard about the letters, it brought on immense nostalgia. Habibullah, who was then old and ailing, eventually agreed to an interview with Fewkes, in which he recounted the last three decades of the trade and his (and his father’s) role in it. Munshi Habibullah’s memories and stories made it apparent that the artefacts were not merely antique, but markers of the family’s role in the historic caravan trade. The family invited historians and experts to examine the collection. They were taken aback by the researchers’ enthusiasm and offers to assist the family with documentation of the artefacts.

“Finally, we decided to build a basic structure to house the artefacts,” Aijaz said. “We wanted it to be our family’s contribution to the city and its people.” He explained that the material is extensive enough to create a resource centre, but the paucity of funds is the biggest obstacle in the path to expanding the museum project. Between 2002 and 2003, Aijaz, popular in the city as a local historian, interviewed his parents and people of their generation, read books and consulted experts to flesh out a narrative for the museum. He selected the artefacts for display and initiated conversations about acquiring artefacts from surrounding regions. His nephew, Muzammil Hussain, who runs a travel company in Kargil, joined his uncle to assist him in managing the museum and worked on its outreach programme.

“Growing up, I wasn’t very interested in the serai or the artefacts,” Muzammil told me. “I was not aware of its historical value nor the fact that the Silk Route passed through Kargil.” He left the city after the Kargil War in 1999, studied in Jammu and later worked in Delhi and Mumbai. When he returned to his hometown in 2011, he was quite keen to take part in the nascent tourist industry. Muzammil began looking for collaborators and ways of training himself in the business of running a private museum. “I did a fellowship under Museum Leadership Programme partially sponsored by National Culture Fund under the ministry of culture.” He also invited researchers such as Latika Gupta, an India Foundation for the Arts Museum fellow, to conceptualise the exhibition, to create an inventory for the museum and source historical photographs.

Muzammil showed me around the exhibition in June last year. Pointing to a section on horse saddles, he said, “A decorative horse saddle to a Central Asian trader was like a fancy car to today’s young consumer.” According to Muzammil, the items on display comprise a fraction of what they have in their reserve collection. “At the moment, the revenue generated from the sale of the tickets in the five months of tourist season is only about enough to pay the care taker, print brochures and pay annual subscription for the museum’s domain space,” he said. The family has attempted to get government and non-government funding to support the museum without any luck. “I am not sure how our museum fails to fulfill the categories listed on most funding sites, we have the largest collection of colonial trade artefacts in the country!” Aijaz said in an exasperated tone. “We have also offered our land, yet funding and support eschews us.”

While the lack of public funding might indicate that interest in cultural artefacts from the caravan trade is a recent development among researchers, curators and museum makers, another recently conceptualised museum in Leh suggests otherwise.

The Central Asian Museum in the Tsas-Soma garden in Leh was inaugurated on 23 December 2016 by the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed. Overlooking Leh’s first mosque—the seventeenth-century Masjid Sharaf—it commemorates the city’s longstanding interactions with Baltistan, Tibet and Kashmir. Its imposing fortress-like structure has a ground floor with timber work, while the first floor has Bactrian flute columns similar to those in older mosques of Srinagar and the top floor has Balti influences with long pillar capitals and flower-pattern carvings.

The museum had a fortuitous beginning as well: in 2007, Anjuman-e-Moinul Islam, proprietors of the Masjid, invited the architect André Alexander, who specialised in architectural restoration, and his team at the Tibet Heritage Fund to work on restoring the old mosque. Around that time, a prominent historian from Leh, Abdul Ghani Sheikh, put forward the idea of developing a museum to celebrate Ladakh’s role in the Central Asian trade. The Anjuman offered the lands adjacent to the Masjid for the museum project and the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department volunteered to fund it.

However, it currently has very few artefacts from the regions. The display planned for the museum’s opening contained a handwritten Quran, carpets that were used as prayer mats in the trade era and a holy staff gifted to the Masjid by the first head Lama of Hemis, a Tibetan-Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. Ghulam Mustafa, a local artist who manages the museum told me, “Most of the artefacts displayed are from the Masjid or have been acquired from private collection of people. Research and survey is underway and we should see the museum collection shape in the next two years.”

I met the historian Ghani Sheikh, an advisor at the Leh museum, and other members at the museum on a June afternoon last year. Sheikh indicated that they might attempt to acquire artefacts from the Kargil museum to build a Munshi Aziz Bhat corner. The museum’s main agenda currently seems to be to expand its collection and build its team. Aijaz, however, appeared reluctant about the prospect of sending the collection elsewhere, preferring to have the museum to encourage community engagement and tourism, as well as an impetus for experts and enthusiasts to convene in Kargil. “Now I feel inclined against the collection leaving Kargil. The museum attracts both local people and tourist and showcases Kargil’s past. It will not be right for the people of the city,” he said firmly.

Shailza Rai is a freelance writer who has worked in museum planning, publishing  and the arts. She is currently developing an arts-based learning module for children and young adults.

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