On a trip to the northernmost frontier of Ladakh, our writer visited a unique Balti museum set up inside a heritage house and discovered a culture that has survived despite wars and shifting borders. By Ridhi Agrawal
I had often imagined myself cruising on the Khardung La road or hunched atop a Bactrian camel in Nubra Valley. But when my friends and I finally made that summer road trip across Ladakh, I found myself drawn towards Turtuk, the northernmost village of India, beyond which lies the Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan.
The eight-hour drive from Leh to Turtuk, along the River Shyok, was memorable. The awe-inspiring views of changing terrain and the patriotic music that blared from the hundreds of army trucks en route kept us going through tough conditions. Turtuk, on the banks of River Shyok, was under Pakistan’s control until 1971. Post the war, the Indian Army gained control over the border village. But linguistically and culturally, the village and its people retain all the traits of the Baltistan region.
Once in the border village, I wandered in the narrow alleys, looking for the Balti Heritage House and Museum—the only touristy recommendation in this hamlet. Located near a polo ground, the 140-year-old house turned out to be unlike any other museum I had ever visited. There it stood—a dull white structure, built using stone and wood in traditional Balti style.
The shuttered windows of the museum reflected the mud-brown jagged mountains and the apple and apricot trees that made up its surrounds. A set of steep stairs led me to the semi-opened wood-roofed lobby on the first floor, where I hoped to meet the Ashoor family—Mohammed Ali Ashoor and his wife Rahim Bi—who run the museum. A hesitant callout arose Ashoor’s son, Ghulam Hussain Ashoor, from his afternoon siesta. His face lit up on seeing a visitor, and he offered me a tour of the family’s private living space—the kitchen-cum-living room. The museum was actually a house!
The young Ashoor stressed on the importance of the central wooden pillar, called bhus, typical to Balti architecture. Two adjoined hearts on it that resembled an endless loop, caught my eye. “It represents brotherhood, while the lotus flower at the bottom is a sign of purity,” he explained. Next, he showed me into a room that contained several clay and stone pots, which were traditionally used in weddings. Two 300-year-old granite pots stacked on a wooden rack were the highlight of this collection.
“This house was constructed in the 19th century by my great-great-grandfather, Ali Ashoor. Since his time till my father’s, there have only been single sons in the family, so all the wealth and property has remained undivided, which is why this house still belongs to us,” explained Ashoor. I noticed some hunting tools: an arrow, called dha in Balti, and a sword, called rahii, made using the horns of mountain goats, hanging on a wall. More mountain-goat horns glared at me as I walked into an attached storeroom filled with equipment once used by polo players.
“Though there was always a plan to open the house to the public, the idea of setting up a museum inside came much later,” said Ashoor. It was right before my visit in July 2018 that Ghulam Hussain Ashoor’s younger brother, Wasim Yahya Ashoor, began working on the idea.
As I walked towards the biggest room, long and ancient robes, shawls, furs, and caps, all made using yak wool and animal leather, came into view. In less than 20 minutes, the tour was nearing its end with the last of the rooms—the kitchen. The heirlooms in the kitchen were anywhere between a few decades and a few centuries old. As I sat down on the warm floor, Ashoor explained how the wooden and brass cutlery, some engraved with gemstones, were used. Picking up the foot-long mortar and pestle, he gesticulated, “This churned butter and milk, and the mixture was added to tea.” Striking the stone against the cha-mak, the gyadh-pu (stone stove) was lit.
I marvelled at the circular wooden block, paa-shing, used to imprint flatbread with beautiful designs, especially during special occasions like Eid, and the small windows that kept the cold out. Ashoor removed the red felt carpet, raising a trap door to reveal an underground granary that was used to store dry grain. The meticulous planning that went into surviving the region’s harsh winters was mind-boggling.
When I saw huge mugs labelled ‘Bray’ in an adjoining storeroom, I wrongly assumed they were meant for beer. Ashoor corrected me smugly. The wooden jugs were used to measure grain. Among other memorabilia were chan-ma, a sharp scissor used for shaving the fur off goats and yaks, a wooden weighing scale, a leather bottle and purse, and rope balls, made using sheep, yak, and goat hair, that sat on a wooden trunk.
As I reluctantly headed towards the exit at the end of the tour, I took one last deep breath to carve the house and its treasures in my memory. This is what history must smell like.
You can fly to Leh from Delhi on one of many domestic airlines that serve the route. To reach Turtuk (203 km), you can book a private cab for INR 7,000-9,000 from the Leh taxi stand. The Balti Heritage House and Museum can be reached by walking up the Farol side of Turtuk.
Set up over four acres of land, Turtuk Holiday Resort offers tented accommodation and all-day dining, with a Balti organic farm ensuring that guests have the option of savouring authentic farm-to-table local cuisine. turtuk.com
The Balti Heritage House and Museum is open every day from 08:00 am to 08:00 pm. Entry at INR 50 per person.