Uncovering the past: Losar’s Hashala

Every society and culture has its own method of calculating time and has developed its own calendar. The people of Ladakh follow the lunar calendar to mark various events and record history. One of the most important social events in the annual Ladakhi lunar calendar is Losar or ‘new year’. There are several rituals and practices associated with such celebrations, which are rooted in our history.

However, as observed by historian Rohit Vohra, Ladakh’s documented history doesn’t provide details for the period prior to the 11th Century. Most of what is known for this period is in the form of legends, myths, and folklores. One such folklore that still persists in Nubra and Purig is that of Cho Bongskang. Cho is a title given to elderly leaders in Ladakh, Bong refers to a donkey and sKang to leg. He was an oppressive ruler at Teble (possibly in present-day Baltistan) and had an invincible body made of steel. Once he asked his subjects to stitch a shoe for him. All of them stitched a pair of shoes for him but none of them fit him. The only pair that fit his feet resembled the hooves of a donkey and was stitched by an elderly woman. After this incident, he was called Cho Bongskang i.e. leader with donkey-like hooves.

He loved eating a goat kid and he would demand that villagers deliver a goat kid to his palace. Each family would take turns to offer a goat kid to him and this became a ritual in the village. One time, a woman offered a new-born goat kid whose mother died while giving birth to it. Since it did not have a mother, the woman had breast fed the goat kid herself. When this goat kid was served, Cho Bongskang loved its taste and devoured it. He was curious about the new taste but the cook was not able to provide any satisfactory answer. The cook summoned the owner and learnt that she had breastfed the goat kid, which had changed its taste. When Cho Bongskang heard this, he demanded that human children be served to him instead of goat kids. He reasoned that if a goat kid could taste so good due to human breast milk then human children would taste even better.

This cannibalistic demand sent a wave of horror through the village. They were already fed up with his oppression and cruelty and this demand proved to be the final straw. The villagers started conspiring to kill him. Ironically, none of the villagers knew how to vanquish the invincible Cho Bongskang. However, there was one elderly villager who knew that Cho Bongskang’s heart was made of lac (a resinous substance that melts when heated), which is why he was scared of fire. So, the villagers hatched a plan to kill him by digging a ditch inside the gate of the palace. The next time he went on a hunting expedition, the villagers lit juniper branches and chased him towards the palace. The plan worked as intended and he fell into the pit. The villagers then threw the burning juniper branches into it. This ended Cho Bongskang’s reign of terror and freed the people of Teble from his monstrous demands. Since then, they have been celebrating their new year with fire in a ritual that came to be known as Dong-Me (Me means fire).

The origins of this story seem to be lost today. However, the celebration of his death is still practiced in the form of rituals using fire. In Baltistan, people celebrate a festival called Me-phang (me is fire, phang means throwing) and in Ladakh, Buddhists celebrate the onset of Losar with fire.

Losar celebrations start from the 25th day of the last month in the Tibetan lunar calendar. This day is called Galdan Namchot. Since the Tibetan calendar follows the lunar cycle, the date for Losar keeps changing on the Gregorian calendar. Buddhists generally mark the night of Galdan Namchot by lighting butter-lamps around their homes.

Similarly, they follow similar rituals on the night before Losar. The youth from the villages also practice a tradition of slinging fire, which is called Hashala. They stuff a few layers of jute bags soaked in kerosene, tie it in a knot and attach it to a chain. At night, once the monastery gives the signal by sounding a trumpet, musicians start playing Daman (drums). This is the cue for the youth, who light the knots on the jute bag and sling it around their head continuously causing sparks to hit surround surfaces and shining light around them. They run around the village in this manner and villagers encourage them by shouting, “Haishala-Hoshala.” At the end, they gather at a chosen point. In Leh town, they gather in front of the mosque built on the king’s land. Here they compete with one another to see whose fire lasts the longest.

Text by Jigmet Yangchan Katpa

Photographs by Jigmet Yangchan Katpa and Norbu Sponbo

Jigmet Yangchan holds a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences and a master’s degree in Anthropology. She is currently worked on a project being implemented by Ladakh Ecological Development Group. Her instagram handle is @all_about_ladakh.

End of an era: Tashi Rabgais (1927-2020)

Tashi Rabgais was a prominent scholar, historian and one of Ladakh’s great intellectuals. Despite all his achievements, he was always humble and down-to-earth. He had great command over Ladakhi language and Buddhist studies. He has written numerous books and research papers including The History of Ladakh called the Mirror which Illuminates All. His contribution to the study of Ladakhi culture is immense and innumerable. He worked closely with many national and international researchers, scholars and students. In many ways, he served as a bridge between ancient and contemporary study of Ladakh.

Tashi Rabgais was born in the Tukchu family in Serthi (Sakti) village of Leh district in 1927. He completed his initial education from a Primary School in Chemde village and secondary education from Tyndale Biscoe School, Srinagar. Later, he completed B.Sc. degree from Sri Pratap College, Srinagar.

Tashi Rabgais started his career as the Personal Assistant to Ladakh’s first Deputy Minister in the J&K Govt., the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, from 1953 to 1958. He then worked as an Assistant Editor/Cultural Officer in Gangtok, Sikkim. After this, he served as the In charge for Ladakhi Programmes on Radio Kashmir, Srinagar from 1960 to 1962. Then in 1963, he was appointed Lecturer in the department of Buddhist studies at Delhi University. In 1964, he was appointed Secretary of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) and worked there for the next seven years. At the same time he also worked as Information Officer, J&K Government from 1964 to 1982. In 1986, he was appointed Education Officer at Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG). In the 1990s, Tashi Rabgais represented J&K state as a member of the Sahitya Academy, New Delhi and as an Advisor to the Ministry of Culture’s North Zone Cultural Association, Government of India. He was also one of the founding members of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS). He has a Chair in the name of Gyalwa Lungchen Rabjam at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh in recognition of his services to Buddhist studies.

He started several newsletters such as Yargyas Kongphel and Tendel Sargyur in Ladakhi language. He authored five books including Natir Puja (1961, play translated from English to Ladakhi), History of Ladakh from early times to 1947 in Ladakhi, and a translation of Ancient Futures to Ladakhi, He curated a collection of 127 Ladakhi folk songs, which was published by J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages in 1970. Similarly, a collection of articles in English titled, ‘Ladakh Tradition and Change’ was published in 2004. In addition, he published a collection of 115 original songs written in Ladakhi, which was titled ’Jig-rten Kuntu Gawey Lu in 2007. In 2003, he published the first edition of a play titled Zosgar Tus kyi Melon, where the characters are all wild animals and the story talks about the problems faced by wildlife. In 2003, he wrote a book called Mangs kyi Ringlugs on democracy, In 2009, he wrote a book titled Sustainable Spirituality in Buddhism. In addition to all this, he has made immense contribution towards developing text books in Ladakhi for schools in the region.

Tashi Rabgais had great love for Ladakhi culture and his contribution for preserving culture, language and literature was appreciated by government and non government organisations. In view of his contribution towards preserving Ladakhi language and culture, the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages conferred him with the Robe of Honour in 1971. In 1999, he was awarded the Bhasha Samman by Sahitya Akademi for his multiple achievements. He was also honoured with the Dogra Rattan award in 2007 by the Council for Promotion of Dogri Language, Culture and History, Jammu and Voice of Millions, New Delhi. He was conferred with the State Award for Literature by the J&K Government in 2008. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh honoured him with the second Ladakh dPal-rNgams Award in 2017 for his exceptional contribution in enriching Ladakhi language, literature and culture. Over the years he was felicitated by several local and national organisations.

My association with Tashi Rabgais goes back to 2010 when we invited him to inaugurate the office of the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation (HCHF) at Lonpo House in Leh’s old town. Speaking on the occasion, Tashi Rabgais emphasised the value of preserving and promoting various cultural activities for the betterment of society. He was also the patron of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) and I used to visit him often. Each time, I was impressed and inspired by his wisdom, advice and sense of humour. One day, some of us went to meet him for an interview and he kept telling us “Aap Watan Tumare Hawale Hain Sathiyon” (the nation is now your responsibility). Later, he explained that he has done what he could in his lifetime for Ladakh’s culture and literature and now it’s the responsibility of the present generation to carry that work forward.

In 2019, we invited him for the inaugural function of 19th IALS conference held in Leh where he was felicitated. As the patron of IALS, he delivered a speech, which may have been one of his last public speeches for an international audience. In his speech, he recalled his experience working with various scholars and the contribution of IALS to different fields of Ladakh studies.

Tashi Rabgais passed away on 28 October, 2020 in Leh. His passing is a great loss not only for Ladakh but also for the larger Himalayan region and the world of research. This was well articulated by former president of IALS, John Bray in his condolence message. He said, “More than anyone else that I know, Tashi Rabgais would have qualified for the title of ‘scholar sage’, deep in his scholarship, broad in his wisdom, and all the time full of humour.” We have lost a champion of Ladakhi culture and a treasure house of knowledge. He remains an inspiration for us to take pride in our identity.

Text by Dr. Sonam Wangchok

Photograph by Sonam Gyatso

Dr. Sonam Wangchok is President of International Association for Ladakh Studies and Founder of Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation

Research in Ladakh: Status, gaps and opportunities

Reliable scientific data is a critical ingredient in the development of well-informed and evidence-based policy. By and large, this has been inadequate in the Indian context despite focusing on research and development (R&D) over the last seven decades. Scientists generally conduct research to generate and analyse data, which is then published in the form of journal articles, books, reports etc. The extent to which scientific data is used for policy-making remains unknown.

Evidence-based policies are anchored in actual processes and reflect real challenges. In contrast, opinion and ideology-based policies are shaped by views and experience of a few individuals involved in policy-making. Thus, evidence-based policies are more relevant for development as they are well grounded, have clearly defined issues, provide potential options to address these issues along with monitoring of impacts and outcomes. The evidence is meant to inform the policy process rather than influencing its objective.

However, evidence-based policy requires reliable data sets obtained by independent scientific organisations that are not directly involved in policy-making. Scientific and academic institutions generate large amounts of data, which are generally available in publications or in institutional archives. We need tools from the field of data sciences to convert these data sets into formats that are useful for policy and governance.

Many researchers claim that the Himalayas is one of the most data deficient regions on the planet. For instance, a recent report by ICIMOD titled The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment concluded that if current global warming scenarios continue, the Himalayan region will experience changes with temperatures rising beyond the Paris Agreement of 2015, including more rainfall and extreme weather events. However, scientists warn that inadequate data has prevented us from gaining a robust understanding of the impacts of a changing climate on the Himalayan region. The Himalayas are home to about 240 million people but currently lacks sufficient data to understand and mitigate climate change.

As part of its mandate to study the Himalayan environment, the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE) conducted an extensive survey of published literature on biodiversity of the region to evaluate if the region is really data deficient. This search yielded around 30,000 research articles, 5,000 doctoral theses and 4,000 books published on the Himalayan region in India, Nepal and Bhutan. While this represents a fairly large quantity of literature, the information it contains has not been translated into a format useable for policy development. Also, this information remains scattered and is not accessible on a single platform.

In this regard, there is need for an interface between policymakers and researchers to identify priorities for data generation. While ease of access to information can bridge some of these gaps, researchers are often reluctant to share their data. This will require a policy to promote data sharing and public archiving while also preserving the integrity of the researcher’s intellectual labour. In addition, availability of information on a common platform will create communications channels between the scientific community and policy-makers. All of this will help reinforce evidence-based policy making.

The newly-formed UT administration in Ladakh is striving to formulate policies for sustainable development of the region, including a vision to make it carbon neutral. This is an opportunity for Ladakh to prioritise evidence-based policies. Ladakh has a fragile and vulnerable environment. Traditionally, communities lived in scattered hamlets clustered around water resources while being well-adapted to local conditions with minimal environmental impact. In recent times, increasing population and intensified developmental activities have had a negative impact on the environment. Infrastructure development for tourism has led to intensified energy consumption, increased pollution, biodiversity loss etc. The declaration of Ladakh as a Union Territory is expected to increase human influx due to tourism and new employment opportunities.

In this regard, research and development institutions in Ladakh can play a critical role in generating scientific data to shape new policies. Currently, there are several research instituitions working in the region (Table 1). A majority of these insitutions focus on education, environment, and agriculture sector limited focus on social sciences, earth sciences, medical sciences etc. While existing research institutions can be engaged to inform suitable policies, this is also an opportunity to establish new institutions to fill current gaps. A consortium of existing organisations needs to be developed in Ladakh to create a comunication channel to exchange scientific ideas.

Table 1. Prominent research and development institutions in Ladakh (Year of initation)

After joining as a scientist at the newly-formed Ladakh Regional Centre of G.B. Pant NIHE in Leh, I started exploring research literature for Ladakh. I did an exhaustive search of global bibliographic databases to identify research papers, books and book chapters pertaining to Ladakh. This yielded around 3,000 publications of which a large majority focused on biodiversity followed by earth sciences and social sciences (Figure 1). I also found a gradual increase in scientific literature on Ladakh over a period of time (Figure 2).

Fig. 1 Subject-wise distribution of published literature
Fig. 2 Temporal growth of literature pertaining to Ladakh.

This literature represents a considerable volume of data for a region that is relatively small. However, the information in this published literature needs to be translated into a format useable for policy development. It needs to be compiled and collated for specific sectors that addresses policy and governance questions and identifies data gaps. Also, most research literature on Ladakh has been published by non-local scientists with limited contribution from local researchers. In this regard, Ladakhi reasearchers need to be promoted as they have a better understanding of issues and challenges with a direct stake in the future of the region.

As a new UT, Ladakh has a unique opportunity to form strong links between research and policy-making. A good example of how this can work in practice is the UT administration’s recent push to adopt organic agriculture in Ladakh. This requires research into various facets of agriculture. For instance, current varieties of apricots, apples, walnuts, buckwheat, etc are well-adapted for the conditions in Ladakh but there is a lot of scope to study their nutritional value. There is similar scope in other sectors too including handicrafts, traditional Amchi medicine system etc. Thus, the UT administration needs to work with the scientific and local communities to set research priorities to identify and tap the unique advantages that Ladakh enjoys. This will help the UT administration regulate the use of these resources while ensuring that they provide equitable benefit to the people of Ladakh.

Earlier in 2020, the Prime Minister of India articulated a vision to develop Ladakh as a carbon neutral region. This will require well-informed policies backed by scientific inputs. In this regard, the environmental impact of each sector of Ladakh’s economy will need to be scrutinised scientifically. The expertise of research institutions in Ladakh can be tapped to inventorise sources of carbon emission and identify energy sources and technologies with low carbon emissions. For instance, Ladakh has enormous potential for renewable energy sources such as solar and geothermal energy. There is need for research on how these resources can be tapped without harming the environment. While the government has initiated large renewable energy projects, research is needed to develop technologies to fulfil household-level energy needs. Such technology will help mitigate some impacts of large energy projects.

All this can happen only if research in Ladakh is strengthened and closely linked with policy and governance. Research projects addressing priority areas for Ladakh must be initiated to fulfil policy needs with a clear mechanism for accountability. Civil society too can be tapped to collect useful data through citizen science approaches. The first step will be to develop a research policy for Ladakh along with financial support, monitoring, evaluation, and a system for data retrieval and access. In addition, mechanisms need to be developed to communicate scientific research through periodic workshops and seminars that facilitate interactions between policy-makers and researchers.

By Dr Suresh Rana

Dr Suresh Rana is a scientist at the Ladakh Regional Centre, G. B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Leh

Open letter: Why engineers need a training facility

Whosoever can address this issue!

I am a serving engineer in the Public Works Department (PWD) in Leh district. Based on my experience, I feel that there is a dire need for a training facility for serving Civil Engineers (and engineers in general) in Ladakh. 

I was inducted in 2015 in PWD Department as a Junior Engineer. Much to my dismay and shock, we didn’t have any sort of orientation programme, forget the sort of intensive training that doctors, teachers and civil servants have to undergo when they join service. 

In this regard, there is an urgent need to establish a technical training facility in Ladakh to cater to the needs of all technical training. On following grounds:

1) Engineers (Civil Engineering in my case) are not directly responsible for people’s lives like doctors. However, we are indirectly responsible for many lives. In view of this responsibility, periodic training is necessary in the whole spectrum of skills exercised by an engineer including designing and executing safer buildings and roads. 

2) Since no training is available, newly inducted and serving engineers have no options but to resort to past (archaic) practices that we have learnt in college.

3) We need to stay updated with new technologies at construction sites (say with new survey equipment ranging from total stations to drone surveys) and software used in everyday management of office and project work. In this regard, a proper technical facility for engineers is necessary to stay updated. Else, it is quite likely that many serving engineers will become obsolete in the near future.

4) Ever since Ladakh was declared a Union Territory, there is a surge of developmental funds and engineers must be oriented and trained properly to utilise the funds properly and in a timely manner.

5) In addition to technical knowledge, engineers also need to meet people on a daily basis. Good interpersonal skills are a must to ensure smooth functioning in public dealing in the office. Accordingly, periodic training must include like communication and interpersonal skills.

This matter requires an urgent solution that will cater to training to technical employees on the same lines as the Education department (District Institute for Education and Training).

In this regard, we engineers have approached Deputy Commissioner, Leh (letter attached), the hon’ble Lieutenant Governor and the Hon’ble Member of Parliament. I now appeal to the larger public to help us find a solution to this urgent need.

Tsering Angchok Mayur 

Tsering Angchok Mayur is a Junior Engineer in the PWD Department, Leh.

Unearthing the mysteries of rZongi-Kor

Ladakh is famous for its culture, beautiful landscape, crystal clear Pangong-tso, Nubra’s sand-dunes, Changthang’s pashmina, lush green valleys of Kargil, the beauty of Zangskar, the forts that dot the landscape and so on. Ladakh still holds many secrets and unexplored mysteries. I recently explored one such mystery.

There is a village called Sharchay in Kargil district of UT Ladakh. The village is located at an altitude of 10,000 ft (3,050m) above mean sea level (msl). The village is surrounded by towering mountains that seem to hide more than they reveal. The village dates back to ancient times. It came to the forefront in the 20th Century as it is located on the approach route used by mountaineers to climb Mount Gyunkar, whose peaks stands at 18,000 ft (5,487m) above msl. An elder in the village mentioned that till middle of the 20th Century there were no restrictions in these areas and people were able to travel around freely. He explained that many mountaineers used to visit this area before the Partition of 1947 and the creation of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan that cuts through this landscape. At the time, climbers would trek down from Mount Gyunkar towards Sharchay and then follow the route along the Indus to Mount K2 in Baltistan.

The village still lacks road and phone connectivity and continues to struggle for these amenities. The village is famous for its agriculture and fruit production especially walnuts and apricots. It is also famous for the high quality of pure Salajeet, which is used in traditional medicinal systems, found around the village. The inhabitants of the village are considered to be one of the oldest Dardic communities in Ladakh, who are believed to have migrated from Gilgit many centuries back.


Sectional sketch of rZongi-Kor by Architect Fayaz Ali

Local folklore mentions a cave near the village. Recently, a group of us explored this mysterious cave near Sharchay. This group was led by architect Fayaz Ali who brought the necessary equipment such as heavy torches, rope, measurement tap and gauges etc to measure and explore the cave. In addition, we also had actor Kacho Ahmed Khan who assisted with the exploration, recited verses from the Holy Quran and entertained with his melodious voice. The group included hotelier and entrepreneur Ali Asger, who has considerable experience exploring such caves in India and Nepal, and Zakir Hussain Jaffary, a renowned film-maker and hotelier who documented various facets of the cave. We also had Sadic who is a famous skier and a teacher whose expertise as a mountaineer proved invaluable in this expedition. The group also included local Kargili trekkers, Iftikhar Baravi and Hasnain Rajayee.

The team spent the first night at my home in Sharchay and headed out the next morning after breakfast. It took us to two attempts to find the cave. The cave is known as rZongi-Kor, which is derived from two Dardic words, ‘rZong’, which means chisel and ‘Kor’, which translates as cave. The name suggests that the cave was created and decorated by humans with a hammer and chisel.

The cave is located at the same altitude as the village and is divided into two large chambers. The entrance is through a three-foot high and two-foot wide doorway, which is 80ft from the base camp. There is a 15-foot wide natural façade around the entrance.

The villagers have been following a ritual each time they enter the cave. This ritual has been inherited from our ancestors. When a group enters the cave, one person remains at the entrance reading the Holy Quran. Thus, whenever someone visits the cave, an elder from the village accompanies them to recite passages from the Holy Quran at the entrance. It’s believed that reciting verses from Holy Quran protects the visitors from the dark energies and spirits of the cave.

We honoured this tradition and as we entered the cave, Ali Asgar started reciting Sura Yasin, which is one of the most important parts of the Holy Quran. Once he finished the recitation, we entered the cave. A village elder, Hajji Mohd Reza remained at the entrance to guard it till our safe return. Thereafter, we faithfully followed this procedure each time we entered the cave over the next month that we spent exploring and documenting this cave system

The first chamber of the cave is 50 ft (15.2m) wide,130ft (40m) long and 100 ft (30.5m) high. The second chamber is 174 ft (53m) long, 30 ft (9m) wide and 80 ft (24.4m) high. Beyond the second chamber, there is a duct with a three-foot (0.9m) wide opening and 400 ft (122m) long passage heading downwards at an angle of 60 degrees towards the Indus. The river is below the cave at an altitude of 8,491 ft (2,588m) above msl and meets one of its tributaries in Dangal Batalik, which is about 15 kms from Sharchay.

According to local legends, the cave has multiple exits including one in Gachoo near Chiktan side, which is around 50 kms away. There are folktales in the village that in the past people would use cats to locate various exit points. There is a famous folk-story of two sisters. One sister lived in Sharchay village, while the other lived in Dangal Batalik. The sister in Sharchay village tied a burning torch to the tail of a cat and released it at the main entrance of the cave. A few days later, she heard that the cat had reached her sister after exiting the cave at Dangal Batalik.

We found white marble in the cave, which had been carved into intricate designs including domes and minarets. I am confident that this cave will provide new knowledge of ancient civilisations and the geological history of the Himalayas.

Village elders told us that our ancestors used to store their valuables in the village. In ancient times, robbers from Chilas would occasionally plunder Sharchay village as it was rich in agriculture and horticulture. This forced the villagers to use caves to hide their precious goods. However, one day over 100 robbers from Chilas descended on the village. As they plundered the village, they discovered that the villagers had hidden their precious goods in the cave. They headed to the cave and entered inside to look for the loot. However, none of them were ever seen again. Their fate remains a mystery to this day. One plausible explanation is that they got lost in the maze of ducts and passages inside the cave and died there. People of Sharchay claim that there are human skeletons inside the cave along with metal pieces.

Our exploration of this cave was a fascinating experience. rZongi Khar is said to be the largest cave discovered in Ladakh so far. I penned a poem in the local Dardic (Brok-skat) dialect to celebrate this fascinating fragment of our heritage:

rZongi-Kor Sharchays hove bait.

rZongi-Kor aso bunu taj bait.

rZongi-Kor di azuo hang aaso niwoung.

rZongi-Kor aaso bunu turiwo bait.

(rZongi-Kor cave is the heart of Sharchay,

rZongi-Kor cave is the jewel crown of our vicinity,

There lies our luck over the podiums of the cave,

rZongi-Kor cave is the shining star of our village.

Many aspects of this cave system remain shrouded in mystery. It will require more detailed studies by relevant experts to unearth these secrets. In the meantime, we are creating a documentary film of our exploration, which we hope to release soon.

By Aarif Hussain

Photographs by Zakir Hussain Jaffary

Aarif Hussain (popularly known as Aarif Ladakhi) is a resident of Sharchay village, Kargil. He holds a B. Tech degree in Civil Engineering from Kurukshetra University in Haryana.

Exploring Ladakh’s Turkic links

Owing to its geo-strategic location, Ladakh has historically played an important role in ancient trade especially the Silk Route. It was the melting point of culture that connected the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia, China and Tibet. The presence of the two-humped Bactrian camels in Nubra valley is living evidence of these historical links. There was a special connection between Ladakh and Turkestan in Central Asia. I was reminded of this history recently as I watched the popular Turkish series called Ertugrul.

Ladakh was part of an important feeder route to the main Silk Route trader. It is thus not surprising that merchants from Central Asia who visited Ladakh had a significant influence on its social, cultural, and political spheres. There was an intermingling of culture, ideas and ideologies and in some ways, this link also became one of many gateways through which Islam reached the region. Traders from Turkestan married local women and settled in Ladakh and integrated within its social fabric and had a major impact on the socio-cultural life of Ladakh, especially its Muslim communities. Two major groups that are still present in Ladakh are the Dards and the Arghons. While the Dardic community traces its long history into the prehistorical era, the Arghons are of Turkic origins. All of this came to my mind as I watched Ertugrul, which is about the Turkic tribe called Kayi who invaded Constantinople, which was controlled by Orthodox Christians at the time and went on to found the Ottoman Empire.

While watching the serial, I kept thinking back to my own community in Zangskar. I saw many similarities between them and the Kayi. Perhaps a Turkic Muslim trader had somehow managed to reach Zangskar and decided to settle down in the valley. In Zangskar, the most common second name for a Muslim girl is Khatun. On a personal note, my maternal grandfather named me Zainab Khatun when I was born. As I was growing up, I somehow did not like the second half of my name as it seemed very old fashioned. I thus had it removed officially at some point and replaced it with Akhter. Now, I realise that my original name was a classic name and that my grandfather was perhaps ahead of his times.

In Ertugrul, I noticed that the second name of almost all the women was Hatun. For instance, the lead character is called Halima Hatun (The ‘K’ is silent in Persian). The word Hatun was used as an honorific for women during the Ottoman period.

I was also struck by the clothing of the people in the series, especially the womenfolk. The style, pattern, and especially the headgear is very similar to that of the Muslim community of Zangskar. In the past, this kind of headgear with a small round cap decorated with ornaments inside and a long flowing chador was worn by almost every grown-up woman. Nowadays, it is limited to marriages and to special occasions. Today, if you attend a Muslim marriage in Zangskar, it is customary for the bride’s friends to wear this traditional headgear. Some elderly ladies still wear a round cap below their long scarves or shawls, although these are general without ornaments. I looked through my personal archives and found the photograph used above. It is of my grandmother, the late Hajji Fiza Khatun. She is wearing a traditional Ladakhi Muslim dress with traditional jewellery and the unique head gear complete with flowing ornaments attached to it. This headgear is strikingly similar to those worn by the women in the Turkish series.

Another striking similarity that struck me is the sword dance performance during marriage processions. When Ertugrul marries Halima Hatun, the groom’s friends led by Turgut perform a sword dance to local music. In Zangskar too, the groom’s friends perform such a sword dance to on the sounds of traditional Ladakhi music. As far as I know, this sword dance is only performed by the Muslims of Padum during marriage ceremonies. While other communities in Ladakh and Baltistan do perform sword dances it is not a part of their marriage ceremony as it is in Padum.

Similarly, a number of Turkic words have become an integral part of Ladakhi language today, while many words in the two languages sound very similar. For instance, the Turkic word for snow, water and onion are Kar, Su and Tsoan, which is very similar to their Ladakhi equivalents of Kha, Chhu and Tsong. Even the wooden bowls and spoons used by the Kayi in the series is similar to items traditionally used in Ladakh. Many people still use a wooden container to churn curd and make butter even today and the wooden cylinder to churn butter tea.

It is said that wealthy Turkic traders, mostly Arghons, donated money and gifts to construct the first Mosque in Leh. The relatively new Central Asian Museum in Leh depicts these historical connections between Ladakh and Central Asia. Many of the carpets and other gifts donated by these traders are now housed in this museum. Many Turkic Arghon families of Ladakh are known to have donated antiques, artefacts, and manuscripts from their family to the museum.

More recently, the Galwan valley has been in the news as the site where India and China had a violent face-off in June 2020 with casualties on both sides. This valley was named after Ghulam Rasool Galwan, who was a Ladakhi adventurer with Turkic ancestry who assisted many European and British explorers in the 19th Century. The Galwans remain a prominent Muslim family in Ladakh even today.

It is fascinating how a TV series can ignite one’s imagination to explore one’s own heritage more closely. Though Dirilis Ertugrul was started in 2014, its popularity has spread across the Indian Subcontinent, especially amongst Muslim communities. It is now streaming online and is accessible to a much wider audience. I am watching this series and look forward to exploring more fascinating connections between Ladakh and its neighbouring regions.

By Dr. Zainab Akhter

Dr. Zainab Akhter works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

State of higher education in Ladakh

On 11 June, 2020, the Ministry of Human Resource Development released its fifth edition of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) of Indian universities in which University of Kashmir and University of Jammu were ranked 48 and 52 respectively. Higher education in J&K is gradually improving with numerous central and state educational institutions. Currently, there are 154 government degree colleges, 208 private colleges and 25 professional colleges affiliated to various universities functioning in J&K. It also has eight government universities and three semi-government universities. This includes University of Jammu, University of Kashmir, two central universities, two cluster universities, and two Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST-J and SKUAST-K). All these universities have a presence in Jammu as well as Kashmir regions. In addition, institutions such as Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University (SMVDU), Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University (BGBU), Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), and National Institute of Technology (NIT) are also present in J&K.

Astonishingly, it took the government of the erstwhile state of J&K more than 70 years to establish the first university in its largest, remotest, and most-isolated region: Ladakh. This long-standing demand from the people of Ladakh was fulfilled in 2018 when State Administrative Council headed by the former Governor of the erstwhile state, Shri Satya Pal Malik approved a bill to establish a cluster university in the region. It was announced that the varsity would be headquartered in Leh with five colleges (presently six) that were affiliated to Kashmir University included as constituent colleges.

This announcement came after a struggle by the people of Ladakh over several decades. The region has been neglected for seven decades in all aspects of development including education, health and basic infrastructure. Ladakh has suffered this travesty since independence as the state assembly was Kashmir-centric and remained excluded in the constant tug-of-war between Kashmir and Jammu for resource allocation.

This discriminatory attitude towards the Ladakh region was highlighted by the current Member of Parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal in the Parliament during the debate on the abrogation of Article 370. As he mentioned in his speech, the first college in Ladakh was established in Leh district in 1994 followed by one in Kargil in 1995.

The absence of higher education opportunities in the region has compelled thousands of Ladakhi students to migrate outside each year to study. The education-driven migration was inevitable and has led to many hardships in terms of emotional pressure, health challenges, financial burden, and detachment from the family. The political leadership in the state were responsible for this state of affairs and the leaders in Ladakh remained silent on this issue for a long time.

Movement to demand a university

The demand for a full-fledged university in Ladakh started in the early 2010s when Ladakhi students started protesting in Jammu. As the protests intensified, it caught the attention of national and state media. All political and religious organisations in Kargil and Leh districts were united in supporting this demand. This was reflected in a complete shutdown of Kargil and Leh markets, which reflected the importance of having a university in Ladakh. In 2011, the Higher Education Department sanctioned two new colleges in Zangskar (Kargil) and Nubra (Leh).

In 2015, University of Kashmir established two satellite campuses in Kargil and Leh to make higher education more accessible for people in Ladakh at the cost of 29 and 27 crores respectively. The Leh campus became functional in 2015 and offered post-graduate courses in Geology, MBA in Tourism, and English and integrated courses like BBA-MBA, B.Sc-M.Sc Geology. However, this campus failed to attract students. However, the Kargil campus was very popular with more than 350 students enrolling in various courses. The Kargil campus offers courses in Information Technology, Arabic, and Botany. Later, two more colleges were sanctioned; one in Drass (Kargil district) in 2018, and one in Khaltsi (Leh district) in 2019. However, courses at these colleges were not expanded in this period and Ladakhi students continued to travel outside to pursue higher studies.

Despite these changes, things did not change much on the ground. The affiliation of these colleges with University of Kashmir turned into a horrendous experience for the students. There were prolonged delays and frequent postponements of examinations due to unrest in Kashmir, which negatively impacted their studies. As a result, it would take more than four years to complete a three-year undergraduate programme. This meant students would end up losing a precious year of their lives. In addition, students faced other challenges such as having to travel to Srinagar for all their paperwork and certificates. It is not surprising that this frustrated many students who sometimes ended up bribing lower officials to get their work done as fast as possible. All this led students to register complaints, hold protests and send appeals to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Councils in Kargil and Leh and other leaders to address this issue.

Post re-organisation of J&K state

After the bifurcation of the former state into two union territories, the authorities at University of Kashmir handed over its satellite campus in Leh and Kargil to the administration of UT Ladakh. While the government fulfilled the long-standing demand for a university in Ladakh, it somehow remains an illusion till it becomes a full-fledged university. At present, the six constituent colleges of the University of Ladakh include degree colleges in Leh, Kargil, Nubra, Zangskar, Khaltsi, and Drass.

Former Governor of the erstwhile state, Shri Satya Pal Malik appointed former Chief Secretary of the state, Shri C. Phunsog as the first Vice-Chancellor of University of Ladakh (UoL), Shri Imteeaz Kacho, a KAS officer, as Registrar, and Shri Deskyong Namgyal, In-charge Principal, Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh as the Controller of Examination. The first syndicate meeting of UoL was held on 26 November, 2019.

As of 2020, UoL has introduced only 10 PG courses. In Kargil, the PG courses include Arabic, Botany, Chemistry, English, and Information Technology, while in Leh the courses include Zoology, Geology, Mathematics, Commerce, and Tourism and Travel Management. In addition to these, two integrated PG Courses are offered too: Economics in Kargil and Sociology in Leh.

Thus, very few subjects have been introduced so far, which cannot meet the educational demands of Ladakhi students. A bulk of the students are pursuing undergraduate programmes in various colleges in Ladakh and are studying Humanities and Social Sciences courses. They would then be forced to migrate outside if they want to pursue higher studies as they have no options in Ladakh. UoL has not started a PG course for major subjects such as Commerce, Education, Geography, History, Hindi, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Social work, Urdu, etc. It is critical that UoL starts PG courses in subjects that are taught at the undergraduate level at the earliest. The employability and the scope of each subject must be considered before starting new courses. Several public sector jobs have a master’s degree as a basic requirement. In this regard, only a full-fledged University will fill this gap and provide opportunities to aspiring students.

Way forward

The history of educational migration by Ladakhis in search of quality education will continue to exert pressure on UoL for the time being. The greatest challenge before UoL authorities is to retain Ladakhi students within the region, especially for colleges located in more remote areas. Despite being established in 2011, the colleges in Zangskar and Nubra have failed to attract sufficient students. In 2020-21, these colleges have 62 and 43 students respectively, which is extremely low. In contrast, the college in Drass attracted a fairly large number of students (190) in the first year of its establishment.

Many students may prefer to stay in Ladakh if they have access to quality education, choice of subjects, good infrastructure, and well-qualified teachers. It will take time for UoL to develop into a full-fledged university as it is still in its nascent stage.

The UoL must devote resources to build relevant infrastructure to augment the needs of its students. This includes sports’ infrastructure, digital library, access to online resources, laboratories etc. It must also conduct seminars, conferences, and workshops regularly to help students hone their academic skills, gain valuable experience and stay updated with developments the world over. In this regard, UoL must also organise educational tours and exchange programmes for its students.

UoL must also develop state-of-the-art hostel facilities for boys and girls on all its campuses. This will provide viable options to students who can choose to study at any of the colleges. In addition to academic pursuits, UoL must also encourage extra-curricular activities for all-round growth. In this regard, UoL must adopt best practices from different universities around the world. It must develop at a very fast pace unlike other universities in the erstwhile state. We have to open admissions to all students inside and outside Ladakh. Higher education in Ladakh must also be made affordable to ensure that all students are able to pursue their educational aspirations. UoL must explore the possibility of extending free or highly subsidised education to students who cannot afford the expenses. This can also be done by providing scholarships to such students. All this can become a reality in a few years only if the UT administration provides financial resources to the Higher Education Department.

It would be rather simplistic to conclude that the current status of higher education in Ladakh is not encouraging. It is still in its infancy. Ladakh still does not have colleges for medicine, engineering, Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.), dentistry, paramedicine, nursing etc. It will take at least a decade to establish these colleges in Ladakh. Until then, the UTs of Ladakh and J&K must develop a harmonious environment to admit Ladakhi students in various educational institutions in J&K.

The current notification from University of Jammu categorically states that only domicile residents of J&K can apply for various courses. Similarly, the J&K Board of Professional Entrance Examinations ‘advised’ applicants to submit a domicile certificate along with their online applications for various courses.

In my opinion, students of Ladakh must be permitted to apply at all educational institutions in the UT of J&K till Ladakh is able to develop its own facilities. The LAHDCs along with the UT administration of Ladakh must discuss this issue with the Ministry of Home Affairs and UT of J&K. The reservation for Ladakhi students at NIT, Srinagar is a welcome step by Government of India. This should be extended to all institutions in UT of J&K to ensure that Ladakhi students do not suffer and can continue their higher studies.

In the meantime, UoL must ensure that it stays true to the basic goal of society, which changes with time. It should not only impart formal knowledge but also play a fundamental role in shaping a student’s perspective.

By Ghulam Mustafa

Ghulam Mustafa is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Economics at University of Jammu

Revisiting the P. Stobdan incident

It is easy to undermine someone. However, it is important that our perspective is informed by facts. In this regard, I must admit that I neither have the expertise to judge P. Stobdan’s skill as a scholar of diplomacy nor can I claim to be a part of the legions of fans who idolise him.

Like many others, I was struck by his comments on Aaj Tak. I was equally struck by the response his comments generated, including a massive outcry in Ladakh and in Tibetan communities elsewhere. Keeping aside the televised debate and his comments, I started to wonder about the depth of the angst being expressed on an individual’s views on issues of national security and border conflict. Therefore, I will focus on the manner in which we responded as a society rather than his comments.

P. Stobdan is known for putting forward his point of view in a forthright manner be it in a  public forum or in government circles. In this he has remained consistent in his line of thinking and the manner in which he expresses himself. He is a policy analyst and a fairly well-known strategic thinker who has his share of admirers and critics at the local, national and international level.

I do wonder how we as a society, which has at best a limited understanding of wider geopolitical issues, can so easily dismiss his views in such a bigoted manner. It raises some certain serious questions about us a society. We need to put things in proper perspective or else we will not grow into a progressive society. I must admit that our future in this regard does look rather dark at the moment. Since I am raising this issue, I will add that we must look at P. Stobdan’s contributions to Ladakh over the last four decades to get a sense of perspective and context to his place in Ladakhi society.

In this regard, I was particularly disturbed by an opinion piece in Phayul written by a Tibetan doctoral scholar. In his reponse to P. Stobdan’s statement on the Sino-Indian border tension in Ladakh, Tibetan scholar Darig Thokmay, who is pursuing his doctoral research at Oxford University, wrote this opinion piece titled, ‘Phunchok Stobdan is a Fake Expert on Himalayan Geopolitics’. The title itself indicates that this not an academic rebuttal but an effort to publically shame someone. In this piece, Darig Thokmay seems to have adopted a piecemeal approach and distorted facts without engaging with the core argument made by P. Stobdan on the silence of the Tibetan Government-in-exile on the boundary dispute between India and China.

In the same article, Darig Thokmay has denied that a ceremony was held to raise the Tibetan flag near Pangong-Tso in Ladakh that was attended by the president of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, Dr. Lobsang Sangay. The fact remains that Dr Lobsang Sangay has been photographed with the Tibetan flag on 5 July 2017 along the banks of Pangong-Tso, which was reported by various media outlets.

I checked public records and can confidently state that P. Stobdan has never uttered a remark on Ladakh that would harm its interest in anyway. If nothing else, he must be given credit for initiating a discourse that includes the Tibetan community. It is interesting that after P. Stobdan’s statement, Dr Lobsang Songay of the Tibetan Government-in-exile did make a public statement that Ladakh and Tawang have always been a part of India”. This is perhaps the argument that P. Stobdan has been reiterating throughout in his academic engagement on the subject.  

Even if one were to disregard P. Stobdan’s expertise in geopolitics of the region and four decades of scholarship, I was disturbed by the blatant attack on intellectuals that sets a new precedent in our society and our claim of being liberal. P. Stobdan has apologised for his comments. However, this did not stop people from launching personal attacks on him. Public anger was expressed through the observance of a one-day strike on 1 June and the burning of his effigy. Sadly, such performative street politics failed to engage with the complex problems embedded in the region as a political entity. Such display of misplaced collective restlessness suggest that we remain politically immature as a society. In fact, we managed to achieve nothing through such actions.

Yet, its fallout will be far-reaching. This sort of reaction is not conducive to dialogues necessary for peaceful coexistence based on fundamental acceptance of differences of opinion. I must reiterate that I am not focusing on the content of P. Stobdan’s comment but on our collective response to it.  In my opinion, we should have engaged our energies in trying to understand and deal with the complexity of issues that surround Ladakh as a political entity. Ladakh is grappling with enough challenges and does not need us to add to them.

One of the criticisms leveled against P. Stobdan was that he has not contributed anything to the progress of Ladakh. I am not qualified to list who has helped to build Ladakhi society and judge their contributions. Moreover, I am not interested in engaging in mudslinging especially with various vested political interests.

Despite my personal limitations, I feel the need to sketch out P. Stobdan’s pursuits in strategic thinking and his engagement in regional and world politics. As I researched his work, I realised that his contribution to shape regional politics has been myriad and immense. His intellectual engagements probably do not fit easily in a relatively closed society like ours. I am of the firm belief that intellectual engagements are an outcome of consistent and committed negotiations with the world of politics. We need to cultivate such traits and find a more constructive role for intellectuals in our society.

P. Stobdan’s contribution to Ladakh

I have looked through various archives and online databases to piece together at least some of P. Stobdan’s works. Though P. Stobdan has never served as an elected representative for Ladakh, he has channeled much of his intellectual energy to voice Ladakh’s aspirations in the national political scene.

We should also remind ourselves that holding academic and diplomatic positions in institutions of independent India do have indirect benefits to local communities. It is a matter of fact that P. Stobdan does not live in Ladakh and visits his hometown only occasionally. To me, he is one of the cosmopolitan figures living in the national capital of New Delhi and operates at a different level from the rest of us. He enjoys vast experience and exposure for which he is known widely in the country and outside. It is quite natural that P. Stobdan’s non-ethnocentric thought-process is problematic to those who are singularly engaged in various emotionally-charged pursuits. This pattern is evident around the world and Ladakh is no exception.

Remember P. Stobdan has been under no obligation to speak for Ladakh. Despite this, he has always made time to voice issues of importance for Ladakh. Time and again since the late 1980s, he has managed to draw national attention to such issues irrespective of the risks this has posed to his primary vocation as an academic and professional diplomat. There was a time when Ladakh didn’t have anyone to articulate its case on the national scene. At the time, we had an Urdu-speaking elite who had limited access to the world beyond J&K state.

After years of intense struggle for Union Territory status, Government of Inida finally agreed to form the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in October 1993 on the lines of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. In this midst of this turbulence, P. Stobdan was one of the few voices that made a forceful public assertion in the national media to support the formation of the Hill Council. Though he was never a media-person, his voice always found space in national newspapers.

For instance, he wrote an article piece on 1 November, 1993 in The Times of India. It was titled ‘Hope from Ladakh’s Autonomous Council’ and was widely read in India’s bureaucratic and political circles, especially in New Delhi.

That initial announcement was followed by a long delay in actually creating the Hill Council. This led to anxiety amongst the people in Ladakh. Some intervention was required but people in Ladakh were not adequately equipped to engage with a larger audience. Once again, it was P. Stobdan who took on this role. He wrote an article on 15 March, 1995 in The Indian Express titled ‘Overlooking Ladakhi Aspirations’.

He subsequently wrote another article in The Times of India on5 April, 1995 to warn the government that ‘Mishandling Ladakh May Prove Costly.  His harsh warning found its target and the government machinery started to swing into action. The very next day, the then Union Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs with additional responsibility as Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, K. Padmanabhaiah, rushed to Leh to negotiate with Ladakhi leaders. Thereafter, the process of constituting the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was speeded up. Finally, it became a reality with the adoption of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1995. The Hill Council in Leh became a reality on 28 August, 1995 with the election of Councillors and the first meeting was held on 3 September, 1995.

Ladakh finally had a democratic institution, which heralded decentralisation of planning and the integration of people at the grassroots into decision-making. The Hill Council also provided Ladakh with a semblance of dignity and justice, paved the way to empower people at the grassroots and enthused self-belief amongst local communities.

We are aware of various leaders who struggled over many decades to achieve UT status for Ladakh. In my research, I found that P. Stobdan too played an important, and often invisible, role in articulating Ladakh’s case through national debates, discussions, seminars, conferences, media, academia, and in policy circles. Most of this material is available online. In addition, P. Stobdan is also known to have played an instrumental role in convincing the Indian Army to upgrade Ladakh Scouts into a full-fledged regiment after the Kargil War of 1999. This was acknowledged by former Chief of the Army, General V. P. Malik in his book Kargil – From Surprise to Victory (2006) and in various articles.

These are some the contributions that P. Stobdan has made for Ladakh. Besides, he is a known personality amongst the elite intellectual circle in India. We would be doing him a great disservice if we ignore and forget these contributions as per our convenience. In my opinion, we may choose to disagree with P. Stobdan on his recent comments, especially on its content and tone. However, we must not forget that he remains a valuable intellectual asset for Ladakh.

Finally, I decided to speak to P. Stobdan to understand his view on this whole incident. He said, “I am only doing my duty and what I do is not without a context. I love Phayul Ladakh [fatherland Ladakh] and respect the people’s sentiment. However, ultimately I am only answerable to the constitution of the country. As an Indian, I have the right to think about the interest of our national security.”

By Dr. Tashi Lundup

Photo credit: https://pstobdan.wordpress.com/

Dr. Tashi Lundup is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh

Air travel during COVID-19

In retrospect, I feel like the proverbial rat abandoning a ship before it sinks. When I left Leh on 8 June, its COVID-19 tally was around 90-odd positive cases. By the time I reached Mumbai and the fog of reverse altitude sickness started to lift, Ladakh’s toll had started pumping steroids as it zoomed past 500 in the span of a few days. Unfortunately, I am not sure if my transition from Ladakh to Mumbai marked a move to safety or a jump from the frying pan into the fire.

My journey entailed a flight from Leh to Delhi, a five-hour wait and then another flight from Delhi to Mumbai. I chose Air India for this journey as it has a liberal baggage allowance and, in my experience, seems less likely to cancel flights when there are too few passengers.

I reached Leh airport two hours before the flight. The new systems at the airport were fairly well-organised. Perhaps, it helps that the passenger traffic at the airport remains low. I managed to enter the terminal building within seven minutes of reaching the airport. The bags were duly sanitised and I was asked the one question I had been dreading. In my head, the words “Aarogya Setu?” evoked images of our hon’ble Prime Minister and his cronies evangelising a phone app as a panacea for all evils. I nervously showed the staff members my Rs 1,400-phone and the person nonchalantly directed me to a window where I had to register my details.

So far so good. I will admit that it helped to speak a semblance of Ladakhi as the staff seemed far more courteous and helpful in Ladakhi. It may have been my imagination but the same people seemed a little more impatient in the Hindi and English that they were using with my co-passengers. I was also struck by the fact that most of my co-passengers were males. Of the 40 to 50 passengers on my flight, there were three women: Two were family members of an army officer, while the third was a Ladakhi girl.

It took me a while to get used to the lack of human contact and technological innovations at the airport. I have mastered the art of looking innocent when I hand my boarding pass/ticket and identity proof to the policeperson on duty. They generally respond by casting a look of deep suspicion in my direction. Instead of this modern-day ritual, I had to hold the paperwork in front of an impersonal camera, while the policeperson peered into a computer console behind a glass barrier. I detected no expression on his face as I held my papers up and then behaved like a convicted criminal by removing my mask and peering amiably into the camera—I was disappointed when I was not asked to show my profile to the camera. I missed that look of deep suspicion as I was simply waved inside by two police personnel maintaining a liberal dose of social distance from me.

I tried hard to assume my look of innocence once again for the benefit of the baggage screening staff. One of them was kind enough to accuse me of carrying a multipurpose tool in my cabin bag. I hardly own any tool but still jogged my mind to remember if I had one by accident. My GPS handset was the only possible explanation. I showed the friendly staff the handset and confessed that I have never owned the kind of tool she accused me of having in my bag. She remained disconcertingly warm, smiled and waved me through. I must admit that I was starting to miss that gaze of suspicion I associate with airports and security personnel. That said, I was warming up to this new-found sense of dystopia.

Once inside, I was fascinated to see everyone follow social distancing at the airport. Except one off-duty soldier who wanted to carry all the goodies he had bought from the canteen in his luggage. He managed to get into arguments with airline staff and policemen at the airport as each of them objected to different aspects of his aspirations. Overall, check in and security clearance was fairly straight-forward once you grew accustomed to conversing with cameras and holding up your paperwork for these infernal appliances. At the security check, I missed chatting with the person on duty. These conversations are generally interesting and enlightening. Instead, the policeman took a practiced step back like he was about to launch an attack. He then used the extra-long handle of his metal detector to do an aural check around my body and waved me through. The airport staff in Leh did a good job of avoiding human contact and the lack of crowds ensured that processes were smooth.

Once inside, I realised that I had not received the visor that many of my co-passengers were already wearing. I probably missed this part of the process when I took a slight detour to meet friends at the airport before moving towards the security screening.Anyway, the airline staff had accounted for clueless passengers like me and they duly ensured that I received a pack with a visor, a mask, a hand-sanitiser, and gloves. In return, I was asked to fill a health form confirming I was not suffering any symptoms, had never tested positive for COVID-19 and would not blame the airline for any risk that air travel posed to my health. I duly handed the form over to the staff who asked me to wear the visor as I was about to board the bus to the aircraft. I had mixed feelings about this. The visor made me feel like I was going into war or was about to be kicked into outer space. There was a blue plastic film on the visor that blurred my vision and I also started feeling like a hostage being led to a secret hideout.

The airline had ensured that seats were left empty between passengers to maintain social distancing. I was still struggling with the visor as it was stuffy and inspired me to think of health conditions such as claustrophobia and heat-stroke as I could barely see anything around me. Anyway, the flight departed 20 minutes before time and reached New Delhi in the hour that this flight generally takes. Am not sure why they had allotted an hour and forty minutes for the flight, except perhaps to shift the flight into a different fare category as the government had issued a time-based cap for flight fares.

Delhi was a different world altogether. I suddenly appreciated the visor-induced blurriness of my vision. I had the freedom of imagining Delhi without bothering with the reality around me. As I waited in the security check in the domestic transfer section, I was pleasantly surprised with the space that people were affording each other. I also noticed that many people were wearing white or blue kurtas. Finally, the heat got to me and I removed the visor. This was when I realised that the ‘kurta’ was not what it seemed. On closer scrutiny, it turned out that all these people were wearing Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).

Somewhat alarmed, I messaged a close friend who is a health professional to check if this was a necessity that I had neglected. He responded with an evolving response that went from denial, shock, alarm, weariness and finally, humour. He first accused me of joking. Then he refused to believe me. I sent him photographs to prove I was not joking or delusional. He stated that the people were wasting PPE and depriving health professionals of it. He explained that a mask should suffice for protection during a flight and that “the visor adds 7% more protection.” Finally, he started joking that I was in safe hands as there were so many ‘healthcare workers’ at the airport.

Despite enjoying the air of dystopia, I was fascinated to see how people negotiated their sense of normalcy. This included people who seemed to have taken the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated term of “Corona Warriors” to heart and turned out in their body armour (read PPE), while others treated the mask and visor with careless contempt or fashion accessories.

The number of people at Delhi airport was much higher than Leh but much less than what one generally encounters and expects there. Also, the airport staff was making an effort to implement safety measures, things were better organised than otherwise. The airports and airlines seemed to be making more efficient use of available space and time though flying at less than half capacity may not necessarily be the most efficient use of fuel.

Furthermore, old habits die hard. I saw many instances of people forgetting social distancing and the importance of wearing a mask when they felt they were ‘competing’ for a better deal in the form of a seat, larger space for their hand luggage or the fastest route out of the aircraft. All of us had to fill the omnipresent health form before we were allowed to board the aircraft.

The flight to Mumbai was delayed by three hours due to ‘technical reasons’ that the airline and its staff neglected to share with us passengers. So, we all sat inside the aircraft without air-conditioning and soaking in sweat under the mask and visor. After all that drama, we managed a fairly uneventful flight to Mumbai. Most people still rushed for the exit door as soon as the flight landed as though there was a prize for the first person to leave the aircraft. The airline staff tried to get some order in this madness but gave up after a point. Once outside the aircraft, everyone was asked to fill a health form that asked the same question as forms I had filled in Delhi and Leh earlier in the day. In each case, I was asked if I had symptoms or had tested positive and that I was releasing the airline from any liability for health risks I faced during the flight. After a point it seemed like bureaucracies simply enjoy creating work that has no consequence. I am not sure if anyone even bothers to read these forms.

The medical staff at Mumbai airport looked weary and exhausted. They gave the distinct impression that everyone has resigned the future to its fate. I finally reached home, exhausted and tired, around 2230 hours and quietly lapsed into home quarantine despite receiving no instruction from the medical staff at the airport. My left hand was stamped with some information that was illegible as it smudged immediately. The stamp survived two baths and disappeared altogether in three days.

Photographs and text by Sunetro Ghosal

Sunetro Ghosal is a part of the editorial team at Stawa

The lingering pain of Partition

The Partition of India and Pakistan was not just a separation of land but also a division of thousands of families. The mainstream discourse on Partition and divided families primarily focus on Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir valley. The pain and anguish of divided families in Ladakh and Baltistan rarely receive a mention. This is a personal issue for me. My grandfather, the late Haji Abdul Hamid (1 December, 1938 to 18 May, 2020) lived with the pain of separation from his father after the ceasefire line was drawn in 1949 to separate India and Pakistan.

My grandfather was born in Padum, Zangskar in 1938. He was the only brother to his three sisters. News of the horrors of the Hindu-Muslim riots that marked the Partition started to reach reached Zangskar valley in 1947. The valley has Himachal Pradesh in the south and Kashmir in the west. These horrific stories ignited fear amongst the minority Muslim community in Padum. A group of men from the community decided to get organised to protect themselves in case the violence reached Padum. My great-grandfather, the late Habibullah was one of these men. In 1948, members of Gilgit Scouts, with support from the newly-formed Pakistan, reached Kargil and a few of them proceeded to Zangskar. In Padum, some members of the Muslim community viewed these individuals with hope in the context of the communally-charged atmosphere in the Indian subcontinent in the wake of the Partition.

We shall keep the story of how this small contingent of Gilgit Scouts survived in Padum for another day. In the summer of 1949, Indian troops managed to push Pakistani forces from Kashmir and Ladakh and they allowed a safe passage to the Gilgit Scouts troops in Padum. Some men from Padum’s Muslim community decided to join these retreating troops. This included my great-grandfather. My grandfather was 11-years-old at the time. Before he could comprehend what was happening, my grandfather was left behind in Padum with his mother and three sisters. The group from Padum travelled with the retreating Gilgit Scouts troops along the Kargil-Skardu road. The letters written by them at the time suggest that they did not intend to settle down in Baltistan but planned to return to Padum once the conflict ended. Unfortunately, the conflict ended with the creation of the ceasefire that separated Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh. Subsequent conflicts between India and Pakistan extinguished any hope of their return.

In the absence of his father, all responsibility for the family fell on my grandfather. Once my great-grandfather realised that he was not going to be able to return to Zangskar, he married a local girl in Baltistan and settled in Sermik. The following years were tough for the family as there was no communication between them across the Line of Control (LoC). Slowly, the finality of his father’s absence dawned on my grandfather. He yearned to meet him and the death of his mother within a few years further intensified his pain and anguish. In those days, there were no means to earn daily wages in Padum. So a few years later, after his marriage, my grandfather moved to Himachal Pradesh in search of work. During our storytelling sessions, he would describe this practice of moving out for work. He would mention that the Muslims of Padum would generally travel for work to Chamba in Himachal. Once his children had grown up, my grandfather travelled to Leh to train as a veterinary assistant. He hoped to save enough money to someday travel to Baltistan and meet his father. Once he returned to Padum, he worked as a veterinary assistant as well as an Amchi (traditional Tibetan medicine system) dentist in the absence of doctors in the region. He also opened the first hotel in Zangskar by the name of Hotel Greenland. He would often mention the hotel to his father in letters they exchanged in chaste Urdu. On the other side, Habibullah proudly recounted these stories to his children—two sons and a daughter with his second wife—in Sermik.

(Above) Haji Abdul Hamid and his step-brothers offering prayers at their father’s grave in Sermik, Baltistan
(Top photo) Family members from both sides of the LoC at their reunion in Skardu, Baltistan

The deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan crushed all hopes that father and son had nurtured of meeting face-to-face. Habibullah passed away on 17 December 1987 with an unfulfilled longing to meet his family in Padum, especially his son. On this side, the death of his father shattered my grandfather. He still did not lose hope and continued exchanging letters with his step-siblings in Sermik. Since there was no formal system to exchange post between India and Pakistan at the time, the only way to send letters and gifts to relatives across the LoC was through Haj pilgrims who would hand them over to pilgrims from the other side. I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories of pain and anguish in the wake of the Partition. His love for storytelling and my interest in these stories made me one of my grandfather’s closest confidants.

Let us now fast forward to 2009 by which time the internet had started reaching these remote mountain regions. One of my cousins from Sermik was in Islamabad at the time. He remembered ‘Hotel Greenland’ being mentioned by his mother and decided to search for it online. Since the hotel was no longer functional by this time, he found nothing online. He then collected the names of other hotels in Padum and started mailing them to ask about Hotel Greenland. One of these hotels suggested that he get in touch with me. We managed to get in touch with each other and continued speaking over social media. During these conversations, I learnt that our relatives on the other side of the LoC were yearning to meet my grandfather.

This was around the time I had started my doctoral research on the topic that has always fascinated me: India-Pakistan relations. One of my case studies was to understand the impact of theatre groups on cultural diplomacy between the two countries. By 2014, I was able to establish contacts in Pakistan for my study and I was able to accompany a theatre group that was invited to perform at a festival in Karachi organised by the famous theatre activist, Sheema Kermani. It was during this trip that I met with my cousin for the first time in Lahore and he accompanied us for the whole journey. During our time together we started discussing the possibility of organising a trip for my grandfather to visit Baltistan.

Once I returned to India, I kept exploring ways to make this dream a reality. During our conversations, my grandfather would often say, “I have fulfilled all my responsibilities and even performed the Haj thrice. Now, my only wish is to visit my father’s grave.” Around this time I attended an event on India-Pakistan relations in Delhi, where the late Madeeha Gauhar of the Ajoka Theatre in Lahore was also invited. At this event, she introduced me to someone from the Pakistani embassy in Delhi. I mentioned my case to him and he promised to help. In due course, we completed all formalities and in September 2017, my grandfather, parents and me finally embarked on a journey to Baltistan. We travelled along the Amritsar-Wagah-Lahore-Islamabad-Muree-Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-Babusar-top-Chilas-Skardo-Sermik route. It took us almost a week to complete this journey.

A caravan of vehicles from Sermik was waiting to welcome us in Skardu. It was as if the whole village was there to greet us. The moment I saw my grandfather hugging his brothers tightly, I realised that his ‘last wish’ was starting to come true. When we reached Sermik, people crowded around us and kept touching us to check if they were dreaming. I could see questions in their eyes as tears of happiness and sadness mixed freely in the village that night. I was surprised to learn that there is a Padum community in Baltistan—these are the descendants of the men from Padum who had settled there. Those men have all passed away and their families are now scattered across Baltistan but all of them proudly call themselves “Zangskar-pa”.

We visited the graveyards of many of the men from Padum. For me, it was most satisfying to watch my grandfather visit his father’s graveyard, which was marked with bold Urdu letters stating: “Habibullah, Padum Zanskar”. There were tears of joy and pain. It felt like a circle was finally complete and his yearnings and pain finally eased after that ‘union’.  The news of our arrival spread like wildfire and from the very next day to the day of our return, we had a stream of visitors from every corner of Baltistan. We also travelled to different areas to meet people from the Padum community and collect their letters and gifts for their relatives in Zangskar.

This was the most emotionally satisfying journey for all of us. We then returned to India and continue to remain in touch with our relatives in Baltistan through social media networks.

The trip to Baltistan happened at the right time for my grandfather. He remained ill for almost a year from 2019. In February 2020, he had to be air-lifted from Padum and admitted to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Kashmir. He then returned to Padum and breathed his last on 18 May, 2020 in his beloved homeland.

All said and done, he was most satisfied that he was able to travel to Baltistan. Today, when he is no more, the Padum community in Sermik and people in Padum, Zangskar are together in mourning his passing. After all, he was one of the only people who have been able to make that long and rigorous journey to Sermik to connect the dots and pray at his father’s grave. That journey has set the ball rolling and opened avenues for other families to dare to dream about meeting their relatives on the other side of the LoC.

Photograph and text by Dr. Zainab Akhter

Dr. Zainab Akhter works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.