Culture beyond Borders
Discover India|September - October 2021
A trip to the northernmost frontier of Ladakh warrants a visit to the unique Balti Museum, where you will discover a culture that has survived despite wars and shifting borders.
RIDHI AGARWAL

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 Shyok River, was memorable. The awe-inspiring views of changing terrain and the patriotic music blaring from the hundreds of army trucks en route kept us going through tough conditions. Turtuk, on the banks of the Shyok, was under Pakistan’s control till 1971. Post the war, the Indian Army gained control over the border village. But linguistically and culturally, the village and its people retain 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!

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