Meet The People Of Turtuk, Ladakh
Sometimes, an interesting story circles around your backyard before it finally finds you. Join Tunali Mukherjee as she explores the northern-most village of India, Turtuk, in Ladakh.
Photo Credits: Mohit Khushalani
Stepping into the village of Turtuk is like a walk down memory lane. A sparkling stream gushes by as you turn into the village, the gurgling sound of fresh water mingles with that of children playing by the shore. The stream takes it upon herself to play guide, branching into a tiny canal that flows past every house in the hamlet and leading you through the village in a network of the bubbling, clear elixir. Follow the canal and you’ll soon spot curious faces stealing a glance at you through ancient wooden doors and overhead windows. But spot them and they’ll disappear, much like mystical enchanted woodland creatures you’d read about in a fairytale. A thousand cliches enter your mind when you attempt to describe Turtuk, but none as fitting as the memory of a magical realm, untouched by the outside world. It entices travellers to enter at their own peril and lose themselves in this seemingly parallel universe.
Turtuk has her location to thank for her unique identity. The northern-most village of India, Turtuk is exotic even for many local Ladakhis. In fact, Turtuk was initially part of Pakistan, and was incorporated into India and Ladakh only after the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The journey to the village translates into a three-hour drive beyond the sand dunes of Nubra and down the deep valleys of Karakoram, where the Shyok River rushes to keep her date with the mighty Indus on the other side of the border. This road also leads to the Siachen Glacier, which at a height of more than 20,000 ft, is the world’s highest battlefield. The various army checkpoints you pass on your way to Turtuk is a reminder of how close you’re getting to the Line of Control. Only 12 kms further and you’ll be on foreign land. And it is this milieu that the 1,000-odd residents of Turtuk call home.
Back in the village, it is evident that you’ve stepped into a land that has a code of its own. While Julley can still earn you a bashful smile from a passing child, train your camera on her and she’ll quickly dodge out of the frame. Any attempt at conversing with the locals is bound to be brief, more out of shyness than a lack of interest. There is, however, one wild card entry into the heart of Turtuk. Ask anyone, “Can you show me to Kacho Khan’s house, please?” and you’ll soon have your very own entourage leading you to a rickety green door. A helpful local may even knock on the door for you, for good measure.
Kacho Mohammed Khan, the King of Turtuk, greets us at the door of his palace, a beautiful wood-carved 15th-century house that still retains its distinct old-world charm. The palace and the king work in tandem to transport all those who enter to a time of legendary rulers and mighty battles. “The story of Turtuk long precedes the formation of India and Pakistan,” Khan says, as he beckons us to follow him up the rickety stairs to the hall where a family tree on one of the walls. This tree traces Khan’s lineage back to the 8th-century Yagbo Dynasty, and it’s not long before he embarks on the story of Baltistan and her rulers. Portraits of past kings adorn the wall — Khan’s ancestors in their royal finery — a stark contrast to the present-day king, who in his simple salwar-kurta and jacket represents a different side of royalty.
From his stories, it seems possible that Khan has met most of the tourists who come to his village in search of some history. And rightfully so, as he sure knows how to narrate a tale. His talks proudly of how King Ali Mardan escaped his captors thanks to his height, and he’s rich on trivia about the antiques displayed in the hall. “This is a cup from which the king quenched his thirst, that’s a bow made of Ibek horns…That’s a ring that establishes that you’re the King of Turtuk,” explains Khan, picking up one artefact after the other, pausing for effect and changing angles for a better photograph.
The story spans several centuries and Khan dutifully brings us to a more recent history, when the partition literally went through their backyard and neighbours turned foreigners overnight. We stop in front of a beautiful wooden door that opens to nothing. There is a drop beyond the doors, and Khan runs his hands through the ornate door frame. “This was damaged during the 1971 war, when the Pakistani army used our palace as their headquarters,” he says. “We managed to restore the door, but lost the balcony that led up to it,” Khan explains.
We are now in the adjoining garden, or the chonisar, Balti for ‘Garden of the Kings’. Khan points out a 15th-century carving on the balcony and says, “I got that painted last year, but then a visitor said I should have let the original paint remain, chipped as it was.” He looks at his palace thoughtfully, and it is plain to see that regardless of how fresh the paint on the walls are, King Kacho Khan of the Yagbo dynasty will ensure that Turtuk always retains her unique historic ethos.
On request, TUTC arranges for a private tete-a-tete with the King, Kacho Mohammed Khan.
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