Around 175 years ago, Dogra invasion in Baltistan led to banishment of King Ahmad Shah and his family in Kashmir. After twists and turns, their treacherous journey ended in the jungles of Tral. Bilal Handoo traces the descendents of the erstwhile first family of Baltistan and reports their chequered history
As an iron gate opens into a graveyard, a man whispering prayers steps in. He walks toward the two central graves boxed inside an iron square grill. There are no engraved tombstones on these medieval graves. He stops his stride, takes a good look at the twin graves and starts offering prayers.
With his salt and pepper stubble, he strikes a resemblance with desolation prevailing inside the graveyard. Clad in pheran, he looks like any other person in his village. But the moment he ends his prayers and starts speaking, he turns out to be a different – not a Kashmiri – but, a Raja, a king! Before one can interject, he declares: I am the progeny of the erstwhile king of Baltistan who was exiled in Kashmir by Dogra rulers in 1840s.
This is Panir Jagir village of south Kashmir’s Tral nestled in the foothills of dense forests. In this sleepy village, traditional timber houses outnumber concrete structures. Stripped off their greenery, withered orchards and pale fields have unleashed an apparent hue of gloom over the village. A misty day is further inflicting a sense of sadness – that otherwise is reflecting from faces in the village. Behind this apparent anguish, Panir Jagir’s past rooted in 1841 has a larger role to play than its pale present.
That year, the legendary Dogra general, Zorawar Singh was on way to Baltistan to dethrone its last King, Ahmad Shah Maqpon. The fall of Skardu, the capital city of Baltistan, eventually forced King’s progeny to trek a treacherous journey that finally ended in the jungles of Tral.
But before that happened, Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu sent his General, Zorawar Singh to annex Ladakh in the summer of 1834. The Dogra army intruded Ladakh through Kishtwar and Zanskar. Some local volunteers put up resistance at Sankoo in Kargil’s Suru Valley. But the absence of a proper army and the presence of just a civil defence system made Ladakhi resistance resemble a storm in a teacup in the face of Dogra invasion.
The invaders then reached Pashkum. Their arrival coincided with the commencement of Kargil’s terrible winter. Zorawar Singh along with his army retreated and camped for the entire winter near Sankoo.
In between, a word was sent to the king of Leh (Gyalpo) from Jammu: “Dogra Army will withdraw if you pay Rs 15,000.” Gyalpo’s queen didn’t accept the offer and advised the king: “Attack the invaders!”
Gyalpo’s army patiently waited till April 1836. That spring, as Zorawar’s army showed up at the battlefield, they swiftly pounced on Gyalpo’s men and stripped them of their defence. Zorawar had the last laugh. Gyalpo was indemnified. And, truce began.
Almost immediately to the north-west of Ladakh, a mountainous region of small independent valley states, Baltistan, was getting restive. Kinships, trade links, common beliefs and language were holding the region together as a single unit. But the souring blood relationship between the last king and one of his sons proved a watershed event for Baltistan.
King Ahmad Shah’s son, Mohammad Shah fled to Leh and sought the help of Gyalpo and Zorawar Singh against his father over some dispute. But a few Ladakhi officials allowed King Ahmad Shah to imprison his rebel son in exchange for aiding Gyalpo to fight against Dogras.
And then in 1839, a rebellion broke out against Dogras. Zorawar rushed to Kargil. He launched a fierce counter-attack. In no time, Ladakhi rebels tasted the dust. Zorawar then set up a joint-command of Dogra and Ladakhi forces and invaded Baltistan in the winter of 1841.
After braving hostile weather, Zorawar’s army reached Skardu and chased King Ahmad Shah’s army to his fort. The invading Dogras then scaled a peak behind the fort. A fierce battle ensued. Dogras managed to capture the small fort. Using it as their base, they began firing at the main fort, known as Kharphocho or Skardu fort. This forced Raja to surrender. Baltistan was thus annexed with the rest of Ladakh.
But that is just one part of the story…
The man inside the graveyard in Panir Jagir introduces himself as Raja Mohammad Aslam Khan. The prefix “Raja” is attached with the name of every male member of his tribe. He has come to offer customary prayers at his family graveyard.
Inside one of the two graves rests the prince of Baltistan, Raja Hussain Ali Khan Muhib Maqpon (1830-1895). In other grave lies Raja Mohammad Ali Zakir (1880-1949), Muhib’s nephew. Both are classical poets of Balti language.
Unlike in Skardu where Baltis mostly put up in traditional houses with flat roofs, Raja Aslam lives in a typical Kashmiri house nearby the graveyard. In his well-furnished drawing-room, two black tombstones rest with the front wall. Description of Muhib and Zakir is inscribed on them with golden paint. “People from Kargil and Skardu mainly visit Panir Jagir to enquire about the last resting abode of the prince of Baltistan and Zakir,” says Raja Aslam, a mild-mannered man in mid-thirties. “We carved these tombstones and will soon fix them on the graves of Muhib and Zakir.”
At a short distance from the graveyard, one Raja is running a small grocery shop. Just like his fading eyesight (aided by thick glasses), his memory also seems failing him. Nearby his shop, someone suggests a name – Ameer Beg – for further enquiry.
A few steps before Raja’s shop, a bedridden elder is reading an Urdu poetry book inside his home. This ‘well-read’ man is the de-facto ‘public relations’ man of the community. He looks much older than the ‘king on shop’. But unlike the ‘royal’ grocer, his memory seems sharp, stark and sound.
He is Ameer Beg. He isn’t Raja, but a descendent of the banished Balti king’s accompanying attendant. “Ameer Beg is the name of our clan in Baltistan,” he informs, gingerly trying to stay upright. “My name is Hussain Mohammad Khan. My forefather Abdullah Ameer Khan was also banished from Baltistan along with King Ahmad Shah…”
After destroying Kharphocho fort, Zorawar Singh left to conquer Tibet. But he was killed by the Tibetan army on his way. Meanwhile, King Ahmad Shah along with his family and two attendants – Abdullah Ameer Khan and Muraad Khan – were taken to Srinagar as war prisoners.
It is said some Shia Muslim family of Srinagar’s Zadibal used to visit King Ahmad Shah in Baltistan before he was ousted from the throne. As the word of their presence in the city spread, that family managed to contact the king and his family. It was 1847. And the queen of Wali Askardu (or King Ahmad Shah), Daulat Khatoon breathed her last in Srinagar. She was buried in Zadibal’s Baba Mazaar. (Her grave under the shade of a tree is still intact inside the graveyard.)
Soon after burying their queen at Zadibal, the Balti royals were exiled to Gomat in Jammu for nearly 3 years before sent to the dense forests of Kishtwar.
“It was all planned,” says Ameer Beg, now standing upright with the support of a pillow. “Since Kishtwar is nearly cut-off region, the idea was to isolate King and his people from the larger population of Baltistan.” Before exiled to Kishtwar, one of the sons of King fled from Jammu Gomat to Haryana where he was killed.
The banished life shortly ended for the king at Kishtwar. He was found dead one morning under mysterious circumstances. It is being claimed that the king was killed by feeding poison along with a few of his exiled officials. But many termed his death “natural” in captivity. He was buried somewhere in Kishtwar.
By the time Kishtwar exile ended, some 30 years had already passed. They were then exiled to Srinagar’s Hari Parbat fort. As time passed, they started living nearby the fort, especially in Zadibal area where they started preaching and spreading awareness among people. But somebody, somehow, spread a word, that these Baltis were preparing ground for the rebellion against Dogra rule in Kashmir.
As a result, the bitter outcome for the community was on the cards. “It was perhaps 1890s,” says Ameer Beg. “The government then issued a proclamation: ‘These Baltis should be thrown into some far off Jungles.’ ”
From Zadibal, they were exiled to Harwan. But their preaching again landed them in trouble. Finally, they were dropped in the dense forests of Panir Jagir. “As I told you earlier,” Ameer Beg continues, “the idea was to keep Baltis in isolation. Even today, people fear to visit this part of Tral. One can only imagine how this place could be then.”
Many among them tried to escape from the woods. But to their woes, the Dogra administration had banned their movement. The ban was finally lifted in 1952.
After their arrival in Panir Jagir, King Ahmad Shah’s three sons – Lutf Ali Khan Aashiq, Malik Haider Mukhlis and Hussain Ali Khan Muhib started living under one roof. The other three houses were dwelled by their accompanying officials.
Till 1970, the records say, only these four Balti houses existed in Panir. The number has now swelled to 15. In fifteen houses, interestingly, 30 are teachers. Having a scheduled tribe status since 1993, a few of them now live in Pampore, Srinagar and Baramulla. But in Panir Jagir, they live in a close-knit community. Their houses are adjacent to each other, surrounded by their Kashmiri brethren.
But as they continue to crave for their roots, their homeland, Baltistan is now fragmented into five districts. Four of them – Skardu, Gangche, Shigar and Kharmang – are now part of the Pakistani side of Kashmir. While as, Kargil and a small segment of Turtuk village in the Nubra Valley is on the Indian side of Kashmir.
“We still hold the descendants of the king with respect,” says Ameer Beg, whose publication on exiled Baltis is making rounds in Baltistan. “If we can’t respect them for what they are, then who else will.” Besides, he says, respect is the sign “that we haven’t forgotten our roots”.
Adjacent to Ameer Beg’s house, Raja Saleem, 35, another government teacher is finding it hard to recount the history of his roots. “Whenever I recall our painful past, I simply shudder,” he says, as his two brothers, Raja Rafi (an engineer) and Raja Mohammad Aslam (a teacher), sit quietly inside a room. All of them are the descendants of prince Muhib.
The trio looks like Tibetans with flat-face and short stature. “Every Balti is basically a Tibetan descent,” informs Raja Saleem. Other than Tibetans, he says, Monpas, Dards and some Kashmiri merchants live in Baltistan. “Besides,” he continues, “Syeds and Iranian artisans are also settled in Baltistan since the arrival of Islam there.”
Back to the time when the exiled Baltis started populating Panir Jagir. Raja Hussain Ali Khan Muhib had started writing poetry in Balti language. The content of his poetry revolved around exile, longing and lost dynasty. Muhib taught and trained his nephew, Raja Mohammad Ali Zakir (son of Malik Haider Mukhlis) in Balti poetry. Zakir eventually rose to become a classical Balti poet (like Muhib) who was proficient in Balti, Urdu, Persian and Arabic languages.
During World War II, Zakir wrote a pleasing poem about Maharaja Hari Singh to lure him for securing permission for Baltistan. Some lines of the poem read:
Hai tera naam sabzi, sar sabz hai mulk bi
Har giz khizaan na aaye, aye nau bahaar tujhko
Ab jane de watan mei, Maqpon ke qaidiyon ko
Jaakar waha duwa de, leel wa nihaar tujko…
(Your name is everlasting, so is your kingdom
You are a new spring, may you never face autumn!
Let exiled prisoners return their homeland
They will pray for you…)
But even these ‘moving’ verses couldn’t melt the ‘Dogra Heart’. Dejected Zakir then started writing elegies, expressing the longing for his motherland till his death.
Three whining children inside the room are frequently disrupting the narrative of three Rajas. After Saleem, now Raja Rafi is speaking by putting up a sombre face. “Once our ancestors were settled in Panir,” he says, “they were allotted the nearby woods on traame’ paetis peth (copper plate), which was placed inside the deputy commissioner’s office in Pulwama till recently.”
When these Baltis were rebuilding their lives in Panir Jagir, many people in Baltistan were getting restless to meet their exiled royals. They would often give a slip to Dogra rulers and sneak into Panir for having an ‘emotional’ reunion with the banished first family of Baltistan. “The same was going on till 1989,” says Rafi.
That year, as armed struggle unleashed a distressing wave of checking and crackdowns across the valley, the Baltis of Panir Jagir too sensed the trouble. “Since our roots were in Pakistan-administrated Kashmir,” Rafi continues, “our elders feared for the safety of the entire community. So, they dug out a big trench somewhere in woods and buried all swords, historical artefacts, documents and other important things of King Ahmad Shah’s time there.”
In fact, Rafi continues, “we would hide our identity from Army, saying, ‘Sahab, we are from Kargil.’ That was the only way to safeguard ourselves from trouble.”
With an apparent improvement in the security scenario in the valley, the Baltis of Panir Jagir are again playing host to their visiting brethren.
In the fall of 2010, one master Mohammad Sadiq Hardasi of Kargil visited Panir Jagir. He showed great interest to trace the final resting place of King Ahmad Shah. After he knew that the king is buried somewhere in Kishtwar, he took Raja Aslam with him there.
Their quick fact-finding concluded that King’s grave might be somewhere closer to Kishtwar’s Chowgan Maidan. But as days passed, their search only ended on a sour note: King’s grave was nowhere to be found.
Before leaving, they met one retired DC Sharma, who had written a book on the history of Kishtwar. “But he hadn’t mentioned anything about King Ahmad Shah,” Aslam says. “When I told him, ‘how could you skip King’s mention?’ He got very surprised, and assured, ‘I will research about it.’ ” (It is believed that King Ahmad Shah’s grave has either come under a metallic road or has been dismantled a long back.)
Since their arrival, however, these Baltis have lived in total harmony with their Kashmiri neighbours in Panir Jagir. The influence of Kashmiri culture is quite noticeable. They speak broken Kashmiri, twisted Urdu and fluent Balti. They daily cook Kashmiri food. But on festivals or special days, they prepare Balti dishes. Unlike their brethren in Baltistan though, they don’t perform classical or other dances on Nawroz (on March 21) or on marriages.
Though mainly marrying within their own community, they also tie marital knots with Kashmiri Shia Muslims. “Only our language sets us apart from Kashmiri Shias,” says Raja Rafi. “Rest, we are the same.”
If there is something still intact after 175 years of exile, it’s longing for their homeland. Their forefathers tried everything to revisit their roots, but couldn’t pave the way to home. “But one day,” hopes Raja Aslam, as he takes one good look at the two graves in the graveyard, “we will surely revisit the land of our ancestors.” But yes, he pauses, only to declare: “Things won’t be the same again.”