Museum On The Border

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by Muneer A Raqeeb

This is what they have named museum at Hunderman, in the barren mountains on the Line of Actual Control (LoAC). This village must have seen thousands of caravans pass through from Kargil to Skardu and onward to Baltistan and further. What a tragedy and turn of events that what was at the cusp of civilization is at the dead end that practically leads to nowhere, except paths and tracks laden with landmines.

Enter The Museum: The nice signage hanging on the stone wall of the Hunderman museum. Pic: Munir ul Islam

Few cultural enthusiasts have made attempt to link the present with the rich past of not only this land but the human civilization as it existed in this land for millennia. They have turned this “dead end”, into an opportunity to showcase how humans had been living in barren Ladakh lands till recently. As late as 1960s Ladakhis did not have proper road access to the outer world, so almost all the houses were made from the locally available material. Most of the houses were constructed with stones adobe bricks, and roofs had the support of poplar logs and willow twigs

The War Memories: Various vintage weapons preserved in the desert museum at Hunderman. Pic: Munir ul Islam

mixed and plastered with mud.

Ladakh was connected by motorable road in the 1960s and opened up for tourists in 1975. Now famous Leh- Manali motorable road was thrown open in 1989. That meant changes in all aspects of life. Beginning 1990, the local construction material has completely been replaced by cement, mortar steel and wood from outside.

Toll For Growth: Some of the tools that the people in Kargil have historically used in managing their wool economy. Pic: Munir ul Islam

However, there is now a great stress and interest in heritage and cultural tourism. Ladakhis and people of Leh, in particular, have understood it well that their guests want a relief, maybe temporary one from the concrete jungles, high rise buildings, traffic, noise and consequent pollution. They come to explore nature in its rawness and Ladakh has become a world attraction on this count.

The Common Basic: These are the basic life requirements for a family for ages now. Pic: Munir ul Islam

And one of its best manifestations is Hunderman village in Kargil, which has practically remained uninhabited since 1948. While interacting with locals and after visiting this village, it seems that some of the houses are as old as four to five hundred years. Houses are made of mud, stone or adobe bricks on three sides, while the back wall is embedded into the mountains, with no attempt to chisel or smoother the mountain rocks. Many of the houses are still a single storey with one portion for the cattle including sheep and goats, and the other portion for humans. In all the houses you have small enclosures for newly born sheep and goat kids adjacent to the fireplace to keep them warm. This gives one idea of how important cattle were for Ladakhi society, that they got preference over humans in getting the prized place in the houses. In some houses, the first floor has been added, with the ground floor being exclusively reserved for cattle. Bridge made of poplar logs and willow twigs are used to move from one house to other, and they are usable even after decades.

Munshi Aejaz of famous Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum Kargil, along with some other cultural and heritage enthusiasts and NGO Roots Collective Kargil with help of SWS Cept University Ahmedabad have done a commendable job in preserving this village as it has been for hundreds of years. Probably, it is the only village in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir state that has remained intact, un-adultered and unchanged for centuries. And that makes it so special as an ethnographic site. Being on the most volatile border is a boon for keeping the village and its immediate surroundings intact. It is not just the history of Ladakh but in fact the history of human civilization in cold regions of the world that is on display here in Hunderman.

Memories of Separation: The letters between sisters and brothers divided by the Line of Control in the Hunderman museum. Pic: Munir-ul-Islam

A person of my age who has seen the life from nearly zero intervention of modern technology to present can relate to most of the day today household things of cold climate dwellings that one gets to see at Hunderman Barook. Munshi Aejaz is indeed appreciative of the Army and in particular of a Brigadier who allowed them not only to protect and preserve this site but allowed the movement of tourists to this place that stands on the LoAC. All precautions have been taken to maintain the originality of the structures, with bare minimum intervention. However, they need help to ensure that some of the structures are strengthened so that they can withstand the vagaries of nature. During summers on an average 50 to 80 tourists visit this village daily.

One house has been turned into a museum wherein one room agriculture and horticulture equipment have been kept. In another room household items of daily use have been displayed. Yet another room houses the dresses, spinning material, and other related equipment etc.

The minimum Basic: Without these things, human family cannot exist in sub-zero environment. Pic: Munir ul Islam

This space has been created to give you an idea of time and space in which Hunderman exists. And in this section letters from the brother to his sister of a divided family in the two parts of state makes you really emotional. Identity cards, books and day to day things printed and manufactured in Pakistan and various parts of the world in the 1950s and 1960s are also on display. (Till 1971 Hunderman was officially on another side directly facing Indian bunkers, so practically Humderman has been in no man’s land for past 70 years, and houses remained abandoned since 1948).

Muneer-ul-Islam

On display are the primitive agriculture tools, spindles, wooden ladle and other stone, earthen and copper pots, primitive carpentry tools and of course the bullets, empty grenade shells and other war materials, a true reminder of the life of people in these areas who live on the edge. I was quite impressed watching the indigenous wooden lock and the key mechanism used to secure the main house doors. Well, try it as you may like, you will fail to open the door and even today Abbas uses this lock to secure the house turned into Museum.

(Author is Director, Archives, Archaeology and Museums, Jammu and Kashmir. This note was written during his recent visit to the museum was lifted from his personal facebook wall.)

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