© Ayash Basu | May 2018
Turtuk: The northernmost village in India
The winter of 1971 marks an extraordinary chapter in the Indian subcontinent’s history. Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan was executed with clinical precision under the oversight of Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw (a Zoroastrian), General Jagjit Singh Aurora (a Sikh) and, Chief of the Eastern Command, Jacob-Farj-Rafael-Jacob (a Jew). All under the political astuteness of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (a Hindu). As the besieged Pakistan army was low on morale following the loss of East Pakistan, Major Chewang Rinchen (a Buddhist) of the Ladakh Scouts, 1,000 miles away, took the opportunity to take out four villages from Pakistan’s territory. Residents of Tyakshi, Thang, Chalunka and Turtuk had gone to bed in Pakistan and woken up in India the next morning. Major Rinchen, having successfully defended Ladakh from Pakistani invasion in 1947, was the youngest ever recipient of the “Mahavir Chakra” (India’s second highest military decoration) at age seventeen, and following his heroics in 1971, is a revered legend in these parts.
This stretch of Ladakh has seen borders change hands routinely – from a small autonomous kingdom way back in the day, to a subject of Lhasa (Tibet) before being annexed into Kashmir in 1834, then sold for a mere seventy thousand rupees to the British East India Company, until India’s blood-stained partition in 1947 handed it over to Pakistan. Since 1971, Turtuk lies a mere 6 miles on the Indian side of the border, which some argue, is the most dangerous in the world. Yet, in such perilous proximity lies an astounding landscape, warm welcomes, sweet apricots, pulsating buckwheat infused greenery, and the alluring Balti people.
“During the war, locals from nearby villages fled and found refuge in bigger cities, but the people of Turtuk chose to stay,” articulates Ibrahim Ashoor, our host and owner of a local guest house. It’s not just those invisible borders that change with war, but invisible walls rise as well that separate families and loved ones. “Many have swallowed the bitterness of separation – mothers from sons, men from brothers and, wives from husbands – despite being ten miles away,” Ibrahim explains.
Turtuk was opened to visitors only in 2010 and remains under vigilant military watch. It is also an arduous nine-hour drive from Leh in not the greatest roads involving passing the Khardung La at 18,400 feet, and requiring a night halt in between. Few make it to this northernmost village outpost in India, and as such, it is off the beaten track and a hidden gem. Writing about Turtuk therefore, feels somewhat like revealing a secret, which I struggled with. But the beauty of this oasis cocooned within barren mountains and the affection of its Balti community undeniably etch one’s mind that is worth sharing.
First, a bit about the surrounding region. Before Buddhism found royal sponsorship in the 8th century, this part of Ladakh was the mainstay of Bon rituals and practices. As a result, Old Tibetan influences are found in many local dialects. For all its isolation today, this region featured prominently on the Silk Route and was commercially well connected to China, Persia and India. It wasn’t until the 14th century that Shah Ali Hamdaani, a Persian Sufi, and his spread of Islam turned this into a Nurbakshi Muslim stronghold. With the fall of the Tibetan empire and the rule of the Mughals in India, things were relatively stable until Zoravar Singh, the shrewd Dogra General (and a popular namesake today for many Bollywood baddies) invaded and annexed Ladakh in 1834, as part of King Gulab Singh’s Kashmir.
Turtuk itself comprises of three small hamlets. Farol (upper Turtuk) sits atop a hill and houses plush green buckwheat and barley fields farmed mostly by women. Apricot and walnut farms habitually grace the terrain and provide income to the village. A stroll through Farol invigorates your lungs, even with its thin air as shy children greet you with innocuous smiles on rosy cheeks. Women dry apricots, mulberries and nuts, and cordially greet outsiders but withdraw swiftly at the prospect of a photo. Climbing on walnut trees is encouraged, apricots and apples are just a pluck away, and field after field tease your camera. There is a wholesome chasteness that makes even city-bred organic produce look like stale bread and “a moment spent in Farol is a moment gained in life,” wouldn’t be such a wild thought. The men work with animals higher up in the mountains and many assist the BRO with road maintenance, a priority for the army in this region. Despite unknowingly and unwillingly switching countries overnight, villagers evoke Chewang Rinchen’s assurance and care in 1971, something the Indian army is attentive to. They are a major buyer of Turtuk’s produce, employ many of its men and bring in supplies from Disket for the village.
Youl (lower Turtuk) lies across a gushing stream accessible through a small suspension bridge built by the locals with the help of the Indian army. The green buckwheat fields of Farol give way to stone houses, some a few hundred years old. To respect the fragile mountains, the community has developed an intricate canal system that channels glacial melt water adjacent to each house. These channels, in addition to bringing water, also act as refrigerators for milk and perishables, and are monitored by the Chunpa (nominated water referees) to ensure equal distribution between houses and fields. The impact of climate change is visibly palpable. Glaciers have retreated, rain cycles have shifted necessitating fuel based drying of produce, erratic cloud bursts have caused devastating landslides, and crops are harder to grow amidst rising temperatures and inflation. This threatens the traditional Balti way of life – shrinking appeal for farming, rising plastic levels, and age-old woolen handlooms, wood and metal work slowly becoming forgotten trades. Instead, the younger generation sways towards guest houses and tourism as a way to grow the economy.
Chutang is Turtuk’s educational and cultural center. Its school is a delight to watch as young children, mostly girls dressed in their hijabs start the day with the national anthem and a couple of local songs. Resources are limited and teachers are temporary, yet 150 odd children pursue every prospect possible. This is a village largely cut off from the outside world where traditions run deep, but is trying hard to wholeheartedly accept modern education and opportunities. In fact, the village locals, jaded by their long isolation, petitioned for the idyllic valley to open up to visitors in 2010. Just down the alley from the school is Turtuk’s mosque, estimated to be at least 400 years old although no one knows for sure. Striking woodwork and inlays with heavy Persian designs grace the interiors, and the same people who maintain the mosque, light the lamps at the Buddhist monastery atop Farol.
Turtuk is a sanctuary of greenery, tradition and generosity, to the point of amazement given its backdrop and history. The Balti people are happy and content, with the pain of separation from their loved ones across the border slowly fading away. Villagers and the army share a symbiotic rapport and the young generation is optimistic about the future as connectivity with Leh improves every year. Resources and funding while present, remain scanty, particularly around education and disaster recovery. But the innocence, hospitality and beauty of Turtuk will give you memories for a lifetime (and many compelling photos). Turtuk in Balti literally translates to “a desire to stay,” and boy did they get that right! Its residents perhaps took this meaning to heart and never left Turtuk, even in war. A visit to Turtuk, especially with your good friends, can only be fulfilled with “a desire to go back.” At the end of it all, what feels like discovering a secret, is perhaps more a reminder of how people should be.