On one side of the dusty off-road from Turtuk, in Ladakh’s Nubra valley, to the village of Thang, just 2.5km from the mercurial Line of Control (LoC), a large rock presents a stark warning: “You are under enemy observation.” Other rocks on the route are inscribed with the words of Baltistan’s beloved poet Qurban Ali, who lived through the 19th and 20th centuries and wrote on themes traversing the subtleties of love, longing and lifestyle; philosophising the Balti existence.
Warning and verse may seem incongruent, but for the Balti people, who live in some of the northernmost villages in India, the coexistence of these inscriptions is illustrative of the tangible implications of conflict and the intangible realities of separation; navigating a divided present while clinging to a shared past.
Since independence in 1947, the LoC that divides India and Pakistan has changed a few times, and each time the Baltis have found themselves shifting with it. The first "partition" of Baltistan, as it is known locally, took place in 1948. Then, after the war with Pakistan in 1965, villagers of Dreyloung, in the line of fire, were relocated to Latoo, further away from the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil. The last shift was in during the India-Pakistan war of 1971, nearly 50 years ago.
On 12 December 1971, as is usual in this treacherous terrain, a harsh winter night crept up early on Turtuk, then part of the Gilgit-Baltistan region administered by Pakistan since 1948. Five-year-old Rahim Bi Ashoor clutched her anxious, wailing mother as they raced through the narrow gullies of Turtuk. Shelling in the neighbouring village of Chulunka intensified, becoming more fiercely audible as the hours passed. “I didn’t understand it then but we were looking for my eldest brother, who was part of the Pakistan army,” says Ashoor, now 56. Five-year-olds, she says, are too young to remember the politics of conflict. Its pain, however, permeates generations. “We eventually found him, and he hid with us for a week in caves up the Shyok river. The Indian Army was in our village. Because of the weapons he carried, he would have been identified and killed. We had to let him go,” she remembers.
On 13 December, the residents of five Balti villages—Turtuk, Thyakshi, Thang, Pachathang and Chulunka—woke up in India, joining others like Karkitchoo, Hardass and Hunderman. The borders had shifted again, but some of the villages would remain cut off from the administration on either side for decades, owing to their proximity to the LoC—Turtuk was opened for Indian tourists in 2010, nearly 40 years after the war.
Still, a majority of the 500 villages that are home to the Baltis are on the other side. About 9,000 families remain divided, and five decades later, memories of the separation remain. Small communities of Baltis are also scattered across Uttarakhand, in regions like Chakrata and Kalsi Gate, having gone there as construction workers for the British. According to an ethnographic survey conducted in 2008, there are at present close to 2,500 Balti people in Uttarakhand.
Through this politics of separation, one thing that has tied the Balti people together, despite an often impermeable geo-political distance from their families across the border, is their rich poetry and culture. “Partition mein meri family, fields, relatives, mera language wahan reh gaye. Par hum physically yahan reh gaye (My family, land, relatives and language were in Pakistan after Partition, but I remained here),” says leading contemporary Balti poet and cultural activist Bashir Wafa, who has grown up in the Balti Bazaar in Kargil. “But what we have with us here is our culture; once everything is broken and divided, we are left with our poetry, our rituals, our stories, history. That’s what helps us survive. That’s what keeps us together as a people.”
This is why the poetry of Qurban Ali endures. Popularly called Bulbul-e-Baltistan, he was born in Turtuk in 1846, when it was an administrative area in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir called Ladakh Wazarat. Amid the Karakoram mountains, this village was like an oasis, at the intersection of trade, culture and agriculture. Rich in apricots and soba (buckwheat), it fell along the Silk Route, where Turtuki families would often trade this produce for oil, rice and other essentials. In 1935, the region was leased by the maharaja to the British, and after Partition, and the Gilgit Scouts rebellion of 1947, he spent what remained of his time in the same village, which then found itself on the Pakistani side of the LoC created a year later.
Among the first in Turtuk to receive an education, albeit informally, Ali could do it all. He could recite Quranic verses off-hand as easily as he stitched the most intricate traditional Balti blankets, produced the most exquisite wood carvings, and played polo. But perhaps his most cherished skill was telling stories and writing verse. Ali lived to be 105, and by the time of his death in the 1950s, had seen life under different regimes. His poetry, though not political at first glance, reflects this.
Aqali mik po fese stas na bi dunya la gdyangchi med/
Zab noori kha vdhan borey na fchos fi med na nangchi med
(If you look at the world from the eyes of your mind, it does not belong to anyone/ Being alive alone is like having built a home on a slippery rock)
This verse would prove to be prescient for his people for generations to come.
The fissures created by the wars in 1947, 1965 and 1971 seem like abstract concepts from afar, an assertion of military and nationalistic might. But the lived realities of war have, at their heart, children who woke up one day under a government different from what their parents had known, men who had to send intent of divorce in the post to wives now estranged, and relatives who would only ever see their loved ones as scribbled names in letters announcing either marriage or death.
As Radhika Gupta points out in her paper Poetics And Politics Of Borderland Dwelling: Baltis In Kargil (2014): “The sharing of poetry is an important example of the circulation of cultural forms across the border despite limited mobility. The majority of the poems are on romantic and everyday themes, not directly or necessarily expressing longing for the other side.... Rather it is through the persistence of a shared cultural space that cuts across the border that the emotion and affect denied by the state find succour. The effort put in to maintain this cultural space speaks of the poetics of longing rather than the actual poetry itself.”
Now, efforts are on across Balti villages in India to preserve a shared history regardless of borders, and generations young and old are finding real and virtual ways to do it. Turtuk is home to the Balti Heritage Museum set up by Rahim Bi Ashoor’s sons in 2017. The museum is part of their 140-year-old Balti home, with artefacts that represent traditional Balti life—stoneware, elaborate attire and hats, implements, adornments. In Hunderman, about 450km away, the Unlock Hunderman: Museum of Memories features, along with relics of the 1971 war, traditional Balti games and accessories.
Musician and songwriter Fazil Abbas, 48, too is constantly looking for innovative ways to resist the erasure of Balti culture in India. A police officer by day, Abbas is the great grandson of Qurban Ali, and has written lyrics that are often sung by students and performers alike. His Facebook page Turtuk at a Glance, which now has more than 2,000 members, is part of his dogged effort to keep the culture alive and draw more people across communities to it.
During the pandemic-induced lockdown, a Ladakhi student of music from Leh, Stanzin Chhosdon, 23, sang one of Abbas’ songs, releasing it on the Facebook group. “Ladakh has a number of Balti Muslims but I never used to take any interest in their culture. This song was beautiful and I hope with the interest of youngsters like me, who don’t even belong to the community, the Balti culture can be preserved for generations,” she says.
Still, lost in translation are some of the harsh contexts in which Balti poetry often served as comfort. Researcher and historian Sadiq Hardassi, 55, who grew up in the border village of Hardass in Kargil, remembers a time when he would study the Quran-e-Sharif at a neighbour’s home. As the Pakistani station Radio Skardu, a popular source of entertainment for the generation of women who didn’t understand Urdu, transmitted a broken Balti tune in the background, he found himself confused by the sight of his teacher weeping uncontrollably. “I had no idea at the time but later discovered that it was a song of longing, and because of the 1947 Partition, her husband remained on the other side of the border,” he says. “That is the power of Balti music.”
Balti music was always rooted, quite congruously, in themes of longing. When Balti men led caravans of yaks or horses for trade, and later as they travelled to the mountain regions of Shimla and Dehradun to work for the British, they would be separated from their wives back home, often for years.
“Back then, we did not have letters or post offices,” says Hardassi. “Women from Baltistan would find men who were travelling to the regions their sons, husbands or brothers were in and ask them to convey a song. Everyone knew what the different songs meant. The song Shikhani Kofpa, for instance, meant she missed her husband. There were songs that conveyed good health and other messages.”
Culturally, as well as politically, Baltistan was a confluence of Tibetan, animist and Buddhist traditions. It is in keeping with this that they would celebrate four seasonal festivals—on 21 March, “when the day and the night are equal”, they celebrate Navroz; on 21 June (the longest day of the year), Struf hla; on 21 September, Maizan (when the crops are ready for harvest); and on 21 December, Losar, the Balti New Year. These are still observed with reduced pomp in Turtuk.
Islam became the dominant religion by the end of the 17th century, after Muslim scholars from Kashmir crossed into Baltistan. This brought in festivals of Eid and the observance of Muharram, since a majority of the Balti population is Shi’ite. Still, Baltis continue to celebrate many of their old festivals, with a nod to Islamic rituals. On Navroz, for instance, a drum is beaten before the morning azaan, and processions and performances of dance and music are spread through the day, ending with the customary polo match in the evening. With Persian influence came ghazals, qaseedas and marsiya. Eventually, as Baltistan continued to be divided, the poetry took on a somewhat political tone.
However, unlike nationalist movements in Pakistan that call for a return to “Greater Ladakh”, “and oppositional cultural activism in Gilgit-Baltistan, which seeks to distinguish itself from the majoritarian Islamic state of Pakistan, the Balti people in Ladakh have long sought to cement their place in India,” writes Gupta. Balti poets have written patriotic songs, though even as they assert a sense of belonging, the shadow and memory of conflict always looms large.
The poem Khashmeid Zamana (Unfeeling World) by Sibte Hassan Kalim, a Balti poet who grew up in Latoo, is indicative of this.
Ngi sningla daag goed yul stohma guwana
goong skad po kuwa chik balbis po nguwana
tsan phed na ree la shorbo na thongsey ngi sning strageid ha le khashmeid zamana
(My heart aches from the sight of destruction in my village, / The shock and fear on a child’s face from the sound of shells, / The strife of villagers as they walk across the mountains at night to remain alive,/ My heart aches, oh unfeeling world)
“Their sense of rootedness in India is evident in statements such as ‘we would be happy to die here’, typifying the migrant or diasporic experience wherein dying in a place as opposed to being born there marks a sense of belonging,” writes Gupta.
NEW LIVES, OLD MEMORIES
A few years after the LoC shifted near Turtuk in 1971, Fatima Banoo, 97, had a dream. “Maine khwab mein dekha tha ki mera beta kisi unchai se gir raha hai, par raaste mein maine usse pakad liya (I dreamt that my son was falling from a great height, but I caught him,” she says in Balti. “To some extent, my dream came true.”
Her eldest son, Mohommad Bashir, who retired as a radio engineer from Radio Skardu, was at work when the war broke out, and she had no news of him for years. He was left behind, like many others, on the other side.
Eventually, Bashir started writing letters. And 42 years later, in 2013, after a prolonged process to get a visa, he made it to Ladakh via the Wagah border, a journey of close to 4,000km to cover what would otherwise have been a much shorter route, to meet his mother. “People from across Turtuk came to receive him from the Leh airport, they were all crying to see that one of our own has actually come here from Pakistan,” says her youngest son, Fazil Abbas. Fatima Banoo nearly collapsed when she saw Bashir, she says.
It was an outpouring of grief held back for years and an inexplicable joy Fatima Banoo knew would end soon, since he had to go back. It overwhelmed her and affected her health. “My life is now in its final phase, and he will never come back. He has a family there. I have held on to that old life for as long as I could but now I have given up hope,” she says.
The loss of this “old life” is perhaps the most ubiquitous truth for the Balti community, as the new generation adapts to a "modern" way of life. Latoo’s oldest residents, Api Rahima and Api Zahra, now in their late 80s, fondly remember undivided Baltistan—pre-partition Dreyloung, where they spent their childhood, fishing in the stream and playing a game called baintho, as they call tipcat in Balti. In the absence of a gilli (a short billet of wood) they would use a haddi from the knee joints of goats sacrificed during the festival of Losar.
As younger generations look beyond Balti settlements, marry outside the community, learn other languages and move out in search of education and prosperity, the Balti language is slowly acquiring traces of Urdu, Hindi and English. Traditional clothing made from goatskin and wool is being replaced by polyester. And playlists are now dominated by pop and Bollywood tunes.
Cultural activists, however, are resisting this steady erasure. “Early cultural activism can perhaps be traced to the work of Balti activists in Kargil for the inclusion of Balti...in the Sixth Schedule of Regional Languages in the Constitution of Jammu & Kashmir state. Rendered a numerical minority in Ladakh after the closure of the border with Baltistan in 1948, the Baltis have actively sought to maintain a distinct cultural and ethnic identity through the preservation of their dialect,” writes Gupta in The Importance Of Being Ladakhi: Affect And Artifice In Kargil.
In 1997, a group of Balti cultural activists, supported by the well-known Munshi family of Kargil, set up Kasco (Kargil Social and Cultural Organisation). “They would meet informally to set traditional Balti poetry to pop music and produce new lyrics. Later, a small troupe was established to perform on various occasions, including state functions. Performances by troupes dressed in traditional costumes fit endorsed modes of cultural display in India and qualify for state patronage through State Cultural Academies,” adds Gupta.
In Latoo, Leela Banoo, 47, is using Balti culture to earn a livelihood and empower women. “I stitch traditional Balti dresses, toys and ornaments. The traditional dress, called guncha, sells for around ₹2,500 and the headgear for ₹700. People from across Balti villages buy it from me for special occasions,” she says. Leela Banoo has also trained young women in the village in tailoring so that they, too, can become financially independent.
The advent of social media has given a fillip to these efforts. As connectivity improves in some parts, the Balti community has been quick to adopt the new technology to form virtual communities (social networks, online groups, and so on). Whether it’s sharing videos of Balti mushairas or messages between divided families, songs or ghazals or just information—the Balti diaspora across the world is actively united on the internet.
Through the pandemic, the community has lost one of its foremost poets and cultural activists. Ustad Sadiq Ali Sadiq, described as the top act of every mushaira, was considered an authority on Balti oral history.
Such setbacks, as well as challenges posed by the continued closure of the Kargil-Skardu road or the refusal to allow calls to their Balti kin in villages across the border, may dampen spirits, but the Balti people in India are determined to ensure their culture outlives periods of strife, just as they have. “With our WhatsApp groups, our words, our songs and our hope, we will live on forever,” says Wafa.
As we leave Turtuk, one of Ali’s poems, inscribed on a rock in Persian, in his own handwriting, echoes this sentiment. The rough translation, as Abbas explains, is, “Main gareeb admi hoon, main toh iss duniya se chala jaunga, but mere shabd, jo main iss patthar par likh raha hoon, woh mera nishana rahega (my words will live on after me).” The words have endured, and with some hope, so will a forgotten people.