Kartakhsha in Baltistan

The travel to Kartakhsha

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Last week, we travelled extensively in the valley of Kharmang. The visit was full of experiences as we travelled to the remotest parts of the district. The features and landscape change as you travel deep into the valley. We started from the convergence-point of Sheyok and Indus rivers through Sermik, and entered Parkuta (now Mehdiabad from where the boundaries of Kharmang start).

Shrine where hair of holy Prophet (S.A.W) is placed by the Somakhar in Kharmang-PHOTO by writer

 Mehdiabad is one of the largest villages in the district with distinct features – in contrast with the numerous other settlements which are high up in the highlands atop mountains and along narrow gorges. Moulvi Hashmatullah in his book ‘Tareekh-e-Jammu’ records the history of Kharmang (formerly known as Kartakhsha) and writes that the earliest settlements in the vale were around Parkuta and Serling from where various other settlements emerged subsequently. According to the writer, a man by the name of Yol Sharong first entered from Chilas and formed the settlements in the region around Serling in Parkuta. Like other areas in the region, it has a checkered history and was once forcefully annexed to Ladakh and was reigned from the same for some time – later conquered by the forces of Ali Sher Khan (Maqpoon ruler of Skardu) and all Kartakhsha territories were regained afterwards. The current name of Kharmang comes from this same time when Ali Sher Khan conquered the area and built a number of towers and police posts dotting the area consequently the small state acquired its current name Kharmang, which means the state of many fortresses.

The conflux of rivers Indus and Kargil. The turquoise-coloured Ladakh river subsuming in sapphire-Indus here near Moroul, Kharmang–PHOTO by writer

As we travel up and South-East, we reach Tolti which has been made the district headquarter of the nascent district of Kharmang and is also the place where the Sub-Divisional Magistrate operates from. Fellow traveler Ashiq Hussain connected us with the SDM and we received a warm welcome from the newly appointed SDM Kharmang who we went to meeting right after reaching Tolti. You see a similar pattern travelling on the main road in the district that the valleys are narrow green patchy strips along the main road besides the river Indus forming a shape as if two right angled triangles smashed with their pointed edges facing each other. The SDM kindly hosted us as we settled down to high-tea. It was a surprise to know the high-tea items also included local delicacy, Kisir (pancakes).

Our next destination was Olding from where we were to travel to Harghosil where our first assignment awaited us. We left our stomachs full. The river Indus accompanied snaking along the route all along. Leaving Mayurdo, Ingut and Kharpito behind we reached ‘Kharmang Khas’. Here we saw two forts and a shrine. Ashiq Faraz bi related a cursory history of these places. Kharmang Khas is on the right bank of River Indus so we couldn’t visit the place – due to tight schedule and saw it on the way. The shrine is atop a hillock besides the fortress. Tradition has it that during the reign of Sher Shah who first formally ruled Kartakhsha, a ‘fakir’ from Kashmir bearing hair of the holy Prophet (S.A.W) entered his territory which was placed here by the fortress and a shrine constructed around it; the hair is said to have been paced inside this shrine covered in a box which still exists. I am not sure but I can safely guess that the fortress by this shrine is Somakhar which was built during the 15th century by the local ruler Sher Shah. There is another fort some distance away from the shrine on the premises of main settlement which I guess is Anthokhar as referred to by Maulvi Hashmatullah in his book. Anthokhar looks in good condition from afar.

Khamosh waterfall, a popular tourist destination near Torghun village, Kharmang.–PHOTO by writer

We sped up as we had spent much time in SDM’s office. Along the way, the landscape almost remained the same. We now reached the confluence-point of Indus and Ladakh rivers. I asked Waseem bi, who was also accompanying me on the trip, that we should stop here and see this amazing view. The sapphire colored Ladakh river subsuming into the turquoise-Indus both travelling miles and miles and meeting here as if two lovers embracing each other. The spectacle was worth watching. Stopping by and listening to the river feels like them whispering the stories into the ears of the beholders. It is fascinating that Shingo river one of main tributaries re-entering Baltistan via Kargil river and forming a part of the longest rivers in the country. The Shingo streams emerge in the Himalayas enter Kargil and then subsume later in the Indus near Moroul.

View of Olding village the last main settlement before the LoC.–PHOTO by writer

After travelling for a while, we had safely reached Olding and as we had booked the Works Department’s Rest House, we directly went there where we were to stay for the night. The staff soon reached after our settling in the rooms. It dawned upon us that we had limited options (say only one option) as there were nothing in the market we found to satisfy our hunger. We improvised and made egg curry – the instant answer to hunger!

We travelled to Harghosil after taking the lunch for our first assignment. The road is extremely narrow barely enough for a jeep to carry through. The people here are Shina speaking Dards. We found the people hospitable and welcoming. People here are mostly poor and lack basic necessities which sustain life and are (save a few) mostly disconnected from happenings in the outside world. Many people here have spent their entire lives without even travelling to the nearby Skardu city. One thing however which is surprisingly in abundance here is electricity, basic driver for our modern lives. Roads to these highlands are all dirt roads. As we finished our assignment and were about to leave the place, we found a throng all cheering; we learnt the razzmatazz was in response to a ferocious fight between Yaks around which all of them were gathered. Seeing our vehicle, some of the people gathered around us; we bid farewell and left the place and reached our resting place. The sun set in for the day and we were there in our beds far from home. As the night set in, a deafening silence spread and we felt as if we were teleportted to some ancient times of the yore. The walls and the rooms opened up to us. In their silence they told stories: the story of time and impermanence; the walls exuded impermanence and it resonated with the chatter of silence. Soon we were fast asleep.

Road to Harghosil off Olding. Road to the highland settlements are perilous and extremely narrow barely enough for a single vehicle to carry through–PHOTO writer

The next day, having completed another assignment, we travelled to Brolmo which is the last village before Da Hanu on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC). I learnt that the channel head for the village lie on the other side of the border. The water supply was cut down resultantly the whole village was uprooted. The place paints a grim picture as if a movie scene from a zombie apocalypse. Almost all the houses have caved in and the standing few cement structures bomb-pocked – from Indian shelling. Cameras were not allowed so we couldn’t take pictures. Brolmo has prominence for it being the resting place of Sheikh Ali of Brolmo, a local saint and religious scholar who is buried here. The grave is a place of pilgrimage and frequented by locals and people from all Baltistan. The ‘village’ is on the right bank of ladakh river which means the road ends before the village as the main Kharmang-Kargil road runs along the other side of the river. This is the closest one can get to the Indians in GB – for civilians. The Indian posts are a stone’s throw away from the village and one can see the Indian flag fluttering in the wind. We offered prayers and paid our respects here and left the place.

We were closest to the National Highway-I and the Zoji-La. Ashiq Faraz bi pointed Buddhist Dards of Dah Hanu across the border could be seen; they were in fact army men it emerged later. We stopped there for some time and observed the place and lamented on our helplessness. How we loved to visit the other side and interact with the people but were constricted by the LoC. J. Biddulph in his seminal work, “Tribes of Hindukoosh” describes the Buddhist Dards of Dah Hanu and relates an extraordinary attribute which distinguishes these Dards from others – their abhorrence of the cow. They won’t eat its meat, nor will they drink its milk and if ‘one of them drank its milk, they wouldn’t admit him into their house.’ He explains this repugnance by the Dards of Dah-Hanu as their worshiping local spirit, Lha-mo of Dah whose name is Shirin-mo. The writer further attributes their practices drawing from tribal religion and their being superficially Buddhists.

Brisil village is one of the remotest villages hemmed in from India from all sides except one. Life here is extremely harsh especially in winters where heavy snowfall disconnects it from other areas–PHOTO writer

We walked besides the limpid river. Soon we were away from the high security zone and again on the main road. Work on various segments on this road is being carried out with narrower and dangerous parts being widened and realigned; most of the main Kharmang road is black topped. We travelled non-stop and were fully drained. We encountered this issue that ahead of Tolti, there was not a single proper hotel all the way to Olding. We stopped at Gole for lunch cum dinner in the evening. We then talked less and slept more. We opened our eyes to see ourselves back in the beloved city of Skardu.

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