Preserving a heritage

In 1998 Munshi brothers of Kargil were demolishing their ancestral inn, when they discovered a treasure trove of artefacts. Rather than bringing them wealth, the family has since been spending heavily to showcase the artefacts in a museum. Ibrahim Wani reports.

Gulzar Hussain Munshi and his brother Aijaz Hussain Munshi of Kargil were always inspired by the folk tales of ‘Kesar Saga’ – the legendary epic of Kargil. Being an important station on the ancient trade route, people of Kargil were fascinated by the tales of traders from India, Central Asia, Tibet, Baltistan, Kashmir. These tales instilled a craving among the brothers for culture, art, history and ancient trade.
But the brothers had hardly imagined that one day they would be actively showcasing their culture and history to the world.
The ‘Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian Art and Artifacts’, set up by the family, houses more than 6000 artefacts.
The brothers knew that their grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat operated an inn (Sarai), the first ever in Kargil in 1920’s. The Sarai became a favourite trading and lodging centre for traders from India and Central Asia. The Sarai saw its fall with the independence and partition of the subcontinent and subsequent closure of traditional trade routes.
“The prince merchants of Kharmang and Khaplu both in Baltistan (now Pakistan) and traders from Kashmir and Amritsar were regular customers,” says Aijaz who also serves as the curator of the museum.
The trading community was badly affected after the closure.
Gulzar, also the director of the museum says that the king of Kharmang (now in Pakistan) owed their grandfather 15000 silver coins in 1947.
Shortly afterwards their grandfather expired. The sons took little interest in business and joined other fields. “His elder son Munshi Habibullah chose politics and became the first cabinet minister from Kargil in the J&K government”, says Gulzar.
In 1998 when the brothers decided to demolish the dilapidated and abandoned Sarai to construct a shopping mall they stumbled upon an unexpected treasure trove.
“We had never anticipated to unearth items of such importance.” There were leather skins, coarse cotton cloth, jewellery and carpets from central Asia, British horse seat and saddles, buttons from Italy and fancy items from the factory of Nizam of Hyderabad. There were also an enormous collection of local arts and artefacts from the period.
“We were unsure what to do with these artefacts. There were a number of options like keeping them in a drawing room collection, selling them off to antique dealers who had started approaching the family etc”.
The news of the discovery also spread in the town, and many people came up with a suggestion to set up a museum but “at that time it seemed a difficult proposition”.
Meanwhile an anthropologist Ms Jacqueile Fawaks from the University of California visited the family with a letter of their grandfather written to a merchant in early 20th century regarding transaction of goods. Ms Fawaks expressed a desire to see all the things mentioned in the letter. “It took us three days to find all these items in our house”’ says Gulzar.
A small exhibition was organized afterwards for six days, which garnered phenomenal response. As people came to know of the discovered artefacts, many came forward donating artefacts and suggested a museum.
“At that time all the doubts disappeared and we decided to set up a museum,” said Aijaz.
The brothers, Aijaz an IAS officer and Gulzar an executive engineer, began to set up the museum entirely out of their own pocket. They housed the museum in the ground floor of their house.
Kacho Ahmad Khan, the great grandson of the king of ‘Sot’ Kargil and  Kacho Sikander Khan,  the descendents of the King of ‘Shar Chiktan’  donated two old guns, a small cannon, one sword, two wooden bowls, one granite stone pot and ancient warrior dresses. “They also gave us permission to excavate and explore their ancestral fort in Chiktan”. The fort with its collapsed rear wall is believed to hold many ancient artefacts.
The artefacts on display at the museum have kept mounting. Recent additions range from handwritten Qurans and documents to Tibetan manuscripts. “The documents we have gathered recently are 600 to 700 years old,” says Gulzar.  The museum has also gathered important documents and artefacts of the Purkis tribe, a major tribe in the region.
The museum has emerged as a valuable data bank for historical research with researchers from Kashmir University, Jammu University, Berlin University and many international universities visiting the place. “We also have a special tie-up with the Pittriger’s Oxford Museum in England,” says Gulzar.
Gulzar has visited many international conferences where the contribution of the brothers has been commended. In 2006 he went to Rome for a conference hosted by La Spanzia University in Italy. He has also attended a conference at Arhas University in Denmark among many others.
The brothers are resolute in their aim to preserve culture. So far they have spent more than Rs 12 lakh on the infrastructure, and the maintenance cost runs into more than one lakh rupees per year.  To reimburse some of the costs the museum charges Rs 70 from visitors, and a nominal fee of Rs 5 from students.
“The aim is not just to preserve artefacts but also preserve our history, tradition and customs which are disappearing fast,” says Gulzar.
The Sarai chronicled the rise and fall of Munshi Aziz Bhat.
Mushi Aziz Bhat’s other sons also chose different fields with the result that the trading company set up by their grandfather closed down. Similar was the fate of the Sarai until 1998 when the family decided to demolish it to make way for a shopping complex. It was at this time that the brothers stumbled upon the discovery.


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