In 2001, a large collection of artefacts from the trans-Himalayan caravan trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were discovered in a dilapidated serai in Kargil’s Old Bazaar. It did not immediately occur to the owners—the Bhats, a prominent family in Kargil—to build a museum to house them.
The Bhats had lived in the city for four generations, working in the fields of politics, commerce and welfare. But it took three years, some debate and a few coincidences for the Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artefacts to open to the public. The curator, Aijaz Hussain Munshi, told me when we met in June 2017 in Kargil that the family had nearly forgotten its role in the caravan trade until his older brother, Munshi Abdur Rehman, decided to dismantle the old serai and build a new market for his sons. “While the workers were taking the structure apart, a mason stumbled across a turquoise stone,” he said. “The man brought it to my father, Munshi Habibullah, who lauded the mason for his honesty and asked him to keep it for his daughter’s wedding. After this, we all went to the serai and dug out boxes after boxes of artefacts.”
The museum includes one section with Munshi Aziz Bhat’s documents and personal belongings, another with clothes and travel gear used by traders and one with a jade collection, including a cup made of Sang-e-Qaif, a rare form of jade. It also showcases everyday items sold in the serai such as locks, blades, needles, shoe polish, soap and tea. There are exhibits of trade documents and coins and an imposing collection of over 8,000 trade letters and bahi-khata—trading account books—from as far back as 1902.
Initially, the family did not know what to do with these artefacts. They planned to keep some as decorations but send the rest to antique goods dealers. A chance meeting in 2002 between Aijaz and the American researcher Jacqueline Fewkes—whose work on the Silk Route had brought her to Ladakh—changed their minds. Over the course of her research, Fewkes had found 65 letters in the Leh Archives which were written by Central Asian traders to Munshi Aziz Bhat, Aijaz’s grandfather, as well letters from Munshi Habibullah, Aijaz’s father, to the traders. When the family, including Munshi Habibullah heard about the letters, it brought on immense nostalgia. Habibullah, who was then old and ailing, eventually agreed to an interview with Fewkes, in which he recounted the last three decades of the trade and his (and his father’s) role in it. Munshi Habibullah’s memories and stories made it apparent that the artefacts were not merely antique, but markers of the family’s role in the historic caravan trade. The family invited historians and experts to examine the collection. They were taken aback by the researchers’ enthusiasm and offers to assist the family with documentation of the artefacts.