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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Highest battlefield on earth: The Story Of Balti At The Border

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Highest battlefield on earth: The Story Of Balti At The Border

A village cradled beautifully between the Himalayas and the Karakoram range – Turtuk! A military controlled, sensitive area, Turtuk, is the last Indian outpost before Pakistan in Leh. It’s also the gateway to the Siachen Glacier – the highest battlefield on earth.

Highest battlefield on earth: The Story Of Balti At The Border

This beautiful region is inhabited by its equally beautiful people, the Baltis. The Baltis are the muslim tribes, an ethnic group of Tibetan origin found in smaller concentrations in Ladakh. However, Baltis are predominantly found throughout Pakistan.

My visit to Turtuk in September 2021 was an extremely enriching one. Living with the Balti family, being a part of their daily routine for a few days was undoubtedly a treat and one of my best experiences.

Carpet of lush green buckwheat and barley fields adorning the mighty, barren yet gorgeous mountains, apricot trees at every step with ripe apricots glistening and hanging joyfully in the golden sun, trees of sweet green apples, walnuts and black berries, shrubs of seabuckthorn – This place is nothing but a paradise. Turtuk, in Balti means ‘to stay’. What an apt name for this place! 

Also Read: https://nomadlawyer.org/the-story-of-a-changemaker-in-the-society-roshni-d-souza/

Once considered as an important silk route, Turtuk opened up for tourism just 10 years ago. 

Hugging each other in the alleys, the stone houses built beautifully and the winding narrow glacial water canals flowing hastily, takes you to an era long forgotten. 

 It’s marvelous to see how the techniques used centuries ago are beautifully preserved and used till date, like the water mill in Youl hamlet.

This traditional flour grinding water mill functions with the force through the water canals flowing underneath. Apparently, this is the only water mill around.

A little girl was busy helping her mother collect the flour fallen off the grinder when my presence surprised them both. Her warm smile was quite welcoming to her humble mill. Villagers get sacks of barley and other grains to be ground into flour, their staple diet.

A huge, wooden suspension bridge over the pristine clear Shyok river divides the two hamlets Youl and Farul. Picturesque winding alleys leads you to explore the Balti Heritage house & museum, monastery, natural cold storage, polo ground and the balti cemetery.

Balti Heritage House and Museum was built in the 18th century, in traditional Balti architecture. It’s a treat to be inside a Balti House (made of pure wood) and feel the beautiful set-up – the kitchen with a sleeping section (for the baby), granary, trunks, store rooms, living rooms etc., untensils (made of brass and clay), artistically made metal fire lighter (used by the rich), chullah, the blow pipe made of sheepskin, fur coats, weighing scale, a wooden notepad, ropes made from tree roots, hunting equipment etc. Each and every item in the museum is so unique and preserved very well.

Monastery: A beautiful trek led me to this one and only monastery up on the mountain, overlooking the glistening Shyok river. This monastery was built in 1971 by an Army General.

It’s quite surprising to know that after so many years and without any regular worshippers (visited occasionally) by tourists and some buddhist passer-bys), the monastery still stands strong. I was lucky to meet the sole caretaker of the monastery, a cheerful young lady, Ms.Yangdol. She works as a teacher in a school in this hamlet. Yangdol is the only buddhist residing among the Balti community who are Muslims belonging to the Noorbakshia, Ahmadiya, Sunni sects.

Balti Cemetery: Just below the monastery, overlooking the Shyok river is a cemetery, resting in peace the souls of young and old of the Balti community.

Also Read: https://nomadlawyer.org/selfless-son-of-ladakh-sonam-wangchok/

Polo Ground: This historic traditional Polo ground dates back to the medieval times. Polo was played big time in the Baltistan region. These days too (in summer), kids do indulge themselves in this game occasionally.

The Mosque: What’s fascinating about this mosque is that its ceilings adorn the wood carvings of the Swastika, Buddhist and Iranian designs; all beautifully engraved in one frame. Unity in diversity in our incredible India! The mosque dates back to the medieval era; and was 1st renovated in 1690.

The Royal Palace: This palace of the Yagbo dynasty dates back to the 15th century of the Baltistan kingdom. A warm welcome by none other than the King of Turtuk himself, (erstwhile king) King Yagbo Mohammad Khan Kacho, was quite surprising. With his royal staff in hand, the genealogy of rulers of this dynasty was very beautifully explained by him. It was such a pleasure to meet him and hear him narrate the history of his kingdom. He also briefed us about the artefacts and other antiquities which he and others used, now preserved at the palace museum. We were in for another surprise when we met the Prince and his Princess too.

Natural Cold Storage: To preserve not just  meat, butter, milk, but also wool. Villagers keep them in hollows of the stone bunkers. The underground glacial water canals keep these bunkers icy cold throughout the year. 

Also, neatly tied pouches of milk, curd, lassi, kept in these flowing water canals.

Balti Cuisine: Baltis with unique ethnicity are inhabitants of Ladakh, more precisely in the Baltistan region at the India-Pakistan border.

In addition to chicken and mutton, Balti’s prepare a variety of veg dishes too. These are a few veg dishes that I relished, prepared with lots of love by the Balti family with whom I stayed. 

Zhabkhoor: slightly sweetish round soft bread served with a bowl of ghee.

Baalay: walnut and almond chutney.

Prakoo or prapu: It’s like a broth cooked with adding potatoes and other vegetables. Served with walnuts and almond chutney (baalay).

Kisir: It’s like a dosa made of Buckwheat flour.

Language: The Baltis speak Balti

language which is a dialect of Tibetan language.

Religion: In the medieval times, Bön and Tibetan Buddhism religions were practiced by the Balti people. Today, most of the Baltis are Shia Muslims, some practice Noorbakshia Sufi Islam, and minority group are Sunni Muslims.

We will leave you with a photo gallery for you to enjoy the beauty of this place and its culture.

Balti women weaving shawl

Balti Children

Balti Polo Ground

Entrance to the Yagbo Palace 


Water mill in action

Water channels through the alleys

The metal fire lighter

Balti heritage house and museum

Water pouches kept in water canals as cold storage

Picturesque Turtuk

Barley field adorning Turtuk

Balti Kitchen

Wooden suspension bridge bridging Youl and Faruk hamlets

Balti Graveyard

Only Buddhist Monastery in Faruk hamlet, Turtuk

One can never have enough of Turtuk

This blog is contributed by Roshni D’ Souza.

Know About Roshni

Roshni is from Mumbai. Though a city girl, she generally spends her time with the tribes in India, understanding them and also writing about them.

She has a corporate experience of 12 years. Currently, she primarily works with NGOs in wildlife conservation,rural empowerment, education in village schools and youth rural development.

She is also a content writer at NomadLawyer.

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