Our Story

A People’s Museum for the region, the Nation and the World

A family-operated, Public Museum dedicated to preserving the life and legacy of Munshi Aziz Bhat – A Silk Route trader, pioneer, visionary, social entrepreneur, collector, patriot, husband and father.

Our museum offers anyone who visits, a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian trader culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Through its collection of artifacts and mercantile items, the museum exhibits the range of goods and services that were transported on the many maritime and overland trajectories of the Silk Routes. Apart from the commerce, the Silk Route memorabilia at the museum is an enduring peek into the lives of the many merchants, horsemen, herders, pilgrims, artisans, nomads and farmers who traversed these trader routes and evolved a culture that saw its ultimate demise with the growth of mechanized trade and reorganization of boundaries in the post-independence era.

  • To create awareness and educate the locals, youth, children and travelers about the rich heritage of Kargil through innovative outreach activities.
  • To establish a center to preserve the artifacts presently available to us, that we might acquire in future or might be donated by various interested persons.
  • To preserve the tangible and intangible heritage of Kargil through creative documentation and make them accessible for a broad range of audiences.
  • To emerge as a global center for academic and non-academic research in the area of Central Asian Studies

Daastan-e-Resham Raasta - The Silk Route and its Stories

The Silk Route, became eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, but items of every description for daily as well as luxury use were dispatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items from these, in return.

The overland and sea Silk Routes which were famous even in the reign of Alexander the Great and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become the centuries-old, multi-directional,  transcontinental thoroughfare for the movement, on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot,  of spices, salt and pepper; herbs, fruits and nuts; silk wool and cotton textiles; horse draping and equine accessories; finished garments, bags, buttons, caps and hats made of willow, cotton, leather and wool; pots and pans;  carpets; silk, wool, cotton and leather accoutrements; precious and semi-precious stones; jewellery, metal ware, ceramics and  of course – people!

In her account of the trans-Karakoram trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Janet Rizvi remarks how paradoxically development and technological progress have rendered the mountain barriers between different regions not less but more formidable than they were before. Earlier, “ancient routes, crossing savage ranges by high and often glaciated passes, could be negotiated by the feet of traders and pilgrims and their pack-animals…one such trail, trodden regularly by traders up to a mere 50 years ago, but today unthinkable as a regular route was that which breasted the Himalayas and the Karakoram, and created a commercial link between northern India and the part of Central Asia now known as Sinkiang. In fact, it was not much of a route as a whole complex of routes”. The Silk Routes, always combining both maritime and overland trade ways, spanned centuries and continents, making possible cultural, industrial and technological exchanges of goods and ideas among peoples across the world.

Hence, the fibers that bound this irrepressible network of trade were indeed not just of rare and expensive cloth. It was a veritable mix of traders, their goods and finery as well as protocols and life of the trading route that rendered it extensive and thriving! If we forage through history, we can find a story for each silent artifact.

Ek Tajir : Who was Munshi Aziz Bhat?

Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence during the period 1880-1950, when all trading activity in Kargil, both retail and large scale trading was run and controlled by Punjabis and Hoshiarpuri Lalas. In the years between 1866 and 1948, he managed to rise as a large scale trader in the region.

Munshi Aziz Bhat joined Revenue department as a Patawari, but quit his job in 1915 to try his luck in business. In August 1915, he in partnership with a Punjabi Sikh merchant Sardar Kanth Singh started a retail cum whole sale shop with a buffer money of 6000 silver coins which is equal to Rs. 600,000 these days. Luck favored them and by the end of the year they had made an annual profit of Rs 9000. In the year 1920, his partnership with Sardar Kanth Singh ended and he established his own large scale trading business with the help of his two older sons and a cousin. The enterprise was called “Munshi Aziz Bhat And Sons” with a successful trade extending in all the four directions. In the meanwhile, he was also appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat.

Ek Sarai: Kargil and the Silk Route

Munshi Aziz Bhat built the first ever inn in Kargil for the central Asian traders that came to be known as the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai was constructed in 1920 and was the main hub of activities which was a depot for goods going in all directions not only the silk route but also to  Tibet, India and Baltistan routes.( Janet Rizvi, Ladakh the cross road on Himalayas p:260). Janet Rizvi.

The Sarai is a three storied square building in old Kargil Bazar that used to also house the seven shops from where Aziz Bhat operated his business. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for their boarding and lodging. It can still be found in Kargil on the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazar.

This Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-west India and the discovery and range of mercantile items here, as opposed to just antique artifacts, has been an unprecedented find in recorded history.

The re-discovery - Two brothers rediscover an inn

The Aziz Bhat Sarai was part of the family possessions and property bequeathed by Munshi Aziz Bhat to his family. However, it remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than a treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of the museum.

The story reads like the blurb of a mystery treasure novella. Two brothers contemplate what to do with an old dilapidating family property oblivious to the virtual treasure inside!  They rummage through it with the intention to dismantle and come across a host of assorted goods one day ( much like in a movie, the servant comes across a piece of turquoise, reports back and is rewarded for it!)

In fact, the brothers do not realize the importance of the treasure they have come upon. On the classic persuasion of a fortuitous encounter with a researcher, Jaqueline, who immediately recognizes the value of the contents, they eventually decide to not only safe-keep the memorabilia, but intensify efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. But for not the intervention and advice of Jaqueline and family elders, the artifacts would have been forever lost as pieces of expensive antiques sitting in a shop.

All the artifacts were thus gleaned and curate from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties.

In fact, rumor has it, that there are still objects of value in the old, rickety Sarai and the we are planning another excavation soon!