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 despatched 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, multidirectional,
a 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, metalware, ceramics and of course – people!
In her account of the trans-Karakoram trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Janet Rizvi remarks about 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 fibres 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 artefact.
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
Munshi Aziz Bhat joined the 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 wholesale shop with 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.
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 crossroad on Himalayas p:260).
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 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 we are
planning another excavation soon!