Ilyas thrust his hand into a small gap in the wall. Within his palm was a wooden key, about a foot in length, that slid past the smooth stone slabs into a secret recess in the wall. As the traditional locking system clicked into place, he pushed the wooden door open to ‘unlock’ Hundarman—an abandoned Purgi settlement lying 12 kilometres from Kargil, near the LoC.
Our visit was part of the rural heritage project called ‘Unlock Hundarman’, where a ‘Museum of Memories’ had been set up by local NGO Roots Ladakh, students from CEPT University, and the residents of Hundarman. Founded in 2013, Roots was a creative collective determined to conserve Hundarman’s artefacts and architecture, as well as pass on its peoples’ stories to curious travellers. I had only recently chanced upon Hundarman in a brochure, in between bites of pancakes at their café near Kargil’s old bazaar. Intrigued, I enquired more and decided to visit the village and take a look at the museum.
Formerly a part of Pakistan, Hundarman came under the occupation of the Indian Army post the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict. Fearing military violence, villagers had hastily fled the settlement leaving behind their homes and possessions, soon to be war-ravaged. Some built new homes 200 metres uphill, while others shifted base permanently across the border. Theses homes were locked until 2005, when Roots blew the dust off this little-known time capsule.
My ride to Hundarman began on a sturdy Maruti Gypsy with Roots co-founder Muzzamil, and Bob, the owner of the car. As we left the mighty Suru—an Indus tributary—behind, and climbed up the Hundarman hill, we were greeted by signage alerting us to watch out for landmines, with asides that the ‘enemy’ might be watching. Within our 30-minute journey to the village, we also stopped at a roadside tea stall. It struck me as unnecessary, until I was informed that the nondescript shack happened to be a great informal viewpoint of the LoC in Ladakh. The shop owner chucked a pair of binoculars through our window, and I got my first look at the infamous LoC. No barbed wires, no fences—just an imaginary line that kept shifting with each war. I also saw the army posts on each side cutting off the old road to Skardu, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
After another five minutes of steering through the narrow mountain road, we reached the village. Climbing down from the Gypsy, I got my first view of Hundarman from a vantage point opposite the village. Nestled in the lap of arid mountains, the war-torn, flat-roofed stone and mud houses of Hundarman stood in great contrast against the bright green step-farmed paddy fields stretching around it. Down a narrow, rocky path, we reached the base of the village; as the huts became prominent, so did the scars of war.
Hundarman currently subsists at multiple levels. The upper parts are inhabited by about 25 families, while the lower levels of the original settlement are used to store tools and grass. We lost track of time as we stood there gaping, mesmerised by the surreal beauty of the village. Occasionally one or two villagers would cross our paths on their way to the fields, tools and wooden baskets in tow.
Eventually, we were greeted by Ilyas Ansari, one of the residents of the village. He was the wielder of the mysterious key that lets visitors into the museum, and was the generous soul that lets out two of his family’s huts for Roots’ museum today. As we entered the premises, its interiors were eerily dark, with sunlight occasionally trickling in from holes in the ceiling. We saw the museum had preserved everything abandoned by the villagers during their flight, from medicine, to crockery and cutlery, to Karachi biscuits and even French coffee.
We crouched under the low ceiling and navigated our way through a maze of tiny rooms—serious Gandalf in the Shire moments—as Ilyas guided us via torch light towards more artefacts. Each room housed a different section. While one contained old sewing and weaving kits, another room displayed the bullets and mortar shells, remnants of the war. From stone and metal utensils, to literature from Lahore, I felt the museum successfully revived the memories of those who once lived within. It was difficult to not feel sad, as we went through framed handwritten letters. Penned by relatives in Pakistan to their kin in India, they shared the woes of being separated for life.
After we were done with the museum, we made our way to Ilyas’ house, some 500 metres above the museum, through quaint paddy fields, criss-crossing apricot trees and old irrigation drains with torrents of clear mountain water. People carried on with their daily lives, occasionally sparing a glance in our direction, as rosy-cheeked children eyed us inquisitively.
The houses in the new settlement (called Upper Hundarman) were quite modern, mostly made from concrete, unlike the stone and mud houses of the old settlement. The starkest difference, of course, was the energy and vivaciousness in Upper Hundarman.
It was bubbling with life, while houses completely devoid lay only a stone’s throw away.
Opening our boots outside the door, we followed Ilyas into his (new) house. He showed us into the first space, a cosy, heavily carpeted room (I mean floor to ceiling) that kept the house warm during the harsh Ladakhi winters. A double window on one of the walls opened to a pleasant scenery of the valley—snow-capped mountains in the distance, a verdant agricultural patchwork lined by tall willow trees closer, and the hauntingly beautiful houses of the new settlement. He welcomed us with gur gur chai (salted butter tea) and khulaq, a Kargili breakfast staple. It was a pahadi crumble made by mixing grounded barley and brewed tea, which, we were told, was helpful in keeping the body warm.
Even with such a short itinerary, I was left with a lot to think about. To spend some more time absorbing the village’s stillness (I was ill-equipped to stay back at Ilyas’ homestay), I sat on the rocky steps near old Hundarman, and fished out a moleskine notebook.
Only three yellowing pages were left, and this seemed like an important subject for a conclusion. Armed only with a black fountain pen, I began to sketch out the rustic architecture and patches of greenery sprouting around it. On the last page, at twilight, Ilyas slowly pulled the doors shut.