In the midst of the unforgiving cold within the freezing desert that is Ladakh, I was wondering why this place has remained unknown to the rest of the world. The particular place, now officially called Kargil, was in ancient times known as Purig but a question knocked the door of my conscience as to why this land that used to be a hub of activities for centuries has now suddenly been for granted.
Haji Sadiq Ali Sadiq Sahib, a Balti Writer and a renowned historian of Ladakh is famous for his oral technique of storytelling. At the age of 75, he is still a masterly figure in the field of Ladakh Studies. Age has hardly affected his brilliance to orate stories and I would be able to testify to this personally upon completing my journey to his doorstep.
In this cold desert of the mighty Himalayas, I was trying to explore my land in order to get to know myself a little better, through the terrain and the life that has blossomed within its confines. According to outsiders, life is tough and impossible here in Ladakh but for the humble Ladakhis this is their piece of heaven on earth. Ladakh has been a cradle for the convergence of many tribes of south and central Asia. This is a land of various tribes and ethnic groups, the majority of the population being Dards, Baltis, Purgis and Tibetans. I had gathered some tidbits of information about my hometown from some books that I chanced to lay my hands on because I had a serious urge to know everything about my land and, of course, about my people. I met Haji Sadiq Ali Sadiq at his residence in Balti Bazar, a locality just a distance of few hundred meters from the Kargil Market.
Dressed in a Khan suit and a Karakulli cap on his head, he attended graciously to my visit over a cup of Gurgur tea as we started our conversation. We talked about the greatness that once had graced this piece of barren land. We ventured into a dialogue after my queries about the castle of Chiktan and its history.
With a deep breath and the following words began the fascinating story, “What you are willing to know and what I am to speak is a herculean task. My heart aches when I gaze upon this castle, it is essential to my identity. The castle was regarded as one of the best structures in whole of western Tibet and Ladakh. Let me tell you the oral history of this castle which I used to hear from my ancestors.” He began with a heavy heart that is rarely found imprinted with sadness in the words of those who write history on paper because emotion and historiography may be at odds with each other.
The castle is known as The Chiktan Razi Khar or the grand castle of the King of Chiktan. The great king was rGyalpo Tsering Malik. He had constructed this castle to show the glory of his kingdom, to exhibit the grandeur of the legacy of the great Thatha Khan. A renowned architect had been brought specifically for the grand task from Baltistan. That architect was the legendary Shingkhan Chandan. He belonged to Skardu.
It took 9 years for Chandan to complete this castle and according to folk songs, there was a revolving palace inside the castle just like the revolving restaurants of the present days. After its completion, the king decided to reward Chandan for his great artistic work but the minister of the king advised him to either kill Chandan or at least cut off his hands so that there won’t be another grand castle like that. The king felt the minister was right indeed. He did not want to see something as grand as the castle that Chandan had built for him—The Chiktan Razi Khar.
The wife of Shingkhan Chandan got wind of the plan somehow. It was sheer luck that Chandan was at Skardu at that time, so the clever wife sent an encrypted message fearing that the officials of the kingdom might lay their hand on her emergency missive. The message reached Baltistan. Chandan after knowing the plans of the king decided to wait for some time. He had to return to Purig as his wife was there. When, after the passage of a considerable amount of time, he reached the Chiktan Razi Khar, he destroyed the block of wood on which the whole revolving palace stood. Thus the Chiktan Khar lost its original glory and gradually with the passage of time it has turned into a mere ruin that we see today.
“The government’s lack of attention and the ignorance of the common masses have made such a mess of this grand historic monument that is in fact a gift from our past,” he looked towards me and smiled. Perhaps he was convinced that I was completely hooked into the story. It was getting dark outside.
Pouring the next cup of tea, I could feel the pain that as a historian Sadiq sahib was feeling as he continued with his narration. It was but natural for him to continue with the history of such architectural marvels:
“You know, my dear, these castles are the gift of Dardic tribes, the Dardic people had come from Gilgit-Baltistan around the first century C.E. Some historians claim that they had come from Rome.
The first kingdom that came into existence in Purig, was brought by the great Thatha Khan. He had come to Purig and settled in the area of Sodh. His reason for flight from Gilgit was a political rivalry with his uncles for the kingdom of Baltistan. He escaped with his caretaker through the Brulmu village that is now in Pakistan. Then via Poyen he reached Akchamal and settled there. He started as a common man tending to some agricultural land and feeding the cattle. With his wisdom and courage, he soon established a kingdom under his name in Sodh. Gradually, he conquered Chiktan that later on became the place for the construction of this very Chiktan Razi Khar. Eventually, his kingdom expanded from the borders of Baltistan in the east up till the borders of Tibet in the west. This was sometime around the 13th century C.E.”
Haji Sadiq Ali Sadiq Sahib was so engrossed in the narration that I had to interrupt him and remind him that his cup of tea was getting cold. With a nod and a smile, he gulped the tea in a second and was again back at the narration:
“During the 14th century a great kingdom was established in the Karchay area of Purig, which was ruled by Khree Namgyal, the ruler of Ladakh. He feared of an attack from the king of Ladakh who ruled from Leh as well as an attack from Thatha Khan. So he tried to make good relations with the kings of Kashmir and tried to take help from the Maqpon of Baltistan, which at that time was ruled by Raja Ali Sher Khan Anchan. Baltistan in those days had accepted Islam and the whole region was practicing the religion whereas Ladakh and Purig were still following Buddhism.
According to my research, the Maqpon dynasty was the most powerful kingdom in the whole of Ladakh, including Gilgit and Baltistan and to some extent Tibet as well. Ali Sher Khan Anchan was married to a Mughal princess and a daughter of his was married to a Mughal prince which strengthened his relations with the Mughals. Also Ali Sher Khan Anchan saved a prince of Leh and gave him refuge in Baltistan. Various folk songs in the region to this day recount the stories of the great kings of Leh, Purig and Baltistan.
Khree rNamgyal, in a great diplomatic move, sent a proposal to the Maqpoon in order to establish a good relationship between the two kingdoms. He asked for the hand of the daughter of Raja Ali Sher Khan Anchan, for his son Thee rNamgyal alias Khree rNamgyal. The king of Baltistan responded in a positive by stating he would agree to the marital union on one condition. His condition was that the son who would be born of this wedlock between Princess Rgyal Khatoon and Khree rNamgyal must adopt Islam and Islamic scholars and maids would accompany the princess. The Karchay kingdom agreed to the conditions and this marriage became the seed from which the message of Islam sprouted in Purig. God gifted them a son and a renowned Islamic preacher was invited from Kashmir to teach the Islamic way of life to the infant. Syed Mir Hashim the scholar par excellence was accompanied by a number of Akhunds or teachers who then introduced the whole of Karchay area to Islam. Hashim was a student of Syed Shamsudin Araqi who had brought Shia Islam to Kashmir, Baltistan and Ladakh. The son of Queen Rgyal Khatoon was named Sultan Khree Cho who later on proved to be an illustrious ruler known as Sengge Namgyal, Sengge in Ladakhi means Lion.”
Before this grand agreement, the message of Islam had reached the area by virtuous acts of some Islamic missionaries such as those led by Bulbul Shah, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani, Syed Shamsudin Araqi and Syed Noorbaksh via Baltistan and Kashmir. From centuries, Purig has remained a hub for cultural and social activities and this can be justified by studying the historical movements that took place in this geographically isolated land. Whether it was the rise of Buddhism or Islam or the glorious kingdoms of Purig, this land has remained an epitome of religious, cultural and political movements during the course of last millennium.