If one were to type Kargil on Google, it would prompt words such as “war” and “map”. But Ladakh-based Roots Collective wants to change that search. Could it suggest heritage, memories, and history? This NGO for cultural activation has been working in the region for over a year, telling the story of Kargil and its surroundings to locals and outsiders alike.
At the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, an exhibition titled “Unlock Hundarman”, panels describe through architectural sketches and photographs, narratives of Kargil and a forgotten village called Hundarman, which sits in the liminal space between Indian and Pakistan near the Line of Control (LoC). The residents of this village fled to Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The display is supported by Drona Foundation, Gurgaon, and Department of Culture, Government of Jammu and Kashmir.
Kargil was an important post during the Silk Route trade, connecting China to Central Asia. Hundarman is a village less than 30 km away from Kargil. Today, as jeeps climb up from Kargil, away from Suru river, towards this village, one sees signboards warning that the “enemy” is watching. Less than a km away from the border, it is a perch for tour guides to show visitors Pakistani villages across the LoC.
Nearly 45 years after Hundarman became a ghost village, Roots Collective found a way to unlock it, realising that people had fled, in a breath, leaving behind unfinished needlework, books, medicines, cutlery, even French coffee. This stepped cluster of houses, of stone, and wattle and daub, sits like hyphens on the mountain slope.
“There’s no easy way to enter these houses or reach the roof,” says architect Debasish Borah of Roots Collective. “Their complex grouping gives the impression of a tight-knit community. From the outside, one cannot see steps of any kind, access to the terrace is from within. Similarly, their locking systems were unique in the way that it was almost hidden between the stone wall and the door. The unusual lever mechanism ensured only the owner knew how to open a door,” says Borah. It’s from the mystery of the lock that the exhibition takes its name.
Last year, nearly four decades after 25 families left Hundarman, a couple of houses were finally been opened. “Kargil was a trading route even during British rule. We found a currency note which has the British Empire emblem, and Hindustan and Pakistan inscribed on it. In Hundarman, we also found handmade soaps from Karachi and Lahore, glassware from Czechoslovakia, and cutlery from England,” says Muzammil Hussain, who co-manages the family-operated Kargil Museum, and is a member of Roots Collective.
Some of the owners who stayed back, have moved away to a village further up, but they continue to store cattle feed in the lower floors of their homes.
The team hopes to revive the stories that lie buried in the earth of Hundarman, giving it a lease of life through art residencies and workshops. They are also looking at publishing their research as a book. The vision to bring Kargil out of the shadows of war and as a tourist destination, with cafes and home stays, will promise not only occupation for the youth but also give the world a chance to relive the road that brought people from all directions together.
“It’s a long journey,” says Helene Thebault of Roots Collective. “When the locals see us documenting mud structures and the landscape, they wonder why we want to preserve it. Our idea is to give back a lost heritage to the community.”