A guided tour of the Ladakh's Turtuk village, in the mountainous region of Baltistan that is on the border of Pakistan and India, ended at what is known in these parts as the Royal Palace. After a long walk down narrow and undulating lanes in the crisp afternoon sun, shepherded by a nimble 16-year-old, we had arrived at what was supposed to be the highlight of our excursion. At first glance, it was slightly underwhelming – the house is larger than its neighbours, but little else set it apart.

The palace doors opened into a colonnaded courtyard that supported a verandah with no visible access. A short flight of stone steps, which rose steeply through a hidden corner, brought us to a figure supine on a floor mat. Our guide gently nudged the figure – a man stumbled out of his afternoon siesta, disoriented by the sight of so many strangers. He was feeble and slightly bent.

Smoothing the creases on his shirt and patting his disheveled hair into place, he led us into a room, apologising for not according us a better welcome. He explained, somewhat diffidently, that working the fields in the morning sun had induced the mid-day torpor.

He then sat on a couch, but not before picking up a wooden sceptre, crested with a distinctive metal serpent head, and placing it pointedly on his lap. He then becomes Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, the king of Turtuk and descendant of the Yabgo Dynasty of Chorbat-Khaplu, a region that now falls beyond the Line of Control and in the contested territory of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Though he no longer enjoys the powers nor the official recognition as a past royalty, he is known in these parts as the king.

Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, King of Baltistan. Credit: Rajrishi Singhal

Across the border

Turtuk is a quaint village perched barely 10 km from the Pakistan border, under the benign gaze of the K2 peak across the border. The village, located in the Sheyok river valley about 200 km from Leh, is a verdant relief amidst the spare and stark beauty of Ladakh’s landscape.

Turtuk, in Ladakh district, is in the Indian-administered part of the Baltistan region and borders Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan area.

The Gilgit-Baltistan are has for years existed largely away from the glare of Indian and international media, but the spotlight has been on it for the past month, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly promised – twice in quick succession, in his Independence Day speech and before that, in his concluding remarks at the all-party meet on Jammu and Kashmir in Delhi on August 12 – to highlight the plight of residents of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to the world. While Balochistan is a province in Pakistan, which has been fighting for autonomy, Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of PoK.

The Gilgit-Baltistan territory is special – it is a crucible in which trade, culture, religion, languages and cuisines from Europe, Central Asia, Afghanistan and China have come together for centuries. India has made many claims over the province and many analysts have recounted its recent political history. Interestingly, a thin strip of this province juts into India.

The prime minister’s reference to the three disputed areas has got foreign policy and strategic experts parsing his words, as well as setting off a maelstrom of articles and Op-eds (examples are here, here and here).

Overnight, a new country

This prompted me to wonder: what would the people of Turtuk, just a stone’s throw away form Gilgit-Baltistan, make of Modi’s statement? Would they also be deconstructing his speech?

One thing is certain. Nationality or sovereignty are elusive, if not transient concepts for the king and villagers here. And there's a good reasons for this.

One night in December 1971, village residents went to sleep as Pakistan citizens. They awoke next morning as Indians. Turtuk, along with three other villages in the vicinity – Tyakshi, Chalunka and Thang – were occupied by advancing Indian armed forces during the 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh.

Turtuk residents have only one grouse – the Indian army should have gone a little further and occupied the rest of Baltistan. The overnight change of sovereignty split many families along the Line of Control – parents on this side with children and grandparents on the other. Political conspiracies abound on why the Indian army did not move further afield when it was there for the taking.

Kacho, Turtuk’s king, also has some family on the other side. He traces his lineage to the Ghaz tribe from West Turkestan, a region today known as Central Asia. His ancestor, Beg Manthal, came to Baltistan in 800 AD from Yarkhand (which is part of modern-day China’s Xinjiang region) via the Saltoro ridge (which is to the west of the Siachen glacier) and conquered Khaplu, in modern-day Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Yabgo dynasty, Manthal onwards, ruled the Chorbat-Khaplu region of Baltistan for a millennium, expanding it over time to Ladakh’s frontiers on one side and to Ghizer district on the western edge of Gilgit-Baltistan. The dynasty ended in the first half of the 19th century when the Dogra empire, which had, in 1846 taken control of Kashmir, forming the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, expanded its kingdom North and East.

A wall at one end of the room has the family tree painted on it, going back centuries.The king said the Indian army helped him document this. In the face of an elusive administration, the Indian army means many things to most Baltistan residents – employer; buyer of locally-produced vegetables, milk, fruits and meat; provider of healthcare and education as well as occasional source of telecom network and other basic infrastructure.

The king describes himself as a writer and said his father didn’t want him to work but just spread the word about their family. He was not trained in anything but made to read a lot. He read books written by local historians and decided that the best thing to do would be to tell his people what they were all about.

But, the Indian government banned his book based on complaints from a sect that saw blasphemy in his account of how their religious order was established, he said. He contested the ban in Indian courts and eventually won after years of litigation. But he rues the fact that he didn’t retain a single copy of the book – he doesn’t even remember the name of the Delhi-based publisher.

Connected, yet isolated

Turtuk is a microcosm of Baltistan’s inclusive culture: a multi-ethnic village, with around 4,000 residents speaking different languages and praying to different gods. Different denominations – Nurbakshi Shias, Sufis, Sunnis, Buddhists (and perhaps even Ahmadiyas and Ismaili Shias) – live peacefully, farming and trying to make sense of the burgeoning tourism business. Turtuk was opened up to tourists only in 2010. The chairman of the local school and healthcare committee remarked that many old Turtuk residents would long to see cities, but now, the cities were coming to see them.

Turtuk was an important junction on the Silk Route with ancient linkages to Tibet, Afghanistan and the steppes of Central Asia. A part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, an attempt to resurrect the Silk Route that connected parts of Asia, Europe and Africa, will now come close to Turtuk as it proposes to pass through Gilgit-Baltistan.

Turtuk residents fervently wish that the LOC opens up so they can meet family on the other side, re-establish social connections and perhaps even resume commerce.

The king is still recounting the region’s old linkages when his narrative is cut short with new arrivals, guests of a senior army officer posted in the vicinity. Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho apologises and rushes off to attend to the new rulers of Turtuk.