Kargil at an altitude of 2,704 m, 204-km from
Srinagar in the
west and 234-km from
Leh in the
east, is the second largest urban centre of
headquarters of the district of same name. It's situated in a lovely
valley with apricot trees growing in the intensively cultivated fields.
Once A Trade Route!
A quite town now, Kargil once served as important trade and transit centre in the Pan-Asian trade network. Numerous caravans carrying exotic merchandise comprising silk, brocade, carpets, felts, tea, poppy, ivory etc. transited in the town on their way to and from China, Tibet, Yarkand and Kashmir.
The old bazaar displayed a variety of Central Asian and Tibetan commodities even after the cessation of the Central Asian trade in 1949 till these were exhausted about two decades back. Similarly the ancient trade route passing through the township was lined with several caravanserais. Now, since 1975, travellers of numerous nationalities have replaced traders of the past and Kargil has regained its importance as a centre of travel-related activities.
An Adventurers' Base Camp
Being located in the centre of the Himalayan region with tremendous potentials for adventure activities, Kargil serves as an important base for adventure tours in the heart of Himalayas. It is also the take off station for visitors to the exotic Zanskar Valley. Tourists travelling between Srinagar and Leh have to make a night halt here before starting the second leg of their journey.
The Town Life
The town lies nestling along the rising hillside of the lower Suru basin. Two tributaries of the Suru River that meet here are the Drass and Wakha. The most astounding thing about the Kargil region are the artificially irrigated field areas. Since irrigation is so important in this region, the distribution of water requires great care. Every village is divided into groups, called "Gowar", of from five to 10 families, to ensure an equitable arrangement.
Willows and poplars grow beside the irrigation ditches, which lead to the terraced fields and line the road for much of its length in this region. They furnish building materials for the construction of houses in this nearly treeless land.
The Kargil region actually gets more rainfall than in the rest of Ladakh and the area grows plentiful wheat, barley, vegetables and, of course, the apricots for which it is famous. Peas have been recently introduced and are flourishing. In May the entire countryside becomes awash with fragrant white apricot blossoms while August, the ripening fruit lends it an orange hue.
The dialect spoken here is called "Purik" and shows its relationship with the dialect spoken in Skardu, Pakistan. In contrast to the rest of Ladakh, the children here are taught in Arabic. A momentous occasion in Kargil is the archery contest in May.
People Of The Kargil Region
Kashmiris once came to the Kargil region to graze their cattle, and were followed by the tribes from Gilgit, Chitral and Mongols from Baltistan who settled there permanently. Later the Mongols were driven out by an Aryan tribe, the Purkpas, who now live around Drass, and the Dokpas, who are Aryan Buddhists, who live in the villages of Durchik and Gurkun, north of Kargil.
The Customs And Lifestyles
The Dokpas, who are Buddhists, are a community of about 700 people, descended from migrants from Gilgit, found mostly in the Indus valley villages of Durchik and Gurkun. They are known for the striking Aryan beauty of their women, and for their fair skin. They are fond of ornaments - even men wear earrings, necklaces, bracelets and strings of imitation pearls.
Both sexes decorate their caps with a variety of blood red flowers, which puts them apart from all the other races in Ladakh. The Indus valley here is rich in fruit, particularly grapes, and the Dokpas delight in drink and dance - milk however is taboo. This curious mixture of Buddhist and Hindu religion means their respect for the cow is so intense that even cow dung is never used as a manure or fuel. The people grow their hair long and rarely bathe.
The route to their region, over the range from Kargil to the Indus valley, and thence down to Leh, is forbidden to tourists because of the border dispute with Pakistan. The remote locality of the lower Indus villages and the custom of marrying mostly among themselves have preserved their distinctive identity. The government of a village is a seven-man council, elected by all the men. In July these villages celebrate a harvest festival, which lasts for several days. Gurdun, the main village of the region, is 80-km from Kargil.
Muta & Polyandry
The custom of 'Muta' limited-duration marriages is still practised in Kargil. The marriage contract signed at the wedding ceremony only applies for a limited time - in some cases only for one day. Another Tibetan marriage custom, which often strikes westerners as remarkable, is polyandry, the simultaneous marriage of more than one man to the same woman.
Today polyandry is only practised in outlying villages like Saliskote and Trespone. In this situation a woman marries her husband's younger brothers, except for any who may be monks. Together with the great number of unmarried monks and nuns, this practice functions as a social form of birth control -from Cunningham's visit to Ladakh in the mid-19th century, up to the latest government of India census, the population of Ladakh has hardly altered.
Trespone and Sankhoo are two 'Imambaras' found in Kargil.
These Turkish style buildings have Persian and Arabic speaking Muslim
mystics, known as "Aghas", in residence. Kargil also has a
mosque, the Jami Masjid. Kargil's Muslims are noted for their extreme
orthodoxy - women are conspicuously absent from the streets and all forms
of entertainment are frowned on. Like the Iranians the people follow the
The main bazaar has many Kashmiri products including embroidery, turquoises, tobacco, raw sugar and exotic spices. One will also find cloth woven from the finest wool from the long fleeced mountain goats, brass bowls, flower vases, wine cups and tall jugs, leather shoes embroidered with silk or gold silver chains, rings, bracelets and charms, paintings, Pashmina shawls, brightly coloured rugs and other more Chinese looking items. Nearby Tsaluskot is the grainery of the region, attracting people from Zanskar and Leh, who come to buy grain. The houses have stone foundations and a superstructure of unbaked, heavy clay bricks.
Situated 45-km East of Kargil on the road to Leh, Mulbek (3,230 m) in an area dominated by the Buddhists. It is situated along either banks of the Wakha River, which originates. Many monuments of the early Buddhists era dot the landscape and are accessible from the road.
Mulbek Chamba: The chief attraction of Mulbek (also spelt as Mulbekh) is a 9 m high rock sculpture in deep relief of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Its excursion combines esoteric Shaivite symbolism with early Buddhist art. Situated right on the highway, it dates back to the period when Buddhists missionaries came travelling east of the Himalayas.
Mulbek Gompa: Perched atop a rocky cliff, Mulbek Gompa (monastery) dominates the valley. It is easy to see why in bygone times this site served as an outpost to guard the caravan route. Like all Buddhists monasteries frescoes and statues adorn it.
Another picturesque village of the Wakha River valley, Shergol is situated across the river, right of the Kargil-Leh road. The main attraction is a cave monastery which is visible from a far as a white speck against the vertically rising ochre hill from which it appears to hang out. Below this small monastery is a larger Buddhist nunnery with about a dozen incumbents. The village is accessible by the motorable road that branches off from the Kargil-Leh road, about 5-km short of Mulbek. Shergol is a convenient base for an exciting 4-day trek across the mountain range into the Suru valley. It is also the approach base for visiting Urgyan-Dzong, a meditation retreat lying deep inside the mountains surrounding the Wakha River valley.
This meditation retreat lies tucked away in an amazing natural mountain fortress high up in Zanskar range. Concealed within is a circular tableland with a small monastic establishment at its centre. The surrounding hillside reveals several caves where high-ranking Buddhists saints meditated in seclusion. At least one such cave is associated with the visit of Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Tibetan Buddhism. The main approach is to footpath laid through the only gap available in the rocky ramparts.
Tucked away inside the picturesque upper part of the Wakha Valley, upstreams of Mulbek, Rgyal gives the appearance of a medieval settlement of cave dwellings transported in to the modern times with some improvements and extensions. The houses, neatly whitewashed and closely stacked, are dug into the sheer face of a vertical cliff that rises high above the green valley bottom. From a far the village looks like a colony of beehives hanging from the ochre granite of the Cliffside.
Road: The J&K SRTC operates regular buses including deluxe coaches between Srinagar and Leh/Kargil. Cars and Jeep taxis can be hired at Srinagar and Leh for Kargil. Local buses including mini coaches, for Mulbek leaves Kargil every morning and afternoon. Cars and Jeep taxis can be hired at Kargil for same day return trips. Srinagar is also well connected properly with rest of the country through Air and Road network.
Kargil: There is no dearth of accommodation in
Kargil. Hotels are classified into A, B, C and Economy class based upon
the standard of establishments and service available. There are two
Tourist Bungalows at Kargil together provide suites and furnished rooms
with proper catering facilities attached with each establishment. The
Tourist Office, Kargil, does advance reservation. There is also a circuit
house at Baroo with excellent furnished rooms, which can be reserved
through the office of the District Development Commissioner.
Mulbek: The Tourist Bungalow here provides excellent furnished rooms with catering facilities. Dormitory accommodation at much reasonable price is available with some of the teashops near Mulbek Chamba. Alternatively tourists can return to Kargil for the night.
Banks: The State bank of India with money changing
facility and J&K bank have a branch each in Kargil.
Communication: Kargil has worldwide direct dialing telephone facility, besides post and telegraph offices. In addition J&K Tourism operates its own wireless Radio phone network with field stations at Kargil, Padum and Leh, which are connected with controlling stations at Srinagar, Delhi and Jammu. During the tourist season mobile wireless stations are also established in key places in the remote areas.
Health: The District hospital in Kargil is fairly well equipped and staffed with a team of specialist and general practitioners. In addition there are Medical Dispensaries at Drass, Mulbek, Trespone, Sankoo, Panikhar and Padum each headed by a qualified doctor and equipped with basic health care paraphernalia.
The Tourist office here regularly updates its store of
information on the region. Tourists undertaking mountaineering expedition
on hard trekking along difficult routes are well advised to inform the
Tourist Office at Kargil about their routes and proposed program so as to
monitor their welfare.
Trekking Equipment: The tourist office in Kargil has some trekking equipment for hire under the same conditions as the Leh office. The equipment includes a number of tents, foam mattresses, sleeping bags, alpine jackets, rucksacks, climbing equipment and so on. Kargil is the starting point for most of the treks and journeys into the Zanskar valley, although it is also possible to enter it from other points along the side of the Leh-Zanskar range.