Khar-tan: Retracing History through Oral Stories
There’s history to everything around you; to the language you speak, the dress you wear, the food you eat, the landscape you see and the people you meet. To everything that breathes and that doesn’t. To material possessions that have been relegated to dusty corners and everything observable to the human eye and beyond.
Tracing the cultural history of Spiti has intrigued me from the time I started growing up among people who had never heard of this faraway land. Maybe it stemmed from my own desire to belong somewhere; to have a clear footing of who I was and where I was from. I didn’t want to be a person without a history, without knowledge of every consequence, big or small that shaped my life to what it is today.
That’s when I started tracing the history of my own village; one that was slowly being buried away in the memories of the old residents after years of neglect and minimal retellings. I turned to my 73 years old grandmother and dug into stories, words and experiences of foreign invasions that had been passed on by my great grandfather meme Tsetan Gatuk. This article is my attempt to conserve these stories and decode the history of Khartan, an ancient settlement in Pin Valley through oral narratives of my grandmother and historical journals on foreign invasions on Spiti.
Located a few metres above Khar village in the Pin Valley of Spiti, Khartan remains abandoned now on a rocky hill and a mud base with only few signs of civilization and settlement. The only vibrant structure that remains here is lha-khang; a primitive one room structure housing the lha (local deity) of the village. And some dilapidated ruins of some mud houses here and there. ‘Khar’ means ‘fort’ and ‘tan’ means ‘above’. So it literally means ‘a fort that is on a higher altitude.’ Behind it, the Pin river flows vigorously. On the front side there is a descending mud slope that ends with the unpaved road of Khar village connecting it to other Pin villages of Todnam and Tailing. The mud slope of Khartan is full of secret tunnels that lead to the Pin river on the other side. These tunnels are now blocked with mud debris because of many years of disuse. But years back, they were alive and functional with stories and breaths of people.
My grandmother doesn’t remember much about Khartan for she was born when it had already been abandoned. Settlement had begun on the lower plains below Khartan which now houses the village Khar. But her father used to share a lot of stories of a time long lost. These are the fragments of stories my grandmother has still retained after all these years.
Few hundred years ago, it is said that all the people from villages up to the Chidang area took refuge on the Khartan cliff. Maybe there were not many people during that time. It is said that all the people of Pin valley resided on the cliff of Khartan at that time. Back then our only source of water was the Pin river. There were no hand pumps. My grandfather used to tell me that they used to go through the mud tunnels to get water from the Pin river. The other alternate way was to get down the rocky cliff down to the river.
It is said that at one point of time some foreign invaders came and attacked the village. All the locals immediately climbed to the top of the cliff for refuge. Some people took refuge in some caves in the Nyol grassland region above Yinam.¹ The invaders waited at the base of Khartan as they knew that the locals would get down for water or perish because of thirst. However, the locals had access to the river through the secret mud tunnels. The locals on the cliff poured water on the mud slope and said, “See, we have drinking water. If it would have been oil, it would not have dried up like this.” Seeing this and having no hopes of the locals coming down and surrendering, the invaders got disappointed and returned.²
In these oral retellings, my grandmother has no details on who these invaders were, why they had attacked such a resource and monetarily deprived area. There are a lot of important gaps in the story which might have been lost with time and age. But I’m still amazed by how she has retained some of the details. This oral story makes me ponder over so many questions. Who were these invaders? Was Khartan abandoned or were the settlements in it destroyed by the invaders. Why did the locals decide to leave this place and settle somewhere else? Was it driven purely by resource availability or something else? Besides these questions, one common thread that I found in the oral stories of my grandmother and the archival sources and books was the description of the Spitian’s response to these invasions. Harish Kapadia writes in his book Spiti: Adventures in the Transhimalaya,
Being the middle land quite literally, the fate of Spiti was always linked with its powerful neighbours. The Spitians rarely fought a war though the inaccessible area was easily defendable. The Spitians paid tributes, ran for their lives higher up on the hills or allowed the area to be plundered. In rare cases, they lured the invaders higher up and the Spitian winter did the rest.³
After rigorous research into the archives I found, I found that Spiti has faced three foreign invasions which have been documented in history. The first invasion took place in the 1650s when Spiti and some parts of Lahaul were under the kingdom of Ladakh ruled by King Deleg Namgyal. At that time, Ladakh was invaded by Central Tibet then under Mongolia. Invaders were defeated at Basgo and driven back. “During this invasion, Tangyud gompa and some temples at Lhalung in Spiti were burnt.”⁴
Spiti faced its second invasion in the latter half of the seventeenth century (1670s-80s) when a foray was made from Ladakh. The Spiti men overcame the invaders by treachery, making professions of friendship and inviting the invaders to a feast. The Ladakhis were rendered helpless due to consumption of chhang (barley beer)and arrack and were then attacked and killed.
The third notable foreign invasion in Spiti happened in 1841 during the Dogra-Tibetan war. Gulab Singh of the Dogra Dynasty under the suzerainty of the Sikh empire, wanted to annex the majority of Himalayan kingdom to get monopoly over an important route between Tibet and Kashmir used for the lucrative pashmina trade. Ladakh was conquered by the Dogras under Zorawar Singh, Gulab Singh’s ablest general. Rahim Khan was placed in charge of Spiti; His son-in-law Ghulam Khan occupied himself in plundering the monasteries and destroying the idols. An excerpt from the book ‘History of the Panjab Hill States’ shows the impact of this invasion.
The burnt conditions of the mural paintings in the temple of the Pin monastery is said to have been due to the incendiarism of the Sikhs, but may have been the work of Ghulam Khan. No attempt however was made to annex the country which remained a province of Ladakh.⁵
According to the documented invasions in the archival sources, it was only during the Dogra-Tibetan war when the invaders entered Pin valley and plundered and set the tsug-lha-khang, old monastery of Kungri on fire. Deducing from the historical accounts of these documented invasions, it seems that the particular invasion that my grandmother recounts is the one by Rahim Khan and Ghulam Khan during the Dogra-Tibetan war. From my understanding, I believe that Khartan in Pin valley being located on a rocky cliff and raising suspicion about regal power and wealth might have also been attacked.
Despite the gaps, the fragmented stories, the fragility of memory as a historical medium, the importance of these oral stories is beyond words. They are a channel to dig into how our ancestors came to settle at a particular place and how they built a whole settlement in an era of negligible access to technology; how they lived a hundred years back when phones and internet connections were unheard of; and how despite minimal resources and merciless attacks from the powerful neighbours of Spiti, they managed to keep our culture alive.
It is now time for us to retrace the lines, record their stories, get a tangible understanding of our own heritage and share it with the future generations to come.
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them” - George Eliot
- A hamlet 2 km away from Khartan.
- My grandmother’s oral account collected through an unstructured interview
- Kapadia, Harish. Spiti: Adventures in the Transhimalaya, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi. 1996, p 35.
- Hutchison and Vogel. History of the Panjab Hill States (Vol. II), Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1994, p 480.
- Ibid. pp 480–487.
P.S. I’m no historian and my conclusion about Khartan is from the understanding I developed after the resources I read. If you know/have read of any other notable invasions in Spiti or Pin valley, please enlighten me :)