Milam: Ghost Town of the Pundits

By Kai Friese, New Delhi, India

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Everyone said Milam was a ghost town and it is. Once a thriving summer settlement on the old trade route from Eastern Kumaon to Gyanema and Gartok in Western Tibet, it was abandoned in the wake of the 1962 border war with China. But by the time I got there, after a four-day walk, sweating and cursing on the climbs, creaking and wobbling on the steep descents, I just felt very happy to be alive. It was beautiful: the sunshine poured through the thin mountain air, the Milam glacier glistened on the slopes of Hardeol at the head of the valley. We walked to the glacier snout plucking rosehips and Tibetan seabuckthorn berries and returned to a breakfast of parathas and potatoes garnished with fresh local jimbu or chives. The day before, I had seen the twin peaks of Nanda Devi cresting like frozen waves over another ghost town called Martoli. “This used to be the biggest village in old Almora district,” said Kishen Singh, the chatty old chowkidar at Deepu Guest House, a snug whitewashed cottage at the edge of town. “There were five hundred families here, and back in those days, they say, young brides, who were new to this place, would lose their way in the gallis. They’d go to fetch water from the river, and wind up in the wrong house when they returned.” Kishen Singh’s face lit up at the ancient innuendos of the story. An old wives tale of young wives.

The gossip of ghosts Milam has more famous ghosts of course, you may even have heard of them: the ‘Pundits’ Nain Singh Rawat and his cousins Mani Singh and Kishen Singh Rawat (no relation to our chowkidar), surveyor spies of colonial yore, who traversed Tibet on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, masquerading as pilgrims while charting the forbidden Himalayan Kingdom with their Victorian gadgetry concealed in prayer wheels and rosaries. Nain Singh and Mani Singh were first commissioned for the top secret topographical assignment in 1863, and thanks to the former’s spectacular success it was his nick name (‘Pundit’ because he had been a school teacher) that would endure through many chapters in the so called ‘Great Game’ and the literature of colonial adventure. Had Mani Singh had more success we might have spoken of the ‘Patwaris’ (he was a village headman) but it was Nain Singh who covered 1200 miles (2.5 million paces, counted on his 100- bead rosary) to Gartok, Lhasa and back on that first journey. He would go on to be rewarded, in 1877, with a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society, to be honoured as a Companion of the Indian Empire (CIE), and to be known as the ‘Chief Pundit’ and memorialised with the code name ‘No. 1’.

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There would be other famous Pundits in fact, fiction, and the haze between them. Kishen Singh would chart a route to Eastern Tibet and back, the Sikkimese tailor Kinthup helped solve the riddle of the Tsang Po Gorge and the Bengali Pundit Sarat Chandra Das may have been the inspiration for Babu Hurree Chunder Mookerjee in Kipling’s Kim. Just before I went to Milam, I met the last of the Pundits—a legendary Indian soldierl, the late Lt General Zorawar Chand Bakshi, who was awarded the MacGregor medal for travelling alone from the Chumbi Valley to Lhasa in 1948, to reconnoitre routes for the post-colonial government of India. He did this in mufti, disguised as a pilgrim. Nehru’s Pundit, I like to call him.

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Whether they served Britain or India, the romance of the Pundits somehow transcends the dismal history of Empire and draws us into the enduring fantasy of shape-shifting cosmopolitanism. The ability to travel the world assuming different identities. The paradox of the first Pundits, Nain Singh and his cousins, is that for all their reputation as explorers, Tibet was really nothing new to them. Their community, like several others in this corner of Indian Kumaon, had land and property north of the Lipulekh pass and a tradition of trade and pastoral migration across what we now know as the border—or the Line of Actual Control—between India and China. Their true journey of discovery was into the modernity of colonial geopolitics and science. And while it has immortalised them it may also have contributed to the undoing of their community’s way of life.

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Now I wanted to see their homes and was led through the maze of Milam’s lanes, edged with dry-stone walls and a few scattered willows. There were handsome houses all around us, with sturdy stone walls and some finely carved lintels. But many were crumbling and most of them were roofless. We stopped at a barren enclosure at the eastern fringe of the town. This is where the Pundits’ houses once stood, I was told. But all the stones had been sold to the local outpost of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the ITBP. It was a small disappointment but then, the whole town was a ruin. After the 1962 war had put paid to the Tibet trade, the despairing Milamwals had even sold their roof beams and rafters as firewood for the soldiers who now wintered here. In truth, I’d come to Milam to absorb the cruel ironies of its downfall: a place whose most famous sons trespassed on Tibet for the Raj, destroyed by the postcolonial postscript of the ‘Great Game’.

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In the angled amber light of evening the place reminded me other historic ruins I’ve seen, places of calamity and legend, snuffed out by drought and famine, fire and war. In its own way Milam was a casualty of war. And yet it is a disarmingly unsentimental ruin. Haunting perhaps but not haunted.

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For one thing, the ghost town now has a lively if less charming doppelgänger: the ITBP camp, garrisoned by fat soldiers from the plains. They have satellite phones and TV dishes and helicopters that fly in trucks and motorcycles and even bulldozers to build the roads for them to drive on. Someone had told me that the choppers also brought in a regular ration of porn DVDs for the lonely privates. So I asked a young Jawan if this was true. “That was in the old days” he giggled. “Our generation does everything on smartphones.” There’s progress even in downfall, I suppose.

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Back at Deepu Guest House, Kishen Singh told me another story from the good old days before the soldiers moved in. The tale of Milam’s winter chowkidar, a retired Tibetan horse herder called Dhondup. “He didn’t get a salary but he had the village to himself and he would move from house to house, helping himself to whatever provisions he liked until he got completely snowed in. That was the arrangement. When the villagers returned at the end of winter they would dig him out of the snow.”

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It sounded like a bit of a fable but later when I was back in Munsiari, I visited the local museum and they had an old photograph from the 1950s of Dhondup in Milam. A shaggy Tibetan Hagrid.

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So why would anyone want to spend the winter alone in a ghost town? “He loved it!” Kishen Singh insisted. “He used to tell the villagers ‘the moment you people leave Milam all the ghosts leave with you’.”