The splendid natural beauty of a place often overwhelms its history; the pristine glory of distant habitations circumscribed by the bounties of nature as if born anew spins a romantic yarn that belies its age and contradictions. The end of the road is more than often the beginning of new imaginaries of life and living and as Munsiyari will recall, new enough for you but old enough for its land and people to become legends unto themselves.
Translating into ‘a snow laden place’, Munsiyari is snuggled close to the Panchachuli peaks of the Western Himalayan range in Pitthoragarh district of Uttarakhand. Memories of Munsiyari, for most, are laden with an immediate association with inaccessibility. Far into the eastern limit of Uttarakhand, well beyond Kali Kumaon and into the territory of Johar, distance is not only an element to its identity, it is an experience. And it certainly is treacherous too. Running along the length of the Gori River while travelling on well laid out roads, this distance now seems surmountable even though seasonally, especially when it rains and snows, bits of the stretch of the road give away.
Nestled at the near end of the town, is the Tribal Heritage Museum. Housed in an old building with a sizeable newly built extension, the sight of the museum inspires bewilderment. Usually associated with state sponsored projects of conservation designed mostly by protocol, one wonders why here, far out in Munsiyari? It is only when one knows that this is also known as Master ji’s museum that one expects another layer to the story.
Dr. Sher Singh Pangtey, the fondly known Master ji, glides from room to room in this museum with a smile on his face and warmth in his conduct. ‘I charge ten rupees from each visitor to cover the costs of a caretaker, but sometimes visitors are not ready to pay that small an amount either’, he says, not with a sense of complaint but with one of curiosity. Inviting us to look at the displays, he lingers unassumingly, telling us that if we needed to ask him anything, he would be happy to answer. It takes a while for one to understand that it is Dr. Pangtey whose brainchild this collection and display it is, something that he has been involved with for nearly thirty years now.
‘I used to teach history in the Government Inter College in Munsiyari and retired in 1995, that’s when my real work began’, he says in his trademark grin, ‘and did my PhD as a 52 year old student. The museum as you see it now took shape in 2008 with part funding from the state government of Uttarakhand’. The various awards and honours he has received from universities, the government and from cultural organizations are hard to miss. But what is definitely hard to miss is the detail and thought that has gone into organizing the objects on display – right from medicinal herbs and ornaments to tea making vessels and musical instruments – the items are lined up immaculately with precise descriptions.
One of the items that struck my eye was a deed of a civil suit on the matter of trading (arati) rights between an Indian Trade Agent and the Tibetan villages of Sarpa, Thokpa, Jangba Trokpa and Pamar Chhusarba dating the 19th century. Himself the son of a Tibetan trader with a doctorate on the Shauka tribes of the Johar region, Dr. Pangtey is certainly most well poised to take on the task of retrieving fragments of what was once a living reality at the borders of Uttarakhand, the Indo-Tibet trade which came to a halt since the Indo-China war of 1962, the same year that the district of Pitthoragarh in which Munsiyari is now located, was created.
‘Most of the items on display were gathered from within the area, from among the residents, most of these had been discarded or were on the verge of being thrown away’, Dr. Pangtey informed. In his inimitable style, he explained to us how a variety of salted tea was made in the area in a vessel designed for just that purpose, showed us a still functional wooden sewing machine, made us feel a specimen of the yartsa gunbu – the winter worm and summer grass in Tibetan – a medicinal caterpillar fungus, read excerpts from a book written by him, told us about the trekking route to Milam – the last village on the Indo-Tibet border and gave to us a DVD about the melas (fairs) of the region that he had helped produce. Sat in a museum built by an individual in his own capacity over the years, we were mesmerized by what a visit to the Master ji in Munsiyari beheld for us.
Perhaps that the thing about engaging with what we call history, what we usually like to see from the outside as observers and not as those who also live it continually. In Dr. Pangtey’s efforts is an attempt to not conserve or preserve, but to engage with the dynamism of the past that continues to be integral to our present and not before or beyond it. Histories are experiential, but they are also local and material, which are often part of our daily lives and lived realities. Dr. Pangtey has best recognized this and through his efforts, we have an opportunity to witness it too.