Conversations with a cab driver led to setting up of a school in Turtuk village, Ladakh

While she was on a holiday to Ladakh, Sarah Shah of Bengaluru got to know about the remote Turtuk village that did not have a proper school. She packed her bags and moved there to set up the Turtuk Valley School.

Mudassir KulooMudassir Kuloo   28 Feb 2023 10:08 AM GMT

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Conversations with a cab driver led to setting up of a school in Turtuk village, Ladakh

Turtuk is one of the northernmost villages of India. It is situated in the Leh district of the Nubra valley and is around 2.5 kilometres (kms) from the Line of Control. All pictures arranged from Sarah Shah

A conversation with a cab driver, while she was on a holiday to Ladakh in July 2015, became a catalyst for a life-changing decision for Sarah Shah.

In 2015, the 25-year-old from Bengaluru in Karnataka learnt of a village called Turtuk in Nubra tehsil of Leh district, in mountainous Ladakh. The village remains cut off from the rest of the world for many weeks. The cab driver told Shah how it was a really backward village and how children there had no access to quality educators.

“By the time I returned home to Bengaluru from that trip, I had decided I wanted to be a teacher in Turtuk village. I told my parents that I wanted to teach in Turtuk,” she told Gaon Connection. Before this, Shah had already taught as a volunteer in some schools in Doda, in Jammu & Kashmir.

Six months later, in January 2016, after many conversations with a member of the village education committee, Shah travelled more than 3,000 kilometres away from her home in Bengaluru and reached Turtuk to take part in a winter tuition programme run by the panchayat for schools in the vicinity.

For Sarah Shah, shifting home from Bengaluru to Turtuk was both exciting and challenging.

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Turtuk is one of the northernmost villages of India. It is situated in the Leh district of the Nubra valley and is around 2.5 kilometres (kms) from the Line of Control. It is situated on the banks of Shyok River. It was under Pakistan control and then Indian Army captured it in 1971 war. Turtuk has a population of around 3,500.

From 2016 till 2019, Shah voluntarily taught students in government and public schools in Turtuk, Zanskar, Kargil of Ladakh, and also in Kashmir valley. She would teach in one school for a few months then move to another school.

In 2020, Shah found support in Jitendra Mandlecha of Academy of Fine Arts And Crafts Trust (AFAC Mumbai) who had also come to visit Turtuk. Along with Mandlecha and a few women teachers in Turtuk, Shah founded the Turtuk Valley School. It started with 25 kids and has now 140 students up to 7th standard. So far, she has taught more than 150 students in this school since it began in 2020, she said.

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“We always wanted to start a school but funding and management was a huge concern. But we were lucky enough that Mandlecha came as an angel there and saw the difficulties we were facing. With his help AFAC Trust came forward and supported this school overall,” Shah, who has pursued Masters in Business Administration and B.Ed, told Gaon Connection.

“There are 12 local teachers and in addition, teachers from different parts of India come to teach students voluntarily for several weeks,” she added.

Shah also runs a project called “Teach For Ladakh" through which volunteers teach in remote schools.

An unforgettable journey

For Shah, shifting home from Bengaluru to Turtuk was both exciting and challenging. “It was an unforgettable journey. I had to drive through Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world, descend into the Nubra valley, and then drive some more to Turtuk. There was heavy snowfall and the temperature was minus 15 degrees Celsius,” she recalled.

Sarah Shah also runs a project called “Teach For Ladakh" through which volunteers teach in remote schools.

But the warmth and hospitality of the village inhabitants kept her warm and happy, she said. That helped her deal with frequent power cuts, lack of medical facilities, inhospitable terrain and of course the inability to get on video call with family and friends back home. There were long periods of time when she had no contact with her parents that left them worried, Shah narrated.

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In Turtuk, she was given free accommodation by villagers. “I stayed at Ismail Bhai’s home whose family was overwhelming. They took care of me like their daughter. It was not possible to stay in Turtuk without their support,” she said.

In 2019, she also married a Turtuk inhabitant, Abdul Khaliq. “My husband is a resource person in one of the government departments and has been providing me with all possible support. I go to Bengaluru usually during winters and stay with my parents for some time,” she said.

Exploring the world of big cities

However, this winter she and two local teachers went to Mumbai along with 12 students for an educational tour. “Through the AFAC Trust, 12 students, below 13-years of age and three teachers including me, have been in Mumbai. The students and teachers got a taste of what schools in big cities are like and how they function,” Shah said.

The other take away from the visit to Mumbai is to introduce the children to the various career options.

There are 12 local teachers and in addition, teachers from different parts of India come to teach students voluntarily for several weeks.

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“The children, like anywhere else, have big dreams. The only difference is that children of Turtuk do not have proper exposure. They are quite restricted to their career options. We want them to explore career options other than just becoming doctors, engineers or joining the armed forces. They don’t know about other new career options such as graphic designing or animations,” Shah explained.

“We will want them to take an aptitude test in the near future to help them gauge their own strengths and challenges and then choose a career path. To me, that is the most effective way of motivating them, rather than pushing into doing something they don’t enjoy,” she said.

To know more about Turtuk Valley School, visit its website.


Teacher Connection Education Ladakh Leh 

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