A few secrets of Ladakh
Ladakh's capital Leh, and its surrounding areas, is a land of vivid landscapes and an even more vibrant culture. Travel enthusiasts Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy take us on a trip to explore unknown facets of Leh's heritage and tradition with local residents
Hemmed in by the Karakoram and the Himalayan ranges, the mountainous region of Ladakh was once a harsh no-man’s-land visited only by nomadic tribes. Even today, this dramatic terrain has one of the lowest population densities in the world. During winter, the region remains enveloped in snow and it’s only in summer that tourists arrive. Since the region was opened for visitors in 1974, Ladakh, especially Leh, the main city of the Union Territory, attracts large volumes of tourists (between the months of May and September), who are mesmerised by the unique landscape, the thrilling adventure options and the vibrant culture. From exploring the surreal mountainous landscape dotted with many Buddhist monasteries and high-altitude mountain passes to the region’s unique culture – Ladakh offers varied experiences. However, one of the most enriching ways to travel is with the locals, who offer a glimpse of their life and also help explore unknown facets of the region. Here are a few off-the-beaten-track experiences of Leh.
In the early 15th century, the then ruler of the kingdom of Ladakh, Dragpa Bumdey, built the first fortifications in his capital Leh as well as the small Tsemo castle. In the 17th century, King Sengge Namgyal built the massive nine-storied Leh Palace or Lachen Palkar Palace. While the palace was abandoned by the royal family in the mid-19th century, even today, the impressive structure stands surrounded by remnants of the earth wall fortification that weaves through the Old Town, which was once where noblemen of the kingdom lived. While the palace is one of the must-see sites of Leh, the historic Old Town is often missed. It is locally called Kharyog, referring to the residential houses and community spaces. Earlier, the houses were located within the fortified wall that had five gates facing different directions. The wall has almost entirely disappeared, except for small portions hidden in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways and maze of buildings. The perfect introduction to Old Leh is a heritage walk. Guided by Sonam Gyatso, a former Economics teacher who is now dedicated to preserving Ladakh’s cultural legacy, the walk takes tourists through the maze of alleys in the old city. Dating back to the 17th century, Leh’s Old Town is a complex of around 200 residential dwellings made of mud, stone and timber enclosed within rammed earth walls at the base of Leh Palace. Despite years of decay, Leh’s Old Town is one of the few surviving examples of an intact Tibeto-Himalayan urban settlement. Of the 180 heritage houses in Old Town, 40 have been conserved, including Onpo (astrologer) House, Sofi (merchant) home and Hor Yarkandi house, which belongs to the descendants of a family that migrated to Ladakh from Yarkand in China over 100 years ago. The pilot project, a metal craftsman’s house, won a UNESCO award for best conservation practice.
Central Asian Museum
Located at the crossroads of caravan routes from Central Asia, Ladakh was shaped by trade from the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara from present-day Uzbekistan, Tibet, parts of China and Afghanistan with many of these routes converging at Leh. Over a period of time, Leh became a cultural cauldron. The Central Asian Museum Leh has been set up to commemorate and preserve this important facet of Ladakh’s history. Supported by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, this four-storey museum is built in the Tsas Soma Gardens, which was once a camping ground for caravans. Designed in the shape of a Tibetan-Ladakhi fortress tower, it is built with traditional Ladakhi construction materials like stone, timber and mud.Inside are housed relics from the caravan trade, old window frames, granaries and a Ladakhi kitchen – with its immaculate collection of gleaming vessels – where you can order lunch. The museum records Leh’s role in the Silk Route trade and also houses in its precincts Leh’s oldest mosque and a sacred tree known as the Datun Sahib, said to be 500 years old. It is said in 1517, on his journey to Tibet, Sikh Guru, Guru Nanakji passed through Leh and planted his miswak twig datun (toothbrush) at a spot near the current museum. The twig grew into a tree and offered shade to caravans. The site is marked by Gurudwara Sri Datun Sahib.
Mostly overlooked by tourists is one of Leh’s oldest lanes, Nausher Street, which is home to a profusion of carpet shops, a reason why it’s also known as Carpet Lane. Local fashion designer Jigmat Norbu, who runs a Ladakhi couture store, says that there stood an old revenue gate here for tax collection, which no longer exists. However, you can visit the 120-year-old caravanserai, the last surviving heritage building here. Right next door, near the Polo Ground, is Jigmat’s residence housing an impressive textile museum that took him five years to set up. Incorporating elements from Ladakhi architecture, it documents Ladakh’s glorious couture through fashion mood boards. Visits are only by invitation, much like their private dining and curated trails.
Chilling – a village of metal craftsmen
In Chilling, a village about an hour away from Leh, metal craftsmen have crafted musical instruments, statues and household utensils for centuries. In the 16th century, King Deldan Namgyal invited five skilled Newari metalsmiths from Nepal to build a two-storey copper statue of Lord Buddha for the Shey monastery located near Leh town. Greatly impressed by their skill, he offered them land to settle permanently. They chose a particular valley by the Zanskar river rich in copper deposits (zang is Tibetan for copper and skar means valley). The place where they settled was called ‘Chilling’ – chhi meaning foreign and ling meaning place – or ‘Land of Foreigners’. Over the centuries, their descendants blended with the local community and today worship Lord Shiva, albeit in Buddhist style. Chilling’s craftsmen fashioned statues and stupas across Ladakh, besides music instruments for Nubra and Hemis monasteries, and supplied brass and copper utensils to nearly every Ladakhi kitchen.Tsewang, who hails from a family of metal craftsmen, takes tourists around his home-museum that showcases his family’s heirloom utensils. Without modern tools or devices, using handmade implements and techniques since the 16th century, they churn out a dazzling array of metalware in combinations of copper, silver and brass. On display are various types of cutters, drills, hammers and zong (nails) besides thungbo (ladles), chang (pots), pheyphor (barley containers) and phang (weaving spindles). A closer look at the zomal (foundry) reveals an interesting process – the artisans pour water in a trough of apricot and submerge the utensils overnight; the resultant acid eats away the grime giving the products a shine.
Around 40 km away from Leh town is Basgo monastery (gompa), near which is Likir, where King Jamyang Namgyal encouraged pottery, as clay was readily available here. The hill on which the monastery stands is coil-shaped. Legends say that the gompa is guarded by two serpents (nagas) Nanda and Taksako, hence its name Klu-kkhyil or ‘encircled by nagas’. Sixty-year-old Lamchung Tsepail, aided by his son Rigzin Namgyal, has been crafting clay-ware since he was 15 years old and is a lone crusader of the 350-year-old tradition. It’s tedious work as dung must be collected from the mountains for firing his pots. “In the old days, lamas demanded bigger spouts for the tibril (kettle) so butter [used to prepare tea] wouldn’t obstruct the brew from flowing easily,” he chuckles. Ladakh’s culture has been shaped by the transmission of goods and ideas from across the neighbouring countries, connected by the various roads of the Silk Route. However, over the centuries, some of its cultural identities have been pushed into oblivion and heritage sites almost lost. Today, guided by the government, and with the effort of local residents and scholars, the region’s history and tradition are being restored and preserved for the future.