We didn’t realise the significance of Old Town when we booked our guest house from Manali. And even when we walked our first exploratory steps around the crumbling, dilapidated buildings and lanes, we didn’t fully appreciate yet how important this area of Leh was. In fact, it may well have been our last day in Leh, two weeks later, that we came to understand the significance of Old Town, and how this once central point amidst the hustle and bustle of the ancient trans-Himalayan trade routes, needs continued attention and support.
Photos by Ben Journee
It would be a fib to say we weren’t a little disappointed with Leh town itself. Our expectations had been high before arriving, and we’d done enough research about Ladakh to recognize a lacking sense of Ladakhi identity within the city of Leh. The homogenising effects of globalisation seemed to fill our vision.
There was a struggling underbelly of resistance to this though - Women’s Alliance Ladakh for instance, the LAMO centre and the work being done by Tibetan Heritage Fund in recent years. And yet, after two weeks in Leh, we saw that the voice of these organisations were drowned by the, literally, countless pashmina stores and numerous and equally average ‘international’ restaurants. Equally, though somewhat understandably, as Tibetan Buddhism is the religion of Ladakh, the Tibetan Refugee market stalls, which stand every couple of hundred metres around Leh, and Tibetan restaurants, seem to drown out the far smaller and weaker voice of a specific Ladakhi culture, heritage and history. Where are the Ladakhi restaurants? Where are the Ladakhi craft stalls? Where and what is Ladakh?
Leh Palace is a nine-story stone structure, bearing similarities in style to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and was built in the 17th century by the Ladakhi King, Sengge Namgyal, who decided to make Leh the capital of his Ladakhi Kingdom.
The palace is open to the public, but exists as little more than a shell. Visitors really need a torch to explore the narrow, dark and dank passages inside the building, as there is no additional lighting to support the little that comes in through the tiny windows.
Though compelling in its dereliction, the building that physically dominates over the city, impressing us as we arrived, loses its magnitude and sense of strength as one walks through the neglected structure.
It seemed at times as though Leh had taken a year off from its tourist trade. All of the temples around Leh Palace were ‘closed for maintenance’ and when we enquired at tourist agencies about where to find information on the culture and history of Leh, we were met with confused looks and a reply of “there’s nothing like that.”
Tourist agencies only offered trekking, rafting, and shared jeep trips to see the landscape of Ladakh. We didn’t come on this trip to trek, and our budget limited us in terms of day trips to visit the lakes and valleys (and we’d experienced some of the landscape on our journey up to Leh, which you’d miss if you flew in).
We wanted to see the traditional dance and music performances that were held every night in summer outside the palace, but we were to learn that these were stopped two years ago after audience numbers dropped and someone in the group passed away. We wanted to see the Women’s Alliance Ladakh festival, but only saw one small flier after it had finished. And when we went to their building the following day, we were largely ignored and found the shop all but empty of stock. There were certainly no signs of a bustling festival the day before.
The lack of internet in Leh didn’t help our situation (as sad as this sounds), as it was only after we left the city that we found where the Central Asian Museum was. We didn’t know it existed, let alone where it was when we were there. No signage, and no promotion, even the extremely helpful guy who worked at our guesthouse never mentioned it. And, it was our last day in Leh that we found the LAMO centre, where there was a brilliant exhibition on Old Town.
In several ways, I think we didn’t help ourselves in finding what we wanted. There is real irony that the online information about the LAMO centre, the THF (Tibetan Heritage Fund) and even the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh is so rich and accessible, when the internet in Leh itself is so poor. We were lucky to get a dial up speed connection each day, and it cost too much and was such a nuisance that it made it difficult to browse the web to find these resources whilst we were there. There was little on the ground information, and I think that in hindsight (and what we have learnt from our time there) is to be more proactive about finding out what is there, and what is going on.
Of course, it didn’t help matters that a large proportion of our time in Leh was spent in reasonable discomfort, being unwell on and off the entire time, which was certainly enough to hold us back. We didn’t know the internet was going to be so poor, and therefore we didn’t pre-plan. We didn’t make a list of things to do/things we wanted to do while we were there, and more preplanning (and pre-internet browsing) would have been better.
However, all this been said, it was not as though our time in Leh was completely wasted with nothing positive to share! Unlike McLeod Ganj, we don’t have a special Altaf, or Meena experience. But we did, for example, get offered a lift by monks back to Leh after our visit to the stunning Thikse monastery. And we do, of course, have our experience at Diskit gompa. We enjoyed our time at Nubra valley, even though most of it was driving. We loved visiting Stok Palace (where the Ladakhi royal family resettled after being dethroned and exiled in 1834) and exploring the museum there. And I so enjoyed buying and eating the sweet, soft apricots off the Ladakhi women who would sit on Main Bazaar and sell their vegetables and fruit. We later saw photos (in the LAMO centre) of Ladakhi women doing the exact same thing in the 70s, as if nothing had changed over the course of that time. We found solace in Lala’s Cafe and, on our final day in Leh, found a freshness and positivity for Leh in the exhibition about Old Town at the LAMO centre.
The last trans-Karakoram caravan crossed to Leh in 1953. And the days of Leh as a bustling town and centre for the trans-Himalayan trade route, where caravans would arrive and depart, from and to the perilous and demanding mountain passes with their goods, were over.
The Sanskar Labrang monastery owned a house in Old Town, that was used by monks as offices in which to organise the many trade-caravans passing through the town. The house was originally built around five ancient Buddha stone carvings, which remain on the ground floor of the building as a cave-like vestry. In 2006, THF and LOTI (Leh Old Town Initiative), saved the house from demolition, as it was in a state of serious decay much like the rest of Old Town, and converted it into Lala’s, a tiny cafe and exhibition space in the heart of this historical borough.
Outside Lala’s is a large stone Buddha that was found partly buried in the yard of the Tak family, who agreed to have the stone conserved and moved outside Lala’s, only 40m away, which serves as a placemaker for the edge of the historic town.
The decay that THF and LOTI found at Lala’s is mirrored around the whole of Old Town, where around 200 stone, mud and timber houses are sandwiched between fragments of the once massive rammed earth walls that enclosed the town. 50% of the buildings, many probably as old as Leh Palace that was built in the 17th century, are in poor condition, and many are still inhabited. Old Town has water supply problems, with only five public water taps in the area. And further to this, the area has problems/no real infrastructure for waste water drainage, or sewage. On top of this, the boom in tourism and subsequent commercialisation of Leh, has meant a severe and damaging increase in non-degradable waste, in a city that has little ability to deal with it and a fragile ecosystem.
The thousands of tourists who come to Leh each year in summer, wanting regular showers and flush toilets adds to the strain on the natural environment. The lack of water supply and sanitation in Old Town has caused some people, those who are able, to leave and abandon their homes.
As the Tibet Heritage Fund worded, “the former centre of the country has, in effect, become a slum.” Initially, we assumed the majority of Old Town was deserted, based on our assessment of the condition of the buildings, and were a little surprised to learn they are still inhabited.
Coupled with the poor quality of living conditions for residents of Old Town, there is also an increasing loss of cultural identity and sense of community due to migration and the rapid changes in economy.
For these reasons, it was such a thrill to find the LAMO centre (The Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation), and their exhibition called Mapping Old Town. The exhibition included local community projects, where local residents, including children, shared their experiences of where they live. There was also a collection of historical photographs showing Leh pre-tourism, and exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works, displayed amongst the centuries-old rooms and walls. As well, there were personal collections of traditional Ladakhi ephemera that have been saved by a younger generation of locals, and shared for the exhibition.
The other marvel of the LAMO centre was the building itself, and the magnificent restoration of two large Old Town houses, the Munshi and Gyaoo houses, that are now the best remaining examples of domestic vernacular architecture of the 17th century, in what was once the political, commercial and cultural nerve-centre of Leh. And because of the recent changes in Lhasa, Old Town is now the best preserved area of urban Tibetan architecture in the world.
Most people that lived in Old Town were there by virtue of their affinity to the King - his ministers, secretary, horsemen, tailors, jewellers, musicians and cooks - and their accommodation varied, in both proximity to the palace, size and style, according to their rank. The Munshi house was the residence of the secretary to the King, and the Gyaoo house was residence of the upper rank of artisans who performed for the royals. The two houses have been restored, and physically connected. And the LAMO centre inhabits both places and the interesting web of rooms that once served various purposes.
There has been an impressive amount of initiatives and steps taken to preserve Old Town. Though it really needs a government-funded plan to develop basic amenities, THF and LOTI have successfully managed smaller projects to restore historical buildings, and rehabilitate one of the main roads in Old Town to model a drainage system of slate stone pathways which slope toward a central channel covered by grates. It was also exciting to see so many buildings around Leh harnessing renewable resources, with water tanks (no doubt a necessity) and solar panels on roof tops. And further, an impressive step was taken by Women’s Alliance Ladakh in getting plastic bags banned in Leh in 1998.
We think the guide books need some revision with regards to Leh. A little less romanticism, and some serious support and more promotion for LAMO (Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation), Lala’s Cafe, Woman’s Alliance Ladakh and the Central Asian Museum (that we so sadly didn’t know existed until we left). These real, life-changing treasures, we feel, deserve more than the back alley of Leh’s tourism. And perhaps with a boost in promotion, there will be a boost in tourist attention, and these small scale initiatives can thrive.
The highlights of Leh for us were spending time reading and drinking tea at Lala’s cafe, the awesome exhibition at the LAMO centre, right beneath the impressive structure that is Leh Palace, our trip to Nubra Valley and the special time we spent at Diskit monastery, visiting the museum at Stok Palace, and, finally, the stunning and peaceful Thikse monastery.
Thikse is the largest gompa in central Ladakh and bears incredible similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet) with regards to its style. We jumped on a local bus to get there, which was an experience in itself, with passengers playing musical chairs and seemingly sharing children. We arrived (with the help of our fellow passengers who told us when to get off) and the gompa complex was incredibly still and silent. We chose a route to start the climb up to the temples, and wove our way through a warren of monks’ living quarters.
Once we got up to the temple, there were a handful of tourists, but we hadn’t seen a single one during our ascent. We realised later that we’d come up an alternative route (because most visitors were dropped off by taxis as part of tour groups). We much preferred our way!
The first temple was dark and quiet, with visitors struck silent upon entering. There was barely a butter lamp to illuminate the space. As we were entered the temple, a sand storm rolled up the Indus Valley. And so the temple became a kind of bunker, a temporary sanctuary for a few visitors, with a monk manning the door, holding it closed while the wind and sand howled outside.
The walls were covered in murals, with surprisingly grotesque imagery, and the little light had a rather eerie and unearthly effect as you circumambulate the sacred space. A narrow space extending from the rear of the temple housed three statues, with a Buddha in the centre, again barely illuminated by the tiny windows.
In 1980, a two story high statue of the Maitreya (Future) Buddha was made to commemorate the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, which he consecrated on his visit. It took three years to complete, and is made of clay, gold and copper. And the deity is unusually depicted in the lotus position, compared to the more typical depiction in a standing or sitting posture.
We adored Thikse. It was the peaceful buddhist sanctuary that we were expecting from Leh and a place I had been dreaming about for several months. The views over the valley from the temple were beautiful, and the cool wind ensured the prayers and mantras on the prayer flags were cast into the world.
The final story of Leh is yet to be written. We hope that the infrastructure of Old Town is developed to ensure this historical treasure is allowed to survive. And we hope that the history and culture of Ladakh, and Leh, is similarly preserved and promoted. Although there were aspects of the city of Leh that were disappointing for us, we made some special memories during our two weeks on the roof of the world.