Old Leh, new clothes

A remarkable restoration project is attempting to save the historic buildings of Leh, an outpost on the ancient trade routes through the Indian Himalaya. Amar Grover takes a stroll through the old town
Standing amid the bustle and banter at the middle of Leh’s old town, deep in the heart of the Indian Himalaya, you could be forgiven for thinking that the latest mule caravan from China or Tibet had just arrived.

Leh, capital of Ladakh – the tranquil, Tibetan Buddhist half of the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir – is a town of modest bazaars and winding streets. Whitewashed, panda-eyed houses with poplar-lined gardens fringe its outskirts, followed by sprawling army camps that are themselves hemmed by rugged hills.

Yet Old Leh still reeks of the old days and their earthy ways. Threaded by slender lanes and stepped paths, its mud-brick, cheek-by-jowl houses huddle picturesquely beneath a palace largely empty since Ladakh’s royal family was forced out during the 1840s.

Sadly, Old Leh’s ensemble of Tibetan-style urban architecture is ageing quickly, and literally crumbling at its joists. However, if the Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) and its offshoot, the Leh Old Town Initiative (LOTI), have their way, it might just age a little
more gracefully.

Grand plan
THF, a German-based NGO, was formed by André Alexander and Pimpim de Azevedo during the mid-1990s. Living in Lhasa, the administrative capital of Tibet, and with a growing passion for the traditional vernacular, Alexander – who describes himself back then as a ‘pushy enthusiast’ – managed to persuade local authorities to let him and his partner pursue restoration work in the city. Their first modest job involved composting toilets, but it won them many friends, if not favours. They moved on to old downtown houses, and by 2001, THF had restored about 20, with a sympathetic mayor declaring preservation orders on nearly 100 more. Then the political wind turned and THF was forced to wind down.

Alexander first came to Leh in 2003, and was struck by the virtually untouched fabric of its old quarter. Coupled with the more relaxed ambiance and local officials, LOTI was born with the aim of carrying out sympathetic yet practical restoration that involves local people. Part of its grand plan involves encouraging visitors to take guided ‘heritage walks’ through Old Leh, and I begin mine sipping possibly Leh’s best espresso at Lala’s Gallery, a tiny café and exhibition space tucked away in a lane just off the town’s main thoroughfare.

The house belongs to a nearby monastery and was probably once used by monks as offices in which to organise trading caravans – wealthy monasteries often participated in business ventures. Yet the family tending it had been unable to prevent its slow decay, and despite the presence of an ancient ground-floor chapel, there was talk of demolishing it to erect a concrete shop. In return for carrying out vital repairs, LOTI (and Lala’s) can now use it for a few years.

The house’s decay mirrored what was happening across the old quarter. By 2004, ten per cent of buildings were unoccupied, and more than half were in poor to bad condition. While most visitors are hardly likely to notice unless they stay for a prolonged period, Leh’s traditional social cohesion, forged by its hardy people, is now said to be wearing thin.

As we set off on the tour, Alexander outlines some of the old quarter’s other problems to me. India’s traumatic partition and, in particular, Communist China’s closure of the frontiers with neighbouring Xinjiang and Tibet during the 1940s and ’50s, was a real blow because it extinguished the traditional, yet already diminishing, caravan trade overnight. The coming of roads and what one might loosely call modernisation has meant wealthier families have opted to move out to larger houses with gardens and driveways. The old quarter’s poor infrastructure – there’s still no running water except for a few communal taps, and the drainage is decidedly inadequate – has perpetuated the air of neglect.

That’s now changing, albeit slowly, and most of the remaining 2,000 permanent residents are keen for imp­rovements to rehabilitate their enclave. Although it really needs a comprehensive, government-funded plan to install basic amenities, LOTI has focused instead on smaller, more manageable projects to restore its historic buildings. As I climb through the atmospheric warren of alleys and stairs with Alexander, he notes how few tourists actually come this way. Most seem to nip up to the old palace by road for a quick look and head down as quickly as they came.

On foot, however, you get a clear sense of how medieval the old quarter remains. There’s no particular ‘sight’ as such – the pleasure here lies in the little details – while the 17th-century Potala-like palace looms theatrically overhead, a stirring reminder of an age when Ladakh was an independent kingdom. Houses with small courtyards, sooty pillars and projecting windows seem to merge into one another. Lanes wriggle into short, low tunnels bored like wormholes between homes. Portable solar panels gleaming from many a terrace are the only obvious reminders that you’re in the 21st century.

High above town, we pause at the foot of the palace beside a whitewashed stupa and the Guru Lhakhang, a 400-year-old chapel. Alexander gazes up at the soaring palace walls and indicates their corners’ perfect alignment. He sometimes brings local masons and craftsmen up here to show them what is achievable with care and attention to detail.

Having carried out surveys of the old town’s social conditions and historic buildings, LOTI took on the restoration of the Guru Lhakhang as its first project. Originally, 40 families maintained it, each taking on the stewardship for a year at a time, but as interest faded, the chapel fell into disrepair and the roof had started to leak. LOTI offered to restore it, and a handful of family representatives readily agreed.

Under the LOTI model, it contributes half of the restoration costs. Its aim, too, is to utilise as much indigenous labour and skills as possible to generate employment and revive traditional skills, even to the extent of funding training programmes.

Fresco find
We stroll past the palace walls to a cluster of Buddhist temples with paved courtyards. Clumsy interior walls, I learn, had been added to the Red Maitreya Temple during the 1950s in order to stem water seepage from the rock face. LOTI recently helped to repair its leaking roof, and in the process, uncovered what are possibly Leh’s oldest Buddhist frescoes – dating back to the 15th century – adorning the original interior wall from beneath a layer of whitewash.

Descending the Stalam (‘horse road’; although there’s little chance of seeing horses here today) towards Sofi House, we pass a protective stupa gate that marks one of Old Leh’s original entrances and then take a brief detour to Gotal House. The house’s original owner’s family, notes Alexander dryly, are said to have once looked after the king’s dogs. With restoration projects almost continually on the go, there’s often a good chance of visiting an old home such as this before residents reoccupy it.

We climb a cramped stairwell to its terrace and drink in the spectacular views across the town. Alexander explains how LOTI has adapted some techniques to embrace modern conditions. A wooden floor in the kitchen was better than soil because it could tolerate being swept; slate floors in bathrooms facilitated the ultimate modern amenity – showers. When traditional Ladakhi soil roofs began to leak, the usual fix was simply to add more soil, but eventually the roofs sagged badly. LOTI’s longer-term solution was to add a mid-layer of clay. ‘And,’ he adds proudly, ‘we discovered from a mud-building expert that the addition of donkey dung to the mix gives more strength and water resistance.’ Although not a traditional Ladakhi practice, it’s a practical move in a region that seems to be getting more summer rainfall.

Other non-traditional adaptations are embraced with less enthusiasm. Some families who, for example, originally had party walls now demand separate ones, which involves much more work and compromises LOTI’s ideals.

Mosque and museum
My visit ends in the 300-year-old Tsa Soma Mosque – Leh’s first – hidden away in a garden behind the head of the main bazaar. Abandoned for more than 20 years, by 2007 this little mosque was already dilapidated and forlorn, and its original patronage by merchants from Yarkand just a distant memory. Leh’s small Muslim community was delighted with its resurrection, not least because it acknowledged its continuing role in the town’s fabric.

For visitors to Leh, one of the most interesting developments is the new Central Asian Museum, which is scheduled to open formally in July this year. Situated alongside the Tsa Soma (in what used to be a merchants’ camping area) and built from scratch with hand-cut masonry, timber and mud, it resembles a Ladakhi fortress tower with elements of Kashmiri and Tibetan design.

‘The aim,’ says Alexander, ‘is to commemorate the trans-Himalayan caravan trade, which ended barely half a century ago.’ From its ground-floor overview of Ladakh’s history and culture, a circumambulatory corridor – much like that found at the heart of Buddhist monasteries’ prayer halls – will rise ‘like a caravan trail through the upper floors, exploring Central Asian regions, including Tibet’.

Although those venerable caravans no longer head on to Kashmir or China, in the old quarter you might just sense some of the perils, stamina and organisation that this remarkable trade, Leh’s lifeblood, entailed.

Traders’ Leh
For centuries, Leh was an important entrepôt on a trans-Himalayan trade route, mainly between the Punjab in India and Chinese, or East, Turkestan (today China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). It was probably a Silk Route feeder in Classical times, and it was certainly active from the medieval era into the 20th century.

Its main counterpart on the Chinese side was the oasis town of Yarkand.

Silk yarn, of course, was one important commodity, along with indigo, jade, bullion, leather, cannabis, opium and cotton clothes. Ladakhis were also involved in trading with Tibet, especially the pashm wool that was vital to the Kashmiri shawl industry. Shorter-distance trading and bartering involved mainly salt and barley.

In addition to the established trails west to Kashmir, south to Lahaul and east to Tibet, a variety of routes led north from Leh and the adjoining region. Their use was governed by season and stamina, and usually involved between four and six passes. Most northern routes to Yarkand funnelled up via the main Karakoram Pass at 5,578 metres, a month-long march of 700–800 kilometres.

Horse, mule and yak caravans faced intense cold and exposure, lung-shredding altitudes, rivers in spate, occasional flash floods, rock falls, glacier-blocked valleys and even stinging flies. Local complications included oscillating demand, professional brigands from Hunza (now in Pakistan), extortionate duties imposed by the Maharaja of Kashmir and periods of instability in Xinjiang.

The trade, then, constantly ebbed and flowed, but by the late 1930s was in firm decline. China’s civil war, leading to the Communist victory in 1949, was the final nail in the coffin. The very last trans-Karakoram caravan – consisting in part of trapped Ladakhi merchants finally escaping Yarkand – crossed to Leh in 1953.

India co-ordinates


When to go

Ladakh’s tourist season runs from late May/early June to late September, with a peak in July and August. Early September coincides with the government-sponsored Ladakh Festival and an array of cultural events.

Getting there

Frequent flights to Leh from Delhi are available with several airlines and take about 80 minutes. By road, it takes at least three days, but includes a spectacular two-day journey on the Manali–Leh Highway that reinforces Leh’s continued isolation. Ideally, drive up and fly down.

Further information
Amar Grover visited Leh with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk).
The Tibet Heritage Fund’s (www.tibetheritagefund.org) Leh Heritage Walk costs Rs300 (about £4) and is bookable through Lala’s Café near the central mosque.

January 2011

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