Sitting in the fertile Zanskar Valley with the mighty Indus river running through the centre, the town of Leh is dramatically encircled by snow-capped mountains. This tributary of the Indus also gives the high desert plateau a surprising greenness during the summer months. Looking across to the Ladakh and Zanskar Range mountains from the Shanti stupa on the outskirts of town, you can see the mountain ranges disappearing into the distance with the river moving like a large green snake moving through the valley.
The short summer months bring a productive period of farming for the locals that prepares them for the sub-zero winters, when they are often cut off from the rest of the world. This also means a relatively short tourist season for the region, with flights often booked far in advance, if you do not want to drive up from the south on the Srinagar-Leh highway.
Leh Developed as a Trading Post
Leh first developed as a trading post as it sat on the crossroads of the trans-Himalayan trade. Merchants to the town came from a wide area, including Yarkand, Kashgar, Kashmir, Tibet, as well as Afghanistan and North India. The trans-Himalayan trade and the Silk Road also brought Buddhism to western Ladakh from Kashmir in approximately the 2nd century. It was also entangled in the Great Game during the 19th-century, when the British and Russian empires played hide-and-seek politics along their borders. It is also an ancient crossroads, where Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan meet, from the Karakoram range to the north to the Himalayas to the south. Ever since the early trade routes came through the region, it has attracted pilgrims, adventurers, merchants and spies. When the Chinese authorities closed the borders between Tibet Autonomous Region and Ladakh in the 1960s, international trade dwindled, and the Indian government changed tactics to promoting tourism to the area.
In 2019, Ladakh had its latest reincarnation and became a Union Territory of India, however, as the region remains politically sensitive, the Indian Army retain a strong presence in Leh, with large barracks for the military situated near the airport. The army presence has also brought good access roads from the south.
Foundation of Leh Dates to the Early 15th Century
Leh town’s roots date from the early 15th century, when fortifications were built by the first Namgyal king in Leh along with a small royal residence on the mountain ridge above the town. The Namgyals rose to power in the 15th century, according to the Ladakh Chronicles, when Bhagan united Ladakh by overthrowing the Maryul dynasty and took the surname Namgyal (meaning victorious) to become the longest-ruling dynasty of the area.
Overlooking Leh town is another early building from this early period, Namgyal Tsemo, founded in 1430. Although a small building, Namgyal Tsemo monastery (or locally gompa) has a strong presence that demands attention. The complex comprises the gon-khang (room of guardian deities) and the fort. The monastery also enshrines a 8-metre-high statue of the Maitreya (future) Buddha, as well as preserved frescoes in the prayer room. Tashi Namgyal’s fort, originally part of the complex, is now lying in ruins, but can be reached by climbing the dilapidated steps and broken walls. On a clear day, Namgyal Tsemo offers a magnificent views of Leh town, the Zanskar range, and the peak of Stok Kangri.
Leh Became a Royal Capital
By the turn of the 17th century, Leh had risen in importance and had become the permanent royal capital from where the Namgyal dynasty (1460-1842) ruled over most of western Tibet. To enforce his position, King Sengge Namgyal (1616-1642), known as the ‘lion king’, rebuilt Leh Palace, sometimes known as Lachen Palkar Palace.
Still a dominant building in the landscape, Leh Palace sits somewhat precariously on top of a hill to the north. Designed in the Tibetan style that was later made famous by Potala Palace in Lhasa, this massive nine-storey stone structure lies at the base of the Tsemo ridge and towers over the old town. Sengge Namgyal also constructed massive rammed earth walls around the original residential area of the old town.
However, by the mid-19th century, the palace was abandoned when the royal family fled Leh and moved to nearby Stok, following a surprise invasion by the Dogras (a rival dynasty from neighbouring Jammu state). Now the palace, although partly in ruins, is preserved enough to contain a small museum housing a collection of royal ceremonial objects, jewellery, thangkas and manuscripts. The palace is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The Old Summer Capital of Shey
The old summer capital of the Namgyals, Shey, is situated 15 kilometres south of Leh. This palace was rebuilt during the reign of King Deldan Namgyal in the 17th century and is also perched high above the town for safety and is an impressive five-storied stone building that has timber from poplar and willow trees that grow in the valley below.
In the palace complex, there is a three-storey high monastery housing a large copper-gilt of the Shakyamumi Buddha that dates to the rule of Deldan Namgyal, Sengge’s son, who commissioned it as a memorial to his father. The largest Changchub Chortan (Stupa of Enlightenment) in Ladakh is also part of the complex, as is a library that houses and preserves Buddhist manuscripts. The complex is now looked after by ASI (Archaeological Survey of India).
The Palace at Stok
The historic palace at Stok has now been turned into a heritage hotel, giving visitors the chance to experience life in these historic buildings. As the traditional summer residence of the Namgyal dynasty, it became their main home after the Dogra invasion in the 19th century. The palace has a museum in the building where a wealth of items relating to the Namgyal dynasty are exhibited, including ancient coins, royal seals, court costumes, royal jewellery and a selection of fascinating photographs. In another display, there is the royal family’s collection of thangkas, some of which are over 400 years old.
The Muslim Population of Ladakh
Although Leh’s population is majority Buddhist, and historically associated with Tibet, there has been a Muslim population in the region from the late 14th century. Several Sufi missionaries converted part of the local population to Islam from approximately 1380s to the early 1500s. Mir Sayyid Ali was the first one to make Muslim converts in Ladakh and is often described as the founder of Islam in Ladakh and several mosques were built in Ladakh during this period, including in the villages of Mulbhe, Padum and Shey (an old capital of Ladakh).The largest existing mosque in Ladakh today is the 17th-century Jama Masjid in Leh, a Sunni mosque built in 1666-67, reportedly under an agreement between the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) and the then King Deldan Namgyal (1642-94).
Ladakh’s Buddhist Monasteries
However, it is the monasteries and their Buddhist figures that are the main attractions that draw visitors. Of all Ladakh’s monasteries, Hemis is the probably best known and is considered to be the largest and richest in the area as it is the spiritual centre of the Drukpa (Red Hat) lineage. Situated about 40 km southeast of Leh, it was established in the 1630s under the patronage of Singge Namgya on the site of a former monastery, which is best known for the Hemis Tsechu (festival), held every 12 years.
Celebrated on the 10th day of the Tibetan lunar month, it gives thanks for the birthday of Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche), the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. This is a time when the great thangka, which is over 11 metres, is unfurled on the monastery’s front façade with dances being performed in the rectangular courtyard in the front of the main door. The next festival will be in 2028.
The monastery of Thiksey stands out for its sheer size and grandeur – and its resemblance to the Potala in Lhasa. Located 19 km east of Leh, it is an easy day trip. Founded in the 15th century, it is one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh with buildings on a cliff rising in tier upon tier dominating the village below. The monastery houses a 15-metre-high statue of Maitreya Buddha (Chamba in Ladakh) in a double-height shrine room.
Considered as one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh, and known for its paintings, Alchi was founded in the 11th century by the Tibetan Rinchen Zangpo, (985-1055), a celebrated translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. Legend has it that Rinchen carried willow sticks with him and planted them at different places in Ladakh and Zanskar, and where these sticks turned green, monasteries were established in these places.
To add to the miracle of the legend, it is also believed that Rinchen Zangpo finished the construction of the gompas at Alchi, Mangyu and Sumda overnight. The artistic and spiritual details of both Buddhist and the Shaivite art that existed in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh at the time are reflected in the wall paintings in the monastery and are believed to be some of the oldest surviving paintings in Ladakh. They are also unique to the region and remain a mystery for scholar’s today.
The temple’s walls are covered with hundreds of small seated Buddhas, finely painted in natural pigments. The Dukhang, or Assembly Hall, contains a series of scenes depicting nobles hunting and feasting at a banquet. Their dress (turbans and tunics adorned with lions) and braided hair appear to be influenced by Central Asian, perhaps Persian style. The colours and style of painting are not typically Tibetan.
The Sumsteg is a three-storied building in the Tibetan tradition, however, the woodwork, facades, wall paintings, and clay images were most likely painted by Kashmiris. Inside are three bodhisattvas, all about 4 metres tall, with the dhotis (drapery) of the figures covered in intricate paintings, showing court life and depicting scenes from royal palaces. Many scholars theorise that most of the Alchi murals were created by artists from the Kashmir Valley to the west, a 300-mile journey, and although the temple complex was Buddhist, the artists themselves may have been Hindus, Jains, or Muslims.
Buddhist Rock Carvings in Ladakh
Apart from the spectacular monasteries, Ladakh also has a number of rock carvings depicting the life of the Buddha. Far to the west, in Kargil district, near the border with Pakistan, are the three great Maitreyas of Baltistan: Kartse Khar, Mulbekh, and Apati. Although now the area is predominantly Muslim, the ancient Buddhist heritage has been preserved.
In Mulbekh (off the Leh-Kargil highway), there is an important colossal rock carving of the future Buddha, the Maitreya, which stands over 9 metres high. It is carved with four hands with the lower left arm holding a water pot, or a kamandal, a constant in Indian and Kashmiri Buddhist iconography. The upper left arm has a flower and the upper right arm, a rosary. Since it is believed that the Maitreya will be born into a Brahmin family, he also has a sacred thread (janeu) across his chest and is adorned with jewellery – a pearl necklace, bangles, and a waist chain (karadhani).
Devotees are carved looking up at the Buddha ta the bottom of the statue, on both sides of the legs. Nicholas Roerich, a celebrated Russian artist, travelled across the Himalayas in the first quarter of the 20th century capturing the dramatic landscapes, who was particularly struck by the Maitreya at Mulbekh, writing ‘Two hands to the sky, as a call to the distant worlds. Two hands down like a blessing to the earth. They know Maitreya is coming’.
The Roerichs also stayed at Stok Palace, as the guest of the Namgyal family, and the artist painted several works of the panorama from the palace terrace.
Second Maitreya is in the Suru Valley
The second colossal statue is located near the village of Kartse Khar in the Suru Valley (40 kilometres from Kargil), carved in the early 7th century on the rock beside a stream. This statue, which towers over 7 metres, is also of the Maitreya. However, what differentiates this one from others is the crown and the structure of the body.
The carving is very detailed and the crown has a triple sharp pointed diadem with pearl bands hanging beneath the crown and a drape comes down from the crown and is twisted over the shoulders and arms. According to some experts, this style is derived from a pativ, a Persian emblem of the royalty adopted by the Kashmiri Buddhists.
The final Maitreya of the trio is near Apati village (18 kilometres from Kargil) and is the smallest of the three figures, dated to the same period and style as the other two carvings, but it is less ornately carved and has suffered the most weather damage.
At the crossroads of the major trade routes that have helped form and reform country lines for centuries, the area has survived numerous wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters to retain its distinctive character. If you are prepared for some long drives Ladakh will reward you with its ancient multi-faith history, spectacular scenery, and heritage buildings.
For information on Stok Palace Heritage Museum, stokpalaceheritage.com/the-royal-museum
Kargil Museum is a good online resource to learn about the Muslim trade heritage of Kargil and the Silk Road, kargilmuseum.org