| travel old leh |
details – while the 17th-century Potalalike 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.
f r e s co f i nd 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,
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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.
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.
62 www.geographical.co.uk january 2011