THE 17th century right until 1949, Ladakh’s principal town, Leh, was the hub of the bustling caravan trade between Punjab and Central Asia, and between Kashmir and Tibet. The large Main Bazaar, with its broad kerbs, was clearly designed to facilitate the passage of horses, donkeys and camels, and to provide room for the display and storage of merchandise.

The town is dominated by the nine-storeyed Leh Palace, built in the 1630s by Sengge Namgyal. A prolific builder of monasteries and forts, with many conquests to his name, he was Ladakh’s most famous king. The palace’s massive inward-leaning walls are in the same architectural tradition as the Potala Palace in Lhasa which, in fact, the Leh Palace antedates by about 50 years. Sadly, the solidity of its exterior belies the dilapidation inside, although some repair work is now being done. Visitors can go up to the open terrace on the level above the main entrance.

Much of Leh’s charm lies in the opportunities it offers for pleasant strolls and walks. In the heart of town are the Main Bazaar and Chang Gall, with their eateries and curio shops selling precious stones and ritual religious objects such as prayer wheels. Along the Bazaar’s wide kerb, women from nearby villages sit with large baskets of fresh vegetables, spinning wool on drop spindles and exchanging lively chatter in between intervals of brisk commerce.

The jokhang, a modern ecumenical Buddhist establishment, and the town mosque, built in the late 17th century, are close to each other in the Main Bazaar. Between the Main Bazaar and the Polo Ground, at thee eastern end of town, is the fascinating Old Town, with its maze of narrow alleys dotted with cbortens and mania walls (see p141), and its cluster of flat-roofed houses constructed of sunbaked bricks.

On the peak above the town are the small fort and monastery complex of Narngyal Tserno (mid-16th century), believed to he the earliest royal residence in Leh. Next to its now ruined fort are a gonkbang (Temple of the Guardian Deities) and a temple to Maitreya (the Future Buddha), both of which have vibrant murals.

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