In Leh, past and present walk hand in hand. If one moment you’re in a cyber café connecting with the world, the next instant you could mistakenly think you’ve strolled into a medieval film set as you walk through the winding alleys of an old town.
Monastic chants and the azan harmoniously ring intermittently through the day in Leh and the latter is a calming background score when I arrive at Manikhang, a busy inner lane in old town. I’ve decided to explore the area and this is a convenient starting point. Around me lies a maze of mud brick-houses with flat roofs and pretty wood-work windows accentuated by chequered glass-panes. Stone pathways rise steeply and lime-washed stupas stand in silence. Adding more drama to this living theatre is the 17th century Lehchen Pelkhar or Leh Palace, its under-restoration nine-storey structure spectacularly looming above the residential quarters and playing reminder of a grand era when the town was on the crossroads of Central Asian trade on the fabled Silk Road. This cluster of 200-odd houses is considered among the world’s most historically-intact Tibeto-Himalayan urban settlements.
As I walk the lanes, elderly bearded men with prayer caps curiously peep out of hole-in-the-wall shops packed with old-fashioned ware, women clad in maroon goncha (the ample Ladakhi woollen robe) exit homes and an aged goldsmith, sits bent over a design. It’s crumbling but tremendously atmospheric. So enveloping is the quaintness that I can almost hear a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels from Bukhara halting somewhere here and merchants off-loading carpets, oriental silks, lapis lazuli, and more for a barter with local traders. If ‘back in time’ needed a visual representation this is it, notwithstanding the reality check provided by boards of cellular companies and the satellite dish, an adjunct on a few rooftops.
A significant bit of restoration work is on in the old town and two organisations quite involved in it are Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (Lamo) and Tibet Heritage Fund (THF). I leaf through their brochures and maps, and decide to follow a trail that’ll show me the extent of perseverance and triumph achieved by the two associations in lovingly preserving Leh’s legacy. A mingling of regional Buddhist traditions and those inherited from Central Asia have melded in Ladakh. The walk is all about coming up close with that way of life and not tick-marking monuments.
The first stop is the late-19th century Sofi House built with a blend of Tibetan and Kashmiri styles by a trading family from the Valley. It has striking elements of Kashmiri residential construction like dub(over-hanging balconies) with pinjarkari (wooden lattice work) shutters.
The traditional roof in Ladakh is quite an art in itself, and conservationists are taking meticulous efforts to remove all traces of modern mortar in projects they have undertaken ain order to rebuild the ceilings conventionally, with wooden beams, willow-stick joists, straw mats, local yagtses grass, soil, clay, and donkey dung, which increases solidness and strength.
In these parts, a donkey is a sturdy workhorse. Till a few years ago, once their usefulness was over, the donkeys roamed the streets uncared for. That was till a nice girl from South Africa called Joanne Lefson set up the Donkey Sanctuary here. Do stop by and meet these lovable jacks and jennys and contribute a little something for their upkeep.
My next halt is Lakruk House, a well-preserved original construction. From its terrace I get the best panoramic view of Leh old town — a sea of brown (mud) structures — cascading down the slope; the fluttering prayer flags and blue skies making it very picturesque.
After a pause I ascend the local way – up the rocky mountain path. I reach Red Chamba Lhakhang (Red temple of Maitreya) completely out of breath and what further takes my breath away are the 15th century wall-paintings that were discovered underneath lime plaster by THF. A collaboration of European and Ladakhi restorers have painstakingly brought them back to life.
Later, I get a peek into Munshi House, former home of the royal secretary that’s now being converted into an art centre by Lamo. The descent as expected was easier and I wrap up my tour at the lively Chutayrangtak Street, right behind the 17th century Jamia Masjid. This is where the delightful aroma of fresh bread and biscuits baked by Kashmiri naanwais (bakers) makes almost everyone halt for a tempting gaze.
By next season there will be another reason to stop here: the Central Asian Museum should be complete for visitors to view the cross-cultural influences, particularly from Kashmir, Tibet, Baltistan, Samarkand and Yarkand that have shaped Ladakh.
It is aptly situated in the Tsas Soma complex, which was once a caravan serai. Opposite it, quite incredibly, is a meswak tree, revered by Sikhs, as it dates back to the 15th century when Guru Nanak Dev visited Leh and sowed it. And you thought Leh was only about its airport and the jeep tours to Pangong Tso and Nubra Valley.
Published Sunday Magazine, The Hindu
Published Sunday Magazine, The Hindu