Old Town Leh

THE NEIGBHOURHOOD PROJECT, OLD TOWN LEH

Photographer: Richard Nicholson, 1933; Courtesy Tim Mitchell.

Welcome to The Neighbourhood Project, Old Town Leh. Since 2010, LAMO has been discovering and documenting this neighbourhood of Leh. Situated behind Leh’s main market, the Old Town lies spread across the southern slope of the hill with the Palace at the top and extends as far as the Polo Ground to the south, the Balti bakeries in Chute Rantak in the west and the motorable road going up to the Palace in the east. The area is connected by a labyrinth of narrow, winding pathways that meander past homes that are over four hundred years old.

The Old Town is home to a diverse community from various socio-economic backgrounds. Besides those that belong to Leh’s Buddhist and Muslim households, the neighbourhood’s population is also composed of various migrants who have settled in from other parts of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir as well as seasonal migrants from other States in the country who have made the Old Town their home because of the employment opportunities available in Leh.

The Old Town of Leh bears testimony to the architectural heritage and socio-cultural history of Ladakh. This Project and the Website are a chronicle of LAMO’s journey as it attempts to document, research and disseminate the cultural practices of the Old Town in Leh. This is being carried out with a view to revitalizing the cultural and diverse heritage of Ladakh. It is also aimed at understanding the problems in Old Town, and to advocate the importance of the area to planners and policymakers.

The Old Town, Leh

The Old Town of Leh is locally known as ‘Skyanos Gogsum’. The core areas of Old Town include Kharyok, Stalam, Lobding, Stago Philog and Maney Khang. Peripheral areas include Chute Ranktak, Now Shar and Zangsti. Located within this area are some of the most important historical buildings including Leh Palace, Namgyal Tsemo Monastery, the Jama Masjid and Leh’s first cinema hall.

The area dates back to the first part of the 17th century, when Leh Palace was constructed. The first king to take up residence at the Palace was Senge Namgyal, one of the most powerful rulers of the Namygyal dynasty. Most of the residents of the Old Town lived here by virtue of their affinity to the King – his ministers, secretary, horsemen, tailors, jewellers, musicians and artisans amongst others – and had accommodation of varying sizes and types depending upon their rank in the area below the Palace. Thus, the area was the most important part of Leh, as well as the wider Ladakh area, as it played a crucial role in the political, commercial and cultural life of the region. Many of the homes that remain display some of the best remaining examples of the vernacular domestic architecture of this time.

The area was enclosed by a wall that had four gates that were opened from 6am to 8pm. Apart from residential buildings, the area was also home to a bustling marketplace where artisans, craftspeople and traders set up shop. It remained the hub of cultural and religious life till the Dogra invasion of Ladakh in 1834.

Soon after the Dogra invasion, the royal family vacated their Palace at Leh and moved to their residence at Stok where they reside till date. The wall and gates surrounding Old Town were gradually brought down. With the departure of the royal family from the Palace the grandeur and importance of the place diminished. Residents of the area followed, most moving out to homes in lower parts of Leh town where they owned land. With their movement out of Old Town a slow and steady deterioration of the neighbourhood took place – homes lay neglected, some falling almost to ruin, while others were demolished. In 2008, Old Town was declared an endangered site and included on the World Monuments Watch List.

LAMO’s journey of Old Town began in 2010. Conducting house-to-house surveys, talking to residents, recording their memoires, documenting the artistic heritage of the area, responding to it through the creation of contemporary art works, collecting archival and contemporary visuals, making videos, looking at commercial establishments, and advocating the importance of the area amongst stakeholders and policymakers through public meetings and recommendations. This has been LAMO’s endeavour through this Project, to recognise the community that lives here and exemplify their hopes and aspirations for the regeneration of the Old Town.

Old Town continues to stand testimony to the grandeur of the artistic heritage and cultural legacy that once exemplified Ladakh but is today largely overlooked and forgotten. Through this Project and Website LAMO hopes to revive that. It also hopes that those visiting this Website will add their voice to this journey.

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This website is supported by SDTT (Sir Dorabji Tata Trust) as part of LAMO's larger Old Town project that is supported by SDTT & Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Jammu & Kashmir.

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