The Old Town Leh is a vibrant multi-cultural community that thrives amongst what remains of a 400-year-old settlement. It is home to Ladakhis from many parts of the region as well as individuals from various parts of the country. It is this diversity and cosmopolitanism that makes the Old Town so unique. The coming and settling together of such a varied group of people in one place is a significant asset of Old Town that is attributed to the history of the place.
Old Town boasts of a rich past as it was at the centre of Ladakh’s cultural and commercial activities. Though the famous Silk Route did not pass through Ladakh directly, it came via a Southern feeder that made its presence felt amongst the different trading communities and diverse goods that one could see in Leh bazaar. It was this exchange and interaction between traders, travellers and residents that moulded Old Town Leh and made it into a multicultural centre buzzing with life and activity. The Royal Family living at the top in their Palace gave the area an extra important edge.
Amongst the other residents of Old Town, many of them had duties and roles to play under the King ranging from administrative work to trade, and day-to-day undertakings. Some of the prominent families of the time were the Lonpo (the King’s Prime Minister), Munshi (King’s Secretary) and the Shangara family who represented Ladakh in the famous Lopchak Trade Mission to Tibet. Many Muslim and Hindu traders from Central Asia, Srinagar and Punjab also passed through Leh and some intermarried with local women and settled in Leh permanently.
The Dogra invasion of 1834 and the subsequent departure of the royal family from their Palace, the establishment of borders and modernization saw the gradual demise of Leh.
In Old Town itself, families who had been living here for generations shifted out of their ancestral homes and into their secondary houses built on the spacious agricultural land they owned. Buildings and pathways fell into neglect and eventual decay turning the
town into what it is today – a curious mix of new cement houses coming up alongside the historic but now crumbling ones connected by a tangle of old and new pathways.
Migrants from far-flung areas of Ladakh and other parts of Jammu and Kashmir as well as some of the northern states of India have made the Old Town their home as they come to Leh in search of work. Cheap accommodation in Old Town provides these seasonal workers with a suitable temporary home, most of them work as labourers, carpenters and painters.