Old Town Leh

Old Town Voices

Nawang Dorlak, indigenous art expert, in his small studio below Lala Cafe, Old Town. Photographer: Irfan Ul Salam

Living in old town

The dark corridors, old walls and mud houses in the ruins of Old Town Leh, the historic city of Ladakh, have many stories to tell from the past. The old town represented mainly by old houses and monuments in the immediate vicinity below the 17th century Leh Palace has a growing cluster of new houses to continue its present sprawl, giving it a juxtaposed aerial view of heritage buildings being overwhelmingly taken over by modern structures.

This impression of the physical change taking place in the old town, somewhat, tells what has happened over the last few decades that led to the present dismal state of the Old Town, which was the hub of trade and cultural activities. The major change took place in a short span of some 50 years.

Original inhabitants abandoned their houses to live in their open agricultural lands beyond the once existing city walls, yet some continue to live alongside migrants from within and outside Ladakh. Those who have lived in the old town have many memories to share, and woes of residents today are numerous. Let us hear what they say:

Tsering Dorjey (94) Gyaoo: Early in the morning people climbed on to their roofs to see which house had smoke coming out of it and would then go and ask the owners for fire.

People were happy to share whatever little they had – that’s why many older people are still nostalgic about those days and lament the present situation. A piece of burning wood in one house could light up the hearths of the entire neighbourhood as burning embers would be shared between homes as they were passed around. Old town has almost all houses sharing common walls and in some cases beams would run from one house to another.

Jhorchung Ama Tsering Dolma (63) laments the banning of Thabzan system (visiting relatives with Losar gifts) by LBA, which she thinks was a great method to maintain the system of bonding and relationships. She also remembers that divorce and remarriage was very frequent as the people were straightforward and simple. The possibility of encroachments and original inhabitants of Leh losing their lands to migrants is a bit worrisome for her. She thinks, future generations might have to go back to old town to live there once the main valley gets exhausted.

Morup Tharchin (77) Nomochog cannot forget an interesting personality who lived in the old town by the name of Baba Sheikh who would run a multi-repair shop in Masjid Gully.

Tharchin says, Baba Sheikh had made a pulley system (inspired from Kerosine oil pump used by shopkeepers) made using GI pipe and telephone wires to lift water from Tsukdor zing (reservoir in Chute Rantak street) to his house on the hill for his flowers.

Ghulam Sultan (86) narrates the story of his grandfather who was abandoned at Chang Chenmo dessert during a trade mission to Tibet. On reaching Lhasa on his own he became a Yogi (carrying damru) after seeing the Dalai Lama. He already knew Bodyig.

 One wonders how the old town managed without any drainage system in those days. As a matter of fact, they would not need one. Kitchen waste and water used for washing were thrown on a heap of earth in front of the house that would become manure (Chulut), which was in turn used in animal sheds – after drying it up – before carrying it to the agricultural fields.

rGan mi tukchu was a counsel formed by King Singhey Namgyal to brainstorm over issues that helped in making decisions on matters related to governance which would take care of dignity and social justice among common masses.

SasaUra was a very nutritious public feast prepared at Tsas Soma
organised by the Muslim community, probably inspired from the Gutuk tradition among Buddhists, to make up for nutrition deficiency especially among children. Ingredients for the feast were contributed by everybody and
all young and old irrespective any religious background would participate in this grand feast. Abdu Karim, Baba Aziz were the main cooks for making the feast (thukpa) at Tsas Soma, Abi Padma Nochung (87) remembers.

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