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Ladakh - A Brief History

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Leh, Ladakh, Ladakh travel

The Geography

Ladakh is in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, surrounded by Jammu and Kashmir to the west and by Himachal Pradesh to the south. In the Leh district, the inhabitants are predominantly Buddhists of Tibetan ancestry who speak a Tibeto-Burmese language (Ladakhi). In the Kargil district to the west, however, the inhabitants are predominantly Muslim, and speak ‘Purik’, a language closely related to Ladakhi. The name in Ladhaki means ‘land of high passes’ or ‘highland’ in Turko-Arabic.

Ladakh travel

Along its western edge, are the Great Himalayas with a parallel branch called Zanskar range directly to the east. Ladakh covers some 22,800 square miles (59,000 square km) along the upper Indus River valley and is one of the highest regions of the world and the highest plateau in India with most of it being over 3,000 m. The Himalayas block the entry to monsoon clouds- creating a rain shadow area and making Ladakh a ‘high-altitude’ desert. The main source of water is the winter snowfall on the mountains. The region is also prone to seismic activity, and light to moderate tremors are common. In this arid, cold and dry region, vegetation is limited to shrubs in the valleys. Animal life consists of the ‘bharal’ or blue sheep, the Asiatic ibex – a mountain goat, the Ladakhi Urial – an unique mountain sheep whose population is declining unfortunately, and last but not the least – the ever illusive snow leopard.

The History

Ladakh travel

From ancient times Ladakh was connected to China in East and Central Asia in west via Silk route

The Silk Route

The Silk Route – an ancient network of trade routes spanning around 4,000 miles or 6,400 kms. It originated in Sian (northwestern China) and linked the two great civilizations – Rome and China, and happened to passed through Ladakh. Silk from China travelled west, and wool, gold, and silver travelled east. This route was probably the most strategically important and one of the longest trade routes in ancient times that enabled people from Japan, China, India, Central Asia, Persia, Syria, and the Eurasian Steppe to exchange ideas, culture and commodities. China got Buddhism (from India) via the Silk Road as well as Nestorian Christianity. During the summer months, caravans from these regions arrived here after negotiating various mountain passes. Besides being routes for transporting merchandise, and cultural exchanges, these were also routes through which invaders arrived at mainland India ever since the time of Alexander.

The Dynasties

The Tibetan Buddhist influence in the region is evident through the exquisite handicrafts, paintings and architecture styles that have survived thousands of years. Even the traditional food of Ladakh like thukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup), Tibetan butter tea, and momo (dumpling) varieties like sha, shoogoi, and gonga has the strong flavours of Tibetan cuisine and the ancient cultural exchange.

Ladakh travel

Since 7th century Buddhism spread in Ladakh through the rule of different dynasties

The first groups of settlers in Ladakh (ancient name Maryul) were Aryans-Mons, from present day Himachal Pradesh and Dards – from present day Gilgit. Around the first century, Ladakh formed a part of the Kushana empire. In the 2nd century, Buddhism came to Ladakh by way of Kashmir. During the 7th century, a Tibetan commissioner was positioned for the first time starting Tibetan rule over the largely non-Tibetan population, local rebellion remained unsuccessful. By the 8th century, the Tibetan control was challenged by China, but in the 9th century, Nyima-Gon, a Tibetan royal representative annexed Ladakh and became Ladakh’s first Tibetan king after the break-up of the Tibetan empire and founded a separate Ladakh dynasty. Between the 8th and 13th centuries Ladakh underwent Tibetanization and marked the Second Spreading of Buddhism (the First being in Tibet), importing religious ideas from north-west India, particularly from Kashmir. In the 14th century, Crown Prince Rinchen Shah, son of King Lhachen Gyalpo, went to Srinagar, converted to Islam, and reigned as the first Muslim king of Kashmir. Thereafter started the era or two kingdoms – the Ladakh and Leh empires with repeated Arab invasions in the 15th and 16th century. In the chaos, the Namgyal dynasty, which is still in existence today, was found and Ladakh witnessed a golden age. The Leh Palace and Hemis Buddhist Monastery, were built during this time. The rule of the Namgyal dynasty continued until the 19th century when the Dogras, a group led by general Zorawar Singh, invaded Ladakh, momentarily disrupting the status quo of the Leh and Ladakh regions. Many monasteries were plundered. Ladakh was incorporated into the Dogra state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Namgyal family received the jagir (revenue of a region) of Stok, which it appears that they still retain.

At the time of the partition of India in 1947, the Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh had the option to accede to India or to Pakistan. In 1948, Pakistani invaded the region and occupied Kargil and Zanskar, reaching close proximity of Leh. The Indian government sent troops into the princely state after the ruler signed the Instrument of Accession making the state a part of India. Tourism in the region opened in the 1970s. It is today divided into two districts- Leh and Kargil. This was the brief history of Ladakh in few sentences.

Our Ladakh Trip

Ladakh travel, Ladakh natural beauty

Ladakh is a place of endless natural beauty blended with age old religious belief

We had in our mind an image of Ladakh and the curiosity to ‘feel’ the place. We travelled to Ladakh after spending some days in Kashmir and the difference in the two regions couldn’t be more obvious. The landscape is incredibly different – from the lush green in Kashmir to an almost arid rugged beauty in Ladakh. The blue skies and the beige brown landscape offer a beautiful backdrop to the stunning Gompas (monasteries) and the ever-present colourful fluttering prayer flags. In the monasteries you are welcomed with an incredibly peaceful atmosphere, the monks in their red robes and a plethora of intricate paintings. The nothingness in the surroundings almost compliment the massive Gompas and bring to life the colours of the paintings as well the prayer flags … we travelled with our local driver in his car through endless roads, some great and some that tested the strength of the vehicle and our backs! Passing through boulders and gushing water, it wasn’t unusual to see people stopping – either to enjoy the beauty or maybe just to do some deep breathing before embarking on the rugged terrain! Groups of bikers and cyclists pushed through the limits of their minds and almost floated in the roads hugging the hills at mind boggling heights. And to then stop and enjoy some Gur Gur chai (the Ladakhi cousin of the nun-chai from Kashmir) – pinkish and salty but with a dollop of butter! At first it is hard to imagine butter in your tea, but in those terrains, we didn’t mind a second dollop of butter of even a second dash of salt!

Ladakh travel

The increased commercial tourism has a direct impact on the environment of Ladakh

Unfortunately, the rate of commercial tourism is relentless and is hurting the fabric of the place. The huge influx of tourists from within the country has popularised the stereotypical northern cuisine pushing the traditional cuisines off the table. Bigger and louder groups of tourists have also slowly made extinct the adventurous backpacker trekking through the rugged mountains and willing to share shelter with the locals. Instead, what you see now is commercial tents and rooms coming up at breakneck speed and restaurants serving naan and butter chicken to please these crowds.

We hope the soul of the place, the art forms, the local food remains available to the traveller who goes to experience the place.


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