Leh Palace: Abandoned Bastion of the Himalayas

12 November 2016

In the early years of the seventeenth century the Lion King of Ladakh, Sengge Namgyal ordered the construction of a great palace.  Situated atop the Himalayan city of Leh, now in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, it was the home of his dynastic descendants until their overthrow and exile in 1834.  Once the world’s highest building, Leh Palace has been abandoned since then.  Yet it remains a majestic presence in this area of India often referred to as Little Tibet.

If it seems familiar that is because it is thought to be modelled on the more famous Potala Palace in neighboring Tibet which was the home of the Dalai Lama until his flight from the country in 1959.   Some say that it is the other way around but the similarities are remarkable. It is smaller than Potala but nevertheless Leh Palace is hugely impressive in its own right.  Towering nine storeys high, its upper floors once echoed to the sounds of Namgyal royalty and their throngs of courtiers.  The lower floors were used for storage and to accommodate the precious horses of the army.

Although much of the palace remains abandoned some of it has been converted in to the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which hopes to eventually restore the entire building.  At the moment, however, only the fourth is anywhere near completion and houses the Dukhar temple, enshrined to the goddess Tara.

Image Credit Flickr User Lesseum
Image Credit Flickr User Alex Hanko
The ASI considers the palace to be one of its most important buildings.  It is vital to archaeologists’ understanding of just how advanced the structural engineering of its Tibetan builders truly was. It is also pivotal in their understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of Ladakh.  Yet for the most part the palace is slowly mouldering away.  Its restoration is a truly monumental task which is expected to take many years, something which is not helped by the graffiti that some visitors insist on leaving to mark their visit.

Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Inside, the palace is a seemingly never-ending labyrinth of dark and bare rooms with low ceilings.  As you might imagine, for a place which has been abandoned for almost 200 years anything of value has long since been removed - the structural shell is all that is left in most parts of the palace.  It is difficult to imagine from the interior that it was the seat of power in the region for hundreds of years. 

Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Yet all one needs is a little imagination to picture its original splendor.

Image Credit Flickr User Matt Werner
Image Credit Flickr User Anoop Madhaven
Image Credit Flickr User JasonUnbound
Of course from the outside one can instantly see what a glorious sight the palace must have been to those seeing it for the first time.

Image Credit Flickr User Matt Werner
Image Credit Flickr User McKay Savage
Image Credit Flickr User Andrea Kirkby
Even before the palace there had been fortifications above the town for at least a hundred years. However, the view of the town of Leh from its roof is something else entirely. Leh Old Town is an extraordinary example of a complete historic Tibeto-Himalayan urban site.

Image Credit Flickr User Matt Werner
Image Credit Flickr User Matt Werner
Image Credit Flickr User McKay Savage
There are several hundred mud and timber buildings inside the four hundred year old city walls – so very rare in a place where most people traditionally opted for a nomadic lifestyle.  Despite many years of neglect, with many of the wealthier families leaving as the local economy declined, the historic character of the old town is largely intact.

Image Credit Flickr User Watchsmart
Image Credit Flickr User Nilanjan Sasmal
Image Credit Flickr User Watchsmart
You get an idea of the town's almost unique structure and layout from the top of the palace.

Image Credit Flickr User Matt Werner
Image Credit Flickr User Matt Werner
Image Credit Flickr User Florian Dre
Despite being billed as one of the Seven Wonders of India, Leh Palace is little visited, attracting only around 70 thousand visitors each year, the majority of them Indian.  This is perhaps partly due to its remoteness and the fact that to many visitors the place would seem in a state of decline and decay despite the restorative work that has been done there.

Image Credit Flickr User Motographer
Image Credit Flickr User JasonUnbound
For those, however, who prefer their history bare and their perusing unfettered by the trappings of mass tourism, Leh Palace is a little-known treasure – and most definitely has the right to be called one of India’s many marvels.



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