The region of Ladakh once formed part of the erstwhile Kingdom of Ladakh and for nearly 900 years from the middle of the 10th century existed as an independent kingdom. Its dynasties descended from the king of old Tibet. After 1531, the Muslims from Kashmir periodically attacked it, until it was finally annexed to Kashmir in the mid 19th century. The early colonizers of Ladakh included the Indo-Aryan Mons from across the Himalayan range, the Darads from the extreme western Himalayas, and the nomads from the Tibetan highlands. While Mons are believed to have carried north-Indian Buddhism to these highland valleys, the Darads and Baltis of the lower Indus Valley are credited with the introduction of farming and the Tibetans with the tradition of herding. Its valleys, by virtue of their contiguity with Kashmir, Kishtwar and Kulu, served as the initial receptacles of successive ethnic and cultural waves emanating from across the Great Himalayan range.
Its political fortunes flowed over the centuries, and the kingdom, was at its best in the early 17th century under the famous king Sengge Namgyal, whose rule extended across Spiti and western Tibet up to the Mayumla beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. During this period Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and Central Asia. The merchants and pilgrims who made up the majority of travellers during this period of time, travelled on foot or horseback, taking about 16 days to reach Srinagar, although the people riding non-stop and with changes of horse all along the route, could do it in as little as three days. These merchants who deal in textiles and spices, raw silk and carpets, dyestuffs and narcotics, transported their goods on pony who took about two months to carry them from Amritsar to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Knotan. On this long route, Leh was the halfway house, and developed into a bustling Centerport, its bazaars thronged with merchants from far countries. This was before the wheel as a means of transport was introduced into Ladakh, which happened only when the Srinagar-Leh motor-road was constructed as recently as the early 1960s. The 434 km Srinagar-Leh highway follows the historic trade route, thus giving travellers a glimpse of villages that are historically and culturally important. The famous pashm (better known as cashmere) was produced in the high altitudes of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet and transported thorough Leh to Srinagar where skilled artisans transformed it into shawls which are known all over the world for their softness and warmth. Ironically, it was this lucrative trade, which finally spelt the doom of the independent kingdom. It attracted the covetous gaze of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, and in 1834, he sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. Hence, followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north India. Ladakh, together with the neighboring province of Baltistan, was incorporated into the newly created State of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India, Baltistan becoming part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Ladakh has an area of approx. 98,000 sq. km., situated at an altitude of 2,500 to 4,500 meters with some of the passes at 6,000 and peaks up to 7,500 meter all around the region. The four mountain ranges of Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram pass through the region of Ladakh. Ladakh also has the world's largest glaciers outside the poles. The towns and villages occur along the river valleys of the Indus and its tributaries, Zanskar, Shingo and Shyok. There is also the large beautiful lake Pangong Tso, which is 150 km long, and 4 km wide at a height of 4,000 m. Due to necessity and adverse conditions people of Ladakh have learnt to irrigate their fields. In the fields barley is the main crop, which is turned into tsampa after roasting and grinding. Apple and apricots trees are also grown with success. Most of the crops are reserved for the hard wintertime. At lower altitudes, grape, mulberry and walnut are grown. The willow and poplar grow in abundance and provide fuel and timber, especially during the winter. These trees are also the source of the material for basket making.
By Road: Travel by road gives you an advantage over flying into Leh as it enables you to acclimatize easily. As Leh is situated on a high altitude plateau and travelling by Jeep or car will give you the flexibility of stopping to see the several sights on the way. Srinagar - Leh road (434 km) is the main route with an overnight halt at Kargil. The road is open between mid June and November. The Manali-Leh highway is a spectacular journey with an overnight halt at tented camps at Sarchu or Pang. Kargil is situated on the main highway between Srinagar and Leh. The road from Kargil into the Suru and Zanskar valleys is open only between July and October.
By Air: Leh is the main airport for this area. Direct flights link it to Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu.
In peak winters the temperature in Ladakh goes down to -30 Degree Celsius in Leh and Kargil and - 50 Degree Celsius in Drass. Temperatures remain in minus for almost 3 months from December to the month of February. But on clear sunny days it can become very hot and one can get sun burnt. Rainfall is very less due to the geographical location of Ladakh. The rainfall is around 50 mm annually. It is the melting snow, which makes the survival of human and animals, possible. In the desert like landscape one may come across the dunes or perhaps occasionally to the dust storms.
Although, most of the places in Ladakh are more or less cut off for 6 months from rest of the world, the state has retained cultural links with its neighboring regions in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Tibet and Central Asia and also traded in valuable Pashmina, carpets, apricots, tea, and small amounts of salt, boraz, sulphur, pearls and metals. Yaks, ponies, Bactrian camels and hunia sheep with broad backs provided animal transportation. Livestock is a precious contribution to the economy of Ladakh, especially the yaks and goats play an important role. Yak provides meat, milk for butter, hair and hide for tents, boots, ropes, horns for agricultural tools and dung for fuel thus paying the most vital role in the local economy of the region. Goats, especially in the eastern region, produce fine pashmina for export. The Zanskar pony is considered fast and strong and therefore used for transport and for the special and famous game of Ladakhi polo. Ladakh is open to tourists only since 1974 and has attracted already a large number of tourists and the influence of the tourists does not remain unnoticed on the society as a large number of people, especially in the capital Leh has to do directly or indirectly with the tourists.
The development of Leh town probably began with the reign of the famous King Sengge Namgyal who ruled in the 17th century and during whose reign the kingdom expanded to its fullest extent. His most visible contribution to the town was the nine-storeyed palaces, which still dominate it today. The area around the palace developed with the houses of several noblemen and residences and temples belonging to different monasteries dotted along the slopes of the hill. The city of Leh traditionally comprised of many ancient localities known as Skyangos Gogsum, Chhubi Yangrtse, Kharyok and Stagofilok. The present city has evolved from some of these ancient localities. Many of the houses and monasteries are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south, and are often constructed from a mixture of rocks, wood, cement and earth.
The architecture of the historic core uses the same indigenous materials that are used in other traditional buildings of this region. These are sun-dried mud bricks and stone, which have been used with great skill by the local masons to create buildings that have survived several centuries. The layout of the old town, with its narrow alleys and lanes surrounded by ancient adobe structures, gives a rare glimpse of the town's past. The central area of Ladakh has the greatest concentration of major Buddhist monasteries or gompas. Many of these monasteries were built in the past under the direct patronage of members of the ruling Namgyal dynasty. The monastic architectural tradition of this region reflects the underlying principles and approach of Buddhism. The monasteries are situated on the isolated hillock in the vicinity of villages. The monasteries are the focal point of religious faith for the highly religious Buddhist people. Monasteries are the places of worship, isolated meditation and religious instruction for the young. The approach to the monasteries is lined with mane walls and chortens. Mane walls are made of votive stones on which prayers and holy figures are inscribed, while chortens are semi-religious shrines or reliquaries containing relics of holy people or scripts. Today Leh is developing as a major urbanized city and is expanding towards Choglamsar along the Leh-Manali road and towards Phyang on the Leh-Srinagar National Highway.
Ceremonial and public events are accompanied by the characteristic music of 'Surna' and 'Daman' (Oboe and drum), originally introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan, but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as "Mons". The first year of childbirth is marked by celebrations at different intervals of time, Beginning with a function held after 15 days, then after one month, and then again at the end of year. All relatives, neighbors and friends are invited and served with 'Tsampa', butter and sugar, along with tea by the family in which the child is born.
Many of the annual festivals of the Gompas in Ladakh takes place in winter, which is a relatively idle time for majority of the people. It is time when the whole village gathers together. Stalls are erected and goods of daily need and enjoyment are sold. Eatables are brought along and families and relatives would enjoy the meals together. The whole activity takes place around the gompas. In the courtyards of the Gompas, colourful masked dances and dance-dramas are performed. Lamas, dressed in colourful robes and wearing startlingly frightful masks, perform mimes symbolizing various aspects of the religion such as the progress of the individual soul and its purification or the triumph of good over evil. Local people flock from near and far to these events and the spiritual benefits they get are no doubt heightened by their enjoyment of the party atmosphere. This is also an occasion to demonstrate the cultural heritage as well as the wealth of that particular monastery. Big and rare musical instruments, old weapons and religious objects including Thangkas are brought out during the performances. The first ceremony of any festival is very interesting as the male Lama is accompanied by the monks. Musicians, dancers and singers in a harmony create for visitors an unforgettable experience. Some of the popular themes include the victory of good over evil or some special stories related to great Lamas where their supernatural power is demonstrated or the stories related to Guru Padmasambhava. Their dances are also very colourful. A clown plays an important role so that an overdose of religion or history does not disinterest the villagers so that atmosphere is joyful. Spituk, Stok, Thikse, Chemrey and Matho have their festivals in winter, between November and March. There are some festivals, which are celebrated in warmer months. These are Lamayuru Festival (April or May), Phyang Festival, Thikse Festival (July or August).
The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The people of Ladakh are predominantly Buddhist and practice Mahayana Buddhism influenced with the old Bon animistic faith and Tantric Hinduism. Bon religion and Tantrism involved rituals to fulfill the wishes and so they were very popular before Mahayana Buddhism dominated.
'Arghon', is a community of Muslims in Leh who are the descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants. There are four main groups of people. The Mons who are of Aryan stock are usually professional entertainers, often musicians. The Dards are found along the Indus valley, many converted to Islam, though some remained Buddhist. Tibetans form the bulk of the population in Central and Eastern Ladakh, though they have assumed the Ladakhi identity over generations. The Baltis, who are thought to have originated in Central Asia, mostly live in the Kargil region. The Ladakhis are cheerful and live close to nature. The Ladakhis wore the goncha which is a loose woollen robe tied at the waist with a wide coloured band. Buddhists usually wear dark red while Muslims and nomadic tribes often use undyed material.
Hemis Festival in Ladakh: Hemis is the biggest and most famous of the monastic festivals, frequented by tourists and local alike. Hemis Festival is celebrated in the end of June or in early July and is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava. After every 12 years, the Gompa's greatest treasure, a huge thangka or a religious icon painted or embroidered on cloth is ritually exhibited.
Tak-Tok Festival in Ladakh: Tak-Tok festival is celebrated at cave Gompa of Tak-Tok in Ladakh. It is one of the major festivals of Ladakh. Tak-Tok festival is celebrated for about ten days after Phyang festival. This festival is celebrated in summer, and yet another tourist attraction. The festival is celebrated with fanfare and locals from far areas storm the place on the occasion.
Sindhu Darshan Festival in Ladakh: Sindhu Darshan Festival, as the name suggests, is a celebration of the Sindhu River. The people travel here for the Darshan and Puja of the River Sindhu (Indus), which originates from the Mansarovar in Tibet. The festival aims at projecting the Sindhu River as a symbol of multi-dimensional cultural identity, communal harmony and peaceful co-existence in India.