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  • Writer's pictureOliver Raw

Saving Ladakh's Heritage Architecture

Published by Asahi, Japan, 2015

In north-western India lies the province of Ladakh - a sparsely populated, high-altitude desert - where poplar trees line the Indus River and ancient monasteries dot the barren landscape. In the capital Leh, with its medieval Old Town, you'll find old men spinning prayer wheels, and women sitting at looms on the flat rooftop of their dwellings, as if nothing had changed here for centuries. Yet things are changing. Ladakh is often called the “last Shangri-la” on account of its authentic Tibetan culture. Once a thriving trading center, Ladakh was visited by people from as far afield as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The impressive 17th-century Leh Palace attests to the wealth and importance of its former rulers. Nowadays Ladakh’s main trade is tourism and numerous hotels and lodges have sprung up in Leh, with names such as “Hotel Shambala” and, inevitably, “Hotel Shangri-la.” Ladakh is also one of India’s most heavily militarized areas, having borders with Pakistan to the west and China to the north. The pressures of modernization mean that much of the region’s historical architecture is under threat. With the degradation of Tibetan culture following Tibet's incorporation into the People's Republic of China, the preservation of Ladakh’s traditional buildings has become something of an international mission. A number of organizations are involved in the effort, including Swiss-based Achi Association, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the Archaeological Survey of India, and Tibet Heritage Fund (THF), a non-profit organization based in Germany. Yutaka Hirako leads THF’s Indian operations. I met Hirako and his team in October, just as the nights were getting cold and their operations were winding down for the season. A new structure – the Central Asian Museum – is nearing completion while several other projects are ongoing. These include mural conservation at a small country temple and housing restoration projects in the Old Town.

Originally from Saitama Prefecture, Hirako joined THF in 1998, and has worked on numerous projects throughout Tibet and northern India. In many ways Ladakh is familiar terrain. “The language takes some getting used to,” Hirako says, and he’s had to adapt his spoken Tibetan to communicate with his team. As with most traditional Tibetan architecture, Ladakhi homes are made from granite, wood and various mixtures of mud and clay. “We use only traditional materials,” Hirako says. “And where possible we try to use as much of the original timber as we can.” Materials are locally sourced and THF relies on traditional methods and craftsmanship, thereby rejuvenating ancient skills that might otherwise fall into disuse. “It is important to involve local people,” Hirako says. “It is their heritage. Plus they might offer up new approaches.” Restoration costs are shared with the building’s owners. Occasionally some compromise is required, as peoples’ needs have changed over the centuries. Ceilings may need to be raised, or the house owner might request installation of new drainage systems. “But we try to keep things as close to the original as we can,” says Hirako. With its flat-roofed homes, white-washed stupas and Himalayan backdrop, the Old Town might look like a long-lost Tibet. The worry is that without intervention it, too, will be lost.

Due to territorial disputes with India, China closed the border in the 1960s, and many of the former trading families, no longer bound to Leh, moved out of the Old Town. Nowadays, the occupancy rate for Old Town buildings is about 60 percent, Hirako says, and many buildings have fallen to disrepair. Meanwhile, the local government’s “Leh Beautification” project has already turned the city’s once tree-lined market street into a construction site. The government is now proposing a “slum development scheme” which could mean half of the Old Town will be rebuilt. How this scheme will be implemented is understandably a concern for Hirako, who fears many of the original structures – which are hundreds of years old – will be replaced with concrete ones. Yet cement is not simply the material of choice for developers; often the building’s occupants prefer it and seek to replace their traditional, mud homes with cement ones. “People think cement is modern and therefore better,” said Kunchok, a Ladakhi, who oversees INTACH’s local conservation projects. “We tell them mud is best. Mud is warm.” Working alongside other organizations, THF hosts symposiums promoting the benefits of heritage conservation (the financial benefits brought by tourism being the obvious one). Yet a lack of transparency can be testing for Hirako and his fellow conservationists and when I ask him about future projects in the Old Town he says that he is waiting to hear confirmation on the city council’s development plans. Hirako’s third season in Ladakh is coming to an end. He hopes to put up the beams and rafters on one of the museum buildings before returning to Hong Kong – his second base – for the winter. While he loves the mountains and enjoys working with his team, he is looking forward to getting back. “I miss seafood,” he says. Operations will begin again in the spring, when the quest to save Ladakh’s heritage continues.

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