Deciphering the royal residence at Leh Palace, Ladakh

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Jammu & Kashmir | 102

Most of us associate Ladakh with Buddhist monasteries, gushing streams, stunning landscapes and beautiful mountains. However, it has its fair bit of history with its royal kings and palaces – some bit of which I discovered in Leh. On the day kept aside for us to rest and acclimatize ourselves for the highest bloggers meet at Khardung La, I donned my Indiana Jones hat once again and this time became Ladakhi Jones. My itchy feet could not stay put and along with a few others who had a similar itch, we visited the ancient center of royalty in Leh – the Leh Palace.

Leh Palace
Leh Palace

The Leh Palace is an unusual palace – very different in its style, construction and extremely modest. It has none of that grandeur that I have seen in the Palaces of India and yet, it stands out elegantly owing to its simplicity. The palace is now in ruins and is devoid of signages and guides. It was a little difficult for Ladakhi Jones a.k.a yours truly, to decipher this palace but with the help the meager signages and a little chatter with the guards around, there was some that I learned. Frankly, I think it is this quest to discover the Leh palace on my own that made this place even more interesting for me.I do believe that I have learnt enough to make a perfect virtual tour for you. So, without much ado, let’s plunge in to discover one of the must-visit places in Leh – the Leh Palace.

History of the Leh Palace

Inside the Leh Palace
Inside the Leh Palace

The people responsible for the Leh Palace belong to the Namgyal Dynasty, who were perpetually at war with the Kashmiri Rulers. The palace was modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet and the founder of the Namgyal dynasty – Tsewang Namgyal was the one who started it in 1550s. However, it was finished by his nephew – Senge Namgyal, who is popularly known as the Lion King. The palace took quite a few years for it was stated completed only in the 17th century. The royal family stayed here for quite sometime before they were forced to evict it, following a war with the Dogra Force. The palace suffered some damage with cannon balls and other ammunition and was abandoned for the Stok Palace. Sadly, it still is in ruins but with the little maintenance that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is doing, it just about allows you to glimpse at what life was back then.

The Architecture of Leh Palace

The multi-levels of the Leh Palace explained
The multi-levels of the Leh Palace explained

I repeat what I said earlier, the Leh palace is devoid of all those ornate decors that one expects of Indian Indian palaces However, it is unusual for the way it has been constructed. For one, it is constructed on a hill in distinct levels. Barring level one and two, none of the other levels can be accessed without passing through the lower levels. In some ways, that is added protection but in others, being on the hill, gave it a certain vulnerability.

Layers of mud, stone and sand used in the Leh Palace
Layers of mud, stone and sand used in the Leh Palace

The palace is made of mud, wood, stones and sand. What amazed me is the artistic manner in which these materials are used – almost as if they were to give a nice texture and look to the palace. The mud plaster here has been given the name Mur-Kalak and the reason these materials were used was purely owing to the climate. Wood being an insulator, kept the interiors cool and protected from the harsh sun and also, warm during the winters.

Within the Leh Palace
Within the Leh Palace

The one thought that I had when I was walking through this palace was how did they manage light here? Candles would definitely have been dangerous. If you are looking for an answer – well, I don’t have one. But if you have an answer, I sure would love to know.

The entrance to the Leh Palace

Level One and Two seen from the entrance of the Leh Palace
Level One and Two seen from the entrance of the Leh Palace

We drove to the main entrance of the palace which essentially, leads you directly to level 3 of the palace. While walking along the stone steps, I caught a glimpse of the other two levels, which I believe housed the stables and the store rooms of the palace. Quite undecided on whether I should quickly go down or head to the grand entrance that was right ahead. The decision was made by the rest of the group who trudged ahead to the grand entrance. For a moment, I considered doing a truant but well, I did not want to scare the others who were not used to Ladakhi Jones.

The grand entrance of the Leh Palace
The grand entrance of the Leh Palace
The grand entrance of the Leh Palace
The grand entrance of the Leh Palace

The grand entrance did not disappoint with its ferocious looking lions which are carved right above the entrance. The ornate doors and windows further enhanced the grandeur with its wood carvings and the colorful decor around it, made the whole appearance so vibrant.

The dark corridors of Level Three

Small rooms in Leh Palace that are converted to exhibition halls
Small rooms in Leh Palace that are converted to exhibition halls

A step through the main entrance made me realize the sharp contrast that existed within. What seemed bright and vibrant outside suddenly became dark and dank in the corridors. Small doors on either side led to smaller rooms or a few staircases leading to the entrance of level four. Some of the rooms on this level were converted to exhibition halls for ASI while the others were left abandoned for people like to poke around in.

One of the rooms on Level Three of Leh Palace
One of the rooms on Level Three of Leh Palace

The doorways were quite low even a Lilliput like me had to mind her head. The one thing that I noticed in all the rooms – even the abandoned ones were the lovely windows that gave you the view of Leh town around the Leh Palace.

The Khatok Chenmo at Level Four

A bright light along a short staircase led us to this huge open courtyard called the Khatok Chenmo. On one side, I found myself awed by the lovely view of Leh while on the other side were lovely windows and balconies – giving you a glimpse of the higher levels of the palace.

Higher levels seen from Khatok Chenmo or the Royal courtyard of Leh Palace
Higher levels seen from Khatok Chenmo or the Royal courtyard of Leh Palace

A small sign board announced this to be Khatok Chenmo. I had no clue what it meant and I did not know who to ask. It was only on my way out that I met this friendly guard who explained that this referred to the key courtyard where all the important religious ceremonies were performed by the royal family.

Of contrasting balconies and windows

The Beautiful windows of the Leh Palace
The Beautiful windows of the Leh Palace

It was fun discovering these magnificent balconies and windows, which seemed to have been restored by the ASI. While the rest of the palace appeared dull, the entire look was enhanced by these lovely pieces. They were simple enough with geometrical grooves but it is their contrast of colors and the colored flag-line that was hung above that made the whole appearance so grandiose.

Through the grooves of the Leh Palace windows
Through the grooves of the Leh Palace windows
View from the balconies of Leh Palace
View from the balconies of Leh Palace

Adding to the spectacular look, was the view that you got from these. It felt as if you were looking at a painting.For me, these pieces are a perfect example of how sometimes simplicity is the best form of beauty.

Duk-kar Lhakhang or the Temple of the Royals

Duk-kar Lhakhang or the Temple of the Royals
Duk-kar Lhakhang or the Temple of the Royals

While on one side you had the courtyard for religious ceremonies, on the other side of the same level was a narrow entrance that lead to an active temple – the Duk-kar Lhakhang. This used to be the temple for the royal family and even now, is used for religious festivals. You can visit inside but photography is not permitted within. Respecting that I did keep aside my camera to feast my eyes on the gorgeous interiors -bright, vibrant, mostly in red and with a very contrasting calm atmosphere. Religious poles held some prayer flags and it just seemed befitting for royalty.

Hall of Public Audience at Level 5

Treasures found in the corridors of Leh Palace
Treasures found in the corridors of Leh Palace

Climbing up the rest of the levels made me really feel like Indiana Jones. Oops, sorry – Ladakhi Jones. Those mysterious corridors that zig zagged around to open to smaller alcoves and passages and along the way, I found my various treasures. Finally, I landed in this huge room. Now an exhibition for ASI, this was the Hall of Public Audience. The hall had this tall roof like structure which let in some natural light through its holes.

Hall of Public Audience in Leh Palace
Hall of Public Audience in Leh Palace
Hall of Public Audience in Leh Palace
Hall of Public Audience in Leh Palace

On where the throne was kept, I have no idea but the one thing that was obvious to me was that this must have been one amazing room in this entire Leh palace. All around on the walls, were gorgeous murals – a lot of them fading with time. My guard guide said that these were over 450 – 500 years old. Imagine how ornate they would have been in those glory days.

450 year old Murals along the walls of Leh Palace
450 year old Murals along the walls of Leh Palace

The Level 6 of Leh Palace

Level Six of the Leh Palace
Level Six of the Leh Palace

Level 6 was all about open views and closed doors of the Leh Palace. Right in the center of the main courtyard here, was the roof like structure that let in light for the Level 5 Hall of Public Audience. It stood there as a master piece while around it were poles of prayer flags kept for good luck.

Panoramic view of Leh from Level 7

Level Seven of the Leh Palace
Level Seven of the Leh Palace

This just felt like a nice open courtyard for you could only see closed doors and beyond those a 360 view of Leh city. Apparently, this courtyard was also, used for coronation ceremonies as well as other important family functions. The rooms here were used by the royalty but now, none of these are accessible. It is from here that I got a glimpse of the beautiful Shanti Stupa.

Shanti Stupa as seen from Leh Palace
Shanti Stupa as seen from Leh Palace

The views from Level 7 were quite contrasting – while on one side was the sandy, dusty Leh city and on the other side the lush green side of it. It was as if the Leh palace was designed to be the center-point of this contrast.

The dusty part of the Leh City as seen from Level Seven of Leh Palace
The dusty part of the Leh City as seen from Level Seven of Leh Palace
The green part of Leh - the contrasting view from Level Seven
The green part of Leh – the contrasting view from Level Seven
Level 8 and 9 of Leh Palace
Level 8 and 9 of Leh Palace

From Level 7, you can only glimpse up to Level 8 and 9. These two levels of the Leh Palace are out of bounds and essentially, were the rooms of the royal family. The guard told me that Level 9 had another temple dedicated to the family deity but well, I would never know – would I?

Rushing out of the Leh Palace

 Namgyal Tsemo monastery at the far end of Leh Palace
Namgyal Tsemo monastery at the far end of Leh Palace

With a last glimpse at the Namgyal Tsemo monastery at the far end of Leh Palace, I realized that I was the only one around while the rest of my troop had returned to base. Thanking my guard guide, I rushed back down just in time to get my first warning call from the ScoutMyTrip Team. They thankfully did not have to wait much as I rushed out of the main entrance back to the parking. Samarth looked a little relieved to see me – I think his grumbling tummy was already egging him to leave me behind.  I had to forgo the urge to explore Level one and two of the Leh Palace but ah well, what I had done so far, was stimulating enough for me.

Leh Palace

There have been plenty of ornate and majestic palaces of India that I have seen, but this one though very simple, will hold a place in my heart. It was unusual from the perspective of its construction and more so, I think I enjoyed it coz I had to decipher it for myself. Ladakhi Jones always likes a challenge and Leh Palace proved to be one puzzling one for her. Would you also. want to try and decipher it for yourself? Or if you have already, just message in and let’s compare some notes, shall we?

Getting here:

  • You can either fly into Leh directly and visit the Leh Palace, which is right in the center of the town.
  • Alternately I would recommend a road trip from Delhi as I have done with ScoutMyTrip for it allows you to see the amazing sights along the way.
  • To get to Leh Palace, you can hire a local cab with the help of the hotel that you stay in.

Travel tips

  • Leh Palace is open from Sunrise to Sunset. The entrance fee for the same is INR 15 for an Indian and INR 100 for a foreign national. In addition, the camera charges are INR 25 per camera.
  • The Leh Palace is quite dusty and dark. Be prepared for a rustic journey.
  • Do not enter the smaller rooms if you are claustrophobic. Also, remember to watch your step when you choose to enter as the ceilings are low and the steps steep.
  • Flat shoes are highly recommended.
  • Be careful when leaning over the rails as the place is in disrepair.
  • There is plenty of climbing to be done within the palace. A lot of those banisters do not even exist. Hence, be prepared for the same
  • Stay well hydrated as this is at a higher altitude. Remember that you are still getting acclimatized and water anyway, helps you avoid AMS.
  • There are no guides to this palace. Hence, be prepared to explore it by yourself.

P.S: I visited the Leh Palace as a part of my trip to the Highest Blogger Meet, arranged by ScoutMyTrip & OYO Rooms



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102 Responses

  1. I would be happy to take that rusty journey through the palace. It amazes me how much thought the designer would have applied to afford it that level of protection – simply brilliant!

    • Thank you Alok. I would do it all over again if I had to …simple and elegant and brilliant.

  2. raginipuri

    Enjoyed reading the post, Ami. My first thought on entering the Leh Palace was – this is in stark contrast to the opulent palaces of Rajasthan! Though of course this stark building too has its own unique charm and one can only imagine the hardships that would have gone into constructing this structure in such a harsh terrain. About lighting inside the palace, I guess the unique architecture allows natural light to come in, and at the same time keeps the temperature inside from fluctuating.

    Just wish that the people behind the palace’s upkeep employ more staff for the maintenance of the huge complex. And may be put together some informative boards or brochures too.

    • Thank you Ragini. I do agree that a little more information and care is required here for people to enjoy the place better. It is a beautiful gem and I would hate to see it in shambles.

  3. Lovely write up! Again the attention to detail is just fantastic! Kudos !

    • Deepak – I know you missed this one but well, glad you enjoyed the post. Hopefully, it made up for what you could not see in person.

  4. Tales of travelling sisters

    Compared to the monasteries of Leh, the palace is quite different and unique in its architecture and colors! The mural would have been a spectacular one, hope more attention is preserving such art inside the palace. Loved reading Ladakhi Jones adventure inside this palace 😉

  5. Am mesmerized…speechless.

  6. You never fail to showcase the beauty of India! I love the part where you showed different perspectives of the palace, and my favorite part was the view from the window. How I wish I could wake up to such view every day!

    • Thank you so much. There is so much more to India than just what seems to be the most popular and I am glad and even proud to share those. Glad you are enjoying it too. And yes, those views are just so amazing!

  7. fantastic post and just wonderful photo’s 🙂 ladakh looks like a dream, must visit one day! thanks for an excellent read 😀

    • Thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed the read. Ladakh is just so much more than what you see here. You must visit.

  8. Royal Leh Palace is such an amazing place to visit. Such an enthralling view!

  9. Khursheed dinshaw

    Wow Ladakhi Jones have learnt so much about the palace reading your post. Well done.

  10. Awesome trip. Something that every biker needs to tick of…

  11. its really nice that the temple used by the royal family is still used today for religious ceremonies. I can’t help but wonder why the place is not more advertised in South Africa!

    • Ladakh is one offbeat destination in India and hence, not surprised that you have not heard of it in South Africa. But then, now you know…so plan a trip soon. 🙂

  12. This certainly is an unusual palace – and one I’d never heard of until finding this post. Thanks for enlightening me!

  13. Fiona Mai

    I love the view from this Leh Palace – so beautiful! It indeed looks quite unusual from the outside, but the interior still has that kind of spiritual atmosphere. I definitely need to visit this place!

    • I am sure you will enjoy it in person Fiona. It is a unique place. Thanks for stopping by.

  14. I’d love to go on the journey adventure through the palace, it’ll be great! It looks so interesting and beautiful. Would love to explore more inside!

  15. It does look a bit simple, I mean given the fact that it’s the former royal palace. But you’re so right, judging by your photos – it has that certain elegance. Just lovely! 🙂 How interesting that it was built after the Tibet Palace.

    • Because it is simple. it is unique and unusual but no less interesting. Thanks for stopping by.

  16. Leh Palace looks like an interesting place to visit. All those levels made me sound tired, so your tip of keeping hydrated would be important! The views of the land from the balcony are incredible; that alone makes me want to visit.

    • The views are no doubt amazing and the levels are not too difficult to climb as long as you take it easy and not rush. It is a lovely place to visit. Thanks for stopping by Lisa.

  17. What a lovely write up!

  18. What a lovely place. The Leh Place itself is worth sightseeing the whole day. History plus amazing architectural designs equals a fun filled day. Nice post btw, I was reading and imagining life in Leh Palace, Ladakh

  19. I love how important the number seven is to so many cultures. It makes it seem like a ritual to ascend higher and higher up into the palace until you reach the top. Love the history and details too. So much to learn.

    • Thanks Jenn. Not sure about the 7 part though. This one had nine levels and it seems befitting given that it was built on a mountain.

  20. Nicole Anderson

    What a fabulous experience this would have been. I really enjoyed reading ‘Ladakhi Jones’ post and I just loved the photos you took. The contrast you pointed out of the area being brown one side and green on the other is really very stark. It was such an interesting palace and it is such a shame it has not been maintained but at least people can visit and learn something about such a fascinating past.

    • Ladakhi Jones thanks you Nicole ;-). This place was such an illuminating find and yes, I am also, sorry that it is not better maintained. Hoping that with the increase in the tourists, something better is done here.

  21. Although the palace looks simple but it’s built in an ingenious way. And the views from the seventh level, extending far and wide, are breathtaking. Just like the landscape of Ladakh, this palace is also very different and unique

    • Indeed. And I am sure given that you have been to Rajasthan, you would know how simple it is. Thanks for stopping by Neha.

  22. Wow, Leh Palace is really this stunning. I love the fact that Ladakh doesn’t just own a world famous white beach, but it also has this kind of Palace. The view from above is really breathtaking and I wouldn’t mind ambling around for 5 hours if I experience a beautiful view inside. I love how it was built and the location as well. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  23. Wow, Leh Palace is impressive and ornate, especially considering the simple building materials. Good point on the light too, as it must have been unbelievably dark and lots of candles and wood to not go together! The landscape in the region too is beautiful, and I love the oasis of green on the one side of the palace.

    • It was a lovely palace of contrasts. I enjoyed discovering that. Thanks for stopping by Drew.

  24. Simple yet Grand! Yes so different from palaces of India.
    May be it is an earth quake friendly structure hence the construction is like that with lot of wooden fixtures. Good to see something different.

  25. Seeing those different levels Ami is so intriguing. I figure a few places may be built a little like this in mountain regions because as the slope increases, if you want increased stability and safety, slowly elevating each story by planting it firmly in the ground creates a stronger foundation. Really cool way to do it that I have never seen here in the US, at least in person.

    • Yes, I think a lot of is to do with the hills but it’s ingenious. I loved it myself. Thanks for stopping by Ryan,

  26. What a great post!! You included so much information about this palace, and went into depth explaining the history behind it. The views look so stunning.I love visiting palaces in different countries because each one is so unique. Beautiful pictures!

    • Thank you Kerry. That was the only way I could do justice to this palace. Glad you liked reading it.

  27. Wow this is a fabulous place. The surrounding landscape is so vast and gorgeous. And the multi-level palace is so packed with historical drama and intrigue. Thanks for introducing the Leh Palace. It is on our India Bucket list.

  28. A nice different perspective to India from the usual majestic and grandeur palaces. You are right to say, that it is often the simple, minimal beauties that leave a lasting impression. Such beautiful views from all the different levels of the Leh Palace. Thank you for taking us along your journey.

  29. Abigail Sinsona

    India is truly a haven for architectural buffs! This palace is no exception. I am in awe by the level of detail and intricacy with the architectural work!

  30. Looks awesome! The architecture is much appreciated. Love your pictures as well. Place looks like it is off a movie or something. Thanks for sharing!

  31. Wow the Leh Palace is beautiful. We love it how India has so many gems we don’t know about as when we visit we go to the usual touristy places for foreigners! Great photos, very inviting to go check it out!

  32. History is a big part of our civilization and these structures are a big part of this history. The details and the complexity in design was truly significant in Leh Palace. I’d take this rustic journey someday too!

  33. Indeed an architectural marvel… best amalgam of simplicity and regality!

  34. The Leh Palace looks great! Simple yet such a grand place. The views from the palace are equally as astonishing! <3

  35. I am sharing your article on twitter and asking the Minister of Culture to step in and take care of these murals

  36. What a detailed beautiful post Ami. Your post reminded me of my own tour to the leh palace. I personally loved it and there is something special about it. Your pictures are beautiful.

    • Thank you Suruchi and since you have been there, you can well imagine these corners. They are lovely!

  37. They have done quite a nice job maintaining this palace! Thank you for sharing the history of this place! The view from the balconies is really nice. I bet it is even prettier at sunrise and sunset!

    • I bet it must be lovely at both these times. Maybe the next time I will attempt catching it at either sunrise or sunset. Thanks for stopping by Cat.

  38. What a lot of history the palace has! I always love learning the stories behind places. When I’m updating my old blog posts I have to redo the research and then regret not having done it all before I left in the first place.

    • The history of a place does make it so much more interesting. I try and dig it out wherever possible. Thanks for stopping by to read this one. Cheers Rhonda

  39. Can totally see why your itchy feet couldn’t stay still haha. The views are really stunning. Interesting though that they charge for cameras – is that normal? I’ve never been to India before.

    • Most places charge for the cameras. But they are kind of affordable. There is no way that my itchy feet were going to stop. This place had too much to see. Thanks for the read Christina.

  40. My perception of leg Ladakh ha s always been covered in snow. But you have shown a different and beautiful perspective towards Leh Ladak. Really want to add this to my bucket list after reading your post. Very nice

    • Thank you Shweta. There is so much more to Ladakh than this and the snow mountains. The whole landscape is unbelievable. Check out my other posts on Ladakh and you will know why I say so.

  41. PackYourBaguios

    What an interesting palace. I love the contrast in views from one side to the other– from dusty city to lush greenery. You captured great details!

  42. Good sleuthing you managed to do! I can see how “discovering” this palace on your own must have added to the mystique. Though the palace was missing the usual decorations, it looks like your observation may correct in that they have used the building material to give it the texture and natural beauty. By the way, maybe they were just really careful with using candles? haha!

    • Thanks a ton. This Ladakhi Jones has a blast poking around the palace. And maybe they were careful but one can never be too careful abt candles can they? 😉 Thanks for stopping by

  43. I like that this palace is simple, because I think after jumping between so many palaces that are ornate, after a while you’re numb to the decorative appeal. But this is beauty in simplicity, almost like the palace that people forgot! I love the contrasting views from level 7, and the balconies with yellow terraced window shutters are quite stunning too 🙂

  44. Wow. What a great post! The contrast between the views on either side from level 7 are incredible. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  45. Sandy N Vyjay

    The Ladakh royal palace looks spartan as compared to say the palaces of Rajasthan or the Palace of Mysore, but it is no less fascinating. Its simplicity exudes a certain elegance and charm which is so alluring. I particularly like the design of the windows and balconies, there is a beautiful symmetry here.

  46. I visited the palace in 2012 but back then I was very careless. I never gave attention to the details. Now, you piqued my interest in the palace again and I want to go back and explore it the Indiana Jones way. I remember getting my head bumped twice in Leh Palace. My cousin made fun of it and I cried. Lol

  47. Lovely write up and pictures Ami. Though the palaces and monasteries in Ladakh look very basic compared to the royal palaces from other places in India, I somehow am more inclined towards liking the former because of the efforts the builders had to put in to build such monuments at such high altitudes. While even moving a single stone could be a Herculean task in Ladakh, there is no wonder the rulers took ages to build such structures. And to add to all of it, i love how artistically they have used all the locally available materials to build the palace.

    • Cannot agree more Sindhu. It is very fascinating to explore these. Glad you could too. Cheers

  48. Amazing! For a moment, I thought it was a setting that depicts the fortress in the old movie Conan the Barbarian. The brickstone structure is simple but definitely sturdy. The latice-work of the windows is similar to the windows of old Spanish houses.

  49. I plan to come back to India for the third time mainly because of Ladakh. Your post made me wanting to do that real sooon

  50. Love that you became Ladakhi Jones! You have such a fun funny personality that shines through your writing! Also not sure how they had light inside I imagine candles too?

  51. Thanks a lot for this virtual tour! This is a place where I’d like to go unfortunately I can’t schedule it for the moment… But your post is really useful to deal with the wait. The place and the landscapes all around it look amazing!

Would love to know what you think