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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
The Level 6 of 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.