First Published on August 17, 2017
Forced to flee, they had to abandon Their highest royal abode in the hills. As time flew by, the Leh palace was forgotten And yet it stood tall - braving all of nature's drills
Most of us associate Ladakh with Buddhist monasteries, gushing streams, stunning landscapes and beautiful mountains. However, it has a 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 Royal Leh Palace is quite unusual – 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 Ladakh 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 of the meager signages and a little chatter with the guards around, there was plenty that I discerned. Frankly, I think it is this quest to discover the Royal 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 of the Leh Palace for you. So, without much ado, let’s get inside Leh Palace and discover one of the must-visit places in Ladakh.
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 the 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.
Officially called Lachen Palkar Palace (translates into Victory Palace of Leh), it served as the powerhouse for the Namgyal family for quite a few years before they were forced to evict it, following a war with the Dogra Force. The palace suffered some damage with cannonballs and other ammunition and was abandoned for the Stok Palace. The Namgyal palace was never occupied after that. It was this that earned it the sobriquet of the “Forgotten Palace” of Leh.
Sadly, the Royal Leh Palace is still 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, this Ladakh palace is devoid of all those ornate decors that one expects of Indian palaces What makes it unique is the manner of its construction. Located on Tesmo hills, which incidentally is the highest point of Leh, it has 9 distinct levels. Barring levels one and two, none of the other levels can be accessed without passing through the lower levels. In some ways, that gave the Royal Leh Palace added protection but at the same time, its location on the hill added to its vulnerability.
The Leh Palace architecture is distinctly Tibetan in its style. This is conspicuous with the presence of large wooden frames and pillars enhanced by the mighty dragon carvings at key entrances and windows.
The key materials used to make this Ladakh palace include 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 the Namgyal 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.
Entrance to the Royal Leh Palace
We drove to the main entrance of the Ladakh palace which essentially, leads you directly to level 3 of the palace. Walking along the stone path got me a glimpse of the other two levels, which I believe housed the stables and the storerooms of the palace. It was one of those undecided moments when I couldn’t decide 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 playing truant but well, I did not want to scare the others who were not used to the antics of Ladakhi Jones.
The grand entrance did not disappoint with its ferocious-looking lions 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.
Inside Leh Palace – 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 Namgyal Palace. Most of the rooms of this level served as the administrative offices in their heydays.
The Khatok Chenmo at Level Four of Leh Palace
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 signboard marked 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 in the Royal 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 prayer flags that was hung above that made the whole appearance so grandiose.
These lattice windows actually allowed the royal women to watch the festive proceedings in the Khatok Chenmo below without being seen by the rest of the world.
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 – the Temple of the Royals inside Leh Palace
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.
Level 5 – the Hall of Public Audience, now Leh Museum
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 that has now become the Leh Palace Museum. Originally, this was the Hall of Public Audience. The hall had this tall roof-like structure that 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 exhibits in this part of the Leh Palace museum are quite exotic. You will be able to spot Thangkas – the silk cloth paintings made using gem stone colors adorning its various walls and pillars. Some of these are older than 450 years.
The Level 6 of Leh Palace in Ladakh
Level 6 was all about open views and closed doors of the Royal 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 like a masterpiece while around it were poles of prayer flags fluttered around spreading good luck and warm vibes.
Panoramic view of Leh from Level 7 of Namgyal 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.
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 private chambers 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?
From here, you can get a good look at one of the key temples – the Namgyal Tsemo monastery that was contructed by the original owners of the Leh Palace. The monastery is still functional and if time had permitted, I would have loved a climb to the place.
End of my tour 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 join them. 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. 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?
What is the best way to reach Leh Palace in Ladakh?
Leh has its own airport with limited flights. You can fly into the town directly. Besides this, the best way and my recommended option is a road trip to Leh. There are two major routes to get to Leh – each one offering you splendid views.
Route One – Manali to Leh
Manali – Rohtang pass/ Atal tunnel – Keylong – Darcha – Sarchu – Pang – Karu – Leh
This requires a few stops and a slow approach as the altitude is a drastic change. You need to be aware of AMS and take it slow. The total distance to be covered is 425 km if you take the Atal tunnel. With Rohtang Pass, it tends to be slightly more.
Route Two – Srinagar to Leh
Srinagar – Sonamarg – Kargil – Lamayuru – Leh
The route is 420 km long and will take you through the lovely Zojila Pass and the quaint town of Kargil. It is a far better route as far as acclimatization goes and allows you to get a glimpse of Kashmir.
Take at least two overnight halts on either route. The roads are good but involve a lot of mountain driving, which is best done during the day.
Once in Leh, you can hire a local cab to get you to Leh Palace. You will be able to spot the same from the main Leh square.
What is the best time to visit Leh Palace?
In terms of season, Ladakh is best visited from May to September. Winters are extremely harsh here. The Leh Palace timings are from 7 am to 5 pm. It is open on all days.
What are the Leh Palace entry fees?
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
Where to stay in Leh?
There are hotels in Leh that cater to all kinds of budgets. You can opt for luxurious hotels like the Grand Dragon Ladakh or opt for the mid-priced ones like Hotel Galwan Palace. All these hotels are clustered around the main Leh square and can be booked online using the Booking resources section.
- 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.
- You could use Booking.com for booking your for hotels in Leh. You can use this link to book one for yourself.
- Klook.com has several local tours including one for Leh Palace available for booking online. You can even get your entry tickets online.
- For any of your travel needs or general shopping, consider using Amazon through this link.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
P.S: I visited the Leh Palace as a part of my trip to the Highest Blogger Meet, arranged by ScoutMyTrip & OYO Rooms
Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including BBC Travel, Lonely Planet India and Jetwings. I have recently published my first book – When Places Come Alive – a collection of stories that are based on legends, landscapes, art and culture of a place which is available in both ebook and paperback format.