Leh, located in Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir, is known for its stunning scenic locales, Buddhist temples and pristine environment. Because of the strong influence of Tibetan Buddhism, Leh is also known as Little Tibet or the Land of Lamas.
Barren mountains with brightly painted gompas (monasteries), fluttering prayer flags, rocky ridges, tiny settlements and the Indus River add to the overall charm of the region.
Once the capital of Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh; Leh is still dominated by the Leh Palace. The former palace of the royal family of Ladakh, Leh Palace is built in the same style as the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Buddhist monasteries and study centers like Shanti stupa and Sankar Gompa attract a lot of travellers.
Over the years, Leh has developed as a highly preferred destination for adventure sports. From high-altitude treks to river rafting in the Indus and Zanskar River, Leh promises to enthrall those looking for adrenalin rush.
Leh is also a major trading centre and offers a great shopping experience with impressive Tibetan handicrafts and jewellery, woolen clothes and exquisite carpets.
Leh comprises of New Town and Old Town. The Old Town has been included in World Monuments Fund's list of 100 most endangered sites. World Monuments Fund (WMF), an international, non-profit organization, is dedicated to preservation of historic architecture and cultural heritage sites around the world.
The present Leh district was part of Greater Ladakh extending from Kailash Mansarovar to Swaat (Dardistan).
Raja Skitde Nemagon, ruled over Ladakh which was known as Muryul (Red Country) because of the red tinge of the mountains and soil in Ladakh. In the 8th century, the ruler of Kashmir, Laltadita conquered Ladakh.
In the 10th Century AD, Skitday Nemagon, along with a couple of hundred men, invaded Ladakh. Ladakh didn’t have any central authority and it was divided into small princely states. Nemagon defeated all of them and established a strong central authority. Those days Shey, was the capital of Ladakh and was known as Nariskorsoom, a country of three provinces. The present Ladakh was divided into two provinces while the third comprised the western Tibet. The area of western Tibet slipped away from the kingdom but was reunited in 16th Century AD by the famous Ladakhi ruler Sengge Namgyal.
After the Partition, Pakistan and China illegally occupied 78,114 sq. km and 37,555 sq.km of the state, respectively while the remaining part of the state acceded to India. Pakistan also illegally gifted 5180 sq.kms of this area to China. Ladakh, comprising the areas of present Leh and Kargil districts, became one of the seven districts of the State. In 1979, the Ladakh district was reorganised and divided into two districts of Leh and Kargil.
- Leh is now synonymous with the movie 3 Idiots. The climax of Rajkumar Hirani’s blockbuster was shot at the Pangong Lake near Leh.
- Also, the Druk White Lotus School which also featured in the movie, was damaged in the August 2010 flash floods.
Culture and lifestyle are among the key factors that attract tourists to Leh. Leh’s culture closely mirrors the Tibetan culture because of the region's close proximity to Tibet.
Local delicacies like thukpa and tsampo are of Tibetan origin. The architecture of Leh is also influenced by the Tibetan style.
Tibetan Buddhist influences are also seen in local religious practices. Monastic rituals and Buddhist festivals attracts large crowds of locals and tourists alike. The gompas and monasteries are venues for religious feasts.
Tibetan handicraft items including prayer wheels, Buddhist masks and Thangka paintings can be purchased in Ladakh. Tibetan silver jewellery, chunky shell bangles and traditional Ladakhi jewellery with turquoise are also popular with tourists. Souvenirs like tea and chang vessels, cups, butter churns and knitted carpets can also be bought.
Handwoven rugs, carpets and shawls made of wool gathered from Ladakhi goats, and dyed with natural dyes are a rage among the tourists. The carpets have floral or geometric designs or dragon motifs on them and can also be hung as decorative wall hangings. You can also shop for Ladakhi traditional dresses, including the exquisite and expensive pirakh (women’s headdress) in addition to Kashmiri shawls.
Most shops are highly priced and a lot of bargaining is called for. The local Ladakhi traders ask for more reasonable prices. While shopping in open markets, bargaining is commonly practiced. In government-run crafts emporia and larger established stores, the prices are fixed.
The main shopping area is the Main Market. Other places worth checking out are the government emporiums in the main shopping area. Tibetan Refugee Market on Old Leh Road and Moti Market near the Leh bus stand are ideal places for shopping in Leh.
Where to stay
Accommodation options are easily available at Leh. There are a number of hotels in Ladakh to suit almost every pocket or preference. Most of the hotels in Ladakh are family-run establishments, offering personalized services. They mostly function during the peak season from July to mid-September. Budget lodging is available in three main areas: the old town, the newer areas along the Fort Road, and Changspa village. Accommodation options include guesthouses, tourist complexes, hikers’ huts and local paying guest facilities. There are also government run tourist bungalows mainly located along the Srinagar-Leh road.
Where to eat
Leh has a fair number of hotels serving all forms of cuisines. Indian delicacies and especially the Kashmiri dishes are popular in Leh. Tibetan as well as western cuisines are easily available. Tibetan dishes that include momos or steamed dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables, and thukpa, a thick soup with vegetables that provides a complete meal are a rage among tourists. Home-grown potatoes, pumpkins, and beans are cooked in a variety of different ways and accompany meat dishes. There are also several bakeries that sell fresh cakes, pastries, cookies and breads.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Leh for tour and trek is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Most of the trekking routes are closed after November due to heavy snowfall.