Leh was the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, now the Leh district in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Leh district, with an area of 45,110 km2, is the second largest district in the country, after Kutch, Gujarat (in terms of area). The town is dominated by the ruined Leh Palace, the former mansion of the royal family of Ladakh, built in the same style and about the same time as the Potala Palace-the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India, during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Leh is at an altitude of 3524 metres (11,562 ft), and connects via National Highway 1D to Srinagar in the southwest and to Manali in the south via the Leh-Manali Highway. In 2010, Leh was sorely damaged by the sudden floods caused by a cloud burst
Leh was an important stopover on trade routes along the Indus Valley between Tibet to the east, Kashmir to the west and also between India and China for centuries. The main goods carried were salt, grain, pashm or cashmere wool, charas or cannabis resin from the Tarim Basin, indigo, silk yarn and Banaras brocade.
Although there are a few indications that the Chinese knew of a trade route through Ladakh to India as early as the Kushan period (1st to 3rd centuries CE), and certainly by Tang dynasty, little is actually known of the history of the region before the formation of the kingdom towards the end of the 10th century by the Tibetan prince, Skyid lde nyima gon (or Nyima gon), a grandson of the anti-Buddhist Tibetan king, Langdarma (r. c. 838 to 841). He conquered Western Tibet although his army originally numbered only 300 men. Several towns and castles are said to have been founded by Nyima gon and he apparently ordered the construction of the main sculptures at Shey. “In an inscription he says he had them made for the religious benefit of the Tsanpo (the dynastical name of his father and ancestors), and of all the people of Ngaris (Western Tibet). This shows that already in this generation Langdarma’s opposition to Buddhism had disappeared.” Shey, just 15 km east of modern Leh, was the ancient seat of the Ladakhi kings.
During the reign of Delegs Namgyal (1660–1685),the Nawab of Kashmir, which was then a province in the Mughal Empire, arranged for the Mongol army to (temporarily) leave Ladakh (though it returned later). As payment for assisting Delegs Namgyal in the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war of 1679–1684, the Nawab made a number of onerous demands. One of the least was to build a large Sunni Muslim mosque in Leh at the upper end of the bazaar in Leh, below the Leh Palace. The mosque reflects a mixture of Islamic and Tibetan architecture and can accommodate more than 500 people. This was apparently not the first mosque in Leh; there are two smaller ones which are said to be older
Unlike other districts of the State, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) is in charge of governance in Leh. The ‘Deputy Commissioner, Leh’ also holds the power of ‘Chief Executive Officern LAHDC’. The Current Deputy Commissioner of Leh (app. Sep 2015) is Shri Prasanna Ramaswamy G, IAS.
LAHDC was constituted in 1995. The conception of the council was conceived so as to provide a transparent development in the area. It has 30 councillors, 4 nominated and 26 elected. The Chief Executive Councillor heads and chairs this council.
The old town of Leh was added to the World Monuments Fund’s list of 100 most endangered sites due to increased rainfall from climate change and other reasons. Neglect and changing settlement patterns within the old town have threatened the long-term preservation of this unique site.
The rapid and poorly planned urbanisation of Leh has increased the risk of flash floods in some areas, while other areas, according to research by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, suffer from the less dramatic, gradual effects of ‘invisible disasters’, which often go unreported.
Mountains dominate the landscape around the Leh as it is at an altitude of 3,500m. The principal access roads include the 434 km Srinagar-Leh highway which connects Leh with Srinagar and the 473 km Leh-Manali Highway which connects Manali with Leh. Both roads are open only on a seasonal basis. Although the access roads from Srinagar and Manali are often blocked by snow in winter, the local roads in the Indus Valley usually remain open due to the low level of precipitation and snowfall.
Leh has a cold desert climate (Köppen climate classification BWk) with long, harsh winters from October to early March, with minimum temperatures well below freezing for most of the winter. The city gets occasional snowfall during winter. The weather in the remaining months is generally fine and warm during the day. Average annual rainfall is only 102 mm (4.02 inches). The temperature can range from −42 °C (-43.6 °F) in winter to 33 °C (91.4 °F) in summer. In 2010 the city experienced flash floods which killed more than 100 people
Leh is located at an average elevation of about 3500 metres, which means that only one crop a year can be grown there, while two can be grown at Khalatse. By the time crops are being sown at Leh in late May, they are already half-grown at Khalatse. The main crop is grim (naked barley – Hordeum vulgare L. var. nudum Hook. f., which is an ancient form of domesticated barley with an easier to remove hull) – from which tsampa, the staple food in Ladakh, is made. The water for agriculture of Ladakh comes from the Indus, which runs low in March and April when barley-fields have the greatest need for irrigation.
Leh is connected to the rest of India by two high-altitude roads both of which are subject to landslides and neither of which are passable in winter when covered by deep snows. The National Highway 1D from Srinagar via Kargil is generally open longer. The Leh-Manali Highway can be troublesome due to very high passes and plateaus, and the lower but landslide-prone Rohtang Pass near Manali.
The overland approach to Ladakh from the Kashmir valley via the 434-km. Srinagar-Leh road typically remains open for traffic from June to October/November. The most dramatic part of this road journey is the ascent up the 3,505 m (11,500 ft.) high Zoji-la, a tortuous pass in the Great Himalayan Wall. The Jammu & Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC) operates regular Deluxe and Ordinary bus services between Srinagar and Leh on this route with an overnight halt at Kargil. Taxis (cars and jeeps) are also available at Srinagar for the journey.
Since 1989, the 473-km Manali-Leh road has been serving as the second land approach to Ladakh. Open for traffic from June to late October, this high road traverses the upland desert plateaux of Rupsho whose altitude ranges from 3,660 m to 4,570 m. There are a number of high passes en route among which the highest one, known as Tanglang La, is sometimes (but incorrectly) claimed to be the world’s second highest motorable pass at an altitude of 5,325 m. (17,469 feet). See the article on Khardung La for a discussion of the world’s highest motorable passes.
Leh’s Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport has flights to Delhi at least daily on Jet Airways and/or Indian Airlines and/or Air India which also provides twice weekly services to Jammu and a weekly flight to Srinagar. Connect in Delhi for other destinations. Go Air operates Delhi to Leh daily flights during peak time.
There are no railways currently in Ladakh, however a railway is proposed. See Bilaspur-Mandi-Leh Railway for more information.