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Project Profile


2006 Honourable Mention

Leh Old Town

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Project Title: Leh Old Town

LocationStagopilog Street, Leh, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India

Size515 square metres (floor area)

CostUS$ 39,237

Responsible PartyAndré Alexander, Dislkit Dolkar, Namgyal Sheyshan, Dawa Lonpo, Rigzin Spalbar, Dorjee Lakrook, Konchok Raftsan,John Niewoehner and Jamyang Tarchin

Heritage ArchitectAndré Alexander and John Niewoehner

ContractorLocal artisans led by Jamyang Tarchin and Tsering Dorje

Date of CompletionSeptember 2005

Project Synopsis

Leh is the capital of Ladakh, an ancient kingdom with a cultural heritage that melds indigenous traditions with those inherited from Tibet and the ancient Buddhist regions of present-day Kashmir and Central Asia. The old town, with its 200 stone, mud and timber houses, which lies at the foot of the nine-storey former palace, is considered one of the most intact historic Tibeto-Himalayan urban settlements in the world.

In the decades prior to the restoration project, the old town had fallen into a dilapidated state and had been affected by environmental problems and rapid social changes. Inadequate drainage had led to deterioration of the predominantly mud brick building fabric and to regular inundation of the streets with waste water. A lack of modern facilities in the old town, such as paved roads, garbage collection and water supply, exacerbated demographic changes, with the population moving away from the old town to the newer sections of Leh. This trend contributed to the neglect of the old town, and endangered the continuation of the local community’s culture and livelihoods. 

The project rehabilitated a section of the Stagopilog neighbourhood as a Conservation Model Area. The rehabilitated structures include the Guru Lhakhang, a 400-year-old privately-operated Buddhist shrine, and the Sofi house, a late-nineteenth century house built in a blend of Tibetan and Kashmiri styles by a Kashmiri trading family. A major part of the rehabilitation project centred on the street itself, with repaving and drain construction designed to alleviate water damage to the mud brick dwellings. 

The project primarily used local materials and building techniques rooted in local tradition or based on experience from previous restoration projects conducted in the Tibetan architectural context, with the intention of bringing such techniques back into general use within the community. This involved training and employing local personnel where possible. The intention was that the project could be used by communities and heritage non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to demonstrate the feasibility of rehabilitating other areas of the town using traditional skills and community participation.

Highlights of the Conservation Approach

The conservation process began with a survey of the socio-economic situation of the residents, as well as an evaluation of the technical conservation requirements for the built heritage. The findings of the social survey indicated that there was a need for intervention to improve people’s livelihoods and living conditions. This suggested an approach that would need to go beyond technical conservation. 

Technically, the most challenging aspect of the project was building the drainage system into sheer rock in a town which has nearly six months of sub-zero temperatures each year. Local residents prepared the site by hauling away soil, organizing themselves in such a way that every family in the community sent one member. The covered drainage system that resulted was up to 70 centimetres deep in places and incorporated litter-traps and removable covers for cleaning and maintenance. This work was combined with paving the street in local slate, rather than the concrete favoured by recent municipal projects. During the excavation, a huge rock fitting the description of a legendary rock that was supposedly discarded during the construction of the palace of King Senge Namgyal was found; it was subsequently incorporated as a seat in the newly-paved street.

In restoring the buildings, traditional construction techniques were espoused for their proven technical performance, reliability and safety in this earthquake-prone region.  After being replaced in recent years by the advent of subsidized cement and steel, the local materials and techniques used for demonstration in the project included: sun-dried mud bricks arrayed around a timber structural frame, stone foundations and local clays and soils used to create waterproof roof layers and dust-free plastered interiors. 

When necessary, modern materials were removed and replaced. For example, in the Guru Lhakang, the floor on which the worshippers sit during religious ceremonies had been covered in concrete during an intervention in the 1970s. This was considered unsuitable for the cold climate of Leh, and was removed and replaced with a tamped mud floor. 

An important part of the restoration of the Jampa Lhakhang and Guru Lhakhang involved the conservation and restoration of painted murals, which are considered of significant heritage value. The first ever training of Ladakhi painting restorers was held as part of the project, following which two local trainees assisted the trainer in cleaning two areas of water stained wall paintings in Guru Lhakhang.

Conservation and the Community

The transmission of traditional construction know-how and craftsmanship was recognized as an opportunity for local community involvement and employment in the project. Traditional skills and knowledge were revived by being taught and refined in formal workshops as an integral part of the project. The learning of such skills enabled many of the local artisans and labourers to gain employment elsewhere after the project. For example, a local women trained in mud plastering during the project is now considered a local expert, and went on to work on the restoration of two Buddhist monasteries in Leh.

The project also sought to encourage a revitalization of local cultural identity in the face of the mass tourism that had come to the region. This was prompted by fears that Leh could be subject to the unsustainable pressures that threaten other heritage districts in the Himalayan region and, in particular, experience the disintegration of traditional society caused by huge disparities in income.  It was intended that the rehabilitation of part of Leh, using local skills and performed by local community members, would help unite and strengthen the community.

Quote from the Project Team

“To save this unique ensemble is of importance for the entire region. It could become the first adequately rehabilitated and conserved urban settlement on the Himalayan plateau.”