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Project Profile


2006 Honourable Mention

Leh Old Town

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Technical Brief

Architectural and Social Surveys

In 2003 and 2004, the Tibetan Heritage Fund (THF) conducted an extensive survey in the old part of Leh to lay the groundwork for its efforts to revitalize the deteriorating physical and social fabric of the town. An inventory was undertaken of the historic and traditional buildings forming the core of the historic centre. In addition, an extensive socio-economic survey was conducted among the residents of the buildings, looking at family structures, income situations and the various problems faced by the residents.

The area of Stagopilog, which includes a Buddhist shrine, an alleyway, residential buildings and a gateway stupa, was chosen to serve as the model conservation neighbourhood. The project conducted a detailed inventory of all the old buildings in Stagopilog, consisting of taking photographs, making measured drawings, undertaking damage assessments, and identifying the materials and techniques used. Plans, sections and elevations were compiled for more than 100 historic buildings. All the drawings were done by hand, based on detailed building-by-building surveys carried out by a team of international experts, volunteers and locals, including a Tibetan refugee and a young Ladakhi who were trained in surveying and drafting during the project. Architectural details were highlighted if they were historic or valuable for understanding the development of Tibetan architecture. Modern alterations were mentioned if they were essential for the character of a site. After completion of the first architectural survey, the THF planned to conduct additional surveys and inventories, eventually covering the entire old town area.

The survey of the building residents was carried out alongside the physical documentation. The survey findings indicated that over 60 percent of all buildings in the old town were inhabited by the owners, either exclusively (37 percent) or with some rooms rented out (26 percent). Only a quarter of the buildings in the old town were in good or very good condition, while over 50 percent of all buildings were in poor to bad condition. Many very dilapidated houses were still inhabited. A tenth of all buildings were vacant, and these were often in a very dilapidated condition. New buildings were mostly constructed by migrant workers out of new materials, resulting in the loss of old techniques and a decline in the local construction trades.

It was determined that the total population of the old town was about 1,500 at the time of the survey, of which 67 percent were male and 33 percent were female. Male migrant workers accounted for about 30 percent of the population. According to the survey findings, the average monthly household income was below 5,000 Indian Rupees (approximately US$ 120 at the time), which was classified by the government as being in the low-income group. The survey also found that most well-off families had moved away from the old town over the preceding 15 years. This was because those families no longer depended on agriculture for their livelihoods, having found more lucrative sources of income in the operation of guest houses, souvenir shops, restaurants and internet cafés. The flight of the wealthy and influential families had further accelerated the town’s downturn.

In addition to the economic issues, the survey also found that the old town had infrastructure problems, notably with its water supply. In the old days, people had to walk down the hill to fetch their water. At the time of the survey, the old town already had public water taps, but in limited quantity, with only five in the central area. As a result, residents of central Leh got less than 10 percent of the government-recommended amount of drinking water by tap. Drainage was also found to be a problem, with only a handful of channels (all open), which frequently became blocked (or froze in the winter). Heavy rainfall or a neighbour’s washing day could easily trigger flooding at the basement level.

The main problems facing the residents in Leh Old Town, as highlighted by the survey findings, can be summarized as follows: (i) poor living conditions, (ii) decline of the old town, with many buildings in poor condition, (iii) people without land trapped in poverty, (iv) loss of cultural identity due to migration and rapid economic changes and (v) loss of traditional skills, because they were no longer used in the modern economy.

The survey results strongly suggested the need to intervene to improve people’s livelihoods and living conditions, in addition to suggesting the need to carry out architectural conservation. This was matched by the generally expressed desire of many community members to reverse the decline of the old town. As a result of the survey, the Leh Old Town initiative was created, with a holistic intervention strategy that called for the rehabilitation of a model area, the use of indigenous skills and labour for the rehabilitation of homes, and the start of a training programme for locals in traditional construction skills, along with lobbying for investment from various government bodies.

Adapted from the “Leh Old Town” UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards entry submission