Though ramshackle and long deserted, the Leh Palace remains an imposing building. Standing atop a hillock, the nine-story structure, inspired by the Potala Palace, dominates the otherwise low-lying Leh ‘skyline’. From its roof, visitors get a panoramic view of the windswept valley, encircled by the towering peaks of the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges. Looking out from this vantage point, the town gives off an air of continuity, its web of flat-roofed, mud-plastered houses seemingly forming an unbroken unit. But in reality, there are stark differences between the historical Old Town and the newer areas rapidly developing to accommodate the influx of tourists.
Situated on the slopes immediately below the palace, Old Leh was established during the mid-1600s, when then-King Sengge Namgyal called on well-to-do families to settle beneath his newly built fortress. Today, of the natives occupying around 200 houses, most are in some degree of disrepair. Decades of neglect have meant that this historical neighbourhood, one of the few remaining examples of Tibetan-style townships of yore, is in danger of disintegration. Indeed, the Old Town was included in a list, put together by the New York-based non-profit World Monument Fund, of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. Yet, necessary as preservation is, the consequences of the crumbling of Leh’s old town go far beyond the loss of heritage; they tie directly into issues of access to good-quality housing, ecologically viable cities and a host of other resolutely modern and urban concerns.
The fact is that the old town is a centre of its inhabitants’ livelihoods before it is an archival site of 17th-century Tibetan-style architecture. And, as is often the case with historical neighbourhoods in urban areas, it remains a source of relatively inexpensive housing for the urban poor. Nonetheless, or perhaps for this very reason, the old town suffers from a range of dire infrastructural problems, including lack of adequate access to drinking water, sewage systems, electricity and employment. Today, the challenge lies in finding a way to allow the area to become an evolving urban centre while also ensuring that its historical value is not lost.
An effort to strike a balance between practicality and preservation is currently underway. Led by a non-profit organisation known as the Leh Old Town Initiative (LOTI), the seeds of the endeavour go back to 2003, to a conservationist named Andre Alexander. Alexander, a German national, works with the Tibet Heritage Fund, an NGO working “within the Tibetan cultural realm” to secure the sustainable progress of communities while also keeping traditional knowledge alive. During 2003, Alexander undertook detailed assessments of the structures in the old town and of the socio-economic status of its residents. By the following year, Alexander had put together a local team to work on restoration projects, a group that has since transformed into the Leh Old Town Initiative.
LOTI approaches its work under what is today called ‘integrated urban development’, meaning that conservation efforts are designed within an urban-management rubric rather than as stand-alone projects. The focus is on improving people’s lives, rather than on preservation for its own sake. The priority is thus to make the work increasingly holistic, giving weight to environmental, social and cultural concerns while simultaneously focusing on infrastructure. Also inherent in this approach is a bottom-up operational structure, with strategies based on the explicit input of local residents, who highlighted two pressing problems – poor water supply and the lack of serviceable drainage systems. There was also, of course, the evident need to repair collapsing homes.
Having done the necessary groundwork, renovations in the Old Town began after 2006, when an agreement was signed between the Ladakh Autonomous Development Hill Council (LADHC) and LOTI, detailing the responsibilities of both groups. One of the first activities undertaken was a home-restoration programme, which functions on a co-finance basis, with the costs for labour and materials split half-and-half between the homeowner and the Initiative. LOTI raises money from national and international agencies to fund the project, which is still ongoing. Since 2007, three buildings have been refurbished in this manner, after the owners approached the group, and more requests are pouring in from residents. LOTI has also started to restore houses free of cost for poorer families who are unable to contribute the requisite 50 percent. Meanwhile, the group has also built 80-metre stretches of drains each year in recent years, with greywater produced during household activities now deposited in a desert patch beyond the town.
Even as these community-driven efforts are underway in the old town, all of Leh is being negatively affected by the haphazard and environmentally unsound development of the city’s upcoming areas. Two worrying trends are evident. First, the valley is growing in an alarmingly unregulated manner. Second, there is a continuing shift away from practical traditional technologies to ultimately unsustainable ‘modern’ ones. It is important to understand the socio-political and economic backdrop against which these changes have taken place.
Though emotively removed from the India-Pakistan fissure, Partition has been problematic for the political, economic and identity structures of Ladakh. Historically a major point in the caravan trade between South and Central Asia, India’s continuing disputes with both Pakistan and China has brought such activity to a complete halt. Since the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Ladakh has also become a heavily militarised area, and it remains so today. Further, Ladakh’s continued inclusion within Jammu & Kashmir remains a contentious matter for Ladakhis. Meanwhile, on the northern border, the closing-off of access to Tibet, with which Ladakh long shared strong cultural, religious and economic ties, greatly disrupted livelihoods.
Following over two decades of isolation, Ladakh discovered a new economic mainstay when the Indian government opened the area to tourism in 1974. (Providing goods to the massive contingent of military personnel is another main source of income.) Yet in the rush to accommodate the influx of visitors in what became a tourism-fuelled economy, critical discussions on the long-term viability of the rapidly changing patterns of resource consumption are being sidelined. Among other things, tourism has drastically transformed land use – away from agriculture, and towards buildings for hotels and restaurants. In the process, most of the arable land in the valley has been lost to construction. Indeed, the old town was built on the slope to keep the flat-lying cultivable land for agriculture. In a place as barren as Leh, already greatly dependent on New Delhi for subsidised food grains, this denuding of farm land only increases food insecurity.
Another pressing problem is the fact that basic infrastructure – sewage, garbage disposal, waste-water purification – has not kept pace with a rapid increase in consumption. Inevitably, the greywater goes back into the ground, while waste in disposed of on the streets. Today, over 300 hotels and guest houses have sprung up to service the more than 70,000 visitors that visit Ladakh every year. Key among the related issues is water, an especially fragile resource in this high-altitude desert. To ensure around-the-clock running water, the majority of these businesses have dug deep borewells, which are rapidly depleting groundwater levels, and a water crisis is not far away. Similarly, guest houses have installed water-guzzling flush toilets, whereas most Ladakhi households, especially in the old town, use traditional soak pits – the waste from which is collected in compost holes to be used as fertiliser. Ironically, however, even those businesses with flush toilets are forced to maintain their traditional soak pits, as water in the pipes invariable freezes during Leh winters. In the long-run, this unsustainable use of water will inevitably have a direct impact on residents of both the old town and the newer areas, as well as on future tourism prospects.
Rail as some do against the enormous pressures that tourism has inflicted on the fragile Leh eco-system, the influx of visitors will remain an ever-increasing reality. Moreover, tourism does provide a much-needed source of income to both locals and migrants. Though the tourist season only lasts four months – from June to September – it is the only source of income. Indeed, there are almost no employment opportunities in the Ladakhi winters, with over 90 percent of businesses closed. It is not just because tourism is so crucial to the Ladakhi economy that it is necessary to lay down sustainable frameworks within which the sector should operate. Local groups are engaging with the issue, lobbying both the LADHC and business owners to think ahead. One of the greatest successes has been the banning of plastic bags which came into effect due to the efforts of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, an organisation run by local women.
In this, much can also be learned from LOTI’s experiences. In the ongoing restoration of the old town, traditional methods known to be inefficient have either been tweaked or replaced completely. For instance, one recurring complaint from local residents was that their houses were too dark. Built before the arrival of glass in the area, the houses have only a few, small windows – a conscious decision to keep in the heat. With glass now widely available, the repaired houses have large windows, allowing light into the homes.
Another common criticism was that storage and compost pits for the traditional toilet were leaky, making collection a messy business. Fixing this problem has been a matter of simple improvements, such as using more leak-proof materials to build the collection pit. With the compost system now in order, the guesthouses could easily revert to using the traditional toilets. And to provide comfort to tourists not used to squatting, a Western-style sitting pot can be placed over the soak pits. If each of the guesthouses were to make this minor adjustment, it would do much to address the wasteful use of water. The point is that while buildings in the new areas do not need to confirm rigidly to the traditional aesthetic, it is sensible to continue using workable old systems.
What makes the renovation effort in the Old Town praiseworthy is the acknowledgement of the reality that a museum settlement insensitive to the contemporary needs of its inhabitants will necessarily be unsuccessful. Meanwhile, using and adjusting old systems can be workable, as has been proven in Ladakh. And yet, with the focus on economic and social changes so overwhelming, will Leh listen to the call for moderated change? Communities elsewhere have not.
~Surabhi Pudasaini is an assistant editor for Himal Southasian