• Desert Bloom

Lost (and found) in Old Town

Ladakh, India

There are days that get too tiring, too confusing and sometimes outright dull. Those are the days on which I go hunting for inspiration inside a time-portal – the Leh Old Town.

My first real introduction to the ‘Kharyog’ (the local Ladakhi term for the Old Town), was during my short stint at the Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) for a research and documentation project. Over the months, as I walked the network of streets multiple times, I became familiar with the sneaky turns and dead-ends, as well as the tunnel-like connecting alleys. Eventually, the Old Town became a dear friend – a sanctuary and a place of retreat for the tired mind.

I wandered more, read more & heard more. I got to know more, bit by bit, about this new friend of mine.

‘Khar’ means ‘palace’ and this entire area of ‘kharyog’, located below the 17th century royal palace, was the residence of all the people associated with the royal family. The King’s ministers, administrative officers, stable-keepers, jewellers, tailors, musicians and artisans – they all had their accommodation here. Being the heart of all political and economic activity in the region, Kharyog was the most important part of, not just of Leh town, but the whole of the Ladakh region.

Like all the old settlements of the world, the Leh Old Town also used to be a walled fortification, with 5 gates around it in all directions. As I walk through the dwindling alleys, the neighbourhood appears to have grown in an organic (almost haphazard) manner. But more mindful observation reveals that the buildings have been placed in harmony with the slope of the land and also organised according to the resident’s social status, with the high-positioned families of the king’s closest ministers living immediately below the palace. Increased rainfall and abandonment have caused several houses to almost crumble into ruins. But the ones that still stand strong are some of the finest examples of domestic Ladakhi architecture. Thick mud walls in the colour and texture of the earth rise strong above the stone flooring which has been done by THF in many parts of the Old Town. The woodwork is simple and elegant – exactly what you’d expect from handcrafted building techniques. The few courtyards in between the houses used to serve as spaces for communal activities and celebrations. Where traders from across Central Asia would have once mingled and exchanged goods and culture, I today see brilliant artists and creative businesses slowly occupying these magnificent structures and giving life to the street once again.

Every time I cross through one of the gates of the erstwhile walled city and venture into this maze, I stop bothering about the minutes and hours.

The winding alleys of the Old Town are as easy to get lost in as they are to fall in love with. While skilfully navigating the turns, slopes and steps, my mind begins to pay attention to the details of the stone-pathways that I set foot on. I duck to avoid hitting my head while walking through a tunnel. I remember to circumambulate the stupas. And I remember to say “Jullay” to the rare stranger, if any, who crosses me. The disturbances of the past and the anxieties of the near future have no place for acting up when you’re occupied with so much to pay attention to in the present moment.

During every single walk, I stumble upon one new alley, one new window sill with a beautiful pot of flowers, or one new nook to sit in. These new discoveries are exactly what my inspiration-hungry mind seeks when it’s exhausted. It seeks magic, and magic is what it finds every time, without fail.

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