Leh’s Tibetan architecture at risk as tourism booms
19 August 2007
Leh: Perched high above the Himalayan town of Leh, a warren of traditional mud-brick houses squats by the ruins of the royal palace and a monastery, appearing to grow out of the mountainside. These homes in the capital of India’s Buddhist Ladakh region which have stood for centuries are regarded as some of the best remaining examples of urban Tibetan-style architecture. But conservationists are increasingly fretting about the survival of these medieval buildings in the Old Town which are now sadly dilapidated. The New York-based World Monuments Fund in June put Leh’s Old Town on a list of the world’s 100 most endangered sites, citing a host of factors as cause for concern, including more rain from climate change in the usually arid region. But although Leh last year received unusually heavy downpours that caused several of the flat roofs to cave in, a walk through the old area shows that decades of plain neglect are more to blame than anything else. “Since the last 15 years people have been moving away,” said conservationist Andre Alexander, head of the Tibet Heritage Fund, which has been working for the last four years to restore buildings in Old Leh. “There’s been a build-up of infrastructure in the modern town. The contrast has helped to convince people there’s no future in Old Town.” In the past, when Leh was more dependent on farming, people cultivated land in the valley and lived on the hillside. But in the past decade tourism has boomed — more that 40,000 people visited Ladakh last year alone, officials say — and the money it brought in allowed more people to move down to the modern part of town. “Definitely we are lacking a policy on that — I have been always saying that,” said Tsewang Rigzin, new tourism councillor for the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “In the last 15 to 20 years there’s been very bad planning for Leh. Everything has gone on in a very haphazard manner.” Rigzin hopes the authorities will come up with a plan for the old area, but admits that the council lacks the funds to actually restore anything.