Passage to Ladakh along Indus River



India is a vast country, from cold areas in the Himalayas, to the great Thar Desert in western India, from the plain of the Ganges River basin in the north, to tropical rain-forests in the south. Its extent is a match for the whole of Europe, displaying varied climatic features. Moreover, it is a country that has a long history of 4,000 years and has also produced many religions, from ancient times to the present day.

Reflecting those vast scale and diversity, India evolved a large variety in its architecture, leaving a great number of architectural legacies around the country. Among them, ancient cave temples and stone-cut temples, medieval stone temples full of sacred sculptures, and mausoleums of the Mughal Dynasty in the stage of matured early modern culture, will astonish our eyes.

Although there are 16 cultural heritage sites in India that have been registered to the UNESCO World Heritage List, all of them are stone buildings and equivalents: there is no wooden architecture. There remains in India not a single wooden building from the ancient and medieval period, since wood is easily rots away and burns. Therefore, extant wooden buildings are generally from early-modern times. If older is considered worthier in historical value, wooden architecture would be inferior to stone architecture in India on the whole.

A Large House near Mulbek

However, if the more vulnerable need more protection, considering measures to conserve wooden architecture, elucidating its distribution and structural systems, is urgently necessary. As the study of the history of Indian architecture until now has been almost exclusively directed to stone architecture and cave temples, Indian wooden architecture cannot be said to have been sufficiently researched.
Moreover, recent economic liberalization has led to a tendency to demolish traditional wooden houses, replacing them with concrete boxes based on mere practicality, destroying traditional rural landscapes.

It is not well known that there are also wooden cultural areas in India, since tourists to India generally visit only stone buildings and cave temples. Though wooden architecture was the mainstream in ancient India due to abundant woodland in ancient times, monumental buildings came to be constructed of stone as gradual aridification of the land increased and trees decreased through the middle ages.

However, in general, Indian stone buildings were constructed by the method of wooden-like post-and –beam structure. It indicates that Indian architecture originated from wooden structure and people were quite accustomed to wooden-based technology and extremely familiar with the aesthetics of wooden architecture.

Leh___ Leh Palace
The old palace and its wooden gate

The lands that have kept consistent wooden culture in such circumstances are, in short, those blessed with ample rain, and therefore with abundant timber resources. They exist in the Himalayan region in the north and in the state of Kerala in the extreme south. The Kerala region is a long narrow and long strip between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountains; the wind blowing from the sea collides with the mountains and sheds a lot of rain, hence a wooden cultural area.

There can also be seen wooden buildings in the Gujarat region in the west, but there is not ample timber there and the lack of them engendered, rather, a yearning for wooden architecture, importing timber to build wooden temples and houses.

The Himalayas, which is blessed with most plentiful timber resources, is a mountainous region that continues from the northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir to Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Though these areas have mutual relations, they have each nourished their own architectural traditions based on their histories and religions.

As for northern India, it can be divided into three areas. The Ladakh region at the highest altitude belongs to the Tibetan Buddhist sphere, the western neighboring region, Kashmir, is in the Islamic sphere, and the southern neighboring Himalayan mountainside region mainly practices Hinduism. As the architectural differences between them are quite interesting, I will deal with each in turn, starting with the Ladakh region.

Leh Town
Bird's eye view of the Town of Leh


The Ladakh region is located near the Chinese border and has long been closed to the outside owing to the Sino-Indian dispute. Moreover, transportation from the Indian plain to the region was not easy, since its altitude is from 3,000m to 4,000m.
The main route between the main city of Kashmir, Shrinagar, and that of Ladakh, Leh, is shut by snow during winter, being passable only from June to September. Such isolation nurtured a quite different culture in Ladakh from that of Indian plain.

As for religion, people embrace the Buddhist faith, specifically that of Tantric Buddhism, having erected many Gompas (monasteries) at various places. As the mainland of Tibet was occupied by China and the living Buddha, the Dalai Lama, exiled himself to Daramsala, India, and a great number of temples were destroyed through the Great Cultural Revolution, it is said that traditional Tibetan culture has been conserved in Ladakh much better than in the mainland.

Mandala, wall painting in Lhakhang Soma, Alchi

When the Ladakh region became open to foreigners in 1974, monasteries in ‘unexplored areas’ and their Tantric wall paintings were soon brought to the fore, but the architectural research has not yet been accomplished sufficiently and neither has a full physical survey of temples.

As the average altitude of the Ladakh region, also called Western Tibet, is almost the same as that of Mt. Fuji, the mountains are bare of any vegetation, looking like deserts. However, there is a mountain stream and a narrow green basin, forming the upper reaches of the Indus River, into which melting snows on the mountains flow as springs.
Its scenery makes a striking contrast to the desolate surface of surrounding mountains. In this verdurous basin with poplars, there scattered villages, arable lands, and monasteries. Leh, a sole city in Ladakh, is also in this basin. It thrived as a trade town in the Himalayas, having a population of 25,000 at present.

New Palace at Stok

On the top of the northern mountain, looking over the town of Leh, stands an impressive old royal palace, now ruined. It was King Sengge Namgyal of the Namgyal Dynasty who constructed this palace modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. He ascended the throne in the beginning of the 17th century and became an exceedingly earnest Buddhist king in spite of having a Muslim mother.
The old royal palace was built of stone and sun-dried brick and finished with mud-plaster as seen on the photograph, but actually it is only the external walls, and the inside structure was entirely made of wood.

The case of the new royal palace constructed in 1822 at Stok, 14km south of Leh, uses basically the same system. It is a four storied building with as many as 77 rooms built on a rocky mountain by mixed structure of stone, mud, and wood. Such a construction system is applied to palaces, rural houses, and even Gompas (monasteries), saving timber by using stone and mud for external walls.

Although I wrote above that the wooden cultural areas are in general blessed with ample rain and trees, Ladakh is a region that has little rain and is short of timber.

PLAN of 2nd story of a private house, Keylang


The form of folk houses in Ladakh is, on the whole, common to the southern Zanskar, Lahaul and Spiti regions. One makes the walls for the first floor, piling up stone and sun-dried brick, and then places wooden beams and floor joists across the walls to support the second floor walls above them, and repeatedly adds more wooden beams across them. Floors and roofs are made of mud treaded on wooden boards. Roofs are basically flat, being unnecessary to waterproof, since it scarcely ever rains.

Beams are directly set from wall to wall across smaller rooms, but columns are needed midway across larger spans because of the difficulty of getting thick timber for beams. In a vast room such as a congregational prayer hall in a Gompa, columns stand together in large numbers. The standard span is about 3m.

Private house
Interior of a private house at Keylang

In a folk house, the first floor is usually used for stables and the second floor is for family rooms, such as a sitting room, a kitchen, bedrooms, and a Buddhist altar room. A larger house often consists of three floors.
The main timber is usually poplar, and thinner timber over them is branches of willow. Poplar logs are used untreated for rural houses, but are often sawed for use in palaces and Gompas, with delicate carvings, brilliantly painted, on capitals and bases of columns.

The Gompa that retains the oldest form of wooden architecture is the Alchi Gompa, located 66km west of Leh. It is said to have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), who carried out a great role in reestablishing Tibetan Buddhism, translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan.

In this temple, though each is small in scale, there are, in line, five shrines built from the 11th to 13th centuries, adding many far later shrines and Chortens (Stupas), leaving very little open space. It suggests that the buildings were added one by one in the remains of the precinct, lacking the notion of a ‘master plan’ like numerous cases in ancient India.

Alchi___ Alchi
The Sumtsek of the Alchi Gompa

The five shrines are, in order from the furthest from the entrance to the nearest, the Manjushri Lhakhang, the Lotsawa Lhakhang, the Dukhang, the Sumtsek, and the Lhakhang Soma (New Shrine). The most interesting one is the Sumtsek (Three Floored Shrine). It has niches protruding on three sides of the 7m square core space for a Chorten, enshrining the high statues of three Bodhisattvas ( Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri), with a two storied porch at the front.

There are four columns inside and two in the porch and they are tied with beams. In the center of the interior stands a stupa, over which is a high space of three floors, hence the name of the building, Sumtsek (Three Floored Shrine).
The most dazzling elements are brilliant wall paintings executed without leaving a blank space. This is a treasure-house of Tantric Buddhist Art, with six large Mandalas.

The most interesting architectural feature is the wooden structure of the porch and its carvings. That of the first floor consists of two sections, the upper of which is divided by two columns accompanied with sub columns at both sides.
At the center of each beam is a Buddha statue surrounded with a tri-lobed arch and an outer triangle. Such features were apparently influenced by the art and architecture of Kashmir.

The Kashmir region was influenced by the civilization of Hellenism that had been brought by Alexander (the Great) to Gandhara in the 4th century B.C.E. This current also reached Ladakh, transcending the gap of ages and the difference of religions. At the Sumtsek in Alchi, columns have Greek fluting and their capitals are carved in Ionic-style-swirls. It displays more evidently the track of the propagation of a civilization than any other sites.


© Takeo Kamiya
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