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Historical Context


Historically Leh was an important centre for trade in Central Asia, along the Indus Valley between Tibet to the east, Kashmir to the west, and India and China. The famous Silk Route used to pass through here. Leh lies about 10 km from the Indus river, on the fertile side of the valley. In ancient times the present Leh district was a part of the Greater Ladakh region spreading from Kailash Mansarover to Swaat (Dardistan). References about the place and its environs can be found in Arab, Chinese and Mongolian histories.

Information on the Ladakh region before the birth of the Ladakh kingdom (10th century) is scarce. Ladakh can hardly be considered a separate political entity before the establishment of the kingdom. Following the collapse of the early Tibetan empire the border regions became independent kingdoms, most of them having rulers who came from branches of the Tibetan royal family. Around the 1st century AD, Ladakh was a part of the Kushan empire. In the 8th century the Arabs established their control over central Asia which embraced Islam by the 9th century. Ladakh was weakened by continuous raids by Arabs from central Asia. Eventually it was divided, with Lower Ladakh ruled by King Takpabum from Basgo and Temisgam, and Upper Ladakh by King Takbumde from Leh and Shey. Bhagan, a later Basgo king, reunited Ladakh by overthrowing the King of Leh. He took on the surname Namgyal (meaning victorious) and founded a new dynasty that survives till today.

During the reign of Jamyang Namgyal, concerted efforts were made to convert Ladakh to Islam, with the destruction of Buddhist artifacts. Today, few gompas exist from before this period. Sengge Namgyal (1616-1642), known as the Lion King, made efforts to restore Ladakh to its old glory with an ambitious and energetic building programme including the rebuilding of several gompas and shrines, the most famous of which was Hemis monastery. He also moved the royal headquarters from Shey Palace to Leh Palace and expanded the kingdom into Zanskar and Spiti. He was defeated by the Mughals, who had already occupied Kashmir and Baltistan. His son Deldan Namgyal (1642-1694) had to placate the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by building a mosque in Leh. However, he successfully defeated the Mughal army in Baltistan. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Mughal Empire had collapsed, and Sikh rule had been established in Punjab and Kashmir. However the Dogra region of Jammu remained under its Rajput rulers, the greatest of whom was Maharaja Gulab Singh, whose General Zorawar Singh invaded Ladakh in 1834. King Tshespal Namgyal was dethroned and exiled to Stok. Ladakh came under Dogra rule and was incorporated into the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846. In 1948 the state acceded to the Indian Union. Its importance as a trading town slowed following the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war.

Since the 1999 war with Pakistan, and the consequent development of the Manali-Leh highway, Leh has become a bustling tourist town, with large numbers of Kashmiri traders. In 1993 Ladakh gained the status of Autonomous Hill Council. In 1995, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was created. Leh has now emerged as the largest town and the capital of Ladakh.