In the early fifteenth century, Dragpa Bumdey, King of Ladakh, built the first fortifications in Leh as well as a small royal residence along a mountain ridge high above the town. The king also founded three Buddhist temples, two within the old town walls, and the other by the palace on the peak of Tsemo, a nearby mountain. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Leh became a royal capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh, which at the time ruled over most of western Tibet. It was at this time that King Senge Namgyal built Leh Palace, also known as Lachen Palkar Palace.
The massive nine-story stone structure lies at the base of the Tsemo ridge and towers over the old town. It was designed in the Tibetan style that was later made famous by Potala Palace in Lhasa. King Senge Namgyal also constructed massive rammed earth walls around the original residential area of the old town. Lachen Palkar Palace was abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century after the royal family left Leh following the Dogra invasion. Despite years of decay, the historic character of Leh old town has remained largely intact.
2008 World Monuments Watch
After the closure of ancient inner Asian trade routes and the construction of the first navigable roads in Leh during the 1960s, much of the old town gates and walls were demolished. The city has outgrown its seventeenth-century walls and many of the surrounding fields have been built over. Infrastructure deficiencies, such as insufficient water supply and lack of drainage facilities, have caused many of the wealthier families to leave Leh. The seasonal migrant workers now living in the old town are unable to maintain the historic structures. Low-scale modern construction, seismic activity, increased heavy rainfall, and tourism have further threatened the stability of the old town.
World Monuments Fund conducted a comprehensive year-long study of Lachen Palkar Palace in 1984. A 2004 survey by the Tibet Heritage fund revealed that 55% of the historic buildings were in poor condition and required urgent repairs and maintenance within the next decade. In 2008, Leh Old Town was placed on the World Monuments Watch. WMF has also been involved in several restoration projects in the greater Leh district, such as Sumda Chun Monastery, Basgo Gompa (Matieya Temples), and Guru Lhakhang.
Leh Old Town is a rare example of an intact historic Tibeto-Himalayan urban settlement. Due to the inhospitable terrain and widespread nomadic lifestyle, few urban centers ever existed on the Himalayan high plateau and almost none survive today. Led Old Town provides insight into the high mountain cultures that adapted to their severe environments for centuries. A maze of alleyways, the old town consists of roughly 200 stone, mud, and timber houses inside the remaining seventeenth-century walls along with eight Buddhist temples and three mosques. The historic urban fabric exemplifies traditional Tibetan architecture with influences from the central Asian trade routes that once converged in Leh. Lachen Palkar Palace demonstrates the finest building technology and craftsmanship in Ladakh.
Since 2003, Tibet Heritage Fund has carried out pilot activities in partnership with local the government within the framework of a comprehensive restoration plan. In 2010, despite these many accomplishments, flash floods devastated the region and lower Leh was severely damaged. Many people rallied around the communities in the region to assist with remedial efforts after the storm.