For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10t h century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet. The kingdom attained its greatest geographical extent and glory in the early 17th century under the famous king Singge Namgyal, whose domain extended across Spiti and western Tibet right up to the Mayum-la, beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.
Gradually, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was politically stable, Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and Central Asia. For centuries it was traversed by caravans carrying textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, dyestuffs, narcotics, etc. to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Khotan. On this long route, Leh was the midway stop, and developed into a bustling entrepot, its bazars thronged with merchants from distant countries.
The famous pashmina (better known as cashmere) also came down from the high-altitude plateaux of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet, through Leh, to Srinagar, where skilled artisans transformed it into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth. Like the land itself, the people of Ladakh are generally quite different from those of the rest of India. The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The original population may have been Dards, an Indo-Aryan race down from the Indus and the Gilgit area.
But immigration from Tibet, perhaps a millennium or so ago, largely overwhelmed the culture of the Dards and obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern and central Ladakh, today’s population seems to be mostly of Tibetan origin. Further w est, in and around Kargil, the people’s appearance suggests a mixed origin. The exception to this generalization is the Arghons, a community of Muslims in Leh, originated as a result of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants. They exhibit a marked dominance of the Indo-Aryan trait in their physique and appearance, though culturally they are not different from the rest of the Ladakhis.
Ladakh was the conduit through which Buddhism reached Tibet from India and in the process it got deeply entrenched in the region from the very beginning. There are ancient Buddhist rock engravings all over the region, even in the areas like Dras and the lower Suru Valley which today are inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population. The divide between Muslim and Buddhist Ladakh passes through Mulbekh (on the Kargil-Leh road) and between the villages of Parkachik and Rangdum in the Suru Valley, though there are pockets of Muslim population further east, in Padum (Zanskar), in Nubra Valley and in and around Leh. The approach to a Buddhist village is invariably marked by mani walls which are long, chest-high structures faced with engraved stones bearing Buddhist mantra, and by chorten (commemorative cairns). Many villages are crowned with a Gompa or monastery, which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls and monks’ dwellings, to a tiny her itage housing a single image and home to a solitary lama.
Islam too came from the west. A peaceful penetration of mainly the Shia sect spearheaded by Islamic missionaries, its success can be attributed to the early conversion of the chieftains of Dras, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, mani walls and chorten are replaced by mosques, small unpretentious buildings, or Imambaras, which are imposing structures with a quaint blend of Islamic and Tibetan styles, surmounted by domes of metal sheet that gleam cheerfully in the sun. There are also pockets of Sunni Muslims among which the Dards of Drass and the Arghons of Leh are the largest groups.