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. According to a local belief, this palace was originally to be built by his father, but it was king Singge who chose the site on a ridge (shaped like an elephant's head). The king ordered an 'important building' to be constructed at this site which could house his family, his four ministers (kalon) and sixty elders (rGanmi). The building took 3 years to complete. The king is said to have invited leading Ladakhi families to settle within the fortified town below the palace. Remnats of the city walls from that time still exist. This fortified town was built on the slope of ahill, reflecting the need at the time to preserve arable land. All over Ladakh and many parts of Tibet the earliest human settlements were built on the edge of mountains and hills, as arable land was always scarce.
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.
A cruel tale is attached with its completion. The king in order to have his building unrivalled in the region, got the right hand of the master mason chopped off.
The palace came under a siege by the Dogras (1836 AD) and during this seige it was partially destroyed. As a result, the family moved to Stok and never shifted back, thus making the palace building redundant thereafter.
The palace is associated with Dosmoche festival. During the festival, monks from different monasteries from surrounding areas aer invited to perform rituals to promote peace and prosperity in the region. Sacred dances are also performed by the lamas of Tagthog monastery on this occassion.
Physical / Architectural Description:
The palace of Leh is an ensemble of several structures that crown the ridge of Namgyal Tsemo. Beside the main palace, the ridge comprises several structures of importance which include the palace fort of Tashi Namgyal, several religious structures, chortens and royal stables.
The main palace building is undoubtedly the finest example of palace architecture in the entire Ladakh region. It is one of the most imposing structures ever built on Ladakhi soil. The palace has 9 levels.
The lower levels have rooms for staff and servants, storage spaces for animals fodder, wood; dried meat and vegetables. The upper levels had apartments for the royal family, two small temples, a throne room, reception halls and rooms for religious purposes. In the middle of the building, at the fourth level, is a small courtyard (Katog chenmo) which was the main congregation place for any social or cultural activity.
The main entrance (also the ceremonial entrance to the palace) is at the third level and located in the north. The entrance is through a large elaborately carved wooden porch supported by 2 circular wooden columns. The characteristic of this porch is a carved wooden snow lion. The first, second and the third levels have small rooms which are mainly for housing the staff and servants. Besides there are several small stores.
The main corridor at the third level leads to a smaller courtyard on the fourth level from where one can access a small private temple for the royal family, the Duk-kar Lhakhang. This small temple is situated in the north-west corner of the palace. One enters the temple through a small porch, to go into the Lhakhang. This chamber is square in plan and has its roof supported over four rows of wooden columns (four columns in each row). There is a small clere-storey window in the middle of the roof which ventilates the interior.
From this courtyard a small staircase provides and access to the main courtyard, the Katog Chenmo, built on the fourth level. This courtyard faces east thus commanding a majestic panoramic view of the entire Leh valley. The levels above (fifth and sixth) comprise the main audience cum assembly hall (Tak Chen) and the main living quarters of the royal family. This area now is not accessible. This level is characterised by wooden balconies that jetty out of walls.
The seventh level has rooms where official ceremonies were performed. This level includes a throne room (Junga Simjung), a temple (Sangyeling Lhakhang) and the royal chamber facing east (Shar-gi simjung). The eighth level has a few rooms only whose function could not be ascertained. The ninth level again has a small temple that comprised a small room (Tse-simjung). Here worship to Gurlha divinity was performed.
The dominance of the palace structure, however, is due to its sheer stark facade that dominates the entire Leh townscape as the most prominent landmark. Its east facade is the most dramatic one whose battered wall inclines to provide adequate structural strength and has a series of balconies and windows (small rectangular slits) to break the sheer monotony of the vast surface. The side and the rear elevations are in comparison less dramatic. Still these are punctuated with balconies and windows at upper levels.
The structural system of the building is simple and typical, heavier base and a lighter top. There have been no foundation system; the building is directly resting on the granite rock beneath. The material used is neatly dressed stone having a layer of timber beam alternating every three metres or so. This creates an efficient framework of timber beams which counters any lateral movements due to an earthquake. The upper portion has neat sun baked bricks used as the wall material to provide adequate lightness and the much needed thermal insulation inside.
Not much survives in the palace. perhaps the most exquisite works of art have been preserved in the fourth level Duk-kar Lhakhang, which houses a large image of Duk-kar (a thousand armed form of Tara). Sakyamuni and Padmasambhava. Besides, there are ornamental carvings done on beams and columns in the hall of audience (Tak-chen) at the fifth level, and throne room at the seventh level.