Nasir Khan was the best driver-guide we found in Ladakh. Our spirit guide through Ladakh, Mr. Wangchuk, told us that he had the longest career of all drivers in Leh, and we were lucky to get him. An ethnic Ladakhi, he was a fount of knowledge. We’d passed a large number of mud-brick structures before we passed the Basgo Gompa (featured photo). As I wondered aloud about the strength of unfired clay bricks, Nasir Khan asked me whether we wanted a closer look at some buildings. We were happy to.
He stopped in front of a lovely two-storeyed house made entirely of mud bricks. “More than a hundred years old”, he told us. I got out to take a photo. Wonderful location, I thought. The milestone in front of the house lets others find it if they want. The temperature around here varies between -10 Celcius in the worst of winter to 30 Celcius in high summer. Unfired mud brick is a wonderful insulator. Since the annual precipitation, counting both snow and rain, is less than 10 cms, unfired clay becomes a structurally sound building material.
Nasir Khan rolled slowly through the village which straggled along the Srinagar-Leh highway. A little further on I saw an unpainted house. It was built on a stone platform. Beaten earth on top of the stone retaining wall made a terrace. The house was built atop this. Was that a base of stone on which the mud bricks had been placed? The mild rain actually seals any cracks and holes which may develop in the walls. I could see long vertical cracks in the walls below the window slits. Filling them with mud cannot be very hard. I suppose repairs are common.
I’d been noticing the beautiful carved doors and windows in these houses. It is said that this is a Kashmiri influence. Certainly, elaborate wood carving is a traditional Kashmiri art. Ladakh is singularly devoid of trees, so it is possible that this artistry is an import. It must be fairly recent, perhaps starting after the Dogra invasion of the 19th century. The woodwork in the older Leh Palace was simpler.
Nasir Khan stopped to show us houses under construction. Unfired mud bricks continue to be the main structural material, along with a clay mortar. However, as you see in the photo on the left, a column between the windows is made of dressed stone. Both are locally available materials, and a perfect response to the weather. You can see the ironwork on top of the wall under construction. I think this is a concrete slab ready to be poured. This extra load is what the stone pillar is built to take. The flat roof on the completed building behind is also a good response to the very dry weather. When I commented on the smooth external wall on the building behind the one under construction, Nasir Khan showed me a building further on under construction. A thin cement plaster has been applied over the mud wall. I’m not sure this extra weather-proofing is needed, but it certainly seems to be the fashion in these newer houses. I’m quite intrigued by how the traditional and new are integrated in these houses in Ladakhi villages.