Basgo: Necessity and Invention

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.

Leh Palace

One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.

The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.

You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.

The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.

On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.

There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.

The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.