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.

Mural in Leh Palace

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Children’s rhyme

A mural in the Leh palace shows a hunter armed with a spear and a bow and arrows hunting a tiger. The figure of the hunter hiding behind a Jacaranda tree can still be seen. The tiger has almost disappeared. Life copies art?

A notable Gurudwara

South of the Golden temple, a couple of hundred meters away, is a lovely Gurudwara that is often missed. Although the nine storey high octagonal tower of the Gurudwara Baba Atal Rai Ji is the tallest structure in the old city, it is not easily visible from the narrow streets around the Golden Temple. We made our way there one night. It is hard to get a good view of the tower from the ground because of all the structures which hem in your viewpoint, and all the photos that I have seen have the foreshortening that you find in mine.

In the early 17th century this was a cenotaph for, Baba Atal Rai, a son of the sixth Guru Hargobind. About two hundred years later, during the time of Ranjit Singh, it was coverted to a Gurudwara, when the tower and lake were constructed. It is a place worth visiting because of the many late 19th and early 20th century murals that are painted into the walls of the tower. The murals depict the life of Guru Nanak, as told in the Janamsakhi. Some of the murals are badly damaged, and the work of restoration is on. I wish we had taken the time to see this during the day.

Sula Mani Guphaya Temple in Bagan

Sula Mani quite literally translates into the Jewel in the Crown. This exquisite temple was one of those that I most wanted to see. It is said that this late-12th century temple combines the best aspects of the Dhammayangyi and the Thatbyinnyu temples. So it was a big disappointment when we arrived there to see that the recent earthquake had so badly damaged it that it was completely off-bounds to anyone. In the featured photo you see a big sign and the plastic wrapping to prevent bricks from falling.

Details on the porch of Sulamani Guphaya temple in BaganWhat we could see from the outside was remarkable. The Family and I inspected the external mouldings such as the one you can see in this photo. The temple was built to the order of Narapati Sithu (king Sithu) at the height of the Bagan period of Burma’s history. These mouldings are a good indication of how beautiful the temple could be.

A  mural in the Sulamani Guphaya temple in BaganWe pushed a little at the instructions posted for tourists. They said that it is unsafe to climb on to the porch: perhaps some of the bricks could fall. We saw that the plastic sheets wrapped around the damaged spire of the temple were quite comprehensive and ventured as close as we could. In the massive eastern entry arch we found this mural: damaged but still impressive. We couldn’t explore more: everything was cordoned off. The Family and I loved Bagan, and realized that one can easily spend a week there. If we go back in a few years this temple will be on the top of our list. The crowning jewel, how can one not visit it again?

Dhammayangyi temple

Entrance to the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

I really liked the temples of Bagan, so I’ll keep coming back to them. The temple which charmed me most was the Dhammayangyi temple. You see a photo of it from the entrance archway here. It has been damaged in the recent earthquake, but not too badly. One can still explore this temple. The layout of the temple is like a cross, with the main Buddha images facing the cardinal direction, just as the older Ananda temple. However, the effect is completely different, it feels lighter and more airy. The plaster work over arches is lovely, although not in good repair any more (see the photo here). Most of all, the Buddha images have changed from the distinctly Indian looks in the Ananda temple to the more Burmese faces and bodies shown in the featured image.

Detail on an entryway arch to the Dhammayangyi temple
Paintings on the walls of the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan
A Buddha statue in the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

There are paintings on all the walls. They are faded and details are hard to see, as you can tell from the photo above. But when I could make out details and colours, they looked wonderful. I hope there is an effort to restore them. We noticed paintings on the wall behind several of the statues in the main alcoves, and more around those in niches inside the corridor. The first Buddhas we saw (featured image) are partially gilded. However, I liked the one shown here. The white face and the red robe look more serene. However, gilding statues of the Buddha is so ingrained in the local culture that I’m sure when the temple is restored, these statues will also be gilded. Today, with the temple in its somewhat neglected state, the number of tourists is not large. There is a sense of quiet and peace in the temple. We sat in an airy window looking at the greenery outside for a while before moving on.

Puppets for sale outside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan
Zaw Zaw the painter inside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

The lack of tourists translates into a smaller number of shops outside the temple. Although the numbers are small, the handicrafts I saw on display were lovely. I liked some of the wooden masks on display, and even enquired about the price, but forgot to buy any. Inside the outer wall of the temple there were spreading banyan trees. A large number of puppets hung from the lower branches of the tree. It was interesting to walk among these puppets and try to figure out the differences between these traditional characters. Inside the temple there were people who had paintings on display. The first person we came across spoke just enough English to negotiate a price. He could not tell us too much about the paintings. The next person (photo alongside) was called Zaw Zaw, and he could communicate better. He explained that the paintings are made with sand stuck on cloth and then coloured. The paintings were traditional designs, although he would vary the colours.