So many historic towns and heritage buildings in the Himalayas have been lost or irrevocably damaged through wars, colonisation, natural disasters and redevelopment. In contrast, much in Ladakh had survived till the beginning of the 21st century. However, since then, that is also changing as the pace of modernization has accelerated in the region. Threats to built heritage are now imminent and have been increasing with each passing year.
The government of India has declared 11 monuments of national importance in Ladakh, and these are protected in law against alteration and demolition. But the region is home to countless more historic buildings and structures and these have no protection under national or state legislation. Some are included within the protection zone around national monuments, but at times even these are vulnerable.
The Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO), was established in 1996 by Monisha Ahmed and Ravina Aggarwal, both of whom have a long experience of studying and working in Ladakh. Through LAMO, they hoped to articulate an alternative vision for the arts and media in the region. At the same time, alarmed at the neglect of heritage buildings in Leh and the rate of demolitions, LAMO wanted to demonstrate the rejuvenation of a historic building and to contribute to the social and cultural life of the community. Encouraged by the words of the then Principal of the Moravian Mission School, Elijah Gergan, who said, “The successful restoration and rehabilitation of one historic structure in Leh, will be the most effective statement to demonstrate the potential and value of the much neglected architectural heritage of the town.” It was another decade before LAMO found a space in a historical building, but today the LAMO Centre comprises of a complex of two 17th century historical houses, the Munshi and Gyaoo, in the Old Town of Leh.
In 2002, conservation architect John Harrison introduced LAMO to the Munshi family. The Munshi had been Secretary to the King, and their magnificent and spacious five-storey house below Leh Palace was an exquisite example of vernacular architecture with richly decorated interiors, intricate wall paintings, wooden balconies and screens. In 1984 the family had left their house to a new one in fields below Leh Palace, where facilities such as water and electricity were easily available, as well as access by a motorable road. Their house was then occupied intermittently by a monk caretaker, but most of it was left empty and gradually decayed. Many rooms were without roofs and walls had collapsed, beams had bent, pillars warped and water penetration had occurred leaving the interiors in a bad state. The neighbouring Gyaoo house was in an even worse state, as it had not been lived in for around hundred years. In addition, the external areas around both homes were covered in garbage, human and dog waste.
LAMO took the houses on a long-term lease, and then worked with John Harrison to draw up a plan to convert the homes into a community arts and media centre. The organisation’s brief was that it wanted a space from which it could conduct outreach programs, research and documentation projects, workshops, artist residencies, performances and exhibitions that showcase Ladakh’s material and visual culture, performing arts and literature. The restored buildings were accordingly designed to accommodate a library, offices, artist’s studio, and spaces for exhibitions, performances and workshops. A sound studio was added in 2016. At the same time, the LAMO Centre would in itself be a historic example of Ladakhi material and visual culture. The restoration process would also display the history of the building, a continuous history of accretions and adaptations over several hundred years.
In the restoration process one of the principal aims was to retain as much as possible of the original fabric. That included building elements such as walls, beams, pillars, and windows – these were to be repaired rather than replaced, and to be repaired in situ rather than rebuilt. Where rebuilding was necessary, the materials were salvaged and reused. Intact bricks were re-laid; broken bricks remixed and remoulded. Wooden balconies and screens were re-assembled from the salvaged fragments, with some new timber sections pieced in where required. Weathered woodwork was retained because it was still functional, and also because it spoke of the age and history of the building. Traditional materials and construction systems which included masonry walls and timber posts and beams with earth roofs, were to be used, both in the repair of the existing building and in the new-built sections. New materials introduced were wiring for electricity, bitumen felt for waterproofing on the roof, and glass for windows. Both LAMO and the architect wanted to demonstrate that generous, positive spaces for a 20th century public use could be created in a ‘traditional’ building.
The building restoration took five years to complete as Ladakh has a short work season, from May through to September, because of the intensely cold winter. However, a small wall painting conservation project in one of the rooms took place in 2017. The short working season meant that costs escalated with each year.
In the years since the restoration, the LAMO Centre has become a vibrant space, holding art exhibitions and festivals, workshops, music performances and film screenings amongst many other activities and events. The Centre is extremely popular with the youth of the region as they see it as a space that enhances their creativity and for open discussion. LAMO has also conducted several projects working on issues relevant to Ladakh – water for instance, receding glaciers, looking at the fragile ecology of the area and the challenges it faces. Many emerging contemporary artists in Ladakh have first shown their work at LAMO; artists from other parts of India, Japan, Korea and Canada have held residencies there.
At the same time LAMO has also been raising awareness of Old Town Leh’s vast historical importance, its cultural, social and economic contributions as well as the imminent problems and threats the area faces. It has worked with both the stakeholders and residents of the area, as well as local leaders and policy makers to increase the understanding of the significance of this part of the town and its importance for future generations of Ladakhis. The organisation has carried out numerous research and documentation projects on the area, made short videos and films, initiated a visual archive, encouraged new photography, published children’s books, had art exhibitions, conducted heritage walks amongst other activities including several talks and presentations on the Old Town of Leh.
It has already been amply demonstrated that historic houses can be upgraded for modern living, and that derelict buildings can be brought back to provide valuable community services. There is an urgent need for an inventory of heritage buildings and structures in Ladakh, as well as laws to protect them. If the restoration of the Munshi and the Gyaoo homes and the establishment of the LAMO Centre set a precedent for the rejuvenation of other buildings in the Old Town of Leh, and perhaps the larger Ladakh area, it will have served its purpose. At the same time demonstrating how simultaneously these buildings, or spaces, can bring pride to local residents as a rich source of potential livelihood as well as knowledge about their history and life of the people who created them. And endure as a precious part of the region’s legacy, one that will prevail for future generations.