The architecture of Ladahk is so distinct that even the most architecturally unaware of travellers will comment on it. Like the Buddhist monasteries, houses have flat roofs and the appearance of small fortresses and often give the impression of hills with eyes.
The climate of Ladahk is harsh, and has been a defining factor in the striking appearance of these dwellings. Temperatures in winter can reach below minus twenty with numerous snowfalls while in summer the temperature can exceed thirty degrees and is very dry.
The flat roofs would not be possible in a climate with a high rainfall. In Ladahk, the roofs are used as storage for grasses and as terraces in summer. In winter they provide easy access to remove snow and help keep the house insulated and warm. Most roofs also have parapets and the always fluttering prayer flags.
The other distinctive feature of theses houses is how they appear to rise from the landscape. The construction materials include stone and mud bricks, although concrete has found its way into the newer buildings. The render is made from mud and cow-pats, while the doors and window frames are of wood. The render blends the building into the dry hills behind, while the decorated wooden doors and windows give the effect of a hill with eyes.
One of the nicest qualities of these houses is that after they have outlived their usefulness, every part can be reused or if it is left to ruin, the house simply becomes another hill of dirt and stone.
Inside one of the most beautiful features is the roof, consisting of large round poplar tree beams with the smaller branches filling the spaces in between the beams. Decorated wooden columns and cabinetry also feature. The houses generally consist of two levels, the ground floor being used for storage and in the colder months to house any cows or goats belonging to the household. This also provides another source of heat for those who live on the first floor.
We were lucky enough to stay in some Ladahki home stays. We were always entertained in the sitting room or summer kitchen, a room filled with light from many windows. The main kitchen the Ladakhis used was generally not so large and had much fewer windows. One of the hosts explained that they spent all winter in the main kitchen as less windows made a huge difference in the warmth of the room.
Ladahk is facing many challenges as it’s population grows, tourism increases and the weather patterns change. In 2010 several cloudbursts occurred over Ladahk. It was a huge disaster, leaving 1000 people dead, 400 injured and destroying many buildings. The buildings are not designed to withstand such large amounts of rain. If climate change continues, the traditional architecture of Ladahk will struggle to survive.
There is hope though as Ladakhis seemed to take much pride in their houses, more than I have seen in other parts of India. Even the newer houses constructed out of concrete still retained the basic essences of a Ladahki house. There are numerous organisations and government bodies interested in the conservation of Ladahk which include the introduction of many more sustainable alternatives. These included better house design with the introduction of green houses and glazed windows.
Ladakhis are a very friendly and welcoming people. That they have managed to adapt, live and thrive in such a landscape for so many years already, leaves little doubt that they will be able to overcome any future challenges.