Current Condition, Relevance, Planning and Design of Vernacular Settlements in Leh-Ladakh

Theme: Built Vernacular Heritage “Earthen Architecture and Interpretation of Rural Internal Design”

By Ms. Madhura Sham Joshi
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Mumbai, India
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in International Architectural Regeneration and Development, Oxford Brookes University (UK)



Leh-Ladakh is internationally one of the highest cold desert landscape/region with inhabited terrain. Leh-Ladakh are a part of Jammu and Kashmir state in the Northern India. It extends from Kunlun mountain to the main Himalayan and the south of Indus river valley. Leh-Ladakh regions’ history dates back to the 1st century AD as part of the Kushan Empire (2). In 842 A.D after the breakup of the Tibetan empire, Nyime-Gon, who was the member of the Tibetan Royal Family, annexed Leh-Ladakh and founded an independent Ladakhi Dynasty, which spearheaded the second spreading of Buddhism in Ladakh.

Ladakh region has been included within a number of political entities and have different geographical boundaries but politically Ladakh and its valley is a part of India. Ladakh region has one border with Tibet, north by Xinjiang, northwest by Baltistan, west Kashmir and south by Himachal. This location has made Ladakh economically, politically, commercially important and nodal point for traders who enters India. Ladakh region falls in the rain shadow area of Himalaya with scarce precipitation of less than 100 mm per year. In winters the regions temperature reaches up to -30 or -40 degree and summer up to 30 or 40 degree. This has highly influenced the architecture of Leh-Ladakh region (3). Leh – Ladakh’s Bazaar has been, in certain times of its history, an important source for government officials who wanted to monitor the on-going political situation in Central Asia. (3)

Fig.1. Leh Ladakh Location

Influence on Region’s Settlement and Architecture

With this constant travel and migration of people from all part of the world, Leh’s old bazar has always been cauldron of history, art, culture and economics. The extreme climate, geographical location and landscape of region has resulted into simple, efficient and climate responsive vernacular architecture (3).

The small villages in the region appears as a green oasis in the barren landscape. The irrigation of the summer snow-melt from the high mountains is essential to the agriculture in Ladakh. The internal vertical arrangement of space within the Ladakhi residence represents the Tibetan cosmology. The stables on the ground poor represent the animal realm; the human realm is represented by the family’s living rooms that are located at the first elevated level (3).

Fig.2. Birds eye view of one of the village in Ladakh showcasing contract between ice, desert & greenery

The crucial step in making Ladakh’s land-forms productive is however circumscribed by the possibility of irrigation, considering the scarce rainfall. The number of people living in a community and the scale of a settlement are the result of the production capacity of the area where the village is positioned, mainly linked to the water reservoirs (3).

Planning and design of buildings in a hill settlement are tedious and challenging task due to difficult terrain, steep gradient, adverse climatic conditions, rich flora and proneness to natural hazards. In response to these conditions, numerous vernacular practices and styles have evolved with local materials and indigenous (1).

Fig.3. Anmong houses in the valley of Pipting
Fig.4. House clusters in Kanji

Settlements in hill regions are classified into three categories as ridge, mid land and valley settlements. In valley settlement main public spaces, temples and other public and community areas and open grounds are generally located in valley (lower areas) and houses are located in upper regions on sloping terrain. (1)

The way buildings and houses are located in the village is mainly linked to the specific needs related to local circumstances and time:

  • Nuclear group of buildings
  • Individual households among the village land (3)

The reasons for having houses built according to these two criteria are linked to the different needs of the community:

  • Protection & Cultivation need
  • Additional land & business need
  • Seasonal need
  • Symbolical need: social & spiritual hierarchy (3)

Historical Context of the Vernacular Settlements in Leh and Ladakh

Vernacular buildings are generally clustered along the open space (Saini, 1991), which is used by residents for different activities, social and religious gathering, celebrating functions and ceremonies. The placement of buildings around the open space is such that every building gets sufficient direct solar exposure and no building cast its shadow on other buildings. While clustering different buildings along open space, buildings are judicially oriented to achieve maximum solar exposure and minimum wind exposure. (1)

Fig.5. Houses in Wakha area

Alexander Cunnigham of British East India company describe in 1847, generality in house architecture is so common that description of one house will be applicable to most of them. The houses usually consist of two or three stories and sometimes four. The foundations and lower parts of the walls are built of stone, the upper walls of large sun-dried mud bricks, 20 x 10 x 6 inches. In the better houses some of the rooms are of considerable size, twenty-five feet long and eighteen broad; but they are always very low, the highest not exceeding seven and a half or eight feet. The roofs of these large rooms are always supported by plain wooden pillars (3).

Traditional settlements become integral part of the natural environment of hill settlements, as different vernacular buildings merge well with surroundings and have minimal impact on environment of hilly areas. Developmental activities in traditional settlements are generally carried out with due consideration to the context and buildings are generally constructed along the contours to reduce site development work (i.e., cutting and filling of slopes). (1)

Earthen Architecture in Leh and Ladakh

Vernacular practices are developed with locally available, easily workable, and natural building materials, which are mostly renewable in nature (like timber, thatch, mud and bamboo), have good climatic response, and have no adverse effect on the health of residents and little or negligible impact on environment of hill settlements. (1) Earth, stone and wood are the essential constituents of Ladakhi houses. The environment offers plenty of the first two items, though timber is rare especially at high altitudes. Wood is the most precious construction material and its use is limited to just a few parts of the house (3). There are two main construction methods employed in the region: sun-dried mud bricks and rammed earth. The available earth determines whether it can be employed for one or the other technique, mainly according to its clay, sand and silt content. (3)

Fig.6. Mud houses of Leh old town

The architectural typologies of Kanji (vernacular houses) are characterized by the intensive use of earth, together with stone and wood, as basic building materials. The foundations of traditional buildings are built of stone; the load-bearing walls, as well as the internal framework, are executed with pakbu, the traditional earthen blocks. The floors and the roofs are constructed with poplar wood beams and willow sticks, vegetable fibers and a plaster mixture made of earth and water, called markallak. (4)

It used to be difficult to have enough fuel for firing clay or melting metal in ovens in large quantities. This limited the use of earth to its dry form and metal was almost totally absent from construction works. Another limit was the lack of construction tools and machines. Almost all the work related to architecture was carried out by hand from the sourcing of materials to their implementation on site (3).

Mud bricks are composite chiefly of clay, silt and sand. Due to high sand contents, the surface water absorption of the brick reduces. As Ladakh sustains in cold and dry climatic conditions, the ceiling is mainly built in mud and wood due to their insulating properties and easy availability. The outer walls are insulated by a jacket wall outside the main structural wall. The six-inch gap between the two walls is filled with low cost insulation. The same properties also keep rammed earth buildings cool in summer. Rammed earth is an ancient technique used in monasteries, castles & forts around Ladakh (2).

Fig.7. Courtyard of house in Leh old town
Fig.8. Main door of house in Leh old town

Internal Design and Layout of Settlements

The principal room generally has a balcony towards either the south or the west, from ten to twenty feet in length, and usually about two feet and a half in width, where the family sits to enjoy the sun in the winter season (3). The arrangement of the rooms is very irregular; they are not in continuous stories, but are at all sorts of levels, connected by narrow and low passages. There are two or three large reception rooms, some of them with an opening to the sky in the center, this plan allowing of a large fire burning in winter on the floor of the room. The roofs of these large rooms were supported by columns with the wide-extending head or capital which is so marked a feature in Indian architecture; the columns, and indeed most of the woodwork, were gaily colored, and on the walls are painted sacred pictures (3).

Fig.9. Section of house with different activities

The house does not always have a regular shape, since it is generally adapted to the terrain. The family can add new rooms or build up a new storey if needed. In most cases buildings were not built according to a pre-established design and the family decided everything with the master mason, the rtsikspon,at the beginning of the construction process. The connecting spaces in houses used to be kept to a minimum. Their shape and dimension are not fixed and they depend on the position of the other rooms around them and their vertical connections. If the main connecting space is on the first floor, this would give access to the chansa, the toilet, the sleeping/guest rooms and the rapsal room on the same level (horizontally), linking the main living area to the ground floor and second floor (vertically). Sometimes an outer staircase may lead to the main door at the first floor that is linked to the main connecting space (3).

Fig.10. Plan shape for different terrain
Fig.11. Internal house height

The house is a comprehensive building made of several rooms which are articulated in a series of parts, sometimes added to the house during later construction activities. From the smallest of dwellings, made of a room for the family, a toilet and a simple store-room with stables, farm houses can be large constructions including a vast number of rooms for any purpose and season (3).

Fig. 12

The upper floor is exposed to sunlight keeping it warm during day and heat is retained during the night by employing mentioned indigenous techniques. In almost all cases terrace is used for family gatherings during day and also for drying various articles. The main living room is usually fitted with a characteristic large window facing the Sun. In the cases where the building is diagonally oriented with south the main large window is installed as a corner window, catching the sun-light from both the directions. This window is kept closed most of the times and never opened during winters in order to trap the solar radiation as an indigenous greenhouse mechanism. In some cases this window has been provided with double glazing to enhance the insulating properties (6).

Fig. 13. Example of a building that uses a stable on the ground floor to provide additional heating.
Fig. 14. A building that demonstrates the idea of using a Buffer Zone, situated on the north-facing side, to help insulate the building

All other rooms are usually 3 to 4 m in sizes perhaps due to the limitations of the building materials and also helping in maintaining a warm comfort inside. Larger spaces tend to become cooler quickly. The windows in the other rooms that do not get sunlight are much smaller in size to retain heat within (6).

Fig. 15

Even with limited resources people have been able to adapt to the conditions imposed by the environment. Apart from relying on locally available materials, people developed their houses also according to specific social and spiritual needs. Houses generally have from two to three floors and in some cases a third floor hosts a veranda and a prayer room. The center of the house, pivot of all main indoor activities, is the fireplace room. The house is a ‘comprehensive system’, which includes every aspect of life: from the practical to the spiritual ones (3).

Ladakhi houses are simple yet sophisticated structures refined through centuries. Thick masonry walls provide structural stability and insulation while the scarce wood is employed for posts, beams and window frames (3). In Ladakh region, most of the houses are built at two levels. The ground level is reserved for animals, wood and fodder storage for winters whereas the upper level has the habitable spaces. In most houses, there is a single large room with an oven in the corner which is used for cooling as well as heating the interior spaces. The houses are made entirely of mud, sometimes reinforced with horizontally placed timber members. The walls are either made of sun dried bricks or rammed earth. Initially, the walls are mud plaster while flooring is either in mud or wood. The ceiling height is low to provide the required insulation in all the areas. Every possible care is taken to trap the heat and maintain the temperature inside for a conductive living. Thus, the houses in Ladakh are essentially utilitarian. (2) The shrine room is located on the roof that represents the realm of the gods. The central and most important room is the kitchen where most of the family’s daily activities take place. It is a multi-functional room serving as kitchen, common living room, guest room and bedroom (3). This premise is useful to understand that houses in Ladakh are not defined as mere constructions. The building takes its designation only according to who lives in it, therefore the house walls are the limits for the social groups (3).

Fig. 16
Fig. 17

Hor Yakandi House – This house was built about 100 years ago by a Muslim family from north-western China (Yarkand). It was abandoned 20 years ago when the top floor had collapsed, as the family believed that the nearby stupa gate had an ill effect on the house and the family. It was found out that the house was taller than the stupa, which is widely believed locally to invite harm (7).

Fig. 18

Sofi House – One of the oldest and architecturally important houses, it was built ca. 100 years ago by a family who had migrated from Kashmir to Leh.

Fig. 20


In nowadays time relationship between past and present is very critical issue in globalization the role of vernacular architecture plays very important role in communities identity, culture and past rituals protection. The socio-cultural aspect for vernacular architecture and its sustainability is very important to understand and implement in nowadays practice of new buildings, restoration and conservation. The learning of earthen vernacular architecture are only implemented with indigenous construction techniques and energy efficiency concept in its practice. Learning from earthen construction techniques and vernacular elements are very important for innovation in environmental and socio-economically sustainable design of architecture.

Vernacular architecture is composed of traditional buildings, which represent a morphological response to both environmental and climatic constraints, as well as to the socio-economic and cultural characters of societies. Additionally, the materials and architectural components used are climate responsive and tailored according to distinct locations, and have therefore adapted to seismic, geographic and topographical features, as well as to local climates.


  1. Kumar, A. (2013). Vernacular practices: as a basis for formulating building regulations for hilly areas. International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment2(2), 183-192.
  2. Sharma, A. & Sharma S. (2016), “Vernacular Architecture in Cold & Dry Climate: Ladakh – A Case Study,” International Journal for Scientific Research and Development – IJSRD, 3 (12), 767 – 770.
  3. Bertagnin, M. & De Antoni, D. (2012), Earthen Architecture after Disaster: Initial Risk-reduction Measures in Kanji Village for Conserving Non-Engineered Rural Ladakhi Architecture. In the Proceeding of the 11th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architecture Heritage – Terra 2012. Lima, Peru.
  4. Kaplanian, P. (2015), The Ladakhi House. Reports in Ladakh 1977-1979, 1976. Le Centre pour la Communication Scientifique Directe.
  5. Khan, N. (2013), Vernacular Architecture and Climatic Control in the extreme conditions of Ladakh. In The Proceeding of National conference on Advancements in Sustainable Practices and Innovations in Renewable Energy ASPIRE-2013. Punjab: India. 189-197.
  6. Alexander, A. (2005), Leh Old Town, Ladakh – A Participatory Approach to Urban Conservation, Community-based Upgrading and Capacity-building. Ladakh: International Tibet Heritage Fund.

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