Ladakh is a high altitude, mountainous land in the north of India and to the west of Tibet. Most of Ladakh is over 3,000 m above sea level. Due to its location in the middle of the Himalayas, much of Ladakh is a high altitude desert, as the Himalayas create a rain shadow denying the entry of monsoon clouds into the land. The inhospitable mountain environment means only 1,800 km of road have been laid in Ladakh - of which only 800 km have been surfaced. Currently, only two roads lead into and out of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, both of which are closed for the majority of the year due to snowfall at the high mountain passes. Other than the summer months, then, the only way to transport people or materials into or out of Leh is via air at the military airport in Leh. For other Ladakhis outside of Leh the situation is even worse. Many villages are not connected by road, and for those that are, many are submerged under snow for most of the year. For these villagers, should they need to reach Leh, they must walk many days through the mountain passes. In the winter this task is made considerably more difficult.
Due to its lack of arable land and its rugged terrain, Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions of India. Historically Ladakh was comprised of the current districts of Leh and Kargil in Jammu & Kashmir, the Baltistan valleys and parts of the Indus valley to the west, the remote Zanskar region and Lahaul & Spiti to the south, Aksai Chin and Ngari to the east and the Nubra valley to the north. Contemporary Ladakh now lies entirely within the borders of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s northernmost state, with a geographical area of approximately 86,904 square kilometres. With a population of just 270,126, the population density of Ladakh is on par with countries such as Iceland and Mongolia – this in a country with a population of over 1.2 billion people.
Ladakh has a strong Buddhist heritage and, indeed, historically, Ladakh has been more associated with Tibet than with India. For over a thousand years Ladakhi Buddhists would travel to Tibet for their Buddhist training in the great monasteries and throughout history Ladakh has been incorporated as a Tibetan vassal in various forms. Due to its geographic location close to the famous Silk Road, Ladakh, and the Leh region in particular, became important centres of trade - a role it still holds. To this day, for example, pashm, the material from which famous Kashmiri pashmina scarves and shawls are created, are predominantly imported from Ladakh. In the 18th and 19th centuries, after the Islamic and Sikh conquests of the region, Ladakh was introduced to the Indian sphere of influence where it has remained ever since.
In more recent history Ladakh, due to its strategic location close to the Pakistani border, has been the site of several Indo-Pakistani wars. In 1949-1950 China invaded and occupied Tibet and simultaneously closed the Ladakhi-Tibetan borders - ending an important material and cultural trade route between the two lands. Since the Chinese occupation many Tibetans have fled to Ladakh which now hosts a sizeable number of Tibetan refugees. Since the Indian/Pakistani partition Ladakh has been a part of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir - a predominantly Muslim state administered from the state capital, Srinagar, in the far west of the state, in the Kashmir valley. Due to the differences between the needs of Ladakh and the other western districts of the state, many Ladakhis have requested the central government grant the land Union Territory status.
Ladakhi's have a distinct religious, cultural and linguistic heritage. The Ladakhi culture with its strong Buddhist influence is an important component of the cultural mosaic that is modern-day India.
A Thousand Metres Above (ATMA) is an international non-profit organization that supports healthcare initiatives in the Himalayas.