Northern India

A short field trip to northern India was undertaken prior to a conference in the region in late October and early November 2006. A number of historic sites were visited, of which three rammed earth ones are described here. The region of Ladakh lies on the Tibetan plateaux to the north of the Indian subcontinent, at the western end of the Himalayas. To the north lie the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to the west Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to the east China and Nepal. The region has acted as a melting pot of cultures, being part of the Silk road, and witnessing episodes of the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain in the 19th century. Opened to tourists in 1972, Ladakh has become a popular tourist destination, but its proximity to Pakistan and the Kashmir region mean its fortunes and future are far from certain. The Indus river flows south to north through the centre of Ladakh, and the sites mentioned all existing in tributary valleys to the north of the river.

A more full description of the historic of Ladakh is given in my PhD thesis, contact me for further details

Rammed earth sites in northern India View Larger Map


The site at Basgo consists of four distinct structures, three temples and a fort. The fort (Basgo Rabtan Lhartsekhar Castle) was built first and is the only structure made from rammed earth. Basgo was the capital of Ladakh before 1357, and it is possible that the castle dates from this period.

The monasteries and Buddha images at the site began to be constructed around 1450. In 1550 the capital of Ladakh was moved from Basgo to Leh, but the site still retained military and religious importance.

The first European account of Ladakh, by Portuguese merchant Diogo d’Almeida by just before 1600 mentions Basgo. The castle withstood a three year siege in 1684, but may have been destroyed by invading Sikhs in around 1819 and definitely by 1843.

In 2000 the site was recognised as one of the world 100 most endangered heritage sites by the World Monuments Fund, and was repaired by local craftsmen under the supervision of John Hurd. The Basgo welfare committee, a social organisation comprising volunteers have taken up the responsibility for the preservation of Basgo, under the active guidance of the Tibetan classics translator guild of New York.

The rammed earth section stands in the centre of the site, and consist of a mainly ruined set of walls, with no roof structure. A large crack is visible in the face of one of the walls which was repaired by in 2000.

Basgo fort, Ladakh

Crack stitch at Basgo fort, Ladakh

Basgo fort, Ladakh


The palace at Shey was capital of Lower Ladakh until 1550, when the kingdom was consolidated and power moved to Leh. Shey was used for two years as a base by the Muslim invader Mirza Haidar Daughlat, between 1534 and 1536, but beyond that little is known of the history of the fort.

All that currently remains is a single rammed earth wall, founded on bedrock and extending up from the road to the current monastery. Windows in the wall suggest that it originally formed part of a larger structure. The method of construction uses angled joints between the rammed earth, similar to that found at Leh.

Shey palace, Ladakh


The fortress at Leh is called Namgyal Tsempo (Victorious Castle), and was constructed in 1555, after the movement of the capital of Ladakh from Basgo to Leh. The king who constructed it, Tashi Namgyal was one of the most successful kings of Ladakh, increasing the size of the kingdom and defeating Muslim invaders. Little else is known of the history of the fortress, although another larger fortress was built below Namgyal Tsempo in the mid 17th century, which probably led to the abandonment of the castle.

The castle is on a ridge outside of the town and consists of a number of buildings, of which the main castle structure of Namgyal Tsempo is described. A watchtower to the north of the castle on the same ridge is also described.

Watchtower, Leh, Ladakh

Nangmal Tsempo, Leh, Ladakh

Nangmal Tsempo, Leh, Ladakh

1 thought on “Northern India

  1. i wanted to know about the recent buildings that are made using earth in ladakh and other parts of india

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