Ladakh, the highest plateau in the North Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, is also the largest province in the state. Spread over 1,00,000 sq. km, the plateau is at almost all places over 9,800 ft. Ladakh is surrounded by some of the highest mountain ranges in the world – extending from Himalayas to Kunlun Ranges in the higher valley of the Indus River.
Historically Ladakh was much larger and included the entire upper Indus valley, Baltistan valley (largely in Pakistan occupied Kashmir) and spread across from Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh to the Nubra Valley in the north over Khardung La. Current day Ladakh borders Tibet in the East, shares boarder with Lahaul and Spiti in the South, Kashmir in the West and Karakoram Range in the North.
Very little is known about Ladakh prior to the 7th and 8th Century – only that during the 1st century Ladakh was part of the Kushana Empire and that Buddhism begin to spread into Ladakh from Kashmir (at the time a Buddhist region) in the 2nd Century (when western Tibet was still practicing the Bon religion). The evidences of Buddhism spreading from Kashmir is evident in the Kashmiri artistic influences that still remain in the wood carvings in ancient monasteries in Alchi and Lamayuru. There are host of Kashmiri Buddhist bronze statues in some monasteries in Ladakh.
There are rock carvings in Ladakh which suggest the area must have been inhabited in Neolithic times. Ladakh consisted of early inhabitants from mixed Indo-Aryan population comprising Mons and Dards.
In 10th Century Lha Chen Palgyi-Gon of Tibet, conquered Ladakh and began what was called the Lha Chen Dynasty. However, very little is known about the rulers that ruled until the 15th Century, vital aspects of Ladakh’s religious practices and cultural were initiated during this period. It was under the Lha Chen dynasty that first texts on Tibetan Buddhism were introduced in Ladakh and adopted by the Monarchs here. To learn and understand Tibetan Buddhism better, monks from Ladakh were sent to Tibetan monasteries to study. This then resulted into Tibetanisation of Ladakhi Buddhism.
In 17th Century came the most dynamic of rulers Chovang Namgyal (descendant of Tibetan royal family), of the Namgyal Dynasty, who conquered Ladakh and soon indulged in extensive building and renovation of Ladakh monasteries (gompas) and Leh Palace. With descent of 18th Century king in Ladakh began appointing village elders to assist in ruling, a practice that is still prevalent.
In the British Raj, Ladakh was merged in the newly created State of Jammu and Kashmir under Maharaja of Kashmir. Ladakhi king, most recent in crowned in 1992, is only a vassal of the J&K Maharajah.
Culture of Ladakh is more inclined toward Tibet than India. The features, physique and attire of Ladakhis are very similar to Tibetans (though Ladakhi costumes have a great deal of identity of their own). Though, initial population of Ladakh was Indo-Aryan but immigration from Tibet, millennium ago has transformed the culture far too much.
Food in Ladakh is common with Tibetan food with thupka (noodle soup) and tsampa, (natively) nagampe, (roasted barley flour) as prominent foods. Architecture of Ladakh has traces of Indian and Tibetan architecture – being largely influenced by Tibetan architecture, the monasteries have Buddhist wheel and two dragons as a common feature with reflects the regions deep Buddhist approach.
Tibetan medicine is traditional healing system in Ladakh for ages, while Ayurveda and Chinese medicine forms are also practiced. Ladakhi society is largely different from other parts of state of Jammu and Kashmir and most parts of India for the high status it provides to women.