For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet. The kingdom attained its greatest geographical extent and glory in the early 17th century under the famous king Singge Namgyal, whose domain extended across Spiti and western Tibet right up to the Mayum-la, beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.
Gradually, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was politically stable, Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and Central Asia. For centuries it was traversed by caravans carrying textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, dyestuffs, narcotics, etc. to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Khotan. On this long route, Leh was the midway stop, and developed into a bustling entrepot, its bazars thronged with merchants from distant countries.
The famous pashmina (better known as cashmere) also came down from the high-altitude plateaux of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet, through Leh, to Srinagar, where skilled artisans transformed it into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth. Like the land itself, the people of Ladakh are generally quite different from those of the rest of India. The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The original population may have been Dards, an Indo-Aryan race down from the Indus and the Gilgit area.
Ladakh’s earliest inhabitants were nomadic yak herders, but permanent settlements were established along the Indus by Buddhist pilgrims travelling from India to Mt Kailash in Tibet. Buddhism soon became the dominant religion, though the minority Brokpa tribe still follows Bonism: the religion that preceded Buddhism in Tibet.
By the 9th century, the Buddhist kings of Ladakh had established a kingdom extending all the way from Kashmir to Tibet, protected by forts and dotted with vast Buddhist gompas (monasteries). Different sects struggled for prominence, but the Gelukpa (Red Hat) order was introduced by the Tibetan pilgrim Tsongkhapa in the 14th century, and it soon became the major philosophy in the valley.
Simultaneously, Muslim armies began to invade Ladakh from the west. In the 16th century, the province fell briefly to Ali Mir of Balistan, but Buddhism bounced back under Singge Namgyal (1570–1642), who established a new capital at Leh. Ladakh was finally annexed into the kingdom of the Dogra Rajas of Jammu in 1846.
Since then, Ladakh has been ruled as a sub-district of Jammu and Kashmir. In response to anti-Buddhist discrimination, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) was formed in 1996, lobbying for the creation of a Union Territory of Ladakh. Since then, candidates from the Ladakh Union Territory Front have lead the field at elections, but with the state government profiting heavily from Ladakh’s tourism industry, autonomy is likely to remain a distant dream.