Tsemo Castle, Namgyal Tsemo, or Leh Fort complex, a religious, historical, and physical landmark in Leh town, seats on a hill that is within easy walking distance of Leh Palace. The castle inspired many Ladakhis to use word “Namgyal” as their surname.
Several rows of colorful prayer flags flutter across the complex. The complex comprises two Buddhist temples, a watch tower, and an ancient castle managed by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
About five centuries old protected public monument is an abandoned defensive structure desperately requiring an overhaul. A part of the castle and watch tower has survived the onslaught of time. In the upper part, a balcony of wood is still present. The timber reinforcements offer resistance against earthquakes. The structure standing on a rubble base features thick walls.
The fort-palace was probably built during the reign of Tashi Namgyal who ruled Leh in the sixteenth century. Since the castle is built on the highest point in Leh, the complex lends itself to 360 degree views of the town. The views of Leh Palace, three mosques, airport, Army Core, Shanti Stupa, Lamdon School, Skamper, houses, fields, prayer drums, and chortens provide many options for a landscape photographer. Dusty Skamper looks like a symmetrical and well-planned part of the town from the complex. The “tech-ready” complex offers good mobile phone signals for both Airtel and BSNL post paid services.
The dark red color temples precede the castle in altitudinal hierarchy. The temples were built to celebrate victory over Turks. Therefore, the hillock is also called the victory peak. Monks from Sankar Gompa perform priests’ duties in the shrines.
The Gonkhang, dedicated to guardian deities (Vajra and consort), features a portrait of King Tashi Namgyal. However, the statues of deities always remain covered except on a few festive occasions. For example, in August, rituals are performed at the temple daily and faces of the deities are revealed.
Built in the fifteenth century, Namgyal Tsemo Gompa (Maitreya Temple), the first temple near the staircase leading to the castle, houses a two-storey tall image of Buddha, manuscripts, and frescoes focusing on various Buddhist gurus and Bodhisttavas. Oil bottles occupy the corners of the temple. Both the temples are dark. Carry a torch to see the interior.
Walking to the complex is a good option, as the short hike is not only good for acclimatizing for longer high altitude treks but also unfolds the lovely scenery. Three trails from different directions end at the foot of the complex:
- A cemented staircase starting in Chubi
- Near Lamdon School, a trail across the dusty slope merges into the road connecting to the complex
- A snaky muddy trail starting near the main entrance of the Leh Palace
From Lamdon School
- On Sankar Road in Chubi, walk until the Craft Centre signboard.
- Take right turn.
- Walk until Lamdon School which is on the right side.
- Enter into the muddy street on the right of the school.
- After a few steps, take left and then keep left until white chortens and other structures erected on the slope on the back of the complex are within the sight.
- Follow any of the trails marked on the slope. All these trails merge into the main road that ends at the complex entry point.
From Leh Palace
Take the steep muddy narrow trail starting a few steps before the main gate of the palace.
Locals cover the trail in just fifteen minutes. A moderately fit person from plains can walk the trail within half an hour or less. Spare a few minutes to watch the views and take pictures while going up.