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.
Heedless of the lands rugged terrain and apparent remoteness,
merchants entrusted their goods to relays of pony transporters who took
about two months to carry them from Amritsar 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. Ironically, it was this
lucrative trade that finally spelt the doom of the independent kingdom.
It attracted the covetous attention of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu
in the early 19th century, who sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade
Ladakh in 1834 AD. There followed a decade of war and turmoil, which
ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north
India. Ladakh, together with the neighbouring province of Baltistan, was
incorporated into the newly created state of Jammu & Kashmir. Just
over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of
India, as a result of which Baltistan became part of Pakistan, while
Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir.