PROJECT: Central Asian Museum
LOCATION: Tsas Soma, Chutayrangtak, Leh
For centuries, Ladakh was at the crossroads of Central Asian caravan trade. However, in the mid-20th century when the cross-border trade stopped, Ladakh fell into relative geographic and cultural isolation. Like few other regions, its culture shaped by the transmission of goods and ideas from such disparate regions as Tibet, Yarkand, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and city-states like Samarkand and Bukhara, connected by the various branches of the Silk Road. The Leh’s Central Asian Museum commemorates this important aspect of Ladakh’s history.
INITIATORS AND COLLABORATORS:
The Central Asian Museum in Leh and the Trans-Himalayan Research Library got supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir State, the Shelly-and-Donald Rubin Foundation, Max Ma, the China Exploration & Research Society (Hong Kong), Virginia Yee, and the Embassy of Finland in New Delhi.
The museum locates in the Tsas Soma garden, formerly the site of Leh’s caravanserai, earlier the site of the town’s first mosque established by Muslim traders in the 17th century. After Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) restored the Masjid Sharif in 2007 together with the Anjuman Moin-ul Islam society, THF and Leh Old Town Initiative (LOTI). They further designed and build the museum in the Tsas Soma Garden. Together with local artisans, international volunteers, and students, André Alexander designed the concept for the main building. Moreover, by putting a contemporary twist on a traditional Himalayan fortress tower, the concept fulfilled.
The museum designed in the shape of a Tibetan-Ladakhi fortress tower, with a contemporary edge. The square ground plan is based on ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim places of worship, with a circumambulation corridor that becomes a passage to the upper floors. Each of the four-floor levels has a different architectural interior, reflecting the thematic organization of the building.
There are three gates to access the museum. Over the entrance gate of the museum, it is the Trans-Himalayan Research Library, and next to it is the Sharif Masjid and the Kashmir bakery building, (now the museum extension building). Consequently, each floor opens in the center – which brings natural light through the four floors – and encircles by a passage leading to a stairway to the next floor.
GROUND FLOOR PLAN:
The ground floor level is the Ladakh floor and serves as an introduction. The ceiling and timber elements crafted in the ancient royal Ladakhi style, inspired by the Tsemo palace tower in Leh. In addition, this floor informs about the history of Ladakh, from the earliest signs of human civilization manifested in petroglyphs, through the reigns of the Ladakhi kings up to the present. Further on display, it has artifacts connected with the daily life of caravan traders and traditional Ladakhi household items.
FIRST FLOOR PLAN:
Further, the first level shapes the early style of Kashmir, with Bactrian-influenced fluted columns, based on those found in one of the older Masjids in Srinagar. This is the Central Asian floor, here will be the items of Central Asian Muslim states and regions, such as dresses, carpets, and other handicrafts and trade items, as well as general information about Muslim culture. The regions featured include Baltistan, Kashmir, Altashar (today Chinese Xinjiang), and Uzbekistan.
SECOND FLOOR PLAN:
Level two designed in classical Tibetan style, with timber elements and carvings copied from homes of the Lhasa aristocracy. Also, the second-floor level is the Tibet floor. It has artifacts from the Lhasa-Leh trade, the bi-annual Ladakhi Lopchag mission to Lhasa, and information about the Buddhist culture, art, and architecture of Ladakh.
THIRD FLOOR PLAN:
The third floor interior decorated in the style of Baltistan, with long elegant pillar capitals and flower-pattern carvings. The third-floor level has an open gallery on the outside, allowing a 360-degree view over Leh and central Ladakh. The central room, in Baltistan architectural style, serves for changing exhibitions and multi-media installations. In addition, it is the first exhibition which consists of historic photographs depicting Central Asian caravan trade. From the collection of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in Delhi and the Herrnhuth Archive in Germany.
Visitors exit the museum’s main building by an iron bridge into the Tsas Soma gardens, an oasis in the center of Leh, with ancient willow trees and a water channel. The buildings composing the museum complex all adjoin this garden. On the far side of the garden will be the Ladakhi Kitchen museum, providing the ‘Changsa’ atmosphere and experience of a traditional Ladakhi kitchen.
The construction materials are traditional Ladakhi materials of stone, timber, and mud. The walls of the museum built in solid stone masonry with mud mortar. Also, the style of the masonry, individually faced stones embedded in layers of splinter stones, has the same style used in Lhasa, and also in the remains of monuments of the Gandhara civilization. The stones are local granite, quarried at Shey village, the old capital of Ladakh. The mortar is a local mud mortar, a mix of soil, water, and markalak-clay.
In Tibetan architecture, the embedding, or ‘braiding’, of large stones with small ones gives walls certain flexibility to resist tremors. All the details carved on-site.
Firstly, the tall and narrow windows placed asymmetrically on the facades, designed to help give a contemporary, modern outlook.
Secondly, the main door is inspired by the gates of mansions in the old town of Leh.
Thirdly, the floors are paved with a slate stone traditionally used for monastic courtyards.
Fourthly, the ceilings are decked traditional Ladakhi style with willow twigs.
On the typical Himalayan flat roof, the slate was laid on top of the traditional mud layers for waterproofing. Historic elements donated by local community members have been integrated throughout the buildings. These include three lintels, carved with Buddhist and Islamic floral patterns, as well as two dozen historic windows, most of them in the Kashmiri tracery style.
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