For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10t h 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 left up to the Mayum-la, beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake MansarovarGradually, 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 ofTibet 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.
But immigration from Tibet, perhaps a millennium or so ago, largely overwhelmed the culture of the Dards and obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern and central Ladakh, today's population seems to be mostly of Tibetan origin. Further west, in and around Kargil, the people's appearance suggests a mixed origin.