Ladakh, Jammu & the Kashmir Valley - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


The history of Ladakh and Zanskar is, at least until the 19th century, quite separate from that of Kashmir. Petroglyph rock carvings show that Ladakh has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The area’s population has always been sparse, however, and the majority of inhabitants were either nomadic or passing through en route to elsewhere, so little else from this early period remains. Like with Kashmir, our earliest historic records about Ladakh come from the pens of outsiders: the Mons and Dards, the two principal tribes of Ladakh at the time, are referenced in the writings of Herodotus, Megas thenes and Ptolemy, among others.

Basgo Gompa Ladakh India by Niraelnor ShutterstockLadakh’s close affiliation with Tibet has helped to preserve its strongly Buddhist culture © Niraelnor, Shutterstock

In the 1st century ad Ladakh was part of the Kushan Empire, which spread from Bactria (around the Oxus River in central Asia) south to what is now Karachi on the Arabian Sea, across northern India and as far north as Turfan in Xinjiang, China. It was during this period that Buddhism arrived here from elsewhere in India, though the local people were mostly still followers of Bon.

China and Tibet were both expanding their influences in the 8th century, and consequently Ladakh was a hotly contested territory. When the Tibetan Empire broke up in AD842, a court official called Nyima-Gon was able to take control of Ladakh and establish for himself the fi rst Ladakhi dynasty. The local population was by now predominantly Tibetan, and the dynasty spread Buddhism widely.

As the Islamic conquests sped through south Asia in the 1300s, Ladakh aligned itself closely with Tibet, helping it preserve its Buddhist identity. Some Ladakhis did convert to Noorbakshi Islam, but they were in the minority. Ladakh’s most famous royal lineage, the Namgyal dynasty, emerged in the late 15th century. Lhachen Bhagal Namgyal (the Namgyal suffix meaning ‘victorious’) of Basgo overthrew the King of Leh to unite Ladakh under his rule, and his successors built numerous fortifications to expel central Asian raiders and expand their territory into Zanskar, Spiti and, albeit briefly, Nepal. The dominance of the Mughals prevented expansion further west into Kashmir.

The Namgyals were doing well until they decided to side with Bhutan in a war against Tibet. When the Tibetans then invaded Ladakh, the Namgyals were forced to ask the Mughals for assistance in repelling the invaders. Help was granted, but the 1684 Treaty of Tingmosgang severely restricted Ladakh’s independence and required the king to convert to Islam, as well as to build Leh’s first mosque.

In 1834, the Dogra general Zorawar Singh annexed Ladakh on behalf of Gulab Singh and, despite a rebellion in 1842, Ladakh was incorporated into the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Namgyal family were awarded the jagir (a feudal land grant) of Stok, but were otherwise stripped of their power.

Natural history

Eurasian hobby Ladakh India by Everester ShutterstockLadakh is a fantastic birding destination © Everester, Shutterstock


One of the most ubiquitous creatures in the mountains is the fat and fluffy Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana), a close relative of the steppe marmots of Mongolia. They might look cute but keep in mind that the bubonic plague first made the leap to humans from infected marmots! Equally cute (but with rather less of a nasty surprise) are the flying squirrels (Eoglaucomys fimbriatus), which are relatively common in the west of J&K towards the Line of Control (LoC; border between India and Pakistan).

In all parts of the state you will see large numbers of herbivores, in particular domesticated sheep, goats, yak and dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak). The nomads’ flocks are nothing unusual – most of them will be slaughtered at Eid and eaten – but now and then you’ll come across a changthangi, or Pashmina goat, with its highly sought-after fleece that is used to make pashmina shawls.

The rarest of the wild herbivores is the critically endangered but stunningly beautiful hangul (Kashmir stag; Cervus elaphus hanglu). It is a subspecies of European red deer but has been hunted almost to extinction on account of its impressive antlers. The exact number of animals surviving in the wild is is a little uncertain, though a survey in 2015 estimated that there were no more than 186 of them surviving and that they lived mainly in the Dachigam National Park. With a good guide, patience and a little luck, you may also be fortunate enough to see Tibetan antelopes (Pantholops hodgsonii), Tibetan gazelles or goas (Procapra picticaudata), markhor (capra falconeri), Himalayan musk deer (Moschus crysogater) and wild yaks (Bos grunniens).

J&K is home to a number of species of large carnivores, and if you are fortunate enough to see one it will be a highlight of your trip. In Ladakh, particularly in the Hemis National Park, there are majestic snow leopards (Uncia uncia) and you can increase your chances of spotting one, albeit at a distance, by taking a winter snow leopard trek to parts of Ladakh and Zanskar. They are painfully shy of people (and rightly so, given that they’re attractive to illegal hunters), so be sure to carry binoculars, but sightings on these leopard-spotting tours are becoming increasingly common.  You might also see the strange-looking Pallas’s cats (Otocolobus manul) with their distinctive markings. They are indigenous to highland areas of central Asia and are very occasionally caught on camera traps in Ladakh’s Changthang region.

There’s a greater variety, and larger numbers, of large carnivores in the quieter parts of the Kashmir Valley, especially in mountainous areas towards the Line of Control where food is plentiful but the human population is still relatively small. Here you can hope to see Himalayan brown bear (Ursus artos), Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus), Indian wild boar (Sus scrofa cristatus), leopards (Panthera pardus), jackals (Canis aureus), jungle cats (Felis chaus) and Indian wild dogs (Cuon alpinus). If you are travelling by car you’re unlikely to see a thing, so be sure to plan at least a short trek on foot to get away from the roads and out to quieter locations where the wildlife will be more at ease.


Eurasian golden oriole Ladakh India by Martin Pelanek ShutterstockThe canary-yellow colouring of the Eurasion golden oriole makes it one of Ladakh’s most striking birds © Martin Pelanek, Shutterstock

Around 150 species of avifauna have been spotted in J&K. Some of them are resident year round, and many more are seasonal visitors as the state lies beneath migration paths. The official state bird is the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis); there are just 5,000 of these birds worldwide and its only breeding ground outside of China is Tso Moriri in Ladakh.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite the fact that large parts of J&K are high-altitude desert, nearly a quarter of the birds in J&K are aquatic, favouring either muddy riverbanks or pristine waters of the high-altitude lakes. Very common local residents include the little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), the red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) and the common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), which in Kashmiri is called the tech. The pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) is a common summertime visitor, as is the whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), while in the winter months you can expect to see common teals (Anas crecca) and northern pintails (Anas acuta) with their attractive, if rather unusual, bright blue beaks.

In the mountainous areas you will find J&K’s birds of prey. Common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) reside year round near Gulmarg, and the Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo), a kind of falcon that migrates vast distances, spends its summers in the mountains around Pahalgam, where it is also possible to see Himalayan griffons (Gyps himalayensis). The state is also home to black kites (Milvus migrans), bearded vultures or lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus) and, occasionally, long-legged buzzards (Buteo rufinus). J&K also has birds in glorious, bright colours that are a pleasurable sight for amateur and aficionado bird spotters alike. The Eurasian golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), or posh nool as it is called in Kashmiri, is canary-yellow with a fetching black stripe; there’s no prize for guessing the striking colouring on the blue throat (Luscinia svecica); the long-tailed minivet (Pericrocotus ethologus) is flame red and black; and the slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana) has a plumage predominantly in gorgeous pistachio green.

People and culture

Zanskari women Ladakh India by Mazur Travel ShutterstockTraditional Ladakhi dress features jewellery and headdresses inlaid with turquoise, coral and lapis lazuli © Mazur Travel, Shutterstock

According to 2011 census data, the population of J&K state is around 12.5 million, just over 1% of India’s total. The population density is 56 people per square kilometre, which is about one sixth of the national average and there are 889 women for every 1,000 men, a nationwide problem that results from a preference for, and preferential treatment of, male children. The population of J&K has increased by just over 23% in the past decade, which can be attributed to the returning home of refugees as well as a greater life expectancy for residents.

Given its location, Kashmir’s history is one of human migration, in some cases from places as far away as Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus. Some people just passed through; others chose to stay. Many of them left their genetic mark. The largest ethnic groups you are likely to encounter are mentioned here, though their genetic identities are by no means separate due to centuries of inter-marriage with other communities.

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