Day 1 PM: Exploring the school surroundings – an introduction to the old town

Andre Alexander looking at plans for the Museum in the Old Town

We gathered on the roof of Lala’s Café to meet Andre Alexander, a specialist in Tibetan and Ladakhi architecture. He gave a fascinating background to the Tibet Heritage Fund’s restoration work in Lhasa and Leh  which uses traditional methods with minimal modern additions. An informative discussion followed on the merits of different construction materials, earthquake and flood resistance features, local skills and resources, and how to engage with the local community.

As we wandered with Andre through the tightly packed buildings of the old town, we explored traditional houses and construction details, and were invited in for tea by one of residents!

The tour finished at the leafy construction site of Andre’s Central Asian Museum where craftsmen were honing stones and whittling timber. This will be the first Museum in Leh and is a demonstration of the strength and beauty of local technology and craft. The group left feeling inspired by the contemporary interpretations of traditional technology. There was plenty to discuss over dinner.


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Day 1 AM: At the school

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Preparing to meet the pupils

Katherine and Lucy S gave the workshop group a tour of the school and introduced the four broad thematic areas that the workshop will be exploring: Safety, Sustainability, Culture and heritage, Learning Environments.

In preparation for meeting the children, the group considered what participation meant to them and shared their ideas. Sarah introduced the idea of Participatory Rural Appraisal – an empowering way to work in a community, where surveys are abandoned in favour of collaborative discussion and mapping of ideas.

We discussed how maps and diagrams can be drawn with the community, to locate people, families and resources, and consider density, topography and geography. The process is the first step to building trust with the community and making sure that information generated is shared, not extracted, and that we can find the answers to questions we may never have thought to ask.


We all introduced ourselves and our project to teacher Tsering Tashi and 15 of his pupils. A world map, a map of Leh, and an amusing collection of passport photos helped us all to understand who we are and where we had come from.

Tsering Tashi  gave us an overview of the school day and the curriculum. We were interested to learn that it’s a six day week  and there’s a long winter break when the school buildings are too cold for learning. Many of the children come from far away villages to live with extended family in Leh during the school terms.


Balloons helped the pupils to show us the things they really liked or disliked about their school.  In small groups, warm coloured balloons were tied to good things, and cold coloured balloons to bad. We came together to discuss the significance and locations of the balloons. The children identified greenery and flowers, summer shade, and winter sun as things they liked. The negative they identified included rubbish heaps, poor toilet and sanitation facilities and the resulting bad smells, and the lack of light and space in the classrooms.

“We met with the girls from the school and conducted an exercise to determine areas of the school they did and did not like.  All the girls said they disliked areas close to open drains.

The school is accessed through a gate to enter which it is necessary to cross an open drain.  An offshoot of this drain then continues along the pathway towards the main class room buildings before turning to pass in front of the canteen.  This situation causes an unpleasant smell, especially in the summer heat, and attracts flies.  Not only does this create a negative first impression of the school, it also poses a health risk to the girls. 

It was also interesting to note the psychological effect caused by a grey water channel that irrigates the plants.  This channel is close to the water pump and the smell coming off it makes the girls fear the water provided by the pump which they say makes them ill.

As a member of the group tasked to look at safety we identified the water and drainage situation as an area for improvement.  We are interested in the possibility of a reed bed filtration system which would also increase the greenery in the school grounds, or the idea of re-routing and covering the drains.  [The following day on a tour of the Druk white lotus school we were advised that a reed bed filtration system was tried there but that the harsh winters killed off the plants, therefore this strategy might not be suitable in this region]” – Lisa Hunter

Lunch & volleyball

Over lunch some groups continued to chat and play together informally. The conversations evolved and the participants were able to get a better sense of the pupils’ lives in and outside school.

We said our goodbyes, leaving the school for the nearby Old Town for the afternoons’ activities.


“A great wakeup call at the Leh Government Girls’ School: the day begins with some rhythmic Ladakhi drumming, echoing across the school grounds. The girls perform marching band exercises every morning, while some skilfully play the drums.  We had a wonderful demonstration, even though their instruments were falling apart.” – Mena Shah 

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Workshop programme

The workshop programme

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The workshop kicks off

The workshop kicked off  tonight with a special screening  ‘Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh’ introduced by Richard Hendin from ISEC.

Ancient Futures [provides] a richly intimate look at the traditional culture of Ladakh, and an unflinching description of the psychological, social, and environmental costs of western-style ‘modernization’. The film chronicles some of the negative impacts that unfolded in Ladakh after it was opened to “development” in 1975. The story of Ladakh teaches us about the root causes of our own social and ecological challenges and provokes viewers to re-examine the meaning of “progress”. Profound insights into what the modern world can learn from traditional cultures make Ancient Futures an inspiration for all who seek a better world.

–         ISEC (International Society for Ecology & Culture)

This was a thought provoking introduction. Of particular relevance to this workshop was the analysis of the imposed education system which seems to result in the distancing of the pupils from their cultural heritage and traditional modes of community employment.

We were delighted to invite Richard Hendin to eat with us afterwards enabling a lively and informative discussion about the issues raised in the film.

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First team members arrive in Ladakh

Welcome to the blog for the 2011 Architecture Sans Frontieres-UK workshop in India.

We landed in Leh today to start the ground work.

Watch this space to see how the workshop unfolds!

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