by Jerry ElengicalJul 04, 2022
Finding one's identity can be a complex experience, especially if one has moved out of their hometown at an early age and has lived in multiple cities through the course of their life. At the same time, staying away from your home could also bring you closer to your roots, tradition, and culture. For Rigzin W Lachic, the owner and creator of Dolkhar—a boutique hotel in Ladakh, India—the process of bringing life to the hotel was a chance to reconnect with her identity and give birth to a physical entity that reflects the deep-rooted culture and history of the valley, perched between the Himalayan mountain ranges. Speaking with STIR, Lachic shares, “I spent all my life outside of Ladakh, first studying in different parts of India and then working in Tokyo and then in a startup in Delhi, and somehow I never felt quite satisfied with my life. Every year, when I would come back to Ladakh for my summer holiday my grandmother would ask me whether my education would help me give back to the people of "our land". It was only after the sudden demise of my grandmother that her question came back to me—it made me introspect and I realised that my purpose lay in going back to our land."
Reviving the old structure on site and breathing in multiple traditional design traits to it, Dolkhar was Lachic's creative initiative as an owner, an exploration as a Ladakhi, and a reminiscence as a granddaughter. “My grandmother, much like most people from her generation, spent all her well-balanced life very close to nature: tending to her orchard, taking care of the livestock, and farming through our short spring-summer season. She believed she was an integral part of the natural ecosystem and not above it and that is fundamental to why I wanted to create Dolkhar. I named Dolkhar after my grandmother, in aspiration of sustaining the space in a way that she would have imagined and nurtured." Located at Tukcha in Leh, a city in Ladakh known for its scenic landscapes of purple and grey mountains, shades of blue in its rivers, and flora and fauna unique to it, the Dolkhar intends to frame these features through the eyes of its people.
With the rapid development of the tourism sector in Leh, the face of the region is also shapeshifting to accommodate the new era of the hospitality industry. Lachic’s response to this change is rooted in her cultural background rather than modern transitions. Therefore, Dolkhar also takes shape as a manifestation of Ladakh’s essence, traditions, familiar practices, and local initiatives. Lachic says, “When I moved back to Ladakh initially, I knew the tourism industry if moulded in the right direction, was a very lucrative business idea. I also realised that although our water crisis, waste management problems, and sewage problems are attributed to tourism, it is not tourism itself, but the lack of an ecosystem that can sustainably manage the influx of tourists that causes these problems. The exponential increase in tourism that we are witnessing now is great for Ladakh’s economy, but it is also dangerous if not executed consciously, in the context of Ladakh—the land and its people. It was this larger vision along with my desire to redefine my relationship with my idea of a home, that Dolkhar was born, a boutique hotel that integrates a little piece of Ladakh with the rest of the world while keeping central its values of conscious, sustainable, and contextual travel. Dolkhar was my answer to what tourism in Ladakh could possibly look like if it was built around love and respect for Ladakh, its people, and the planet."
Though her vision was clear, Lachic had to plan carefully to revive the old structure on the site and revive it in a land that was more than just a site. “As mentioned before, I spent the majority of my childhood outside of Ladakh but the land on which Dolkhar was built holds a very special, almost sacrosanct space in my heart. The property belonged to my grandmother and it was where she spent the majority of her life nurturing the land—planting and watering trees, and taking care of her sweet cows, yaks, donkeys, and sheep. This was when the landscape of the now fairly developed city was very different. It is only in the last two decades that this area has seen a rise in the number of buildings being constructed.”
While Lachic has carefully spent four years crafting Dolkhar, being an active part of every process, be it construction or planning, she politely refuses to be called the "architect of the project". Narrating the inception of the project, she says, “It began with my encounter with Paul Mirmont, an architect but also a tourist, who'd been visiting Ladakh since the 70s. Paul helped me ideate during the very initial stage of the project. In 2010, when I was volunteering at SECMOL, the first batch of students to complete their studies in Earth Construction, it included a young student—Tsewang Gyaltsen, whom I had promised to work with if I ever decided to build something in Ladakh, and eight years later, he came on board as the contractor of the project. My initial quest for modern solutions that kept the essence of traditional practices alive, also made me meet Mr Satprem, an architect based in Auroville who designed the Auram 3000 that produces Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks (CSEB). Instead of the traditional mud adobe, we made bricks using soil from Taru village that were stabilised and compressed to cater to the changing weather of Ladakh, specifically the increase in rainfall."
"As I wanted to construct using traditional techniques, we then brought on board Mr Ajang Angchuk Nye—a gentleman in his 60s who had been working on constructing monasteries in Ladakh since the age of 12. Angchuk hand-laid the traditional roong of talu and ldungma for the entire place and also helped as a consultant for traditional architectural techniques. Mr Jamyang Tsepal, a second-generation wood artisan from Matho village—a region that was known for its woodcraft—took on all the Ladakhi woodwork including creating the beams and pillars known in Ladakhi as Ka/ Kaju and Mak ldu. Nazir Din along with Inekhab Alam, were the structural engineers who helped validate the structural integrity of parts that were not traditional in their design but in the building technique and also helped us put all designs to paper. I spent a lot of time travelling across Ladakh in my initial year, to gather inspiration, and that is where I met Berenge—a French landscape artist, married to a Ladakhi, who helped me put all my thoughts and ideas together." It is the compiled efforts of all these minds that can be witnessed in Dolkhar, now. Lachic further mentions how along with creating a sanctum of vernacular architecture, their vision was to make the building, its functions and everything it stands on, to be sustainable. Their means to achieve this vision was to build locally. “I believe our first vision of the space came from the idea that practices cannot really be sustainable if they are not local. The current state of local architecture, craft, and food is a great indicator of how disassociated Ladakh is from its cultural origin. We wanted to take tourism in Ladakh to the future without leaving behind anything that truly made Ladakh, "Ladakh". Therefore, the assimilation of local craft and architecture is of paramount importance to Dolkhar’s core identity."
Laid across different levels of the contoured site, the built structures of Dolkhar can be categorised into three—the front building, the seven duplex villas, and the residential space. "The front building for Dolkhar where the reception, restaurant, bar, and spa are located was built as a recreation of our ancestral home. Unfortunately, the old house, built by four generations, was not structurally sound and therefore, had to be taken apart for the most part, but we tried to keep in the process, as many of the structural elements as possible. All the wooden window panels were either used as is or repurposed," shares Lachic. The seven duplex villas, similar to old Ladakhi structures, have hand-laid three-foot stone north walls on the ground floor, and have rabsals—local balconies of the region. Currently, under construction, the third area on the site is the residential building, being designed by Lachic and her father—Stanzin Thinless who in Lachic’s words “went above and beyond to learn how to use the software ‘ArchiCAD’ in order to help us find the right balance, between his and my vision of the space.” Talking about the architecture of Dolkhar and its local Ladakhi sensibilities, she adds, “Structures at Dolkhar are made out of locally sourced materials, using local techniques of construction, and by local artisans. For instance, we have used Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks (CSEB) for the building, local willow and poplar wood for the roofs, traditional columns and beams for structural support, and we have collaborated with over 40 Ladakhi craftspeople from different villages on embellishing the interiors with the use of local materials.”
Bringing sustainable lifestyle into the cuisine as well, Dolkhar has an in-house restaurant called Tsas. Built around Dolkhar’s kitchen garden, Tsas is a hyper-local, avant-garde vegetarian restaurant, set in an apple and apricot orchard within the resort, that sources from local, ethical, sustainable producers to showcase re-imagined modern Ladakhi cuisine. Furthermore, vernacularism and craftsmanship are reflected in the interior design as well, through a material palette of stone, wood, cane, and semi-passive adobe construction. "What characterises Dolkhar is the use of local materials. The villas here essentially serve as a showcase for some wonderful local craft techniques. From our walls, furnishing, and basins, to our lights, laundry bags, and basins—we have used and highlighted to the best of our ability, the plethora of local craft and architectural techniques that call Ladakh home. The stones used to make the statement exposed walls in the villas were sourced from the idyllic village of Chilling. The partitions for the outdoor seating area were made using a very special local technique of weaving wet willow branches. The lighting in the cottage was made from Umbu—a locally sourced material that uses leather to tie elements together. The furnishings inside the villas—the cushion covers, throws, and rugs were woven by women artisans from Kharnakling, banded together by a textile organisation called 'Superb Ladakh'. The pebbles in the shower were handpicked from the banks of the Indus, and our wash basins were handcrafted by the one-stone worker of Turtuk who sources his stones from the banks of the Shyok river. The slate stones used on the terrace are from the third highest motorable pass in the world—Tanglang La and slate stones used on the footpaths outside the cottage from the villages, Chilling and Likir.”
"We also used fuller’s earth or as we call it here in Ladakh 'markalak’ from Spitukas—both as a binding plaster along with straws and as paint to give our cottage its pale shade of an almost white, brown. To keep true to our intentions of not using market-bought paints we also used red clay from the mountains of Basgo to add a dash of maroon to the structures. The charming side tables in the cottages were created out of old tree stumps found on site, and lights in the reception area were from wood waste left over from the construction. The laundry bags were fashioned out of waste fabric and notepads out of recycled paper by an organisation called PAGIR which is an association of the differently abled individuals of Ladakh. And finally, we also have an exhibit in our dining area of pots and figurines, made by the last two potters of Ladakh—a very inspiring father-son duo," shares Lachic.
Talking about what Lachic would want to redo in the project, she happily shares that there is fortunately none. However, she says, “Since initial budgetary constraints didn't allow for the space to be solar powered, I do wish to eventually and hopefully, sometime in the foreseeable future, generate all the energy we need, at Dolkhar itself. The whole developmental process at Dolkhar also aims at creating a zero-waste and zero-plastic ecosystem. Designing structures in the context of where they exist was fundamental for us, as it ensures a significantly lower environmental impact, supports the local economy, and reinforces the identity of the space we create.”
At the culmination of vernacular materials, sustainable architecture approaches, locally crafted elements and participatory construction by the locals and stakeholders alike, Dolkhar takes shape as an extended version of Ladakh’s folklores. Even though the project was close to Lachic’s heart, taking up a project of this scale and realising it, to its full potential, couldn’t have been an easy task. "The journey so far, for me, has been beyond rewarding but yes, it has come with its fair share of challenges. As a young woman, who had lived outside of the valley for most of my life, it took me a while to rediscover the land and identify through the process of really assimilating the ideas and elements that denied Ladakh. Being a young woman in construction also was not simple, I had to often go out of my way to ensure I was being taken seriously, by vendors and labourers who were mostly just waiting for an older man to give instructions.
The landscape itself also poses its own challenges. Due to the very harsh winters we bear, the construction season at best is only six months long; which is why the project took four and a half years to complete. Dealing with bureaucracy too came with its own cumbersome load. Financing my project through a state finance initiative, that is provided to entrepreneurs, in order to help promote development in erstwhile J&K also resulted in making many, often empty, trips to innumerable offices. Then there’s the nightmare of paperwork and NOCs that really no entrepreneur dreams of."
Concluding our conversation on Dolkhar, Lachic shares, “I started this project not knowing what the very common word ‘talu’ (willow) meant, to now deeply understanding and appreciating all that makes Ladakh, its traditions, culture, and people. This project has not only brought me a whole lot closer to my own land but also made me eternally grateful to have been born here—a place where nature is so magnanimous that one truly remains grounded and humble, realising the insignificance of us.” Dolkhar is a testament to how architecture can not only bring the people using it but also the people creating it, closer to the identities it beholds; while building a place for tourists to experience Ladakh and platform local craftsmanship and culture, Lachic also gave an identity to her own connection to the place, its people, and culture. Dolkhar is not an architectural case study of an old structure that was retrofitted to house a new function and typology. Rather, it is a story of building from grandmother’s stories, local folklore, a land’s history, local traditions, and culture. Dolkhar realises an attempt at reviving familiarity in a place. If so, can sensitive initiatives in hospitality architecture revive lost traditions and modernise cultural practices? While placing identity over tourism, can the hospitality sector enter a new era of community tourism that is sensitive to local cultures, lifestyle, and people?