It was a Saturday morning in the middle of tourist-heavy July in Ladakh, and the Stok Palace was humming with visitors. The Leh valley had been seeing some pretty heavy unseasonal showers, but that didn’t deter day-trippers from visiting the quaint little museum of the Ladakhi royal family. As I was entering my room—okay, make that luxurious palace suite—a honeymooning couple passed by. I heard the woman whisper to her partner, “I want to stay here too!” I totally sympathised with her. After all, there possibly isn’t a better place to stay at, in and around Leh.
The Stok Palace was built in 1822, as a smaller retreat, since the main palace of the Namgyals was the Leh Palace, some 15km away, across the Indus. In a decade, however, Ladakh had been annexed into the Dogra kingdom of Kashmir and the Namgyals were made the jagirdars of Stok village. An old and proud kingdom had ceased to exist.
But this magnificent palace is no mean retreat. Smaller and cosier than the Leh Palace, it sits pretty atop a small hill at the mouth of the Stok Valley, overlooking a huge expanse of the Indus Valley. Stok is very much a living palace, home to the 50-year-old king, HE Raja Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal. Renovated and restored, the palace was turned into a heritage hotel about a decade ago. These days, it offers discerning visitors a selection of four suites, a royal suite and the queen’s bedroom. Stok Palace has become known as one of the most unique royal palace hotels.
We were received at the hotel by the manager, the mild-mannered Sudhamma. A social worker and friend to the king, Sudhamma is very proud of the cultural heritage of Ladakh, and he tells us that the Palace is essentially a distillation of a way of life. We are eager to find out.
Our suite is a lavishly appointed room dominated by a huge double bed. Colourful murals in the Tibetan style adorn the ceiling and the room itself is a delightful mix of pastel shades and traditional wood and mud-brick stylings. The bathroom is modern and luxuriously appointed. The wooden balcony is a highlight, looking out on the palace’s huge front courtyard, dominated by a huge tarchen, a flagpole that’s commonly found in front of Tibetan Buddhist homes. It signifies that the household contains all the main Mahayana sutras as well as the Prajnaparamita manuscript. Since the palace is really a home, albeit a very luxurious one, it is quite appropriately placed.
After a quick but delicious lunch in the lavishly decorated reception room, Sudhamma takes us on a tour. The interior of the building is dominated by a central courtyard with another, smaller tarchen tied to a yak head, with shaded balconies and small staircases leading off to the various wigs of the palace. We go up a short flight of stairs to the museum, which is open to all visitors. The main objects of interest here are the royal family’s collection of thangkas, some of which are over 400 years old but retain a vividness of colour that’s a marvel to behold. Other rooms in the museum hold ceremonial dresses of the king and queen, beautiful jewellery, copper pots for serving chang, exquisite jade and porcelain cups, a collection of modest weaponry and a huge royal perak that was worn by the queen of old.
The palace has its own monastery, with a priest from the Chemrey monastery officiating for a year at a time. It’s a large space dominated by a panel featuring large statues of the Buddha and Padmasambhava. There are also some exquisite little bronzes here, some of which are very old. From the monastery, we descend to the throne room of the king. Like most of the interiors, this too is colourfully painted and the ceilings are supported by the typical Ladakhi wooden T-beams, carved and painted gorgeously. The throne itself is an upraised pedestal, with a large ceremonial back dominated by a sculpture of two deer flanking the wheel of dharma. The king of Ladakh is a chakravartin raja in the old Buddhist monarchical tradition and this shows in the throne room’s artwork.
Of the other suites, the most spectacular is the queen’s room in another wing of the palace. A small, dark corridor leads to a low wooden door with a huge ornate knocker in the shape of two dragons, surrounded by the eight auspicious Buddhist signs. Inside is a huge room with old frescoes adorning the walls and a majestic four-poster bed. There’s an adjoining living area with a great view of the Indus Valley. Photos of erstwhile queens and some of their memorabilia, like an old transistor radio, add to the room’s charm, which manages to be both grand yet understated.
There’s much to do when you’re at the palace. The pretty village of Stok is named after the strong mountain stream that flows through it, draining the Stok mountain range to the south. You can take a leisurely walk through the village, past its swaying poplar, apricot and willow groves, to the local monastery and the immense statue of the Buddha that’s come up near the gompa. If you have more time, you can also head deeper into the mountains for a short trek to the Stok Kangri base camp.
Within the palace, visit the royal kitchen and take part in impromptu cooking sessions. It’s a large space, a more lavish version of the traditional Ladakhi kitchen with its stone hearth with a chimney overlaid with gilded signs of the auspicious symbols and layered rows of copper utensils in which delicious fare is cooked every day. You could also just laze around at the ramparts of the palace, next to the small café, and watch the unending play of sunlight on the vast Indus Valley, as the mighty river moves past the distant Shey and Thikse gompas.
We had our dinner with the king on our second and final night at the palace. His family is still held in great respect by Ladakhis. Jigmed Wangchuk is an urbane man who divides his year between Stok and New Delhi and he’s passionate about the conservation of Ladakhi culture. Over a delicious meal of gyathuk and mutton momos, Jigmed deplored the mess that Leh has become. “When I decided to open up the palace to let visitors enjoy our hospitality, I was of the firm opinion that the palace should remain a home, and not become a soulless hotel that so many royal palaces in India have become,” he said. In that he has certainly succeeded.
Stok Palace is open only in the summer months, but three lavish villas have come up in the royal gardens just outside the palace walls, which will be open all year round. Tastefully designed in a traditional manner, they would be perfect, the king says, to enjoy Ladakh’s winter. “There’s nothing like it,” he smiles. Just as there’s nothing like the Stok Palace.
Location Stok village/15km from Leh
Accommodation 4 suites, 1 royal suite, 1 queen’s bedroom and three garden villas.
Tariff Suites ₹17,250, royal suite ₹28,750, queen’s bedroom ₹34,500. All inclusive and on double occupancy. Heritage villas: ₹32,000 for four people, all inclusive
Contact +91-124-4062480, stokpalaceheritage.com