Cut off from the rest of Kashmir by snowfall for up to six months of the year, Ladakh is accessible in winter by a bumpy and spectacular flight. Surrounded by walls of Himalayan rock and ice, the valley - a three-day drive from the Dalai Lama's Dharamsala residence, where the Tibetan government in exile is based - is home to India's most remote and undisturbed Tibetan community. The population is a mix of indigenous Ladakhis, Tibetan refugees whose families fled following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Muslims and Buddhist converts from Punjab.
Isolation has preserved an almost medieval tradition, evident in the flat-roofed, mud-brick, whitewashed houses and the wood-fire bakeries that make steaming-hot tingmo bread on cold mornings. The introduction of tourism, electricity and the internet is bringing change to Ladakh, though. The main town of Leh - dotted with chortens and stupas (Buddhist monuments), drokpa (nomadic) women selling dried apricots and vegetables, and stores proffering yak butter - is also the base for dozens of trekking companies, tourist guesthouses and restaurants promising to cater to western taste.
Still, prayer flags stream from monasteries. Images of Buddha and the red and yellow ornamentation on buildings reflect a continual Buddhist presence - one that is apparent in the crafts that artisans in Leh work hard to market and maintain in the face of growing outside influences. The paintings in Raj Kumar's tiny studio-shop are intricate, detailed and skilled works similar to Mughal miniatures, with delicate gold embossing and depictions of the hunting trips, feasts and festivals that typified the Rajasthani nobility.
Ladakhi life barely features. Kumar says this is because his artwork is produced mainly off site. "We actually import almost all of the paintings from Rajasthan," he says. "We have artists there who can produce this high standard of work cheaply, and the tourists who come here buy the images because they are classic Indian works." It illustrates a major problem in maintaining traditional Ladakhi art: a tight market drowning in cheap imports from Nepal, China and elsewhere in India.
Ladakh's artistic traditions borrow heavily from Tibetan Buddhism. Wooden choktse tablets, carvings of animals on the wooden lintels and pillars of homes and replicas of the painted Buddha statues that overlook monasteries are indicative of the local culture. Bright turquoise, silver and pearl jewellery adorns the ears and necks of Ladakh's women, and tailors do a brisk trade in tapered silk Ladakhi hats.
Tibetan cloth thangka paintings that carry images of the Buddha, often surrounded by animals or forest, flutter from the doors of many of the small art collectives in Leh that promote local art. The tiny emporiums are often charity-based, and many of them look to the villages for traditional arts and handicrafts. "We carry a lot of work from local villages - weaving and embroidery, shawls, Ladakhi clothing like hats and tunics," says Muha, who works at a Tibetan and Ladakh arts studio. "It helps sustain local training and industry, which is important not just for our heritage and future, but because Ladakh has a small population.
"We need to focus on sustaining the clothing, artwork and way of life that defines Ladakh and the people who live here. We need to pass trades and skills onto young Ladakhis. This is a unique community that will lose its identity if its traditions are not a focus." Much of what the studio carries comes from the village of Zanskar, a remote tributary that feeds into the Indus. Leh's Ecology Centre in the town's quiet Changspa district promotes cooperatives from other villages in the Ladakh Valley that produce artwork and handicrafts.
Art collectives and Buddhist monasteries in the surrounding villages of Choglamsar, Helis and Thiksey produce many of the thangka works found in Leh. Choglamsar, a dusty village sandwiched between a vast Tibetan refugee camp and a sprawling Indian army base, forms the centre of much local artistic education and production. The Choglamsar Woodwork and Thangka Training Institute offers a five-year painting and handicraft course that covers centuries of artistic technique.
One student, Lozon, sits with two colleagues in his tiny studio, painting thangka artwork and designs on wooden chests. The small, low tables are a feature of every Ladakhi living area. "It takes a long time, of course," Lozon says, "but we study a lot of different arts and styles. It means that we don't lose the skills that have been used for many years, and we can keep producing Ladakhi art." The work can be time consuming.
"It takes maybe five days to paint a panel on the side of a wooden chest or table if the design is simple," Lozon says. "Thangkas can take up to three months, depending on the size, the type of picture and how much gold is used in the patterns." Several of the institute's students also study at Leh's District Handicrafts Centre on the road between the two towns. Since it opened in the 1970s, it has gradually added courses in carpet weaving, fresco painting, wood carving, traditional papu shoe making and silver filigree, which is used on the clothing worn at Ladakh's festivals.
The Centre aims to sustain handicraft traditions among Ladakh's younger generation by providing training that will aid self-employment. The valley's precarious ecological status can be tied directly to Ladakh's handicrafts industry. Leh's Women's Alliance Centre, on the edge of the old city, campaigns for sustainable development in the region as well as for the preservation of Ladakhi culture. It helps local Tibetans produce and sell traditional works to counter the sale of imported goods, which provides little benefit to the local Ladakhis.
Wider projects include aid relief, the promotion of sustainable agriculture and regular inter-village meetings to discuss environmental and cultural concerns. The village women who run the project stress the need to keep ancient traditions intact for future generations without harming the environment. "We work to maintain respect for the ethical and spiritual values on which Ladakhi culture is based, including handicrafts, local knowledge and practical skills," one volunteer says.
Courses run for and by village women produce local nambu, homespun and woven woollen cloth, and thikma, a form of tie dying. An on-site store sells baskets woven in the nearby Nubra Valley. Ladakh's range of women-run charities and organisations is partly explained by the greater societal status women have there compared to those in surrounding areas. Sonam, a Women's Alliance volunteer, says: "Women carry a lot of the agriculture and craft skills that our heritage and our economy is based on, so we try to encourage female participation so skills are learnt and shared.
"Family and community ties are the basis for Ladakh's culture, so if we can encourage greater links we can ensure our culture and our crafts are not lost."