Information on Ladakh before the birth of the kingdom (10th century) is scarce. The earliest layer in the population of Ladakh was probably composed of the Dardis. Herodotus mentions twice a people called Dadikai, first along with the Gandarioi, and again in the catalogue of king Xerxes's army invading Greece. Herodotus also mentions the gold-digging ants of Central Asia, which is also later mentioned in connection with the Dardi people by Nearchus, the admiral of Alexander, and Megasthenes. In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder repeats that the Dards are great producers of gold. Herrmann brings arguments to show that the tale ultimately goes back to a hazy knowledge of gold-washing in Ladakh and Baltistan. Ptolemy situates the Daradrai on the upper reaches of the Indus, and the names Darada is used in the geographical lists of the Puranas.

The first glimpse of political history is found in the Kharosthi inscription of Uvima Kavthisa discovered near the K'a-la-rtse bridge on the Indus, showing that in around the 1st century, Ladakh was a part of the Kushana empire. A few other short Brahmi and Kharosthi inscriptions have been found in Ladakh. Hsuan-tsang describes a journey from Ch'u-lu-to (Kuluta, Kulu) to Lo-hu-lo (Lahul), then goes on saying that "from there to the north, for over 2000 li, the road is very difficult, with cold wind and flying snow; thus one arrives in the kingdom of Mo-lo-so, or Mar-sa, synonymous with Mar-yul, a common name for Ladakh. Elsewhere, the text remarks that Mo-lo-so, also called San-po-ho borders with Suvarnagotra or Suvarnabhumi (Land of Gold), identical with the Kingdom of Women (Strirajya.) According to Tucci, the Zan-zun kingdom, or at least its southern districts were known by this name by the 7th century Indians.

In the 8th century, Ladakh was involved in the clash between Tibetan expansion pressing from the East, and Chinese influence exerted from Central Asia through the passes. In 634/5 Zanzun acknowledge Tibetan suzernaity for the first time, and in 653 a Tibetan commissioner (mnan) was appointed there. Regular administration was introduced in 662, and a unsuccessful rebellion broke out in 677. In 719 a census was taken, and in 724 the administration was reorganized. In 737, the Tibetans launched an attack against the king of Bru-za (Gilgit), who asked for Chinese help, but was ultimately forced to pay homage to Tibet. In 747, the hold of Tibet was loosened by the campaign of general Kao Hsien-chih, who tried to re-open the direct communications between Central Asia and Kashmir. After Hsien-chih's defeat against the Qarluqs and Arabs on the Talas river (751), Chinese influence decrease rapidly and Tibetan influence resumed. the geographical treatise Hudud-al-Alam (982) mentions Bolorian (Bolor = Po-lu, Baltistan) Tibet, where people are chiefly merchants and live in huts. Nestorian crosses, apparently due to Sogdian Christian merchants found in Drangtse is an evidence of the importance of trade in this region. After the collapse of the Tibetan monarchy in 842, Tibetan suzerainty vanished quickly.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Mughal empire had collapsed, and Sikh rule had been established in Punjab and Kashmir. However the Dogra region of Jammu remained under its Rajput rulers, the greatest of whom was Maharaja Gulab Singh whose General Zorawar Singh invaded Ladakh in 1834. King Tshespal Namgyal was dethroned and exiled to Stok. Ladakh came under Dogra rule and was incorporated into the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846. It still maintained considerable autonomy and relations with Tibet.

In 1947, partition left Ladakh a part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, to be administered from Srinagar. In 1948, Pakistani raiders invaded Ladakh and occupied Kargil and Zanskar, reaching within 30km of Leh. Reinforcement troops were sent in by air, and a battalion of Gurkhas made its way slowly to Leh on foot from south. Kargil was a scene of fighting again in 1965, 1971, and 1999.

In 1949, China closed the border between Nubra and Sinkiang, blocking the 1000-year old trade route from India to Central Asia. In 1950, China invaded Tibet, and thousands of Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. In 1962, China occupied Aksai Chin, and promptly built roads connecting Sinkiang and Tibet, and the Karakoram Highway, jointly with Pakistan. India built the Srinagar-Leh highway during this period, cutting the journey time between Srinagar to Leh from 16 days to two. Simultaneously, China closed the Ladakh-Tibet border, ending the 700-year old Ladakh-Tibet relationship.

Since the early 1960s the number of immigrants from Tibet (including Changpa nomads) have increased as they flee the occupation of their homeland by the Chinese. Today, Leh has some 3,500 refugees from Tibet. They hold no passports, only customs papers. Some Tibetan refugees in Ladakh claim dual Tibetan/Indian citizenship, although their Indian citizenship is unofficial. Since partition Ladakh has been governed by the State government based in Srinagar, never to the complete satisfaction of the Ladakhis, who demand that Ladakh be directly governed from New Delhi as a Union Territory. They allege continued apathy, Muslim bias, and corruption of the state government as reasons for their demands. In 1989, there were violent riots between Buddhists and Muslims, provoking the Ladakh Buddhist Council to call for a social and economic boycott of Muslims, which was lifted in 1992. In October 1993, the Indian government and the State government agreed to grant Ladakh the status of Autonomous Hill Council. In 1995, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was created.