Kangra did not feature in my pre-trip research on Himachal Pradesh. When I see it on my map, the name does ring a bell. I am reminded of Pahari paintings of the region and the Kangra school of paintings is famous in this group. I’m not sure if I’m going to see any paintings but I’ll see anyway what Kangra has to offer.
Getting to Kangra from Nainital has been quite a journey. I take an overnight train from Kathgodam to Dehradun. At Dehradun, I learn that there is a luxury bus to Dharamshala in the evening. I consider going to Mussoorie for the day before returning in the evening to catch this bus. Having seen Almora and Nainital, I am not so keen for yet another hill station. I take a long ride to Chandigarh where I catch a luxury bus to Kangra. When I reach Kangra it is almost evening.
Kangra is a town set among the hills. From Chandigarh, the bus doesn’t climb much as I pull into Kangra. The town is only about 790 m above sea level. It is a hot place, an unwelcome change from the cool climates of Jageshwar and Almora I had exploring the last two days. The famous temple at Kangra is the one dedicated to Goddess Vajreshwari. The temple is built on a high hill with wide views of the surrounding hills and lush green cover. I walk up the hill by a narrow lane lined with the usual shops selling offerings, bangles, religious trinkets, portraits of gods and godesses. Bhajans play in the air and set the mood for devotees on their way to the temple. Yellow or blue tarpaulins covering the lane keep off a steady drizzle. They filter the light and enhance the ambience for introspection. Vendors call out for business. One shop is selling Himachalis caps, handloom shawls and slippers made of coir knitted over with coloured threads. I enquire about the dharamshala.
‘Dharamshala is 18 kms from here,’ states the vendor.
‘No, no. I am talking about the dharamshala of the temple where I can stay for the night,’ I clarify. The temple manages a dharamshala for visiting pilgrims.
With the confusion resolved, I find the temple and the dharamshala right opposite it across the narrow lane. My luck favours me today. Normally rooms are not rented out to singles but the manager makes an exception. I get a large double room for just seventy rupees. As I enter by a door I see that the other three walls are taken up long glazed windows with wooden shutters. The windows are also boarded up with mosquito nets. Another door across the room leads to a large balcony. I slide a few old bolts and step out to the balcony. Straight ahead at eye level is the temple’s shikara. Down below is the temple’s courtyard elegantly tiles. The dark hills are spread out in the background. Towards the far left are snow-thatched mountains near what would be the religious town of Dharamshala. The priest is busy in the temple. An evening aarthi is underway. I can hear the bells rung by devotees. I love my room and its special view of the temple. This view comes with a troupe of monkeys playing on the roofs and balconies. I come into my room and lock the balcony door for safety.
It is only this morning I make a visit to the temple. I join a queue of devotees for the 8 am aarthi. I overhear people talking in Punjabi. These people are not Sikhs but Hindus. I find it rather strange. Perhaps I’ll ask someone about it later. The main deity in the temple stands in the background as embossed metalwork. However, the real object of worship is a little slab of natural rock on the floor. The rock is thickly layered with vermilion paste. Two large eyes are boldly painted on the rock, not actually painted but decorated with coloured powders and pastes. These are beliefs and practices established by age old tradition.
The temple complex has numerous other shrines and deities installed in them. They hold little interest to me. I leave the temple, walk to the bazaar below and ask a fruit vendor the price of bananas.
‘Three rupees?’ I ask astonished. That’s dirt cheap for a dozen. The guy has been speaking in Punjabi, the same I’d heard among devotees at the temple.
‘Thirty,’ he clarifies in clear Hindi. I ask him about the language in these parts.
‘It is called Himachali Dogri or simply Himachali. It borrows a lot from Punjabi,’ he explains. I thank him, buy a few bananas and head out to Kangra Fort.
The fort is in Old Kangra, a town I had passed by yesterday on the way to Kangra. It is a couple of kilometers from Kangra. It stands on a hill and looks and impressive structure as seen from the road. I walk up the road, purchase a ticket and take to a long flight of stone steps. To the left are the walls and ramparts. To the right are cliff facces topped with higher fort walls. Inset in the stone walls are beautiful reliefs of Ganesha, Hanuman and Mahishasuramardini, to name a few. These are executed in Kangra style which I believe is derived from Rajput styles of Amber and Jaipur.
The fort has a chequered history. Despite its seemingly impregnable location on high cliffs, it has changed hands frequently in its long history of over a millenium. Mahmud of Ghazni is said to have conquered it in 1009 AD. Often the fort reverted to local Hindu chieftains but Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq, Feroz Shag and Jehangir brought it back into Islamic rule. After the decline of the Mughals, it returned to Katoch Rajas, who claimed to be the original owners of the fort. It came into the hands of the Sikhs until falling into British control in the mid 19th century.
By far, its location is most impressive. It stands on ridge with its high walls surrounded by thick jungle. There is a steep approach road to the fort I had taken but the actual entrance is protected by a deep ditch. Standing at the top of steep cliffs, there is no other access point to the fort. Far below at the base of the cliffs, two rivers flow – the Manjhi and the Ban Ganga. The rivers join where the ridge drops down steeply by rugged cliffs. The far-reaching views are stunning.
Some of the gates are worthy of admiration. Rising tall and straight, they end sharply with pointed arches. At the entrance to the higher inner courtyard are eroded images of Ganga and Yamuna flanking the doorway. As I stand within this courtyard my attention is drawn to the remains of temples. The structure is a strange one. Except for old foundations only a couple of walls stand in place. There is no mandapa, shikara or sanctum to speak of except what can be discerned in the foundations. The walls are richly carved with shikaras in reliefs, floral patterns, purnakumbhas, lotus medallions, kalashas, peacocks, geometric motifs and schemes too numerous to mention. Aedicules, now empty, are crowned with shikaras in exquisite relief and are framed in beautifully worked jambs. Everything here derives from India’s traditional temple art found all across the country. What is unique is the manner of bringing these elements together in creating a new composition. Perhaps it feels unique because the walls are standing in their own right instead of being lost in a large architectural framework of a temple. When a building goes into ruin, when time adds its own patina of lost glory, it does give a perspective to things. Same old things appear different and new. For lovers of Indian art, the modest sculptures in Kangra Fort are sure to occupy an hour of study; and they are sure to reveal much.
Passing beyond these old temple walls – I am told the original image of Lakshmi Narayan of Kangra is now in Chamba – I enter the palace complex. The palace stands only in stone foundations and crumbling walls. Some of these have been restored. The Old Kangra town can be seen in the near distance. A large Jain temple stands within town. There is a museum within the fort complex. Perhaps they have some specimens of Kangra paintings. I consider a short visit to the museum but the wonderful views from the old palace hold me back. I linger around with the views all around me while munching on a fresh green pear.