From Dharamshala a bus leaves for Chamba at eight in the morning. On the map I can see that is not a great distance but the journey to Chamba takes full seven hours. At Banikhet, the road branches off to the right towards Dalhousie and Khajjiar, both being popular spots in tourist circles. Perhaps later in this tour I may stop at these places should I have time on my hands. Today I take the road winding left from Banikhet.
It is a beautiful ride among the hills. Framed by tall pines, a lake nestles below in the valley at the foot of these hills. Terraced fields, dotted villages and patches of woodland cover the green hills. I am enticed to spend some minutes in view of this scenery. I get off before reaching Chamba, much to the baffled looks of the bus conductor. I walk along the road admiring the views. There is no possibility of going down to the lake. The cliffs are steep and rocky on this side where this road has been mercilessly cut into nature’s soft perfection.
I ask someone about the lake. Apparently, it has been formed by a dam. He gives some details about the lake and how it is named after a temple. He points me to the temple on the opposite hill slopes across the lake.
Upon arriving at Chamba, I get a convenient room facing the bus station. Unlike what I’d imagined, Chamba is hot and humid. I wash some of my clothes, have a bath and head out to town. I walk in search of the Lakshmi Narayan group of temples. The temples are not far but I am pleasantly detained by the market scenes of Chamba. Tucked in the narrow lanes and along steep uphill paths are shops that take me back a century. Indian tradition is alive in its old forms and styles in Chamba town.
A man is sitting in his workshop and sharpening locally made knives, the blades nailed into wooden handles. An array of knives is displayed on the floor before him. Some paces away in an adjacent lane Himachali caps are neatly stacked up. Some are plain green while others are rich with colourful designs. Nearby in another workshop, men are busy stitching together colourful designs into pieces of black leather. At the doorway hang the finished products, the famous chappals of Chamba. Near the temple complex a man is working on a brass plate. First he applies a dark chemical to it and then rinses away the same with water. The chemical brings out a lustre in the metal. The plate is decorative. It is embossed with circular panels depicting the ten avatars of Vishnu. Lord Krishna graces the central panel. Opposite the temple complex is a carpenter’s workshop where wooden frames are being made. These free-standing frames will hold a stretched Chamba rumal and may find their way into living rooms of Delhi, Shimla or beyond as decorative pieces. Chamba rumals are famous for their colourful designs that can be seen on both sides of the rumal. This comes about by a unique technique of embroidery called dorukha. Later in the evening, I come across an old man weaving Chamba shawls in his workshop. Unlike the handlooms I had seen elsewhere, he does not use a shuttle as he weaves a colourful border into the shawl. This he does by hand, his fingers deftly pulling and pushing the weft through the warp. He does not use a complex system of wooden sticks as seen in back tension looms of the North East.
The Lakshmi Narayan temple complex has six main temples standing in a line. Shikaras crown the sanctums. Little antaralas lead into the sanctums from entrance porches or mandapas that are often crafted woodwork. One particular shikara is pyramidal but the others are in typical North Indian style. The reliefs on the shikaras themselves depict shikaras in miniature. The prominent of these shikara reliefs crown aedicules installed with wonderfully worked stone deities – Krishna playing on the flute while gopis stand by in adulation; Anantasheyana is half-reclined on the serpent in an unusual composition dictated more by the dimensions of the panel than by strict tradition; Kartikeya ensconced on the peacock with a majestic demeanor. The base of shikaras have wonderful reliefs filling the space amongst two levels of miniature shikaras. In stone panels musicians play on conches and shehnais. The antaralas are crowned with beautifully carved sukhanasis.
One eye-catching aspect of these temples is the scheme of sloping roofs tiled with slate. The amalakas are protected from winter snow with wooden canopies octogonal in shape. They are tiled with slate. The sukhanasis and entrance porches are protected by sloping roofs tiled with the same slate. Standing together, they make a uniform scheme and offer wonderful perspectives from many angles. The wooden entrance porches are painted in light blue. Only the main temple of Lakhmi Narayan has a concrete mandapa with wide pointed arches and two side balconies.
‘You should stay till the week of Minjar mela,’ tells me one of the temple priests. Children are playing in the courtyard. A prayer is underway elsewhere in the complex.
‘Yes, I have heard of the famous mela,’ I reply. ‘But my holiday is short. I have to move on to Jammu.’
The sun is setting among the undulating hills in the background. Against an orange glow of waning light, the temples stand in dark silhouettes. When I return to Chaugan, I see that it is more crowded that what it had been earlier in the day. The Chaugan is the heart of Chamba. It is basically an open lawn that makes a nice picnic spot and also a space for public gatherings and functions. A loudspeaker at the market crossroads at one end of the Chaugan sends out an evening discourse happening right now at the Lakshmi Narayan Temple.
This morning I find the Chaugan quiet and empty of its crowds from last night. I walk by its margins with a view of River Ravi flowing down in the narrow valley below. At the edge of the Chaugan is the Hari Rai Temple. It stands next to an arched gateway. The temple follows the same model of those seen yesterday. The morning sun is harsh and brings out beautifully the reliefs on the shikara’s exterior. I watch a priest wash and anoint a deity in an aedicule. He probably lives in the old quarters standing within the same complex as the temple. He and his family are probably caretakers of this ancient monument maintained by the ASI or the State Archaeology. A young couple walks into the temple. The man performs a series of rituals while the woman watches him lovingly. I do not doubt the man’s piety but it is easy to win an Indian woman’s heart by faking it. Indian movies are full of this angle. This temple is neat and compact. It is one of Chamba’s adorable medieval temples.
I walk in search of the Bajreshwari Temple. Instead I find the Bansi Gopal Temple, quite close to the Lakshmi Narayan temple complex. The temple stands on the way to a college. Students pay their respects from the road as they hurry to their classes. The temple has a wonderful shikara. The reliefs of shikaras in miniatures offer nice close-knit compositions. A couple of erotic panels jostle with reliefs of dancers, gopis and Krishna on his flute. One of the aedicules contains an image of Surya. To one side of the complex are old wooden houses, a scheme which I see to be common in the overall temple architecture of Chamba. In a little room stands a linga on a peeta. Next to it, reclined against the back wall are sculpted stone slabs. These slabs are beautiful. One of them shows Vishnu worshipped by devis and devatas who uniformly wear pleated skirts. Some are standing and others kneeling with folded palms.
I take to little lanes going up the hill. Chamba is a town spread out on these wide slopes. I pass a couple of shikaras next to a road junction. The surrounding enclosure to these temples is lost. They stand as if abandoned but they are still used for prayer. Across the road is a small temple with a pyramidal roof. A Nandi stands on a pedestal facing the temple doorway. I keep climbing through the charming narrow lanes of Chamba passing old houses, tiny shops and kids playing. After a short climb I arrive at the Chamunda Devi Temple. The views from the temple include the far hills, River Ravi meandering from a distance and passing across Chamba, the hazy sky hung with clouds, the spread of the town below and the occasional shikaras of Chamb’s temples sticking above low houses.
Other visitors to the temple are diappointed that the temple is closed for darshan and pooja. This suits me well. I can admire the magnificent art of this temple in leisure. The temple is a little different from the others. It has no exquisite shikara or an impressive wealth of stone carvings. The jewel of the temple is the mandapa ceiling. Made of wooden panels, each panel is wonderfully carved out in relief. The figures are lively. The grain in the wood adds to the texture and character of the reliefs. Cracks in some panels tell of antiquity. The style and treatment of familiar figures of gods and godesses is quite unique. Angels with turbans and outspread wings fly about holding lotus buds. Kartikeya with six faces stands with his peacock behind him while two others are busily preening their feathers. Krishna dips his hand into a pot while Yasoda is busy churning the contents for butter. Narasimha, Ganesha, Shiva, Indra, Kalki and Madhishasuramardini are some of the other deities in beautiful relief. The panels are bordered with floral motifs that run fluidly all across the ceiling. Many bells hang from the ceiling. I take my time to study the reliefs in detail. The woman caretaker of the temple comes around a few times to check on me.
She doesn’t say anything but I know what she must be thinking, ‘Why is he wandering here for more than an hour? What’s he up to?’
A flight of steps goes from the temple all the way downhill to Chamba’s bus station. I have lunch and go out in search of the Bajreshwari Temple. Once again I’m waylaid, this time by the Champavati Temple. The temples of Chamba are so beautiful that I seem not to get enough of them. It is said that this temple was built by Raja Sahil Varman in memory of this daughter Champavati. That’s all it takes to make gods out of men.
Many elements of art and architecture at this temple are similar to those seen elsewhere. This has a substantial mandapa constructed of wood and tiled with slate. The first level of the mandapa is a closed space with a striking gable. Windows and banisters are part of the gable. It is a feature that can be seen in some secular buildings in town. These are old constructions of stone and wood with projected windows and partly jettied levels. The mandapa in this temple consists of an octogonal opening in the ceiling, tapering upwards conically into the first level. Four figures in carved relief stand in this opening. A similar feature is seen in the mandapa of Chamunda Devi Temple. Old quarters next to the temple remind of similar ones at the Bansi Gopal Temple. These quarters are worth a study of their own.
I take a detour to the Bhuri Singh Museum across the Chaugan and beyond. At the entrance lobby are many fountain stones. These are slabs in reliefs made to decorate mountain springs held holy since ancient times. The earliest of these in the museum are from the 11th century. A silver howdah in one gallery takes centerstage. A painted wooden door from Rang Mahal is in decay but its faded colours still reflect the rich designs. Wall paintings framed near the door are those preserved from the same palace. Wooden brackets from Bharmour leap with reliefs quite similar to those at the Chamunda Devi Temple. Disregarding all these, the real gems of the museum are the miniature paintings; for Chamba is one of the famous schools of Pahari style of paintings.
One can get lost in the rich details of these paintings. A few minutes of close study, one enters scenes of medieval India and gets carried away in its romances. The stories and legends depicted on canvas or paper, come alive. The play of colours in imaginative colours is lively. One can study the multitude of trees alone for hours. Radha and Krishna are listening to a late evening musical recital. The dark moon plays among the clouds in the sky. A curtain is fluttering in a cool breeze. Marble parapets line the open terraces. Soft bolsters and bedspreads are richly embroidered in threads of silver and gold. In another scene, Rama and Lakshmana are battling against the demons, the latter being colourful and grotesque.
I pass some other temples as I climb uphill through old Chamba town. At about sunset, I finally arrive at the temple I’d been searching since morning. The Bajreshwari Temple is compact and packed with rich carvings. Two boys are playing football in the little space behind the temple. Sunset lends the brown stones a special glow. The slanting light brings out the reliefs rather sharply. Open-mouthed lions clothed in decorative cloths stand in the courtyard on pedestals and face the sanctum entrance. I sit down on a bench in an attempt to make a pencil sketch but mosquitoes give me no peace. This temple is set on the higher slopes with a view of Chamba and the surrounding hills. There is vegetation all around.
Chamba town and its temples have been like a treasure to me. It must be quite something to be here at the time of the annual Minjar mela.