Set in the Kullu Valley, between the more famous towns of Kullu to the north and Manali to the south, and 4 kms from Patlikhul, Naggar becomes my first stop in the valley. I arrive by a long uncomfortable overnight bus from Jammu, take a room with a Himachali family and rest for an hour. Then I walk up by a decent road to see the sights of the village.
The castle at Naggar is only moderately interesting. Constructed of wooden beams and stone bricks, in the manner so common to these northern parts of India, this local construction method has helped this castle withstand a serious earthquake at the start of the 20th century. Such a construction is called Kath Kuni, kath meaning wood and kuni meaning corner. The very first time I saw such use of wooden beams and stone blocks was at Narkanda and later at the famous Bheemakali Temple at Sarahan. It is said that the rooms of this building were modernized and converted to comfortable rooms while the British occupied it. Today Himachal tourism manages the castle as a hotel for tourists.
In this castle from the 16th century, the only real item of interest is wood carving on pillars, capitals, lintels, beams, cusped arches and ceilings. The temple within the castle compound, the Jagtipatt Temple, has beautiful wood carving in like manner. Within the temple, the ceiling contains wood carvings set in panels. Wooden pegs hang as tassels from the eaves of the temple. Wooden beams are carved with sharp reliefs of fluid motifs. A large slab of rock inside the temple is an object of worship for the locals. Legend has it that when a young queen felt homesick, gods and their heavenly attendants in the form of a swarm of bees transported this rock from her homeland near Rohtang Pass to make her feel better.
Other than this aspect of local art, the castle has little to kindle any imagination of battles or sieges, betrayals or machinations. It is simply an exotic building with little in the way of history. It should be more properly called a royal mansion.
The temples of Naggar are a lot more interesting. Right opposite the castle is the small Narsingh Temple quite similar to the Jagtipatt Temple. A few minutes walk brings me to the Gauri Shankar Temple. It contains nice stone idols in the sanctum. Architecturally, it is not unlike the many temples of Chamba. Built in the 11th or the 12th century, it has a curvilinear shikara rising directly from the base, an amalaka that caps the shikara, bhumi-amalakas decorating the shikaras upward sweeping lines, a chaitya motif crowning the entrance porch, miniature shikaras in relief on the facade, beautiful lintels and jambs. The pair of round pillars of the porch end with capitals of purnakumbha overflowing with floral abundance. This is one of the most common motif in Indian temple art. A stone Nandi stands facing the temple. At the base, the walls bear many wonderful reliefs. It is by no means a grand temple or one of great proportions. It is a temple of intimacy, beautiful but not awesome.
The next temple I pass by is the small one dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Decorative work is minimal but what captures my attention is its shikara. Instead of being the usual tall shikara, this one is broad and almost squats low. The result is that the protective wooden canopy over it is broad, perhaps the largest of such canopies I’ve seen on this tour. The fact that such a large canopy should crown such a small shikara makes quite an impression. What is really strange about this temple is just by the entrance to the sanctum is a linga on its peeta, decorated with the morning’s offerings of flowers. These flowers are by no means haphazardly strewn around the linga but neatly arranged on the peeta, petal by petal. I can only guess that this is historically a Vishnu Temple but has been lost to Shaivisim in recent times. Perhaps the sanctum still contains an idol of Vishnu but I can’t seem to remember this important detail. When travelling, the mind is almost assaulted by so many images that it’s hard to remember everything.
I leave these temples and make my way to the Roerich Art Gallery. I unexpectedly come across the lovely Tripura Sundari Temple. This is a temple in the pagoda style rather than the shikara style temples of Chamba or the Kumaon regions. On ground level, the main shrine has a stone base capped with a sloping roof on all four sides. The level above is a mix of wood and stone. It has a jettied balcony as well. The second level is woodcrafted. The final level is a conical roof crowned with a kalasa. A newly built mandapa faces the main shrine, so new that the wood is fresh and the carpenter’s pencil marks are still visible. Perhaps the pillars and beams will be lacquered later budget permitting. The mandapa has a gable carved with reliefs. Symbolically the temple is entered by a gateway but really it stands right next to a public pathway without much of a wall to keep people out. Smaller shrines in the complex house other deities – Anantasheyana and Ganesha to name a couple. To the left is an old building that sports a superbly crafted wooden facade. With little windows and doors, it stands on three small levels. Lotus medallions, entwining serpents, elephants in celebration, birds: these are some of the reliefs on the facade. The antiquity of the temple is certainly enhanced by this structure of old faded wood peeled to the grain and cracking at some places.
An uphill path to the right supposedly leads to another temple but I skip it. The Roerich Art Galley is my next stop, a slightly uphill climb from the Tripura Sundari Temple. It is a visit I enjoy a great deal. I am moved by the mountain moods captured in rich colours on the canvases. One can truly meditate for hours on these paintings. On a little piece of canvas, they embody the vastness, majesty and grandeur of the mountains. The peaks can be lofty, crowded or solitary. The slopes can be delicate, bold or unscalable. It is more than how you look at them. It is how the paintings mould your mind into a certain mood as you lose yourself into these mountain scapes.
The paintings in this gallery are so different from the rich and more romantic watercolours of Indra Duggar seen in Jammu. The paintings of the latter are down to earth, the mountains are intimate with villages at their foothills and show enough details about a world beyond the mountains. The Roerich paintings on the other hand are more introspective. In them, mountains stand as prime or even sole objects of contemplation. Details are not important. Mountains are reduced to lights and shadows, sharp forms and play of solid lines that create majestic shapes. It is exactly in this approach that a painter suceeds better than a photographer. A photographer captures realism. A painter sees what is more real to him than the obvious.
The gallery is housed in a building where the Roerich family lived. The first floor can be visited and the rooms can be viewed from the open balcony through glazed windows. Period furniture and decor make it interesting. Beyond the gallery is the Urusvati Museum in a nicely landscaped hilly setting. The museum has a room exhibiting Russian artefacts, costumes and dolls. The Roerich family were Russians. Attached to the museum are archives of years of Himalayan research. The Himalayas is a vast and diverse landscape that it is simply not possible to understand it fully. On this walk I spotted some hero stones with beautiful reliefs. They should really be in a museum with interpretation for visitors.
On my way back to my room I buy fresh green pears, clearly locally grown and recently picked, for twenty rupees a kilo.
‘What’s this?’ I ask pointing to some dried fern to a vendor sitting next to the fruit seller. The mossy fern is brown in colour.
‘This is mainly for decoration,’ he replies. He shows me a specimen in a bottle of water. The mossy fern is green and looking fresh. Tiny leaves huddle together and sprout from the bottle’s mouth beautifully. It is as decorative as a bonsai.
‘You can buy one for remembrance,’ he continues.
‘I’m on a long tour. I don’t want to buy anything. It will be many weeks before I reach home,’ I explain.
‘You buy the dried one. Once you put it in water it will last for a year.’
Back in the room, which is more like a homestay, the landlady is busy at her handloom. I take a few pictures as she weaves colourful threads into the shawl. The handloom she is using is itself very interesting. A long hole has been dug into the floor of the room. The loom is placed on the floor while the paddles are in the hole. This is quite a space saving invention. The manner in which she is weaving is unlike to what I had seen in Chamba. She uses a shuttle to weave in the weft.
‘How long does it take to make a shawl as this?’ I ask her.
‘Six or seven days for normal designs,’ she looks from above the rim of her glasses as stops weaving for a second. ‘Complex designs will take more time.’
‘From morning till night?’
‘So many things to do in the house. Whenever I get time, I weave,’ she replies. Her daughter who is expecting is watching us from the next room. Where I am standing, many woollen shawls are displayed with beautiful designs. Woollen gloves, socks and mufflers hang on display lines. Pattus lie on top of a cabinet. Pattu is traditionally dress worn by women. It is sort of a shawl wrapped around the body and attached with a broach. I had met a couple of women earlier at the castle wearing this traditional dress and they had kindly agreed to be photographed.
The sun has set. It is about half past seven. I am done for the day but there is something happening downhill among the apple orchards. Loud music of drums and pipes has been sounding the valley since evening. I am tired but at the same time I am curious to see what’s happening. I learn from the landlady that a wedding is going on in town. I quarter to eight I make my way towards the sound. I see smoke rising from the cover of tree tops. Clearly the main ceremony is underway and the union is being sanctified in the presence of Agni. A little dirt part leaves the road and enters the apple orchards. I see crowds returning from the wedding but the music has not stopped. Under shamiana, food is being served. By the side, friends and family of the newly wed are dancing amidst music played by a live band. I see the shehnai but also a serpent shaped horn. I crash uninvited into a Himachali wedding.
‘Is the wedding over?’ I ask someone.
‘Bidai is left,’ he replies.
I watch the dancers for a while. They dance around in circles, linking hands to shoulders and clapping from side to side. Their angarakhas are plain and frill out at the waist in loose pleats. A shiny band of cloth is wrapped across the left shoulders of men. They wear headress of closely knit flowers that hang around the head in thick tassels. Others are dancing simply in the traditional Himachali cap. When the music stops, everyone pauses for a breather. People pick juicy apples from the trees all around. I pick a couple and enjoy the freshness. Dancing in the open among apple orchards – this is the sort of stuff romantic poets imagine and write about.
The final ceremony, bidai, gets underway. This is the part where the bride takes leave of her family and departs with her husband. It is a tearful ceremony. I never get the see the bride’s face but I can very well hear her crying. Her mother, dressed in the most wonderful pattu I have ever seen, consoles her. Both daughter and mother huddle under a shawl for a few final moments as the bridegroom looks on. He wears a brightly decorated crown, not a real crown of gold and gems but simply paper-mache stuck with shiny films of paper and false jewellery. He wears garlands of flowers and ten-rupee notes strung together. In the final act, the one I resent, he hands over hundred rupees to the bride’s mother before claiming his bride.
I do not spot the bride’s father or the groom’s parents. When tearful bidai is done, the bride and groom are carried away on the shoulders of men to the waiting cars. The bride’s mother scrambles behind them for one final farewell. The crowds disperse through the darkness of the night. The half moon is lending some light. The music continues late into the night. The sound of the drums is louder than ever in the stillness of night. An hour later drummers pass by my room. They break off into two groups. One continues uphill. The other group walks past my door to their homes a few paces away.