Kangra Valley

Kangra Valley is a picturesque valley in the Western Himalayas. It extends from the foot of the Dhauladhar range of lesser Himalayas to the south of the River Beas. It lies to the South of the Chamba district. The highest peak of the Dhauladhars marks the boundary between the valley and Chamba. Dharamshala is the headquarters of the Kangra district. Kangra Valley is known for its natural beauty, tea, fort, miniature paintings and the narrow gauge Kangra valley train. One of the hidden secrets of Kangra valley is the Masroor Rock Cut Temple which is also known as the Himalayan Pyramids.

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A beautiful stream in Kangra Valley

The word Kangra is made up of two words, Kaan meaning ears and gaddha which means to mould or create. It is said that the ancient surgeons of this region were renowned for performing plastic surgeries on the royals who wanted to improve their looks or warriors who had suffered injuries in battles. Hence Kangra got its name due to these surgeons. However there is not much factual evidence to this legend. Some of the ancient names of Kangra are Nagarkot, Trigarta and Bhimagar. As per some legends, the town was founded by Bhima of the Mahabharata fame. Kangra town is located at the confluence of the Baner river which is a tributary of the Beas river and Majhi river. The Baner Khad rises as a small snow-fed channel from the southern slopes of the Dhauladhar Himalayas near Palampur.

We did a day trip to Kangra town and around from Dharamshala which is an hour away. The route that we took was Dharamshala – Ranital – Masroor – Kangra – Gaggal – Dharamshala. As eating places are very few a suggestion would be to do breakfast at one of the Dhabas in Ranital and then go to Masroor. We found a small cart where momos and cutlets were being prepared just outside the temple complex. Lunch can be had at the Sansar Chand Museum cafeteria in Kangra.

Kangra Fort

Kangra Fort located around 20 km from the town of Kangra is the oldest dated fort in India. It is the largest fort in the Himalayas and one of the most beautiful forts in India. It was built by the Rajputs of the Katoch dynasty whose origins can be traced to the ancient Trigarta kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharata. Local folklore says that Mahmud of Ghazni had looted forts in this region but it has not been historically proven. As per historical evidence, the fort remained impregnable and unconquered till the seventeenth century when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir conquered it.

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Kangra Fort view from the highway

The fort was reconquered by the Katoch King Sansar Chand in the late eighteenth century. Maharaja Sansar Chand was constantly at battle with the Sikhs headed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh on one side and the Gurkhas on the other side. He used to keep his neighbouring kings jailed which led to conspiracies being plotted against him. The Gorkhali army entered the Kangra fort during one of the wars between the Katochs and Sikhs. This incident led to an alliance being formed between the Katochs and the Sikhs. The Gurkhas had to leave the fort unable to procure anything. The fort remained with the Katochs until 1828 when it was annexed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh after Sansar Chand’s death. The British captured the fort after the Anglo-Sikh war in 1846. The fort was occupied by a British garrison until it was damaged heavily in the great earthquake that rocked the Kangra region in April of 1905. The fort was then returned to the Katoch Maharaja Jai Chandra. The fort is now managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The fort stands on a steep hillock overlooking the surrounding valley. It is strategically built at the confluence of the Banganga and Majhi rivers. The fort can be entered through a small courtyard which is enclosed between two gates built during the Sikh period. From here a long passage leads to the Ahini Darwaza (Iron Gate called so due to it being covered with metal plates and spikes) and Amiri Darwaza (Gate of the nobles) which are said to have been added by Nawab Saif Ali Khan who was the first Mughal Governor of Kangra. Then the passage turns round at a sharp angle and leads to the Jehangiri Darwaza which is said to be built by Emperor Jahangir. Then comes the first defence gate called the Andheri Darwaza (Dark Gate) leading to a narrow passage which could accommodate only two people shoulder to shoulder or one horse at a time. The purpose of this design was to slow down the pace of a charging enemy army.

Next comes the Darshani Darwaza (Gate of worship) flanked by the defaced statues of the river Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. The courtyard beyond this has the ruins of Laxmi Narayan Temple and the shrine of Ambika Devi who is the clan Goddess of the royal Katoch family. The shrine of Ambika Devi is visited by the royal family annually where they perform a religious ceremony even to this day.  The shrine contains the original idol of Mahavira which was created during his lifetime. It was moved here to protect it from the Muslim invaders. One of Mahavira’s sisters was married to a Katoch King and this fort was deemed a safe place to protect the idol. Thus this has become a popular Jain pilgrimage destination as well.

The palace is located beyond the temple and can be reached by climbing up a few steps and passing through the Mahlon ka Darwaza (Gate of the palace). This is the highest point in the fort and offers commanding views of the surrounding gorge, the confluence of the rivers and the far away lush green meadows. The Himalayas can be seen on clear days. What a view to wake up to! This must be a fabulous place to watch the sunset. But the fort closes at 5 PM.

Audio guides are available here and a must to understand the place well. The fort is open from 9 in the morning till 5 in the evening on all days.

Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum

The Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum owned by the royal Katoch family is located near the Kangra Fort. It showcases an impressive collection of artefacts belonging to the royal family. The awe-inspiring family tree has been displayed at the entrance. It is clearly a marvel that they have managed to draw up the entire tree including the references to the ages of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Under the patronage of Maharaja Sansar Chand, the Kangra Painting style reached its zenith and Kangra became the most important centre of Pahari Painting. On display are the beautiful masterpieces of Kangra Paintings, Weapons, Utensils, Furniture, Traditional Wedding costumes etc.

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Family tree of the Katoch dynasty of Kangra

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Emblem of the Katoch dynasty of Kangra

Audio guides are available here as well. There is a cafeteria with limited food options. We ordered lunch and visited the museum while the food was being prepared. The Fort can be seen on the opposite side of the gorge from behind the museum.

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Kangra Fort view from behind Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum

Masroor Rock Cut Temple

The Rock-cut temples at Masroor is an eighth century temple complex in the Kangra Valley. The temple complex is located in the Beas river valley and faces the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas. The temples have been constructed using the North Indian Nagara style of architecture. The features suggest the use of ‘Gupta Classicism’ which is why they are believed to have been built during the eighth century. The temple complex is located 45 km to the southwest of Dharamshala. The temples are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and Saura traditions of Hinduism. Though a major part of the temple complex has survived, quite a bit seems to have been destroyed and lost mostly due to the earthquakes in this region. The temple complex which seems to have been built as part of an extremely ambitious plan was left unfinished for reasons unknown.

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Masroor Rock-cut Temple Complex

The temples have been carved out of a monolithic rock with a shikhara. There is a pool of water facing the temples. The reflections of the magnificent temple complex can be seen in the pool. There are three entrances to the temple out of which two are incomplete. There are archaeological evidences of  the existence of a fourth entrance having being planned but it was never completed. The entire complex has been symmetrically laid out on a square-shaped grid with the main temple surrounded by smaller temples in a mandala pattern. Reliefs of major Vedic and Puranic Gods and Goddesses can be seen here and the friezes narrate stories from Hindu texts.

According to local legends, the temples were built by the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame when they were in exile. When their true identity and location got exposed, they shifted from here leaving the temple unfinished. Sometime in the twentieth century three black stone idols of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana were introduced in the main shrine by someone.

The temples are similar to the rock-cut temples of Mahabalipuram in Tamilnadu, Elephanta Caves near Mumbai and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Caves and ruins have been found scattered around the temple suggesting that there was a human settlement once upon a time. Today the temple is in the middle of nowhere and a Government school is run next door. Unfortunately there are no guides available here. The temple complex was one of the contenders for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site but did not make it through. Sadly not many people come here. Even our driver who is well versed with Himachal did not know about this place and was happy to accompany us inside to see the temple.

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View of the temple complex from the neighbouring hillock

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A plate of momos from a cart outside the temple complex

Bajreshwari Temple

The temple of Devi Bajreshwari in Kangra town is one of the oldest temples in North India. It is believed to be 1500 years old. It was one of the wealthiest as well in olden times. It is considered as a Gupt Dham or a sacred place of pilgrimage. As per legends, the left breast of Goddess Sati fell here when Lord Vishnu sent his Sudarshana Chakra to cut her lifeless body into 51 pieces in order to stop the Thandava Nritya of Lord Shiva who was grieved by her death. Thus this temple is a Shakti Peeth as well. Lot of pilgrims visit this temple.

As per mythology, the temple was built by the Pandavas when Goddess Durga instructed them in a dream to build a temple for her in the village of Nagarkot. The temple was looted multiple times by Mahmud of Ghazni. It was destroyed during the 1905 earthquake in Kangra. The Government rebuilt it. The main sanctum is surrounded by smaller shrines dedicated to various Goddesses. The small shrine of Tara Devi was left intact after the earthquake. We did not manage to get inside the sanctum due to lot of rush as it was Navratri time when most of the temples of Goddesses get crowded.

Kangra Valley Railway

The Kangra Valley Railway is a narrow gauge railway that covers a distance of 164 km from Pathankot in Northern Punjab to Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh. The railway line was commissioned in 1929. The highest point along the line is at Ahju station just before the last stop at Jogindernagar. There are only two tunnels along the whole route. The railway line is an engineering marvel and an excellent example of how it can exist in harmony with the majestic landscape. The terrain changes drastically as the train enters the Kangra valley.

Some of the bridges that we saw on our way to Kangra Fort were beautiful. The train ride itself is quite an experience. This toy train is not as popular as the Kalka-Shimla, Ooty-Coonoor or the Darjeeling ones but spectacular nevertheless. We took the train at Paror Station which is the nearest station after Darang Tea Estate towards Palampur and went up to Baijnath Paprola station. The slow-moving train chugged its way along overlooking beautiful fields and quaint little stations. Our little man got lulled to sleep on his first ‘real train’ journey. Baijnath Paprola station looked so quaint and time warped.

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Nurpur Fort

Nurpur city in Kangra district was part of the Nurpur state which was ruled by the Pathania clan of Tomar Rajputs since the eleventh century. Pathankot was the capital of this kingdom. Raja Basu who ruled Nurpur from 1580 to 1613 built an impressive fort here the ruins of which can be seen today. We visited the Nurpur fort on our way back to Amritsar from Palampur.

The old name of Nurpur was Dhameri. Queen Nur Jahan, the wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Nurpur and fell in love with the beauty and richness of this place so much that she decided to stay here for the rest of her life. The people of Dhameri were worried by this and did not want their peaceful town to be embroiled in the Mughal domination and influenced by external politics. They devised a plan to solve this problem without offending the Queen and incurring the wrath of the Mughal empire. They advised the Queen that staying here for a long period might affect her great beauty and spread rumours about a fictitious disease that was spreading there which might inflict her as well. The Queen was so terrified by this that she left hurriedly. However, the name of the town was changed to Nurpur in honour of the Queen.

The main attraction inside the Nurpur Fort is the sixteenth century historical Brij Raj Swami Temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. It is the only temple where the idols of both Lord Krishna and Meerabai who was his ardent devotee are worshipped. It is believed that the idol of Lord Krishna here was one of the idols worshipped by Meerabai herself. The Maharana of Chittorgarh gifted it to the Raja of Nurpur as a return gift during his visit to Chittorgarh. The Rasa Lila has been depicted in the form of paintings on the walls of the temple.

Other Places

Kangra Valley is dotted with many small offbeat places. Some of the places that we could not visit but read about are as follows :

  • JawalaMukhi Temple – This temple is one of the Shaktipeeths where Goddess Sati’s tongue is supposed to have fallen. It is one of the most renowned temples dedicated to Goddess Durga. The temple is around 35 km to the South from the town of Kangra
  • Bathu Temple – Around 7 km from the town of Jawali, stand a cluster of eight ancient temples called Bathu ki Larhi which remain dipped for eight months of the year in the waters of the Maharana Pratap Sagar Dam built across the River Beas.
  • Chamunda Devi Temple – This is a renowned temple which is 10 kms from Palampur on the highway to Dharamshala. It is believed to be the site where the demons Chanda and Munda were slain by the Goddess Chamunda.
  • Pragpur and Garli – The villages of Pragpur and Garli have been declared as Heritage Villages by the State Government due to their unique architecture and pristine beauty.
  • Dadasiba – The village of Dada Siba has an old fort with a beautiful temple known for its murals.
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