It was a long weekend in the searing heat of May 2014, and the three days looked perfect for a quick escape to the cooler hills. The idea of exploring the Kangra fort and Norbulingka Institute (close to Mcleodgunj) had been egging me for quite some time, and at that particular moment looked especially inviting as it promised superb views of the Dhauladhar ranges and a hobnobbing with history in the ancient fort. So without further ado, we set off for the hills on a Thursday evening, and reached the sleepy town of Mcleodgunj early morning, the next day.
Since the Kangra fort was uppermost on our minds, we set off for it after breakfast and a quick rest. Kangra fort is located 20 km from the town of Dharamsala, and is little more than an hour away. The fort is currently owned by the Katoch dynasty (katoch meaning, skillful in sword play), and lies almost in ruins owing to the 1905 earthquake that completely devastated the Kangra valley and adjoining areas.
The Kangra fort entrance
The chequered history of the fort:
I have always believed that no historical monument, however ruined, is truly dead. The walls, the stones, and the very earth on which it once stood and fell, remain alive and they speak of people and times long gone by. Kangra fort is no different. Once inside, it swiftly takes the traveller back in time, and one hears echoes of an era when the fort was lived and loved. There is an old pahadi saying in the Kangra region that prophesizes ‘Whoever holds the fort holds the hills.’ Keeping with this adage, the fort holds a rather violent history, which speaks of innumerable attempts to take over the fort, entailing a long story of wars, loots, and betrayals.
Taking a brief look at the history of the Kangra fort we find that the structure was built by the Rajput family of Katoch dynasty. The ancestry of this dynasty can be traced back to the ancient Trigata Kingdom, which is depicted in the Mahabharata; hence, it is considered to be the oldest fort to have physically survived in India. It was attacked by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1009 AD, which resulted in massive destruction and loot, and historical sources say that he carried away “7 lakh gold coins, 28 tonne utensils made of gold and silver and 8 tonnes of diamond and pearls“. In 1337, it was attacked by Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, and later again in 1357 by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, but the fort remained with the Katoch family. It was much later in 1620, when after a siege of fourteen months, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir finally conquered it, and garrisoned his army to keep the hill chiefs under control. In 1789, after the Mughal Empire declined, Raja Sansar Chand – II managed to recover his ancestral fort. However in 1809, Maharaja Ranjit Singh took over control of the fort, and it remained with the Sikhs until 1846, after which the British took over.
A beautiful tank with little shikharas and niches in the Kangra fort, that falls on the right hand side before one enters the Ranjit Singh gate. It is empty now, though few years back there was a stream of flowing water running into it, forming a pool
The fort as it appears from the tank end
A spout with running potable water near the tank. We saw monkeys putting their mouth and drinking directly from here.
Taking a breather at the Amiri Darwaza (second gate of the fort) from where the steep climb starts
The steep climb that leads to the Jahangiri gate, starts under the hot sun …
Saw this arched gateway (likely a later Mughal period addition to the fort) while walking towards the Jahangiri gate. The niches now hold images of Durga (right), Ganesh (left), Hanuman (top), and a deer (centre)
After a long uphill trek one reaches the Darshini darwaja that has the two river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on its two sides (here the left image is that of Ganga and the right one is of Yamuna, both defaced and severely damaged)
The view of the temple complex and the steps that lead to the palace further up, after one enters through the Darshani darwaja. The complex comprises of temples of Lakshmi-Narayana, Sitala, and Ambika Devi that hold the statue of the Jain tirthankara Rishabhanatha.
The cells which were converted into jails surrounding the temple complex during the Mughal period
View of the Kangra valley from one of the cells
The ruined temple complex
Parts of the temple lie scattered everywhere. A pillar fragment showing ghata pallava.
A part of the Lakshmi Narayan temple complex
defaced and broken image of a devi
The walls of the Lakshmi-Narayan temple (recently reconstructed by the ASI) taken from the palace
Beautifully sculptured images of Lakshmi and Naryana on the temple wall
Pillar partsin front of the temples, neatly arranged by the ASI. The circular pillar bases are evident here
Entry door to the Ambika Mata temple, the woodwork appears relatively new
Another major attraction in the Kangra fort is the museum, maintained by the Katoch dynasty. It is situated a short way uphill from the fort (car goes directly up to the museum doors), and we enjoyed going around the small museum, which holds a good collection of antique artefacts, and other interesting objects that belong to the ruling dynasty family.
From the Kangra fort, we headed straight for the Norbulingka monastery. Here the main attraction is a large gilded statue of the Buddha inside the Seat of Happiness temple, whose walls are adorned with beautiful thangkas, murals, and frescoes that depict the life of the Buddha, various well known Buddhist monks, and the different Dalai Lamas (including the 14th Dalai lama whose life has been chronicled in drawings). There is a two storied tall thangka hanging inside the temple, which is made of applique work, and shows the Buddha and the 16 arhants. In the different monastery rooms we came across students working on beautiful thangkas, scroll paintings, and wood carvings. This institute, which is named after the summer residence of the Dalai lamas in Lhasa (Tibet), was established in 1988 to preserve the Tibetan literature, art, and culture. The institute also houses the Academy of Tibetan Culture that offers courses in Tibetan studies and various other branches of history.
While the monastery itself was unimpressive (India has more beautiful monasteries, both old and new, in Spiti, Ladakh, and the eastern Himalayas), we did spend some peaceful hours lying down under the trees in the monastery garden, and soaking in the serenity of the place. While returning, however we made the mistake of having lunch in the monastery cafe, which turned out to be an absolute disaster, as stale and tasteless food was served to us, which none could eat. It was a complete waste of money and time, and finally we took refuge in our all time favourite Maggi, chips, and cold drinks outside the monastery to makeup for the misadventure.
The colourful Norbulinga monastery
A bird posing for us in the Norbulinga monastery garden as we rested
Praying the Buddhist way
A sneak peek into the Triund trek route and Bhagsu falls:
The next day we decided to drive up the Triund glacier trek route, and go as far as the car would take us. The journey was exhilarating, and the road took us through steep, narrow, and unpaved roads, which were more suitable for walking than driving. We were expecting to see a glorious sunset, instead what we saw was ethereal: the dark storm-clouds gathered over and around us, slowly covering the snow peaks, and bringing in lightning with thunder, and heavy rains.
Later that day we visited the Bhagsu waterfalls. The trek was through chaotic yet pretty bazaar lanes and a colourful temple, while for company we had hoards of noisy tourists. Despite the chaos, the monsoon clouds and rains gave us some beautiful views. While the place is a favourite of the revellers and tourists, the travellers can definitely give Bhagsu waterfalls a miss.
The Bhagsu waterfalls, as seen from the starting point, the trekking route is seen on the left
As we sat sipping our hot tea, the sunny weather suddenly changed, and dark clouds appeared in the horizon, causing heavy rains and a sudden drop in temperature
Bhagsu falls, as we sat and enjoyed the view from a distant cafe, the clouds enveloped everything and heavy rains dimmed the view..
Dharamshala and Mcloedgunj have always been among my favourite hill stations for a short vacation, because of the view they offer of the Dhauladhar peaks. The two pretty hill stations also offer Tibetan cuisine along with good continental food. One can walk through the bazaar lanes in Mcloedgunj, looking at the little shops that sell various things, ranging from stones, to snacks, to antiques, woollens, books, and clothes. There is also a British era church and a cemetery for the ones that seek history and heritage within the little town.