India: Kangra, Chamba and Mandi, Himachal Pradesh

Rewalsar Lake

Rewalsar Lake, Himachal Pradesh

April 2022

Moon Peak

Another month, another scorching summer, another Himalayan trip. The good old normal is back. Our block-by-block India darshan continues. From Punjab, we hopped to the immediate northern state, Himachal Pradesh. God, keen followers of our blog (and other such fictitious beings) would know that we have already been to Himachal once. That time we covered Lahaul and Spiti valleys of the east. This time we headed west.

A one hop flight dropped us at Kangra, home to one of the oldest forts in India, the Kangra Fort, and one of its oldest dynasties, the Katoch. We went straight to the fort as soon as we landed, with baggage in tow. Rebuilt extensively after the 1905 earthquake, the fort is quite an impressive sight and what is left of the ancient Jain and Hindu temples is sure to take your breath away. After a brief stop at the Sansar Chand palace-cum-museum, we headed to our hotel in McLeod Ganj. Named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, a Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, McLeod Ganj became the head quarters of the Tibetan government in exile after the Dalai Lama fled here in the late 1950s. McLeod Ganj is an interesting mixture of British era sights, awe-inspiring nature and Tibetan culture and we got a little taste of everything on the first afternoon. The roaring Bhagsu falls, the Naddi point with its views of the Dhauladhar range, St. Johns in the Wilderness (a 1852 church deep inside Deodar forest), The Library of Tibetan Works housing precious manuscripts smuggled out of Tibet, Thenthuk and Momos were all part of the said tasting (literally and figuratively).

Moon Peak
Karmapa Temple

Next day we decided to check out how far we could stretch our legs and took on the Triund trek. A popular day-hike trail takes you up to a saddle point (a little shy of 10,000 ft) with unobstructed sweeping vistas of Dhauladhar range, Moon Peak, Laka Glacier and other such goodies. But in order to get there one has to endure a 6 km (about 6 hour return) of steady climb. Jaw dropping views back into Kangra Valley, blooming rhododendrons, fluttering butterflies and regular makeshift dhabas dishing out Maggi and bread-omelets did a commendable job of taking our minds off the ordeal. Having completed our walkathon by early afternoon, we had some spare time to check out Dharamshala, a town that is located half way up the hill between McLeod Ganj and Kangra. Our first stop was the Gyuto Karmapa Monastery, the original of which was built in 1474 in Tibet. After the communist take over of 1950s, the monastery was re-built here in Dharamshala. I don't know how authentic a replica the new monastery is, but with a backdrop of towering snow-capped peaks, I doubt if the original could have been any more picture-perfect. A short hop away is the Norbulingka Institute which was built in 1995 to preserve and spread Tibetan art and literature. With dense foliage, it isn't as conducive to photography as the Gyuto, but its museum gave a very good overview of Tibetan history and culture. Our final stop was the mandatory halt at the most picturesque cricket stadium in the world - the HPCA stadium where many an IPL careers have been established.

Karmapa Temple
Khajjiar Chamba

The rest of the trip was a never ending, stomach churning drive through the Shivaliks, well just the north-westernmost bit of the range. The first six hours on the winding roads brought us to Dalhousie, the most famous of all Himalayan hill stations. It is named after Lord Dalhousie, the last full term Governor General of India, whose infamous Doctrine of lapse lead to the First War of Indian Independence and put an end to the office of the Governor General. After a quick in-and-out of the town's British era churches, we headed to the two must-sees of the region which lies a fair bit beyond Dalhousie. The first is a local high point, Dainkund view point (apologies for the cliché repeat) offering sweeping vistas of the Himalayas and the second is a piece of Switzerland copy/pasted onto India - Khajjiar. Thick conifer forests surrounding verdant pasture surrounding a serene lake all dotted with Swiss style chalet make Khajjiar's claim of being "Mini Switzerland" pretty authentic. After spending couple of hours getting lost in the beautiful scenery and couple more trying to locate the driver who somehow managed to get more lost than us, we drove to our night stop, Chamba.

Khajjiar Chamba

Chamba needs to wait till the next paragraph as the the first thing we did the following morning is to drive further 60 kilometers deep into the Himalayas to Bharmour. Sometime in the 6th century AD, one Meru (or maybe Maru) managed to defeat (or unify depending on how you want to spin it) the local tribes and create a new dynasty with Bharmour as its capital. It took us two sheets of Avomine to get here in one piece. The various Islamic empires of Delhi had no such luxury and hence this Meru dynasty could remain fairly independent till the modern era. Meru and his immediate descendants bestowed Bharmour with one of the oldest group of temples in India - the Chaurasi Temple Complex. Don't bother counting the temples, they aren't anywhere close to Chaurasi (meaning "84" in Hindi), but do bother checking out the main ones - the imposing Manimahesh and Narasimha temples, Dharmaraja Temple (India's only temple dedicated to Yama) and the front façade of Lakshana Devi Temple (India's oldest surviving wooden temple).

Laxmi Narayan Complex Chamba

Raja Sahil Verman (of the same Meru dynasty) moved the capital of the kingdom from Bharmour to Chamba in 920 AD. Around the same time (i.e. 9:20 am), with Bharmour firmly off our bucket list, we decided to follow suit. Our first stop (after a rather forgettable lunch) was the city's only museum - the Bhuri Singh Museum. Built in 1909 during the reign of Raja Bhuri Singh, the museum houses the precious Copperplate manuscripts that was unearthed in Chamba and Bharmour. We could barely see them thanks to the day long power cut imposed by the local electricity board. When Sahil Verman shifted base to Chamba, he tried to (succeeded quite brilliantly) re-create the Chaurasi complex in the new capital. The resulting Laxmi Narayan Temple complex in the heart of Chamba is truly a masterpiece. After trying (and failing quite miserably) to capture it all in digital, we headed to the nearby Akhand Chandi, a 18th century palace built by Raja Umed Singh. What should have been a ten minute saunter became a two hour treasure hunt as it took us that long to figure out the "erstwhile palace" we were searching for is the "modern college" that we were walking around. After recuperating in the courtyard and mending (what is now) a seriously strained marriage, we headed to the last stop, Chamunda Devi Temple located on top of a hill. Built in 1762 by Umed Singh (yes, the same Raja who built the darn palace), it is one of the few temples in Chamba to be entirely made of wood. Somewhere between all this, we managed to walk around the famed Chowgan a few times. View of Chamba from the other side of Chowgan (a British era attempt at creating a polo cum cricket ground) during dusk is a truly unforgettable experience.

Laxmi Narayan Complex Chamba

The following day was a long drive back to Kangra with a couple of hidden gems to break the monotony. The first was an astonishing group of temples called the Bathu ki Ladi. Originally built on the banks of Beas, the temples went under water when the Pong dam was built in 1974. The submersion, thankfully, isn't permanent. During the summer months the temples emerge from the water offering the visitors the unique experience of visiting an archeological site marooned in the middle of a lake. We don't know who built these temples or when. Well, by "we", I mean the historians. Devout Hindus do know - they were built by the Pandavas 330 gazillion years ago. The second group of temples that we visited, the Masrur Group, can at least be dated to the 8th century AD. But we know hardly anything beyond that, not even why they have been left unfinished. The group sits firmly on dry land with a pretty little pond in front offering an all season reflection picture - the Bathu only offers that possibility in early summer months before the puddles also dry out. Masrur's uncanny resemblance to the ruins at Angkor, both in architecture and the stiffing heat that one has to endure while visiting them, did bring back memories from our last overseas trip.

Bathu Temples

After overnighting in Kangra, we headed east to Mandi. What is Gyuto to Karma Kagyu is what Khampagar is to Drukpa Kagyu. Let me break that down for you non Tibetans. Similar to how the Gyuto Monastery in Dharamshala replaced its demolished namesake in Tibet, Khampagar Monastery in Tashi Jong, an hour and change east of Kangra. replaced its namesake. Lack of snowy peaks in the background notwithstanding, Khampagar was impressive in its own right. A short hop skip and a jump away is Baijnath, a 8th century Shiva temple built by a couple of local merchants. Most of these stone temples (true all over India) replaced previously existing wooden ones and no one really knows how old those were. This is why we have unverifiable claims of temples dating back to the Ramayana/Mahabharata times. Baijnath is no exception. Ravana is said to have frequented here and being Shiva's favourite, Dusshera celebrations are banned in the town and shouting Jai Shri Ram is frowned upon. Rest of India can learn a thing or two from the good folks of Baijnath.

Bathu Temples
Masroor Temples

Mandi, the princely state was founded by Bahu Sen in 1200 AD while Mandi, the town, was founded in early 16th century by Ajbar Sen. Both belong to the Bengal Sena dynasty (we heard of them last, five years ago on our Bengal trip). The proof of these events are captured in stone in the form of two temples located either side of Beas. Triloknath was built in 1520 by the queen of Ajbar Sen while the Panchvaktra (across the river) is more ancient, the exact date of its genesis is yet unknown. After paying homage to these relics we headed to our final destination of the day - Rewalsar. Padmasambhava is the person who is believed to have spread Buddhism to Tibet/Bhutan/Ladakh. He is known as Guru Rinpoche in these regions. He is said to have had affair with a king's daughter in Rewalsar. When the king resented, the Guru and the princess escaped. So much everyone seems to agree. Everyone disagrees as to where he headed next. But Rewalsar story is what we care about now. Guru and the princess were set to be burnt alive and the Guru had turned the pyre into a lake before his dramatic escape. And that Rewalsar Lake today is one of the holiest in Tibetan Buddhism and several religious institutions dots its bank. We visited the two main ones - Drikung Kagyu Monastery and Zigar Drukpa Kargyud Institute. A little further up the hill sits Padmasambhava himself, I mean his 123 ft tall statue enjoying the best view in town. After huffing and puffing a long set of stairs, we could join him to enjoy the same statue-eye-view.

Masroor Temples

Our final day's destination was Prashar, a lake located at an altitude of 2,082 m on the other side of Mandi. On its banks sits a 13th century temple dedicated to Sage Prashar built by Raja Ban Sen - a textbook example of Kath-Kuni style of architecture. After walking around the lake to take some reflection snaps for our Instagram, we gritted through five hours of jostling to make it back to Kangra. We have now spent two holidays in Himachal, spent more than two weeks crisscrossing the state, and we have not even touched five entire districts of it. And Himachal encompasses all of 1.5% of India's land area. My retirement plan of coming up with a bestseller, a tell-it-all travel book "Passage Through India" looks in serious jeopardy.

Click here for more photos from Kangra district.
Click here for more photos from Chamba district.
Click here for more photos from Mandi district.
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Click here for more photos from Kangra district.
Click here for more photos from Chamba district.
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