Thursday, March 25, 2010

Footloose in Chamba

What’s a town without a charming legend? Chamba offers quite an engrossing bagful and I was amused by one that spoke of the whims of royalty. It dates back to Raja Bir Singh of Nurpur, in the Kangra hills, who was a friend of Raja Charrat Singh of Chamba (AD 1808-1844). He saw in Charrat an ideal match for his sister and sent across a marriage proposal. Charrat agreed immediately, however, Bir Singh’s sister astounded him by rejecting the alliance. The reason: she apparently had an Imeldian fetish for footwear and felt Chamba residents wore cloddish shoes!

Nevertheless, the marriage was solemnised. And who do you think was part of her retinue? A humble cobbler from Panj Baria village near Nurpur whose duty was to craft gorgeous zari-embroidered leather footwear for Her Majesty; in addition to attractive designs for the public so she didn’t lay her eyes on crude soles. That’s how the region got the famed ‘Chamba chappal’ for women and sandals for men, which are supposedly still stitched by descendants of the cobbler.

The shoemakers I spoke to at the local bazaar weren’t aware of a noteworthy lineage. Some, though, were familiar with the legend and took pride in narrating it. The Nikes, Reeboks and imported fakes, notwithstanding, Chamba can be seen sporting footwear once made-to-order by a princess.

Considering it’s among the few towns in the country with over thousand years of history and is culturally evolved, Chamba surprised me by its size. It turned out to be packed but quite small. In the hills everything is in diminutive dimensions. Some impregnable forts I’ve viewed in Himachal would at best correspond to a chalet. Yet, I had expected Chamba’s past to be more exaggerated in its bearings. It was, instead, typically tucked away and content to be overshadowed by commerce of the present.

To reach Chamba valley we traversed a winding state highway that meandered past pretty rice fields running up the hills and neighbourhoods of sloping slate-roofed houses. Our SUV came to a halt as the land plateaued into a green carpet around which rose a town, appearing almost as an amphitheatre. This mountain table-top was the Chaugan, Chamba’s hub. Everything—melas, picnics, protests, sports, jogging in the morning, strolls in the evening—seemed to happen here. At its foot was the gushing River Ravi, the source for hydel projects in the district, and enveloping it were snow-capped Dhauladhar and Zanskar ranges of the inner Himalayas, all combining picturesquely.

It’s best to foot around Chamba, as you can barely shift gears that an intended spot arrives. For reaching places that are steep, well, the wheels obviously don’t roll up there, so panting and copious sweating is in order, regardless of the weather.

Chamba owes its all to Raja Sahil Varman (AD 920 onwards) who is credited with establishing this as his capital. His contribution, the Laxminarayan Mandir--a complex of five stone temples built in shikhra style--stands in the centre of the market and is Chamba’s holiest spot. It is from here that the annual Manimahesh Yatra commences in July-August. Thousands roll into Chamba everyday through the three weeks of the yatra. I happened to be visiting during its last stages and saw the town buzzing with pilgrims on their way back sporting red bandanas and carrying tridents of all sizes. Lord Shiva chants would rent the air for better part of the day and night and the rush of corporates to cash in on the event and sponsor free kitchens saw food distributed at all corners.

The Suimata Temple, a small dedication to Sahil Varman’s queen who sacrificed her life so that Chamba would always have water, and Chamunda Devi Temple are the other two prominent religious spots. These are at a considerable height and I wondered if my sins had been washed after the effort I made to reach their sanctum sanctorum.

Varman’s descendants ruled Chamba ably and their seat of power, the Akhand Chandi Palace, was built centuries later by Raja Umed Singh between AD 1748-64. It overlooks the Chaugan and is the most prominent structure of Chamba. The green-roofed palace is now a college and its painted walls, stained glass windows, intricate woodwork are to be admired even as their fast deterioration, in absence of maintenance funds, is to be mourned.

According to sepia-tinted bromides, royal Chamba offered only the palace and handful other buildings. The present day district headquarters has clusters of small shops, homes, hotels and offices. As I walked its lanes I would often pause at stone-latticed havelis with prettily carved wooden doorways and window frames. Many of these are increasingly being juxtaposed with brash constructions with no sense of design. Where and when did we lose our sense of artistry and hygiene is a question that has baffled me. It’s not merely in these hills but unfortunately across the country.

Chamba is a repository of monuments, fine arts and craft. The rajas were worthy patrons and their collective wealth of art history can be seen at the Bhuri Singh Museum (one of the oldest in the country established in 1908) that has a large compilation of sculptures, costumes and miniature paintings in the Chamba, Kangra, Basholi and Guler styles. Bits of the art processes can also be spotted at its bazaars where I saw weavers on wooden handlooms making shawls; silversmiths crafting pendants; metallurgists hammering at copper to shape it into trumpets, bells and puja platters; artists working on Pahari paintings; and girls embroidering the Chamba rumal (a unique do-rukha or reversible stitch-craft embellishing cloth used for covering gifts and holy offerings).

Lamp-posts in the market, dating to the early 20th century, pointed to the arrival of electricity here far before it reached more accessible parts of the country, courtesy progressive rulers who encouraged development in all fields. It's Chamba’s glorious past that remains its calling card.
Getting there:

Road: Connected via SH 33. There are frequent buses to Chamba from across Himachal. Private taxis are easily available.

Railway: Nearest railhead is Pathankot in Punjab (120 km).

Airports: Closest airports are at Pathankot and Gagal in Kangra (187 km).

Stay: The Hptdc Hotel Iravati has comfortable accommodation, friendly staff and good food. Tariff: Rs 800 upwards.

Published 2009

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