Friday, November 18, 2011

Chamba: Pretty perch

Chamba in Himachal Pradesh is an ancient town cradled by incredibly beautiful mountain ranges.
Cocooned amidst lofty mountains and rolling hills of the incredibly beautiful Pir Panjal, Zanskar, and Dhauladhar ranges, Chamba tiptoes up and down a two-deck plateau rising from the banks of a gurgling Ravi river. Over a thousand years old, this little outpost in northwest Himachal Pradesh was once a remarkable royal dominion established by Raja Sahil Varman in 920. Its geography cosseted it from invasions, letting it develop a culture of its own. Here the arts found patronage, literature strengthened roots and education was encouraged. Its royalty was continually farsighted and the region benefited. Chamba, for instance, was one of the first towns in the north to get electricity as early as 1910, with the dynamic Raja Bhuri Singh (1904-19) tapping into the era's newest concept of hydro-generation. As testimony to his vision, the main market retains several ornate electricity poles erected way back then.


In days of yore, Chamba was a tiny town built around the Chowgan, a verdant central square, which continues to be its most popular public venue. In the past, it hosted coronations and sundry imperial ceremonies, now it's used for almost anything from social functions to political rallies and even leisurely picnics. On its flanks rose the attractive royal quarters and the market. Today's town has moved way beyond the Chowgan, with urbanisation creeping into the surrounding hills. The changing times have also diluted or destroyed the finer aspects of traditions. Yet, what remains shyly shines through the clutter, drawing the eye of the keen visitor and enthralling with their varied attributes.
The calling card of Chamba is its ancient shrines and their distinguishing architecture. Amongst the oldest and most revered on the checklist is the 11th century Lakshmi Narayan Temple. A short uphill walk from the market leads to its complex of six shrines dedicated to Lords Shiva or Vishnu. Each of these has been erected by rulers at different points of time and enshrine exquisitely crafted idols, which are now caged behind iron grills. A beautiful Garuda at the entrance is another highlight. Built in shikhara style, or tapering stone towers, it's their slate-wood chattris or canopies that make these temples typical to the area.
What's more, there is a gold kalash (holy urn) atop each, and legend says these were added in defiance to Emperor Aurangzeb's decree ordering temples to be razed. Apparently Raja Chhatar Singh (1664-90) took the audacious step in 1678 to indicate he wasn't afraid of the enemy forces! Other significant medieval shrines in the region include Champavati temple, Hari Rai temple (known for its Vaikuntha idol, a form of Vishnu with three faces — human, boar and lion), Bansi Gopal temple, Bajreshwari temple (that's a little beyond town) and Chamunda Devi temple.
Owing to topography, palaces in the hills are, in general, nowhere as palatial as those on the plains; at best, they are akin to huge mansions. Overlooking the Chowgan is the erstwhile royal address, Akhand Chandi Palace, built by Raja Umed Singh in 1748-64. The unplanned construction in the neighbourhood nearly hides it from view but, like a pretty diamond, it manages to grab the eye, the gaze returning often to its striking green roof and stained-glass windows. Part of the palace has been turned into a college while the rest is still home to the Varman descendants.


British influence began making inroads from 1840 onwards and their architectural imprint is noticeable in the post office, the courthouse complex, the well-maintained Circuit House and the Church of Scotland.
The Chamba royals were patrons of fine art, and the region's collective wealth of art history is showcased at the Bhuri Singh Museum, established in 1908, making it one of the oldest in the country. Here you'll find sculptures, costumes and miniature paintings belonging to the Pahari school of art, comprising the Chamba, Kangra, Basholi and Guler styles.
Live art in progress can be viewed at the town's small but lively bazaars, where weavers make shawls on wooden looms, silversmiths craft pendants, metallurgists hammer on copper and brass to produce trumpets, bells and pujaplatters, artists work on Pahari paintings, and girls embroider the Chambarumal — an inimitable do-rukha, or reversible, embroidery on square cloth used to cover gifts and holy offerings. Traditionally, the rumal is part of a bride's trousseau and her grandmother embroiders it for the special occasion.
Like in many of the region's hilly towns, a plethora of fairs and festivals take place in Chamba the year round. The Sui Mela held in April pays tribute to Shail Varman's queen who, according to folklore, sacrificed her life so that Chamba would never be without water. The Sui Mata temple is dedicated to her and, during the festival, women gather and sing praises of her valour and devotion. It's the poignant tale behind the event that draws devotees from far-flung areas. And on such days, otherwise quiet Chamba comes alive with festivity.
Published in The Hindu Business Line , Nov 2011

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