Every time I crossed it, I wondered what was hidden behind the great fortifications of the Kangra Fort in Himachal Pradesh, but somehow I never found an answer. Located in KangraThe Kangra Fort, a popular district in Himachal Pradesh, India, is believed to be the oldest dated fort in India. Stories of how it was haunted had often reached my ears, but I shied away from them as fairy tales. However, I’ve always wondered what the largest fort in the Himalayas would look like inside.
We never did the trip in all these years as I was told it was not well cared for and not suitable for exploring with a child. But this time when we visited Dharamshala we learned that ASI had renovated the Kangra Fort and it was open for business. The history buff in me jumped for joy and we decided to take the family on a day trip to Kangra Fort.
The Kangra Fort is about 20 km from Dharamshala and just outside the city of Kangra. The history of the fortress is fascinating. It is said to have been used during the Mahabharata Age around the 4th century BC. Built by the royal Rajputs of the Katoch dynasty of Kangra. The fort was very wealthy with its immense wealth hidden in 21 wells that were built within the complex. This led to many invasions by the rulers of neighboring states and foreign countries. The treasures of the Kangra Fort were sacked by Mahmud Ghazni in 1009, by Firuz Shah Tughluq in 1360, and by Sher Shah in 1540. Ghazni looted eight of the twenty-one wells, and the British found five more wells in the 1890s. If the locals are to be believed, there are eight other fountains in the fortress that are full of treasure and waiting to be discovered.
There is a famous saying in Himachal: “He who holds the fort holds the mountains”. Many dynasties tried to take control of the Kangra Fort in Himachal Pradesh. Over the next few centuries, the Katochs went to war against the Mughals, Gurkhas, and the Sikh army to defend their land and fortress. Although the Kangra fort had slipped from the hands of the Katoch family a few times, they managed to regain it.
Kangra Fortress defended itself against more than 50 attacks, but had to surrender to its fate after a terrible earthquake in 1905 destroyed significant parts of the fortress and the palace.
Visit to the Kangra Fort
Visiting the Kangra Fort in Himachal Pradesh is a unique experience. As you climb the steps of the fort you will soon see the beauty of what it has to offer, a perfect blend of history and nature. The structure of the fort sits on a cliff in the lap of the Dhauladhar Mountains and is the main reason for its high defensive capabilities. The arrangement of the fortress has made very clever use of the nature around it to build its natural defenses with the help of the mountains. With a single entrance, the spiral staircases are narrow with mountains and ramparts on either side to guard the path to the palace that was once at the top of the hill.
The entrance is a multi-story courtyard with manicured lawns with an old water tank and a small ruin room in one corner. My audio guide tells me that the garrison and barracks for the soldiers were in this lower part of the fortress, but that nothing has survived except some parts of the hammam. As I made my way to the fort, it reminded me of the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad. The architecture of the Kangra Fort was built on the same principle and only allows one access to the fort. The winding path upwards leads through many gates before even reaching the uppermost inner courtyard, in which the royal palace, the living rooms and the prosperous temples.
The gates of the Kangra Fort
There is a story behind every gate of the fortress. The fort has a total of 11 gates and 23 bastions. The first gate, known as the Ranjit Singh Gate, was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh from Punjab who wanted to celebrate his victory over the majestic fort. He added another gate named after him to further strengthen the fort’s defenses.
“You have to go through the gate first, never lead your head because if there is an enemy on the other side you can lose your head,” his grandfather told Tikaraj Aishwarya Katoch, the current heir of the Katoch dynasty, to one the oldest surviving royal dynasty of India. The audio tour of the Kangra Fort provided by ASI is very informative and contains many such little anecdotes.
The next gates are the Ahini Gate, the Jahangiri Gate and the Andheri Gate. As you pass the Ahini Gate, you will see adjacent buildings and bastions that were used by the soldiers as a lookout point. Along the way, you’ll see the Katoch crest, a black goat with a flying scarf around its neck. On one side is the engraving of Lord Ganesha and on the other side is the goddess Ambika, the clan goddess of the Katoch family.
A few steps ahead you can see the picture of Lord Hanuman and Lord Ganesha. on the wall that extends to the next gate, the Jahangari Gate. This gate was built by Jahangir, the Mughal emperor, to commemorate the Mughals’ victory at Kangra Fortress. The ramparts on the side offer panoramic views of the valley and the Dhauladhars. We stopped to catch our breath and enjoy the serenity.
The next gate is called Andheri Gate and it used an interesting tactic against the enemies. The passage that leads there is narrow and was covered on both sides by high walls, so that suddenly darkness fell on anyone who tried to cross it. For the enemies this was a moment of confusion as they would wait for their eyes to adjust and by the time they realized what was on them it was too late.
The remains of the temple
The next gate with statues of the goddess Ganga and Yamuna on either side greets you in the large courtyard. The sight of the ruins makes you wonder how great the view would have been if the magnificent temples had stood in all their glory. The L-shaped structures on the right look like rooms, but some are in ruins. A staircase leads across the courtyard over the former palace. But before you go any further, spend some time amidst the temple ruins and who knows what mystery you may find out.
The fame of the Kangra Fort was due not only to its strategic position and wealth, but also to its temples. Himachal Pradesh is also known as Devbhoomi, the land of the gods. The temples of the Kangra Fort in Himachal Pradesh were famous all over the country. The temple of the goddess Ambika in the fort is considered to be the oldest Ambika temple in India. The nearby chiefs and devotees had offered the temples precious gifts and jewels over the centuries, resulting in the amassing of much wealth in the royal treasury. I suspect the size of the temples would have reflected their stature.
Unfortunately, years of looting and ultimately the devastating earthquake destroyed significant parts of the temples. What is reminiscent of those majestic times today are the pillared bases, broken carved pillars, temple walls and remnants of the stones that once supported the temple.
While the three main temples, the Ambika Mata Temple, the Laxmi Narayan Temple and a Jain Temple, are no longer there, there is a simple temple right next to the stairs that is still in use. The sound of singing and bhajans added to the ambiance and made it more magical. I remembered there was more to see and climbed the stairs to the top of the fortress.
Halfway through, my audio guide nudged me to look down, and I got a breathtaking view of the back of Laxmi Narayan Temple. I realized my guess was correct. The intricate carvings on the back of the temple in Shikhara style are reminiscent of greater times when all temples would have been in their prime.
On top of the Kangra Fort
The final gate is known as the Mahal Darwaza or Palace Gate and opens to the palace courtyard. There are railings guarding the courtyard and offering spectacular panoramic views of the snow-capped mountains. The platform houses a large underground water tank in the middle and some destroyed buildings. But what caught my imagination was how amazing it would have been to live in a fancy palace with such breathtaking views. I took a break on the bench and allowed myself to enjoy a little bit of everything, the history, the beauty and the tranquility. But just like any mother, my hiatus was short-lived when my son reminded me that our adventure was over for that day and it was time to return home.
Looking for more ideas for traveling through Himachal Pradesh? Read here to plan a road trip across the state.
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