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Between Monks and Monkeys

Touring around the Kangra Valley: Masroor, Kangra Fort & more...

INDIA | Wednesday, 16 May 2012 | Views [2356]

Kangra Fort, the remains of a temple. Very intricate carving.

Kangra Fort, the remains of a temple. Very intricate carving.

Recently Gusti, Eva and I went to Kangra Fort, the Brigeschwari Devi temple in Kangra, Masroor temple and the Tatwani hot spring, as well as having a memorable lunch at Lanj / Lunj.

We set off at 8am with Hardeep the taxi driver who had been booked through the taxi drivers’ office on TCV road in McLeod Ganj – at 2200 rupees it was a good deal for a day trip.

We drove down to Kangra and made our first stop at the Brigeshwari Devi temple in the centre of Kangra. The approach to the temple was via a long narrow covered market absolutely crammed with stalls selling all sorts of things - fruits and foods, stuff for temple goers to buy, shiny bracelets and jewellery – the overwhelming impression was of shimmering gold and red.

We left our shoes and went into the temple which was quite busy – there were a lot of people lined up to go into the main part of the complex but we just walked round the outside. The Hindu gods are brightly painted and there were many life size or larger images in niches around the complex. In the middle of the temple courtyard was an enormous tree with hanging roots - or whatever they are – I must find out what sort of tree it is. You often see them around temples and sacred places. Very imposing and beautiful trees.

In fact a feature of India is the willingness to accommodate trees into architecture, so you often see trees growing inside buildings which have been modified so as to allow the tree to poke out the top. The Dalai Lama’s temple in McLo is a good example. I wouldn’t say it’s ideal for the tree, but they seem to survive somehow. They’re more often than not used to carry electric and phone wires too.

We caused quite a sensation in the temple and before long we couldn’t move for people wanting to have their photos taken with us – we mostly pushed Eva forward as we felt they should get the best value from a young, good looking foreigner… It was quite difficult to get away, in a friendly sort of way.

Next stop was Kangra Fort which I found really impressive. I got an audio tour (they come in Hindi, English and Tibetan for 150 R) which was really well done – good information, well presented. The fort is the oldest in Himachal Pradesh and possibly in India. Alexander the Great even fought here. The outcome of the battle is disputed, claimed as a victory by both the Indians and the Greeks, but in any case Alexander moved on after that.

The fort has been in the hands of one family for centuries and at its height was in the centre of thirty smaller forts around the area. It’s built between two rivers and is on a high outcrop in dramatic countryside. It was besieged fruitlessly 52 times over the centuries. The Maharajah finally lost it in the early 19th century because he was besieged for four years – the owners of 21 forts in the vicinity joined in because he’d been pushing them around – and he finally had to get help from Ranjit Singh the Sikh leader to lift the siege – whereupon Ranjit Singh claimed the fort. The British bombarded it later on and blew up the munitions depot (formerly a mosque) and took it over for a short time. There was huge amount of treasure in the place for a long time, buried in various wells. The treasure was amassed through offerings at the temples on site, especially a very important Jain temple, still used, which has an idol which was blessed by the first Jain guru, a contemporary of the Buddha. The audio tour, by the way, included a little clip of the Dalai Lama talking about India’s tradition of religious toleration. After the massive and deadly 1905 earthquake the fort was abandoned, and then returned to the original owners in 1925 – they gave it to the state after independence.

A lot of the fort has been restored (I expected it to be much more ruined) and it was really very interesting. There were great views over the surrounding countryside, and we saw several green parrots flying over the trees down in the valley. There is also a museum next to the Fort, but we had still a lot to do, so we moved on.

We drove for nearly an hour down to Masroor, an old temple complex carved out of the rock. Like Kangra Fort it was also very impressive although a bit smaller than I had expected. Once again it had been badly damaged – possibly by the 1905 earthquake. In places great slabs of rock had become detached.

The only temple in use now – there used to be many on the site - is a hollowed out square room with a carved ceiling and a number of religious objects in it, including ancient-looking three stone idols with shiny inlaid eyes. Just beside this room is a very old stone staircase going up through the rock – how many thousands of feet have climbed up there over the years? We did too, and walked around on the flat roof where it looks as though there used to be more temples, but most have fallen down. There were some lovely examples of carving. Because there was no information whatsoever at the site I don’t even know how old it is, but I’d say it is pretty old.

The lake in front of the temple is home to a lot of fish. Hardeep brought some food along and threw it in, and the water was literally boiling with excited fish, their mouths gaping. From the other side of the lake we got a good view of the temple complex – with nice reflections – and I also photographed a buffalo and a lizard. We saw a striped squirrel on the site – being hassled by mynah birds – but he was too quick to photograph. Goats were browsing happily by the lake, so the place is a nice mixture of ancient monument, still-used temple and rural living space.

Lots of men and women were sitting around by the site – it seems to be a local meeting place, but there were not many visitors – the same as at Kangra Fort. NB Entry to both sites was 100 r – unchanged for several years as the Lonely Planet of 2007 was also quoting those prices.

We were ready for lunch after this and Hardeep said we’d stop on the way. Appropriately we stopped at Lanj (Lunj) for lunch, at a tiny grubby looking stall advertising “Breakfast lunch and dinner’ in English, but I don’t think they get too many foreign visitors. We sat out the back in a lean-to at a very rudimentary wooden table next to the chicken coop. If this had been my first week in India I would have been horrified, but I’m more acclimatised now. The door between the lean-to and the main cooking-eating area was amazing – rough planks held together with old two-handed saws nailed on at jaunty angles. The décor was at least as interesting as many more up-market establishments which try much harder …

Lunch was actually very nice – rice, dal and fresh hot roti, plus a pickle and a dish of hot spicy veg. None of it was overwhelmingly spicy and it all tasted good. Hardeep asked for spoons for us, and the cook brought them along, wiped the bowls thoroughly with her thumb and plunged them into our dishes of dal before we could stop her. Anyway, we all survived unscathed, and it was good value at 55 R each.

The drive to our last stop, Tatwani hot spring, took about 45 minutes, winding round the upper sides of a sweeping valley and down again in a huge loop. I rather expected that we were going to somewhere a bit like Tokaanu hot pools in NZ – not too upmarket but swimming pool-ish, with a changing room and maybe even toilets. However this is India and of course it was a temple, at which most people probably bathe for devotional rather than recreational reasons.

The main pool had warm water coming out of a carved spigot - this is where the men bathe. The next door pool was quite plain and was for the women. It did actually have a place to change, but if you wanted to go to the loo it meant a trip into the neighbouring marijuana field. Both pools were about the size of three bathtubs – ours had a little fish in it. The water was lukewarm and quite refreshing in a way, although when I got out I found I was starting a headache, and I think it may have some sort of dehydrating quality – on top of which we possibly didn’t drink enough; it was a hot day and we were out in the sun a lot. Memo to self – drink more water!

As we drove away from the pool we could see the stunning Dhauladhar mountains in the distance. The journey back to Dharamshala took about an hour and a half, with a stop to buy mangoes on the way. Another good day out in the Kangra Valley.

If you liked this story, you might be interested in reading "Between monks and Monkeys", written after my first time in Dhramshala in 2010. Available as an Ebook for US$1.99 on Kindle, NOOK, I-tunes 

etc, or as a paperback (email me for details.)



Tags: dharamsala, kangra fort, masroor, tatwani, temple

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