Travel with us on an exciting road trip through the Himalayan ranges .
The Mountains Call
Monuments, monks, monkeys and Moksha
If one were to make a mural of our recent trip to Punjab and Himachal what would stand out will be the beautiful and graceful monuments, some extant, some crumbling and some which have made a pact with time to allow them to survive the ravages of time and destiny.
While the golden temple at Amritsar shines bright , it’s glow and the clean marble exteriors and pathways beckoning the faithful and it’s hospitality to all envelopes them in a warm embrace . Food is served 24 X 7 to anyone who is hungry, simple but nutritious food, and if you want a roof over your head, yes , you can stay at the temple, no questions asked. And there is free transport available from the airport. So one was surprised at some healthy, good looking beggars who harassed us till I heard what she was saying , “ Ek suit dilwa do behen ji!” ( Please buy us an ensemble, sister !) WHAT THE BEESWAX !
However, this brings me to the second attraction of Amritsar , besides the robust Punjabi food and polite demeanor of the people , you can get an outfit bought, stitched and dropped to your hotel in under two hours.
As we entered the cooler climes of Himachal, glad to leave the sweltering heat of the plains , we came upon, quite by a lucky chance since our friend who ran a bed and breakfast was booked and away traveling, the TARAGARH PALACE at Palampur which also owes it fame now to the fallen soldier and martyr Vicky Batra whose life story in a recent Bollywood movie, SherShah, had captured the imagination of the whole of India.
But back to Taragarh palace, bought for the spouse of the Rajah of Kashmir , Hari Singh, by their grandson, Rajah and member of parliament and now member of the Rajya Sabhha for decades , Rajah Karan Singh ( now 91 ). Taragarh Palace was so named after Maharani Tara. The abolition of the privy purse in the seventy’s was a death knell to the luxurious lifestyle of the rajahs and rajkumars. If they were to survive, it was necessary to make peace with democracy and the democratic ways of the new age . So this graceful palace was turned into a hotel and ordinary people like us get to live the life of kings and queens for a day or two at very reasonable rates. There is an old world laid back charm of this heritage hotel/palace with the fragrance of raat ki rani , (night jasmine) wafting in the air , locks and fittings which reminded one of havelis and old clubs and army messes , paintings and photographs , sepia toned and Eastman, old time deferential waiters who had an old world and polite charm about them and delectable, aromatic food , elegantly served with crisp napkins and polished silverware. Taragarh was an unforgettable experience, laid out so gracefully in emerald green lawns, with mango trees laden with fruits and cuckoos calling to each other , fountains and pillars silently watching the new guests and wondering where the glittering royalty with their diamonds and chiffons have faded away , only to be replaced by a mixed bag of regular folks , some noisy, some quiet but all awestruck by the historical ambience of this graceful old world heritage palace , TARAGARH !
On our way to Taragarh the driver stopped at a gorgeous secluded monastery painted in happy bright yellow with bougainvillea and flowery creepers and a bunch of hairy mountain dogs who considered themselves the keepers of the place and set up a frenzy of raucous barking when they saw visitors , one going so far as to attack one of them and was beaten back with a bag . Who or what gave them this sense of entitlement, only Buddha knows !
But further up on a higher elevation of Dharamshala, Mcleodgunj and Dharamkot where the Dalai Lama descended with ten thousand of his followers and found his haven, after being driven out by the Chinese, the monasteries are more people friendly , situated in the very crowded marketplace bustling with tourists, monks , yoga enthusiasts with many fancy eateries run by ‘firangis” as the foreign white skinned immigrants are called ; shops selling Tibetan tankha paintings and, of course, the ubiquitous jewellery and bric a brac shops , all huddling cheek to jowl in small spaces and calling out hopefully to many who have only travelled so far to attain peace and nirvana, away from the material attractions of the mortal world ! What a conundrum!
Here, like every place we went to in the Himachal , monkeys were roaming everywhere with a strut of ownership . They roamed around in packs, snatching food from the unwary , even attacking when they could do so safely to snatch away a food packet . In the monastery , we chanced upon langurs which are special to India . Their grey fur and black faces stand out from the others but in habits they were no different from their cousins , their only demand and interest was food , wherever and however they could lay their hands on it .
The maroon chogas and shaven heads of the monks was a recurrent motif of these hilly townships and so was the monkey groups, many with babies perched on their mothers backs or suckling on the elongated, loosely hanging teats of their mothers. The tense and angry faces of the monkeys contrasted strangely with the serene faces with beatific faces of the monks , it was as if the monkeys did not appreciate this intrusion into their space, notwithstanding their fondness for human food , biscuits and pizzas ! Popcorns too !
Mother and child . Our driver informed us that the mother and child bond is so strong that even if the child will die the mother will not let go till the carcass crumbles to dust but isn’t that true of all mothers !
From Dalhousie, with its steep mountains and dangerous roads snakily meandering around its curves and cars teetering on the edges , holding on for dear life , we made a little trip to the Kangra fort . And it was a real eye opener.
“You must pass through the gate leg-first, never lead with your head because if there’s an enemy on the other side, you might lose your head.”
This advice sums up the history of the Kangra fort as generation after generation, groups of invaders have passed through the doors of these hopefully impregnable fortress and have lost, not only their heads but their arms and legs as well in the process !
The Katoch dynasty built the fort in 1500 B.C.but this dynasty traces its lineage back to 4300 BC. about the time the Egyptians were building their pyramids. Battles and wars was the lot of this hapless fort; they have battled Lord Rama in 3000 BC. , about the time the Mohenjo Dara and Harappa civilization was flourishing and bronze and hieroglyphs were invented. In 1500 B.C. Raja Raja Susarma Chandra fought against the Pandavas in the Great War of the Mahabharata and built the fort of Kangra, just about the time of the Shang dynasty of China and the earth quake of Konossas.
In 900 B.C. the Katoch kings fought the Persians and Assyrian attacks, just about when the alphabets were introduced and Rome was founded (753 B.C.)
In 500 B.C. onwards Rajanaka Parmananda Chandra fought Alexander the Great and then Ashoka, the great, just about the time the Mayan civilisations, Socrates and the Great Wall of China ruled the physical and mental world. Raja Parmanand was better known in folklore as Porus who when captured by Alexander and asked how should he be treated, famously replied, “As one king should treat another one !” and was subsequently released for his bravery and became a legend.
During the reign of Kanishka, just when Augustus became the emperor of Rome in 100 A..D. the kings of Kangra fought many wars. In 470 A.D. they are fighting the rajah of Kashmir; this was during the golden age of the Guptas and the time Christianity was spreading across the world.
In 643 A.D. , during the time of the Tang Dynasty of China, the great traveler Huien Tsang visited the kingdom of Kangra. Many battles were fought among the hill chieftains, there are accounts of attacks by Gurkhas.
The fabled treasures stocked in the 21 wells attracted the attention of marauders and the rise of Islam and incursion by Moslem invaders subjected this fort to multiple attacks and from 1009 A.D. following the attack by Mahmud Ghazni the fort was attacked ceaselessly ; in 1170 A.D. Mahmud Ghori invited by Raja Jai Chandra who became a byword for treachery and traitor-ship when he invited Ghori to invade Kannauj and attack the valiant ruler Prithviraj Chauhan who, in turn, is famous for romantically abducting the beautiful Samyukta from her forced swayamvara , a method of marriage where a princess could choose a groom from a group of suitors by garlanding him ; in 1341 A.D. Taimuralang and the Tughlakhs were attacking this fortress . This was about the time of Genghis Khan’s reign and the Aztec empire.
In 1556 , the Kangra fort was attacked 52 times by Akbar the great and occupied but the the Kangra ruler were reinstated and given the title of Maharajah .
In 1700 A.D. the Maharajah allies with the Sikh guru Gobind Singh to fight the despotic and religious zealot Aurangzeb and is bestowed the title of defender of the faith ( dharam rakshak ) by the guru ! But in 1750 , the Durranis bestow on the king the title of Rajput Nizam . But the Mughal rule is crumbling and the English are already in control and a new set of attacks are awaiting the fate of this hapless fort .
Notwithstanding the Golden age of the Kangras and the development of the miniature Kangra paintings , the British, Maratha , and Sikh powers were rising just as Napoleon was straddling Europe.
In 1820 the Kangra fort was occupied by the Sikhs , in 1846 the British attach Kangra from the Sikhs ; in 1905 the Kangra fort is ravaged , this time by nature , an earthquake, so in 1924 the British reinstated the Maharajah to his kingdom and even allowed a 11 gun salute !
In 1947, after the independence of India the last ruler of Kangra throws in his lot with the Indian union but this good fortune lasted till 1972 when the privy purse is abolished and titles taken away in the newly democratic country and so the fort once again languishes and falls into disarray !
There is a temple dedicated to, ironically, the Goddess of Power , Ambika Devi , who gave this temple to the Katoch dynasty as a reward in helping her fight the demon . Some brave souls who trek to this fort do come to pay obeisance to the Goddess .
Nature has now taken over and wild creatures , mostly monkeys, stalk the land which has faced the onslaughts of enemies from within and without and still stands tall as a testimony to the spirit of the words of a poet who said ,
The glories of our blood and fate
Are shadows , not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hands on kings;
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
James Shirley ( 1596 – 1666 )
‘ Death the leveller ‘
If the first leg of your journey begins with a visit to the temple and obeisance to God at the Golden Temple , it is only fitting that in the last one would attain Moksha ! ( The Hindi word for salvation ) And so Moksha riverside resort in the Kasol valley, next to the River Parvati gushing and tumbling through rocks and boulders , brought us the peace and calm and joy that comes to a human life engaged in hectic activity and struggle battling the vagaries of nature and life ; in our case it was overcrowding, traffic jams and once being cheated of our peace of mind by an errant still under construction hotel which falsely advertised it’s attractions ( Hotel Orchard Greens ) and then sold us short with an under construction lobby, laundry strewn in the passages and towels hanging on the exercise equipment and an old Nepali gentleman trying to lure us into the rickety spa room for a massage .
So Moksha riverside came up like a breath of fresh air ; gorgeous view, clean rooms with a thoughtful management taking care of all the nitty gritty stuff, delicious food , great entertainment. No wonder the Israelis have made these parts their home , what with weed being freely available , the usual foreign owned eateries which have upscale , interesting menus, and many trails for trekking for the health and fitness nuts . Kasol valley also has the famous Manikaran gurdwara and on the opposite bank the Shiva temple with its hot springs which is frequented by the ailing and the sick. One could see the smoke curling up to the sky from the springs but did not venture to this tourist destination because tourists nowadays only desecrate every spot they visit by their total lack of civic responsibility! As a result these towns are slowly turning into garbage dumps and Mother Nature is turning in her grave.
So Moksha was a haven and a little slice of heaven and a fortunate end to our little family trip. We could leave with good memories of our Himalayan odyssey.
Some more images from this very memorable trip .
Dalhousie Public school is massive and just one of the many schools that have made Dalhousie famous ; Lord Dalhousie is credited with setting up a great education system for India . On the way to a typical tourist spot called Khajjihar one comes across these fellows with rabbits in their basket and a “maskali “ on their heads so named after the song from Delhi 6 , one hell of a way to make a living . Khajjihar had zorbing and paragliding of some sort , unheard of in any part in the world , the paragliding consisting of attaching a child to a harness and running with it and then waiting to catch the child before he can fall to the ground .In many countries this may be illegal !
The horse riding too was quite uncomfortable and expensive , 500 rs for a small chukker but so desperate are the tourists for any entertainment after Covid that they were thronging these spots and spending money as if they grew on trees of this verdant spot !!! BTW the slopes here are almost vertical , so steep are they !