Heritage in the Himalayas
With its plunging pine-clad valleys and distant mountain views, Dalhousie is another of those cool hill retreats left behind by the British. Since independence, the old colonial mansions have been joined by an army cantonment, the posh Dalhousie Public School and numerous modern hotels catering to honeymooners from the plains. There’s not a lot to do here other than stroll around appreciating the crisp air and mountain views. Quite a few Tibetan refugees have made a home in Dalhousie.
Unusually for a hill station there are few truly steep roads, but Dalhousie is spread out far enough to be tiring if you do it all on foot as we later discovered to our cost.
From Amritsar Airport, the road to Dalhousie took us past richly irrigated lands, densely packed with agricultural crops, before we reached Pathankot. After crossing into Himachal, the road began to climb the hills and finally we came into Dalhousie, set among hills ranging from 5000 to 8000 ft in altitude. We were booked at Grand View, which was a short steep ascent from the main square with a superb view of the snow-capped peaks of the Pir Panjal range. The hotel is largely a 1920s gable-roofed building with a nice garden in front facing a pine-clad valley and a distant snow view.
Our British Raj-style room had a glass-panel sitting room leading to a spacious bedroom area with a huge bed, wooden furniture and a dressing area separating it from the bathroom. We walked around the hotel and glimpsed the equally Raj-esque Mount View hotel. The Silverton Estate, a heritage property, is another good place to stay. We walked through the market where Tibetan women were selling shawls, hand-knitted woolen clothing, beaded necklaces and Buddhist artifacts. A few shops sell fruit preserves like jams and jellies, souvenirs, groceries and provisions. From Grand View, we set out for a drive to the Gandhi Chowk crossroads, which has the post office and other public buildings.
We shopped for Himachali crafts and walking sticks in the market, and had an apple cider and fresh organic juice, sitting near the cross-roads, before walking along the winding streets called Garam Sarak and Thandi Sarak (the former is more open to the sun!) which run past tin-roofed, half-timbered houses. There are painted rock carvings of Buddhist deities along the south side of the ridge. Finally, we reached Subhash Chowk, where the driver was waiting for us at St Francis Church.You can also visit the British-era church of St John (1863), set among the pines at the opposite end of the ridge. The churches and gabled British bungalows here are reminders of the glory days when Dalhousie was a nourishing sanitarium and summer base for British officers during the 1800s. The ruler of Chamba gave four hills on annual rent to the British India Government for the development of a retreat for British expats based in Punjab.
Though the British preferred Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital, Dalhousie became a fashionable place for the elite in cities like Lahore, who set up garden houses in this hill destination by the 1860s. It grew as an educational centre with convent schools, public schools and the Belgian missionary-founded Sacred Heart Convent. Guides offered to take us for walks or pony rides to see an old British cemetery near the cantonment, the five-bridge point called Panjpula, Jandri Ghat where the Raja of Chamba’s palace is located or the Tibetan carpet weaving centre at Bakrota. But our children were tired so we returned to Grand View where the owners had set up a bonfire for guests and a play area for the kids.
The next morning, we awakened to a spectacular view of the mountains and sat among majestic trees to enjoy tea in the garden. We got close views of flameback woodpeckers, magpies and flycatchers among the trees, and warblers in the bushes. After breakfast, we set out for Khajjiar on a winding road that brought us first to the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary. This sanctuary in the catchment area of the Beas River has huge coniferous forests and majestic oaks. One needs to spend days trekking here to see wildlife like serow, goral, barking deer, yellow-throated marten, Himalayan bear, leopards or larger birds like koklass and kalij pheasant. Our walk yielded a few hill bird sightings and some butterflies were spotted.
We drove from the sanctuary to Khajjiar, a meadow set around a lake, which is a major tourist attraction for adventurous activities like pony riding, paragliding and zorbing. We were harnessed in a transparent plastic orb which was then rolled downhill with us inside it. My daughter went horse riding in the towering deodar woods along the saucer-shaped meadows. After trying out all the activities, we took a breakfast halt at a hotel near the road and then continued on the road to Chamba, which is ensconced in the valley of the fast-flowing Ravi river, that runs all the way to the historic town. Although en route to Bharmour and fine trekking country, Chamba is well off the tourist radar. Chamba replaced Bharmour as the Mushana Rajput capital around the 10th century and is named for Champavati, the daughter of Raja Sahil Varman, worshipped as an incarnation of Durga.
Chamba was founded in AD 920 by Raja Sahil Varman and it survived for 1000 years until it finally fell to the British in 1845. Every year since 935 AD, Chamba has celebrated the annual harvest with the Minjar Festival, in honour of Raghuvira (an incarnation of Rama). The goddess Sui Mata is highly venerated by local women. She was a princess who gave her life to appease a water spirit that was causing a terrible drought in Chamba and the four-day Sui Mata Mela is celebrated each April on the Chowgan in her honour. After we crossed the bridge over the Ravi to Chamba, we stopped for tea at the Cafe Ravi View, on the ledge of a mountain overlooking the riverbank. In the town centre is a meadow called Chaughan, the focus for festivals, impromptu cricket matches, picnics and promenades.
Most places of interest are tucked away in the alleyways of Dogra Bazar, which spread uphill from the Chowgan. Chamba is dominated by the former palaces of the local maharajas like the rust-coloured Rang Mahal, now a crafts centre and stately-white Akhandi Chand Palace, housing public institutions. The Bhuri Singh Museum is named after one of the Chamba Rajas who donated much of the art, catalogued by Indologist Dr Vogel. It has a wonderful collection of miniature paintings from the Chamba, Kangra and Basohli schools of Himachal, plus wood carvings, weapons, intriguing copper-plate inscriptions and ornately carved, centuries-old fountain slabs from around the Chamba Valley, replicas of murals from the Rang Mahal Palace, metal masks, copper plates and silver jewellery.
I was specially taken by the Chamba Rumal, exquisitely embroidered, hand-spun and handwoven muslin or mulmul, with satin stitches, floral and faunal motifs and religious themes, with a perfect mirror image of the same pattern on the reverse side and no evidence of knots or loose threads. This folk art was patronised by royalty and are great gifts to take home. Opposite the Akhand Chandi Palace are six corn-cob-style stone sikharas dating from the 10th to the 19th centuries and covered in carvings. The largest and oldest temple is dedicated to Lakshmi Narayan (Vishnu). Just outside the complex is a distinctive Nepali-style pillar topped by a statue of Vishnu’s faithful servant, the man-bird Garuda. The remaining temples are sacred to Radha Krishna, Shiva, Gauri Shankar, Triambkeshwar Mahdev and Lakshmi Damodar. On the hilltop above the Rang Mahal (Old Palace), reached via a set of steps near the bus stand, the stone Chamunda Devi Temple features impressive carvings of Chamunda Devi (Durga in her wrathful aspect) and superior views of Chamba and the Ravi Valley.
About 500m north along the road to Saho, the Bajreshwari Devi Temple is a handsome hut-style mandir with exquisite effigies of Bajreshwari (an incarnation of Durga) set into plinths around the walls. Our last evening was spent exploring around the temples, watching artisans at work on Chamba’s famed handicrafts, where Coppersmiths made curved ritual trumpets and utensils, hookahs, etc. Chamba is a key centre for silver jewellery like the Chandan Haar necklace. Artisan workshops in Chamba produce lost-wax metal cast images to create idols, masks, figures and bells, a craft believed to have arrived here from Kashmir. Cobblers make leather slippers with felt uppers embroidered by their wives, with stylized floral motifs in chain stitches. We spent some time in the bazaar shopping, where we saw tour operators offering treks with guides and porters to the surrounding Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges. If you don’t have time for a long trek, stay overnight in the deliciously isolated Ridgemoor Cottage, three hours’ walk and a 1000 mts climb above the Orchard Hut hotel at Rulpalli meadow.. Finally, we sat down in Jagan restaurant for a tasty meal with Chamba specialities – chamba madhra (kidney beans with curd and ghee), jeera rice and a copper pail of dhal on the side.
ACCOMMODATION: At Chamba, stay at Orchard Hut, Hotel Aroma Palace, Hotel Ashiana Regency, HPTC-run Iravati or Chamba House, the best budget hotel in town with fine views over the Ravi River from its balcony. Or opt for homestays with the locals, for a unique glimpse into the Himachali life.