Go Back


Chamba the quint town in Himachal Pradesh is where I have grown up. This is cradled between the Dhaula Dhar and Pangi ranges, nurtured by the River Ravi. And the borders of Chamba touch Jammu and Kashmir. It is a land of untold natural beauty, deep historical antiquity, rich and varied culture and ecological bio-diversity resplendent with historically and architecturally important buildings. Perched on a plateau overhanging the river Ravi, the town is named after Champavati, a daughter of Raja Sahil Varman of the Bharamaur royal house who shifted his capital here in 920 AD. Isolated by high mountains in its beautiful valley, Chamba over the centuries was allowed to develop its own style of Pahari art and architecture. The people of Chamba still worship Champavati as a goddess. Accoding to another legend, the town is called Chamba after the champaka flowers, which grew in abundance. The region between the Dhaula Dhar and Pangi ranges constitutes the drainage area of the River Iravati which means refreshing that flows in a deep gorge immediately behind the Dhaula Dhar range and parallel to it. Much of this heritage has been preserved and Chamba, known for the splendour of its temples and handicrafts, is replete with artistic masterpieces. How we played hide and seek in this still intact fine group of six ancient shikhara style stone temples (dating back to 8th century) are dedicated to Lord Shiva, Vishnu and other deities. Among them the richly carved Lakshmi Narayan temple is the oldest structure. Other evidence of Chambas heritage can be seen in the famous collection of miniature paintings from the Kangra, Basholi and Chamba schools at the Bhuri Singh Museum, as well in the murals and other artifacts at the Rang Mahal Palace. I do not think the simple people would know the price of a Kangra painting today.

It is nearly every home there on the walls since generations. Chaugan, the grassy meadow at the heart of the town, is also the center of its cultural activities. People go for their walks here kids playing with dogs relishing the desi ghee Aloo Tikis and getting drunk seems to be their pass time. In July/August, each year, the Minjar fair is held here. Valley Gods and Goddess in their majestic palanquins are brought down from the mountains to pay homage to Lord Raghuvira, the presiding deity of the valley. During the week long harvest fair, the ground comes alive as villagers in colourful dresses celebrate with sport, song, dance and music. The Hari Rai temple near the Chaugan (dating back to the 11th century) known for the four armed bronze statue of Lord Vishnu (Chaturmurthi) is a masterpiece in metal craft. Overlooking the town a little distance away, the temple of goddess Chamunda Devi has some of the finest wood carvings that adorn its exterior and interiors. The architectural heritage, the historical traditions, the myths, the mountain-lore, the socio-ecological culture of Chamba are specially pertinent because they are as vital to the existence of the community today as they were at the time of its inception. Its myths and artistic traditions are unrecorded, passed down by word of mouth, its religio-cultural systems are undocumented, a belief in their credibility being instinctual rather than cerebral. It would be a regrettable error to let them pass into obscurity as they may well do with the fast pace of market forces changing naturo-cultural equations. For a community long nurtured on a rich multi-faceted historical and traditional heritage, the break down of its socio-cultural systems would cause fatal psychic and moral injury. The material condition of his existence is fast changing, and just as rapidly, so is his culture. However, the community here is a community that is sufficiently conscious to find meaning in its past. A study of the dynamics of its natural and cultural inheritance can go a long way in conceptualizing its development in economically sustainable and socio-ecological terms. The dangers that would arise from alienating Earth's living forms from Mankind's communion with them need not be undermined. The preservation of the relevance of this culture's past in the contemporary context of the rapid change that it is facing is of vital importance. A festival to celebrate did reaffirm and revitalize its culture, besides throwing up for us areas for further intervention. With a past like this it is no wonder than the local minister Harsh Mahajan wanted to celebrate thousand years of Chamba town with great aplomb and shown. So it was celebrated with the Union Tourism minister Ambika Soni and the Chief Minister Vir Bhadra Singh doing the inauguration of the festivities. Invitations were sent to Chambials living all over the world. Chamba town was lit up for this one week in a traditional way. Local folks songs with the local dham (food) was of 24 hours in the big Chowgan.

Chambas cuisine is fairly distinctive and even now, the traditional festive meal, the dham is cooked by the hereditary caste of cooks, the Bhotis. The folk songs and dances of Chamba are an essential part of its culture. The folk theatre form Harnatar is still popular and is staged regularly before the festival of Holi. This is a full fledged play with characters and costumes while the dialogue and situations are normally spontaneous. Popular musical instruments in the Chamba region are Shankh, Ransinga, Nag Pheni, Thali Ghada, Bhana, Karnal, Pohol, Dhons, Kahal, Kansi, Hasat Ghanta, Nagara and Drugg. This was put together by Prem Sharma, Director of Language & Culture. The historical story of Raja Sahil Varman on the advice of his great guru and for his daughters love he shifted to Chamba Puri on the bank of Iravati. Rani Sunaina later dreamt that one member of the royal family will have to sacrifice their life to do away with the draught. Sunaina then sacrificed herself and the stream of pure water carriers on. Hence comes Sui Mela every year where the Chambials pray to her. Historically, Chamba State is one of the oldest principalities in Northern India, having been founded in the middle of the 6th century AD, its inception a fall out of the turmoil caused by the Hun invasions in the North West that led to the disintegration of the Gupta Empire.

In early times, it possibly formed a part of the kingdom of Kashmir. The towns archeological and historical significance is undisputed, an important pointer to its antiquity being the discovery of an eighth century brick temple of the Gupta period there, preserved in the Bhuri Singh Museum, and icons of Vishnu and Vaikuntha, enshrined in the Laxmi Narayan and Hari Rai temples dating back to the eight and ninth centuries. The veracity of the state's historical antiquity is remarkably well preserved in a wide repository of archeological remains - copper plates, historical documents, genealogies, title deeds and inscriptions in wood, stone, brass, silver and gold. The historical veracity establishing the founding of Chamba in the tenth century is well documented in the books by Vogel and Hutchinston and the State Gazettes listed in the attached bibliography. In the politics of history, Chamba acquired a unique status, being the only North Indian state to have been ruled by a single dynasty since the sixth century AD. On the 15th of April, 1948, Chamba became a part of the State of Himachal Pradesh. Temple architectural styles in the Chamba Valley are varied and representative, the Lakhna Devi Temple at Bharmour and the Shakti Devi one at Chatrarhi unique in the intricate carving of their wood, dating to the eighth century, and done in the classical style of the post Gupta period. Nagara temples built of stone in the Pratihara style dot the valley. Later wooden temples from the 17th century are adorned with figurative work, inspired from the Mughal-Rajput painting traditions. The superb iconography of the marble, bronze and stone images enshrined within these Nagara temple are worshipped to date, with a veneration that speaks volumes for the communitys aesthetic and mythic synchronistic view of their cultural inheritance. Metal casting and stone sculpture are traditional art forms in Chamba.

Bronze casting, in particular, was a fine art, affording Chamba the status of a foremost center in the casting of this metal, as early as the eighth century. Stone sculpture dates back even earlier, the early stone sculpture of Surya discovered at the village of Gun belonging to the seventh century. Both stone and bronze sculpture clearly bear Gupta, Pratihara, Kashmiri and even Pala influences. The art of Miniature Painting was practiced in Chamba from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Ragmala, Dasavatara, Bhagvata Purana, romantic themes of the Nayika Bheda, and portraiture were the main subjects that these exquisitely wrought miniature paintings depicted. Mural painting, too, was a finely honed craft in Chamba. The temples of Chaumunda Mata at Devi Kothi, Shakti Devi at Chatrarhi, and Shivadvala in Obri are fine examples of this art, while there are remnants of the folk tradition of Bangdwari, the panting of gods and goddess on the walls and in the doorways of homes, in some of the older homes of the town. The Chamba Rumal is perhaps the most famous of Chambas crafts and it began as an item to cater to the royal household. And from there, the products of this domestic craft spread to every household that could afford them or whose womenfolk could create them. At its simplest, the Chamba rumal, literally, handkerchief-was a piece of cloth used as a small drape or scarf. Steadily this embroidery began covering a range of items of daily use-caps, handfans, pillow-cases and wall hangings. Embroidered with a double satin-stitch, dorukh it displays the pattern as a positive on both sides of the cloth. The earliest Chamba rumals are felt to have been created from about the mid-eighteenth century-and have had an unbroken lineage as it were, to the present day. The themes that unravel in the stitches are born of the artistic traditions of the hills. The Krishna Lial, is a favoured theme. The Nayika Bhed, hunting expeditions, battle scenes, architecture, and wealth of geometrical and floral designs have been deftly transferred on to cloth. The base cloth was originally mal-mal, finely woven cotton fabric and the embroidery was done with silken threads. The quality of the rumal is determined by the density of the embroidery and the minuteness of the stitches. The traditional designs and sizes have adapted to present-day requirements-napkins, tablecloths, wall decorations and bed-sheets. The peace loving and simple minded chambials are not your conventional victims of hurry and worry. Moved by the mountains around them they have however strong beliefs not spirits. Spells and superstitions that have been handed down over generations. All this makes them quaintly charming and eternally appealing. And as the millennium celebrations wind on these people continue to celebrate life while recognizing that they are interiors of a legacy that mixes a long history with a living tradition.