Kangra – a name which spells a rich history. A capital city which the Katoch dynasty guarded for ages. A Pandora’s box which attracted many plunderers. An alcove where bloomed the famous Kangra school of art.
That’s Kangra. and much more.
Tour this ancient town of Kangra, that lies overlooking the gushing torrents of the Banganga River, a tributary of the Beas rising from the southern slopes of the milky Dhauladhars. But saying simply that Kangra is an ancient town is not enough; it has the distinction of being the site of the oldest recorded war in human history. The Rig Veda (approximately 1200 BC), one of the oldest texts in the world, mentions the 12-year war between Divodas (king of the Aryans) and Shambar (king of the hill regions when the Aryans first arrived in India) being fought here. That was around 1500 BC. The land also figures in innumerable episodes of history, legends and folklore. It even finds a mention in Alexander’s (around 326 BC) war records. The great Indian epic Mahabharata cites this wonderful Kangra as Trigarta.
The present name – Kangra – given to this area is not very old. It came into vogue in the late medieval period and is supposedly derived from the term kan-ghara (a place where ears are cast). But it is not known why the term came to be applied to this place, probably because of some long-lost legend or folktale.
Today Kangra is also known as Bhawan or Nagarkot. Bhawan because of the Bajreshwari Devi Temple, and Nagarkot because of the fort Nagarkot. The cruel earthquake of 1905 saw to it that Nagarkot’s impermeability became a thing of the past. The place where the dilapidated fort mutely stands is called Purana Kangra or Old Kangra. The other attractions of the town are the Gorakh Dibbi Temple, the old Jain Temple and the Gupt Ganga Temple.
Although Kangra served as the hotbed of power in the olden times, all the hustle-bustle of a capital city has now shifted elsewhere – to Dharamsala, the present district headquarter. Leaving Kangra with memories of a glorious past and making for a destination par excellence.
The Kangra School of Miniature Painting
Various schools of miniature painting, collectively called Pahari, flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries in the sub-Himalayan states.
The hilly region, then divided into 22 princely states, was ruled by Rajput kings or chieftains who were all great connoisseurs of art, with most of them maintaining ateliers.
The focal points of their lives were war, hunting, lineage, and the zenana. Also partial to love themes, especially the legends of Radha and Krishna, the Rajputs liked them depicted in their paintings.
The early Pahari paintings of the mid-17th century were in the Basholi style (dubbed so because of its association with the king of Basholi). These are extraordinarily colourful and charged with vitality and emotion.
Two persistent strains can be observed – a fondness for the portraits of the local rajas in plain white garments and for the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
The paintings bear resemblance to Rajasthani and Malwa paintings but this can be attributed to the fact that the kings of the princely states in Himachal were Rajputs.
Some of the telling characteristics are the use of extremely elegant two-dimensional architectural settings topped by domes or pavilions, bands of scrollwork pattern and the use of elaborately figured rugs. There are many striking works in this genre as the Basholi style, with its strong indigenous Indian element, is well suited to the portrayal of many-headed Shivas and many-armed Durgas (figures from the vast stockpile of Indian mythology).
Basholi Style Paintings
The coming of painters from the Mughal court in the second quarter of the 18th century (due to the decline of the Mughal Empire) led to a complete transformation of the existing Basholi style. There was a wholesale ferrying in of Mughal style and fashion, from dress to architecture to the arts. The resultant was the Guler-Kangra style. The style owes a great deal to later Mughal painting, particularly in its receding planes, its fondness for quasi-realistic landscape and its frequent enlargement of the figures on the page. This late Pahari style first appeared in Guler, and then in Kangra. Raja Goverdhan Singh (1744-1773) of Guler gave shelter to many artists.
Under the ambitious Sansar Chand (1775-1823) of the great Katoch dynasty, the Kangra School flourished happily. It is said that Sansar’s love for a gaddi (a tribe of Chamba-Kangra region) maiden drove him to commission the paintings. Nagarkot or Kangra Fort, where he held court for nearly 25 years, was adorned greatly with paintings and it attracted art lovers from far and wide. Later he moved his capital to Nadaun and finally to Sujanpur Tira. The temples and palaces at each of these places were also adorned with lovely miniatures. The 1905 earthquake damaged many of these buildings but you can still see some of the miniature wall paintings.
The Kangra style is by far the most poetic and lyrical of Indian styles, says art historian J. C. Harle. His favourite subject here is ‘the idealization of woman, in flowing sari, head half-covered with a shawl, demure but stately, passionate and shy’.
The more complex many-figured compositions – usually larger and horizontal in format – tend to illustrate events from the Krishna legend – the cowherd god putting out a forest fire, subduing the serpent Kaliya, or stealing the clothes of gopis (milkmaids of Braj) while they were bathing in the river. The ability to handle large groups of figures and landscapes with towns or clusters of houses in the distance is admirable. Apart from intricate brushwork, Kangra miniatures are characterized by the skillful use of brilliant mineral and vegetable extract colours that possess an enamel-like lustre. But the strangest thing about these hill paintings is that you’ll never find snow-capped mountains in them!
Research shows that while the Kangra style became well-entrenched in the Hills, many offshoots emerged in regions like Kullu, Nurpur, Chamba and Mandi. The Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba is best-known for its exquisite collection of Pahari miniatures.
Fairs & Festivals
This festival is celebrated only in the Kangra district in the month of March/April. Clay figurines of Shiva and Parvati are worshipped by young unmarried girls who dress up in their finery and gather around a heap of grass to sing and dance. After being worshipped for 10 days, the figurines are immersed in a pond or river on the first day of Vaisakha or Baisakhi (13th April).
The festival is held to commemorate the tragic death of a beautiful young girl called Rali. It is said that Rali was engaged to Shankar, a boy much younger than her, but came to know about it (the fact that he was younger) only on the day of the marriage. Overcome with grief and resentment, she decided to end to her life. But before doing so she called upon god to be considerate to all marriageable girls so that they find suitable matches. Well, strange as it might sound, marriage between a younger boy and elder girl is taboo in traditional Indian society!
Though celebrated in many northern states, this agrarian festival is celebrated differently in different regions of Himachal. Generally held on the first of Baisakh (13th April), it is called Bissu or Bisha. It signifies vigour and vitality and serves as a ritual before the onset of the harvesting season. Burning the jhalra – a pile of dry twigs with a pole bearing a conical bamboo basket erected in the middle – is an important ritual. It is set afire in the morning as young boys sing and dance around it.
Haryali means greenery, and in the Kangra Valley, it is the festival that celebrates rain. Since good rain means a good harvest and prosperity, it is important to keep the rain god happy. Haryali is celebrated on the first of Shravana (July 16). Some 10 days before this, seeds of five or seven grains (wheat, barley and the like) are mixed together and sown ceremoniously by the head of the family or the family priest in a small basket filled with earth. A day before the festival, Shiva and Parvati are ritually married as their union brings fertility to the world. Clay images of the divine couple are placed in the midst of sprouting grain to the chant of, "O Haryali, may thou ever remain in the green fields..."
Sair is basically thanksgiving for abundant rainfall and is celebrated in September/October. Traditionally, a barber goes round the village with a galgal (fruit in a basket) announcing the coming of the festival. Men, women and children bow to this sacred fruit which is considered an emblem of the fruits of harvest about to be reaped.