We had changed buses at Chamba bus stand on our way to Khajjiar because the road to Dalhousie was snowed out. Chamba seemed like a crowded place, but then all important bus stations are full of people. I had faint memories of Chamba, having explored it almost two decades ago on a roadtrip with my parents. As a princely state, Chamba was said to be the heartbeat of Himachal Pradesh and also known to be an ancient Kingdom.
Back then, we had alighted in Pathankot for a summer trip and were visiting Dharamshala-Dalhousie-Khajjiar-Chamba and some religious places as well. This time it was peak winter with the hope that the plummeting temperatures in Himachal Pradesh would make for a worthwhile trip. After coming from Delhi, it was a splendid scene at Chamera Dam with the gorgeous pristine colour of water surrounded by snowy peaks in the far distance.
It was early afternoon when we reached Chamba and started searching for a cheap place to stay. After roaming around half of Chamba town and checking out many Guesthouses, homestays and hotels we finally decided to head to Hotel HPTDC Iravati and were happy to pay around 1200 for a room with an off season discount. It turned out to be an excellent decision as we had a spacious balcony attached and the use of a heater was free too. Over the next few days, we explored Chamba on foot and had a glorious time doing so. It is an unpretentious town and you can even meet an occasional Gaddi tribal passing by.
A Brief History of Chamba
Chamba was founded by Raja Sahil Varman in the year 920 AD and proudly proclaims to have maintained uninterrupted written historical records for more than 1000 years. Chamba Valley is a lush green valley and Chamba Town has Ravi river flowing close to it. The annual Gaddi festival – Minjar Mela (held in August) has been celebrated every year since 935 AD. The entire town and Chamba Valley is dominated by ancient stone temples and boasts of a tranquil, unhurried lifestyle. The chougan grounds in the centre of town occupy a place of pride in Chamba.
Places to Visit in Chamba
Lakshmi Narayan Temple
Among the most prominent temples in Chamba is the Lakshmi Narayan Temple Complex. The Temple Complex is located near the old Dogra Bazaar and is opposite to the Akhand Chandi Palace. There are six stone temples in total dating from the 10th Century to 19th Century AD. In response to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s warning in 1678, to destroy all Hindu temples – the Raja of Chamba added gold in the temple in defiance of the order.
All the six temples are covered with umbrella style rooftops made of wood and feature exquisite carvings even on the outside. The temples are dedicated to various Gods like Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Gauri Shankar, and other Gods. The temple architecture style includes shikhara, garbagriha, small antarala and a mantapa.
In the Lakshmi Narayan Temple, there was a bunch of kids jumping around that led us to the main pujari. He informed us that the temple museum was closed for the day due to some reason. I was very keen on checking out the religious artefacts in the museum but that was not to be. There was a solitary small temple on the opposite side of the six temples which was in dire circumstances. It was crumbling down and seemed to be under restoration.
Hari Rai Temples
After roaming around the periphery of the Chougan (also spelled chaugan or chowgan), we were delighted to have tasted a local drink called khatta – mixed with soda. The weather was sunny and it really didn’t feel like it was the end of December. Although I wasn’t aware of the Hari Rai Temples but while having a random conversation with the khatta seller on the other end of the chougan, my eyes spotted another small complex of stone temples rounded off with a shikara.
According to a placard at the Harirai Temple, “The Harirai Temple was built in the 11th Century AD by Prince Lakshamanavarman. It is Pancharatha on plan where the square sanctum is crowned by a curvilinear shikhara and antarala is supported by tow carved pillars.’ It further states that the Harirai Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and houses an exquisite image (more than 100 metres tall) of Vaikuntha Vishnu.
Sui Mata Temple
Also called Suhi Mata temple, this highly revered local temple is located a short distance away from main Chamba town. We had met a bunch of oldies on a walk who then advised us that both Sui Mata Temple and Chamunda Devi Temples were a must visit. We took a shortcut that took us on a steep uphill climb over countless stairs.
The legend of Sui Mata temple was narrated by the old men of Chamba to us : ‘There was a water scarcity in 10th Century Chamba. After many attempts, there was no plausible solution to be found. In a dream, the queen was told by the mother Goddess that the water problem will be solved if a member of the royal family performs a sacrifice of own life. The queen realised that sacrifice of both the king and the young son would not bode well for the future of Chamba Kingdom and decided to offer her sacrifice for the good of her people. She expressed her last wish was that the people of Chamba hold a fair every year in her honour and that the fair be attended only by the women and children. As soon as she the soul departed from the Rani, there was a spring of water from the ground solving the water problem’
Even today, a week long fair called Sui Mata Mela is held in Chamba in the month of April. It is a time for celebration in Chamba when Gaddi women perform traditional dances and sing cultural songs.
Chamunda Devi Temple
We kept going further ahead of Sui Mata Temple and climbed more stairs to reach the Chamunda Devi Temple. Stunning views of Chamba town flanked by the fast flowing Ravi river and surrounded by snowy mountains was a sight to behold. The temple itself was situated on an elevated platform and was surrounded with bells.
The entrance of Chamunda Devi Temple was decorated by a gorgeous bell that was really huge. The bell is apparently made of brass and was donated by one Pandit Vidyadhar in 1762. This wooden temple is devoted to the Goddess Chamunda. The locals believe that Chamunda Devi temple existed even before establishment of Chamba, although the present structure has since been renovated.
Bhuri Singh Museum
I had heard so much about Bhuri Singh Museum before even reaching Chamba, that it was one place that I was really keen on seeing and it didn’t disappoint at all. It remains one of the best museums I’ve seen with fantastic displays bringing out the rich past and culture of the ancient Kingdom of Chamba.
Bhuri Singh Museum was founded in 1908 by the then Raja of Chamba, Raja Bhuri Singh with the assistance of Dr. Vogel. Bhuri Singh Museum has a collection of more than 8500 antiquities and art objects related to archaeology, art and craft and cultural anthropology. There is an exquisite collection of miniature paintings from the Chamba and Kangra school of paintings. Proper descriptions are also provided and the museum spans a space of 2 floors.
There are lovely door frames with intricate wood carvings, sculptures, coins, a collection of chamba rumals, historical documents and manuscripts, ancient inscriptions among other cultural delights.
Entry for tourists : 20 Rs and camera fees : 50 Rs.
Apart from the temples mentioned, there are other important temples in Chamba such as Bajreshwari Temple, temples dedicated to Radha Krishna, Champavati Temple etc. Akhand Chandi Palace is a huge structure that was originally built around 1750 for the Chamba Rajas. It is presently being used as a college and it seemed like there were also a few government offices situated in the building.
Another structure, called the Rang Mahal was built over 200 years ago to be used as a treasury and state granary was sold to the HP Government in 1958. It is now home to the Himachal State Handicraft and Handloom Centre which is run as an NGO and also has a small collection of local shawls, woollens, chamba rumals and handicrafts.
Specialities of Chamba
Himachal Pradesh has unique food in its different regions; such as Mandi, Kullu, Palampur, Chamba, Lahaul, Spiti etc. While Chamba Dham is usually reserved for festivals and weddings, the common man can have a taste of unique Chamba cuisine in a few restaurants in Chamba.
While there are many dishes that can be tried, chamba madra is a rich, buttery mix of local rajmah (kidney beans) and curd, to be savoured with rice. Even the samosas in Chamba are sold with a chutney accompaniment mixed with khatta. Chukh is a Chamba speciality and is used as a mouth fresher; it is available at most shops in Chamba’s Dogra Bazaar. We will forever be indebted to the helpful staff at the restaurant at HPTDC Iravati who enabled us to taste so many dishes of Chamba local cuisine, without us having to pay for all of them.
In a nutshell, Chamba Rumal is the same on both sides with identical pictures and embroidery in pahari style. The Bhuri Singh Museum has a special gallery for chamba rumals. History of Chamba suggests that chamba rumals have been made by women for hundreds of years. Chamba Rumals are like embroidered paintings, depicting scenes and designs from religion and myths.
There are only a few women today who continue this tradition, and we were lucky to be directed to Mirza Auntie (Sahiba Begum), near the hospital lane. She is a national awardee and an expert in the field of Chamba Rumal. Also, it was a pleasant surprise when we visited Rang Mahal and saw that an NGO is attempting to revive the art by teaching young local women, the art of weaving Chamba Rumal.
Another speciality of Chamba is the locally made Chamba leather chappals. The designs are artistic and the product is quite sturdy. For females, the chappals have embroidered designs with silk threads. There are a few shops in the local market to buy Chamba chappals and one can also see the artisans at work.
Shopping in Chamba
Just outside the temple complex, artisans make curved ceremonial trumpets and brass products for sale. Also much sought after are local rajmah beans, walnuts, chilgoza, pikanut (a different type of nut) and they can be bought at a shop near Lakshmi Narayan Temple. One can also buy locally made woollen shawls, with stunning designs in the shops near Bhuri Singh Museum. The black embroidered hat is a hat unique to Chamba and is priced at as little as 100 Rupees at any shop. Gadenchi & Sur are kinds of local alcohol of Chamba & Bharmour and can be tried if one is staying with a local family or at a homestay.
Mai ne meriye…. Shimle de raahein… Chamba kitni door hai …
Shimle ni vasna… Kasauli ni Vasna… Chambe jaana zaroor hai
This was only the second place on the epic winter trip in 2015. The road took us to Bharmour and our feet to Kugti after this.