By Monidipa Dey
Standing on the outskirts of the Kangra town around 20 km away from the famous tourist hotspot Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, stands one of the oldest forts of India, the Kangra fort. It is also among India’s largest forts, being 8th in line, and is spread across 463 acres on the Shivalik hillside covering an area of around 4 km. The fort is guarded by high walls and ramparts, parts of which are seen spread across the hillside while driving on the Kangra-Una highway. The rivers Majhi and Banganga confluence at the base of this ancient fort, and if one is lucky enough, he or she can get a beautiful view of the majestic Dhauladhar glowing across the blue horizon.
There is an old popular pahadi saying that goes ‘Whoever holds the Kangra fort holds the hills.’ Keeping in line with this adage, the fort has a violent past, and its history talks of the various attempts to win this fort, along with innumerable stories of loots, betrayals, and destructions. A brief look at the fort’s history shows that the structure was said to be built by Maharaja Susharma Chandra of the Katoch dynasty, who was believed to have fought on the side of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata war, hence making it the oldest surviving fort in India.
The Katoch dynasty is traced back to the ancient Trigata kingdom mentioned as among the important janapadas in the Mahabharata. Trigata king Susharma Chandra played a crucial role in the battle when he distracted Arjuna, while Dronacharya formed the chakravyuha that killed Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. The ancient janapada of Trigarta with its capital at Multan is believed to have been located between the three rivers Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej, with Kangra as a part of it.
After the Kauravas were defeated, Descendents of Raja Susharma Chandra shifted his capital to Kangra. The Kangra fort was once famous for its immense wealth, which was believed to have been stored in 21 large wells. So it is not surprising that the fort faced many devastating attacks. The first major foreign attack was inflicted by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1009 CE, causing major destruction and loot. Historical sources say Mahmud of Ghazni used treacherous means to blackmail and gain access to the fort, and once inside, his forces killed all fort residents and carried away “7 lakh gold coins, 28 tonne utensils made of gold and silver and 8 tonnes of diamond and pearls.”
In 1337, the fort was again attacked by Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, and in 1357 by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, though both sultans remained unsuccessful in capturing it. In 1619, the Mughal army in its attempt to capture the fort laid siege for almost 14 months; while previously 52 unsuccessful attempts were made by Akbar from 1615. Finally in 1620 Jahangir managed to capture the fort, and garrisoned his Mughal army there. In 1789 Raja Sansar Chand II of the Katoch dynasty won back his ancestral fort from the Mughals; however, in 1809, Maharaja Ranjit Singh captured the fort. The fort remained with the Sikhs until 1846, after which the British took over.
The fort remained occupied and functional until it faced devastation again, this time from nature, in the form of a massive earthquake on 4th April 1905. As one enters the fort, the Ranjit Singh gate leads to a small courtyard that holds an ancient and beautifully carved water tank. From here a long road leads up to the top of the fort through the Ahani, Amiri and Jehangiri darwazas. Outside the main temple is the main defense gate known as Andheri darwaza, followed by the Darsani darwaza that is flanked by defaced statues of the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna.
This gate leads to a courtyard, which holds three temples: Ambika Devi Temple, Shitalamata Temple, and Lakshmi Narayan Temple. From this courtyard a flank of stairs leads one up to the palace remains, which is the highest point in the fort. The fort as of now holds 11 gates and 23 bastions.
Travel tips: Kangra fort is easily accessible and a short ride from Dharamasala and Mcleodganj. Just beside the fort is the Maharaja Sansar Chand Katoch Museum that is run by the Katoch Family, and a must visit place.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)