The Kingdom Of Chamba
During the course of my travel and research for Best Hill Escapes, I met and interfaced with a number of people across Himachal Pradesh, a state I claim natal association with. Thankfully this is one umbilical cord that has not needed severing as it continues to keep me close to its welcoming fold. Not least for old-timers, and new friends I have made along the way. That they were ever willing to step up, assist and guide me in my professional commitments notwithstanding: I even got them to write. In a series of (hopefully) less irregular posts, I will be sharing the thoughts, advice and information they generously shared with me.
Maalvika Pathania, State Convenor – INTACH. Great granddaughter of Raja Bhuri Singh of Chamba, daughter of Raja Gulab Singh, she happens to come from one of the oldest surviving royalties of Asia, and fondly reminisces here about the legends and history of Chamba.
As a former princely state, Chamba is regarded as one of the most ancient principalities in India and dates back to A.D.540 to 50. It came into being with the fragmentation of India after the collapse of the Gupta Empire. The town of Chamba became the capital of the erstwhile princely state of the same name with the Suryavanshi rulers of shifting here from Bharmour; even today, seat of Lord Shiva. With a glorious past, a fulfilling present and the indications of a wonderful future, Chamba has already celebrated a thousand years of its existence since its foundation by Raja Meru Varman who ruled from his seat at Bharmaur between 680 and 700 AD.
In the beginning of the tenth century, the twentieth descendant of Maru, Raja Sahil Varman sallied out from Bharmaur and took control of the lower Ravi valley where the town of Chamba later came into being. Local lore has it Chamba was founded at the instance of Sahil Varman’s daughter Chameshni who was enamoured by the spot – and the town is regarded to be named after her. The ‘Champaka’ flowers found in abundance here also add to the similarity in name. To-date, Chameshni is worshipped in Chamba as a goddess and deeply revered as the Kul Devi.
Chamba has been blessed with a repository of sound archaeological and textual sources. There are well over a hundred copper plate title deeds and a few even pre-date the ‘Mohammedan period’ – like the one issued by Yugakar Varman, the son and successor of Sahil Varman. Apart from these, there are deeds on silver, brass and gold. Then there are rock inscriptions, image inscriptions and slab inscriptions. Documents that establish the antiquity of Chamba and allow its history to be pieced together include letters, firmans and the famed Vansavali, genealogical roll of the state. There are references to Chamba in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a primary source of the period.
About the middle of the twelfth century, in the wake of the Muslim invasions and the ensuing disorder across north India, Chamba struck out on its own. Its geographic inaccessibility ensured that it remained undisturbed until Akbar brought the state under Mughal sway around 1560-80 AD. Later, with the rise of Sikh power, Chamba was subject to the Lahore Durbar, and then, along with the Punjab, this passed under British paramountcy. This insularity allowed Chamba to develop a distinctiveness that is its very own; even when influenced in terms of people or culture, it created a rare assimilation. The river Ravi has given the tract an identity and a means of sustenance as it rises south-east of the Pir Panjal mountains in the Pangi-Bara Bhangal area on a 765 kilometre long journey to merge with waters of the Chenab. There are several high passes with elevations varying from 8,000 to 17,000 feet.
Women have played a major role in keeping its antiquity, culture, social fabric, values and faith in harsh conditions. As a commander in chief of her father’s army, Chamaseni helped establish the present town ship of Chamba. It was the wife of Raja Sahil Varman, Maharani Sunaina who to keep her family and state subjects prosperous sacrificed herself to bring natural water to the town of Chamba. April witnesses the town hosting the annual Sui Mata fair, one of few in India attended by women only. Legend has it that Goddess Chamunda herself came to the” yag,” performed for her blessings at the Akhandi Chandi Palace to bless the royal family with longevity.
Mountainous inaccessibility also helped women retain their oral cultural traditions. They provided ample support at home and in the fields to sustain men in their creativity. Chamba rumals, embroidered in fine silk thread are fine works of hand embroidery, synonyms to miniature painting, making their place in world museums. While metal casting and wood and stone carving still survive the vagaries of time and these art traditions have given the town many national awardees including a Padam Shri for miniature painting. It’s this essence of deep rooted traditions and rich values, where even today, in Chamba one finds multiethnic brotherhood in complete harmony and coexistence as you see all visiting its mosque, temples, gurudwara and church with equal fervour.