Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tales Of Kangra Fort

Kangra fort, from a distance
The highlight of our trip to Kangra was our visit to the Kangra fort; something we had left for the very end as we knew nothing much about it and could barely see it atop a hill, somewhere on the outskirts of Kangra town.  Everyone had mentioned various temples and tea estates and Tibetan colonies but no one had really spoken of this monument.

On the last day of our trip, we drove up a winding road, stopped a couple of times to get directions (there is a sign along the way but it points in the wrong direction) and finally reached our destination.  This fort belongs to the Katoch family, the oldest surviving royal dynasty in the world ('Katoch' means 'one who is skillful with the sword').

No fort in India is really dead; its life is embedded in the very stones and earth from where it rose and in tales about how its inhabitants lived (and died).  Kangra was a fort unknown to me and though I had read that it was a flourishing kingdom, I knew nothing of its history.  Fortunately the recent descendants of this family have put together a remarkable audio guide on the history and structure of the fort (evocatively narrated by Roshan Seth, the actor).  This is the first Indian fort I have visited that offers such a tour.  Walking into the Kangra fort, with a headset clamped over my ears playing ancient sounds - the drumbeats of war, old hymns and prayers, anecdotes narrated by the royal family overlaid by descriptions of each part of the fort, was an uncanny experience.  It was like whizzing back thousands of years ago and gradually moving forward again, step by step through centuries.

"Whoever holds the fort holds the hills," was an old Kangra saying - and many attempts were made to attack and defend this fort.  It is a long, sad tale of vicious war, ruthless plundering and treachery repeated endlessly.  Many have attacked this fort but none has been able to hold it and it belongs still to the Katoch family.

The fort encompasses 463 acres
The Kangra fort is India's oldest dated fort, said to be built around 3,500 years ago by Raja Susarma Chandra, a descendant of the Katoch family.  This royal Rajput family was founded by Rajanaka Bhumi Chand in 4300 B.C.  According to the Puranas (Vedic texts), there was a time when the goddess Ambika (a form of Parvati) was fighting a ferocious demon.  It was a long and hard battle and at some stage, a drop of the goddess's sweat fell on the earth.  From this emerged Bhumi Chand of the Chandravansh (the moon clan), who helped the goddess fight the demon.  As a blessing, Ambika granted him the kingdom of Trigarta that is located between three rivers - Sutlej, Beas and Ravi.  Kangra is a part of this region.

Goddess Ambika, a form of Parvati

The earliest references to these kings are found in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, where the kings apparently fought Lord Rama and the Pandavas.  The earliest historical reference to the Katoch clan is a report by Alexander's scribe, describing the valour of the king Paramanand Chandra (also called Porus or Phageus).  Porus was defeated by Alexander on the banks of the Jhelum river in 326 B.C.  So impressed by this Rajput warrior was Alexander that he asked him to become a satrap in Macedonia.

There are subsequent reports on a series of battles involving the Katoch clan, beginning with a battle against King Ashoka (where the Katoch kings lost their lands in Multan) followed by several centuries of fighting against neighbouring Indian rulers.

Stories set in stone

The next mention of these Kangra kings comes in the 11th century A.D., when they were invaded by Mahmud of Ghazni.  Taking advantage of the absence of the Katoch ruler from the area, Mahmud of Ghazni attacked and robbed the fort of its immense stores of wealth - there was so much loot that his scribes had no words to describe it and his army was unable to carry it all.  Muhammad bin Tughlaq and his successor Firuz Shah Tughlaq captured the fort in the 14th century but could not subdue it - eventually they signed a treaty with the Katoch kings.  The Katoch kings also fended off several other attacks including one by Taimur during this period.

In the 16th century, the fort caught the eye of the Mughal emperor Akbar who forged friendship with the Katoch family.  This was just a strategic deal for Akbar; he soon betrayed the kings and confiscated their lands.  In the words of Todar Mal (Akbar's minister), Akbar 'cut off the meat and left the bones', leaving the Katoch kings to fend for themselves in jungles.  Even under these circumstances they made numerous small but ferocious attacks; the Mughals were unable to settle into the fort and eventually the Katoch kings reclaimed their kingdom.

The Mughals tried hard to recapture the fort - they made 52 further (unsuccessful) attempts!  Finally, in the 17th century, Jehangir (Akbar's son) fought a 14 month personal jehad (as he described it) - and won.  After this victory, as Jehangir approached, reading Islamic prayers, slaughtering a cow and destroying temples to make a certain point, the queens of the fort killed themselves by jumping into a well located within the fort.  The well still stands.

Gate near the entrance
The 18th century saw the Katoch family (with the aid of the Sikhs) regain the fort and subsequently, much of the surrounding land.  Trouble began once more in the 19th century, with a series of attacks by the Gorkha army of Gadhwal, who took over the fort after much carnage in 1806. A counter attack was planned by Sansar Chand (the Katoch king) with help from the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh in 1809.  In return for his help, Ranjit Singh demanded Kangra fort and 66 villages, which Sansar Chand handed over.  However, over a period of time, Ranjit Singh did not keep his end of the pact and began encroaching further into Kangra territory.  Finally, when Ranjit Singh demanded that Sansar Chand's daughter be given in marriage to the son of a Sikh minister, the then Katoch king Anrudh Chand (Sansar Chand's son) fled to Hardwar.  The Sikh rulers ruled for a few years, then ceded this fort to the British in 1846, after the first Anglo Sikh war.  In 1947, after independence, it became a part of Indian territory and has now been returned to the Katoch dynasty.

Sculptures of deities and a deer carved on a gate

The fort stands atop a hill, surrounded on three sides by steep slopes; the only way in is through a narrow winding road (the road we took).  The entrance is through a small courtyard between two gates.  The audio tour at this stage plays the voice of the Katoch descendant telling us how his grandfather taught him never to enter the gates head first, in case there was an enemy within who might behead you.  I look up at the gates - tall, unyielding and almost sinister.  It is impossible to know what lurks behind.  There are 11 gates (several added over a period of time by successive conquerors) and 23 bastions.  Outside the temple gate lies the Andheri Darwaza (the gate of darkness), the first line of defence (before people could reach the temple courtyard).  This is 7 metres in length and wide enough only for two men or a horse to pass through, the intention being to slow down an attacking army at this point.

We cross the gates, one by one, climbing steep stone steps and walking past defaced sculptures of Hindu river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, broken pedestals and stones bearing old carvings and inscriptions in ancient scripts.  The original, broken temple stands with a huge peepul tree in front of it.  Newer smaller temples have now been built for the deities Lakshmi Narayana, Ambika and also to house one of the earliest known statues of Mahavira.  The Katoch family still visits this temple to offer prayers to their family deity, goddess Ambika.

Temple ruins

Carvings on the old temple 

Further on, towards the highest part of the fort, lie more courtyards and small enclosures that display a breath taking view of the countryside below.  It is a sharp, steep drop on all sides.  The Ban Ganga river flows on one side.  The other sides show vertical walls of sheer rock.  Apparently men were lowered down the cliffs to remove all undergrowth and polish the cliff surface till is was smooth and slippery, ensuring that no one could approach by climbing these mountains.  It remains as forbidding today as it must have been through all those centuries.

The fort emanates tremendous strength and energy; physically it has withstood an earthquake that damaged many surrounding regions in 1905.  The Dhauladhar mountains shimmer in the distance.  The land below looks fertile and green, the river flows swiftly and contentedly.  The sky is filled with eagles that swoop down suddenly onto the highest parts of the fort and then take flight again.  These are magnificent birds but I am a little wary of their swoops.

The air is clear and soundless.  The only permanent residents here seem to be the eagles.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What The Ground Says

The last few days have been filled with reports of violence of unnatural and perverted kinds.  Man made and man engendered.  It is at times like this that I look out towards nature and ask, "Is everything all wrong?"  The answer, as some tell us, is blowin' in the wind.  What might it be?  Certainly, the wind, the sky and the earth say different things to each of us, and some of us cannot hear them at all.

This, more than any other, is a time to close our minds, if only for a moment.  To allow ourselves a small respite from the cacophony of cities, discussions of and men and their petty affairs and to look to the spirit for answers.  I quote some Native American voices ( which were recorded as their tribes were dwindling and dying):

"The Great Spirit is our father but the Earth is our mother.  She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us and healing plants she gives us likewise.  If we are wounded, we go to our mother and seek to lay the wounded part against her, to be healed."                           (Big Thunder)

"The Lakota was a true naturist - a lover of nature.  He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age.  The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power.  It was good for the skin to touch the earth and old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth.  Their tipis were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth.  The birds that flew in the air came to rest upon the earth and it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew.  The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing.
   Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle.  For the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them and so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue.
   The old Lakota was wise.  He knew that man's heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to a lack of respect for humans too.  So he kept his youth close to its softening influence."                                          (Chief Luther Standing Bear)

"I wonder if the ground has anything to say?  I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said?  I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it?  Though I hear what the ground says.  The ground says, It is the Great Spirit that placed me here.  The Great Spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them aright.  The Great Spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians on.  The water says the same thing.  The Great Spirit directs me, Feed the Indians well.  The grass says the same thing, Feed the Indians well.  The ground, water and grass say, The Great Spirit has given us our names.  We have these names and hold these names.  The ground says, The Great Spirit has placed me here to produce all that grows on me, trees and fruit.  The same way the ground says, It was from me man was made.  The Great Spirit, in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm..."                              (Young Chief)

"Oh, yes, I went to the white man's schools.  I learned to read from school books, newspapers, and the Bible.  But in time I found that these were not enough.  Civilized people depend too much on man-made printed pages.  I turn to the Great Spirit's book which is the whole of his creation.  You can read a big part of that book if you study nature..."                                                   (Tatanga Mani)

"I had learned many English words and could recite part of the Ten Commandments.  I knew how to sleep on a bed, pray to Jesus, comb my hair, eat with a knife and fork, and use a toilet....  I had also learned that a person thinks with his head instead of his heart."                         (Sun Chief)

"The man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization.  And when native man left off this form of development, his humanization was retarded in growth."                                                                        (Chief Luther Standing Bear)

"What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.  It is  the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset."          (Crowfoot)

(Quotes from 'Touch The Earth', compiled by T.C. McLuhan)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mangoes Arrive!

Here they are - slowly ripening on trees, piled high on pavements, stacked attractively in fruit shops - the first mangoes of the year.  A few weeks ago, green mangoes made their appearance.  These are sold for pickles and chutneys which seem almost essential with every meal given our jaded summer appetites.  The early windfall mangoes - tiny little things without any seeds have a very different flavour from the big green ones.  They are earthy and smoky, more like berries than fruit.  They are mixed with a few spices (largely chilly and salt) and made into a fresh pickle eaten with rice or rotis.

This year, so far, we have tasted three different kinds of mango pickles already - one with whole baby mangoes from north Karnataka, another with freshly sliced raw mangoes from an orchard in Maharashtra (lots of some unidentifiable Maharashtrian masala and the taste of fresh, raw mango), a third golden yellow (laced with ground mustard and chilly) from Uttar Pradesh.  Also, my own strange experiments, of mangoes cooked with jaggery and whole spices (not very successful but not dreadful either)!  Very soon will begin my next phase of cooking with unripe mangoes - green mango rice with hints of fresh coriander and coconut, sweet and sour green mango chutney and shredded mango salad with peanuts.

Tiny, flattened dried mangoes
As for the ripe mangoes, early varieties from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and our own state of Karnataka are slowly trickling in.  Apart from buying at regular shops or pavements, each year I visit Maharashtra Mandal, where a lady rents some rooms to store and sell Ratnagiri mangoes.  This year was no different and last week I trundled up to this inconspicuous building in the middle of the crowded lanes of Gandhinagar.

Maharashtra Mandal stands at a corner, apparently quiet but buzzing with frenetic activity deep inside the 'mango rooms'.  Rows of crates are stacked from floor to ceiling in the inner rooms; these are periodically dragged out when customers arrive.  The crates are expertly flipped open, the contents revealed to customers (each of whom has a precise set of requirements).

The customers here are invariably aggressive and extremely particular about each piece of mango being the very best - as if they were buying bullions and not fruit.  The quality of a mango is determined by the size and external appearance and the fact that it must be blemishless, much like models in fashion parades.  This is quite amusing to watch.  Customers are also invariably in a hurry.  These various requirements, somewhat contradictory in nature, means that one person rapidly empties out a crate; mangoes are selected or rejected, prices are discussed and some bargaining attempted.  Other crates are opened up, the selected mangoes are counted and repacked.  Other customers must wait their turn to follow the same procedure.  I of course dispense with the haggling and the close scans of each piece.  I have been visiting this place for years and the lady knows the kind of price range and mangoes I ask for (I generally prefer small and ripe ones whereas most people like large and semi-ripe mangoes).  I also don't mind blemishes for most of them seem to be skin deep.  This considerably speeds up my mango buying and makes place for the next customer.

This is not to say that mango buying occurs one person at a time.  There are two or three parallel processes occurring, the main constraints being floor space and man power.  We all tread carefully around the mango piles, minimize out footprints, prefer to ram into each other rather than bump into any of the precious the mangoes (we would probably have to buy the squashed ones).  It is all rather fun as long as one is not impatient.  Voices yell "450 - 400"  "No, this is 600," much like a stock market and they refer to bulk prices based on the mango sizes (nothing is weighed here, it is sold by the dozen).

Mango selection
What is so special about these mangoes?  It's not the price, which initially tends to be higher than market rates and slowly drops as the season proceeds.  It is the fact that these mangoes are plucked from orchards, immediately packed in crates and sent to this building.  Here they lie ripening slowly and naturally in straw; their flavour and aroma intensifying gradually as days go by (they may take a few days to a few weeks to completely ripen).  These naturally ripened mangoes taste much better than the chemically ripened ones.  Their flavour is more intense, there are no unripe, sour or over-ripe patches.

Mangoes ripening in straw
This particular variety crinkles and turns a deep, orangey-yellow when ripe.  The mangoes fill my house with an enticing smell and part of the joy is to pick them out of the crate and select the ripest of the lot.  They are uniformly exceedingly delicious - sweet and flavourful with very little fibre; the only danger is the tendency to over-indulge!  

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