|Kangra fort, from a distance|
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|
|Goddess Ambika, a form of Parvati|
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|
|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.
|Carvings on the old temple|
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.