Chamba: The Last Hill Station

Chamba is much larger than we expected; it is a district capital with a Raj feel. It sits in a river valley, surrounded on all sides by high mountains. A huge flat green, a ‘chagwan’, marks the center of town. It looks as if it was created by the British as a polo field, and I can almost see the horses with their white uniformed riders brandishing polo sticks. Today, it’s a focal point for socializing and cricket games. Alongside the chagwan are several large distinctly Raj looking buildings with pillared verandahs.

Beyond the chagwan, the town spreads in one direction down to the river Ravi and in the other crawls up the hillside. Intermingled with the usual drab concrete blocks are a surprisingly large number of very old wooden buildings with carved windows, balconies and slate roofs. The town is densely built on the hillside, with very narrow lanes and only a few wide enough for vehicles. At nighttime the surrounding hills twinkle with lights – it reminds me of the hills of Sarajevo. But here the hills are peaceful without the threat of mines.

Walking through town we’re both impressed by how friendly everyone seems. Women sitting in windows smile and call, “Namaste!” Finding our way to the temple complex is not easy and for once Gerard’s Junior Woodchuck’s Guide fails him and he has to ask directions! Without the aid of English, the shopkeeper closes his shop and shows us the way. Once again we find ourselves in a town where very little English is spoken, but people are polite and friendly. Maybe it’s due to the fact Chamba doesn’t see many tourists and we’re still somewhat of a novelty.

Many temples are dotted around the town. One intimate complex of temples is in a style found only in Chamba and one other neighboring town. The outer walls are carved and topped with overhanging wood canopies and a gold pinnacle. The oldest is 10th century. When we visit it is almost empty and very peaceful. Hindi temples clearly manifest idol worship – but performed so lovingly – the flowers, incense burners, orange and gold cloth draped over the idols and the sacred bull…the largest idol even has a ceiling fan and a wall clock!

Another interesting temple is high above the town up a steep climb of steps. Gerard puffs and pants, “,,,this is just like going up the mountain in Chopta!” It is very steep….but the sweat and strain to our knees is worthwhile. There is a beautiful view of the river valley and the town below from the top. The temple is decorated with literally hundreds of brass bells and is almost entirely made of wood. The ceiling is exquisitely carved.

A museum created by the British in 1908, and later rebuilt, houses a surprisingly large and very good collection of miniatures in the unique style of Chamba and neighboring, Kangra. There are also some wonderful old photographs of the Raj in Chamba.

Again the weather is unsettled – during the night it rains on and off, lightening flashes and thunder echoes around the mountains. It doesn’t clear the haze as much as we hoped, but the air is cool and fresh. We try to appreciate the cool 26C temperature because in a few days we’re going to be in Amritsar and Delhi which are reportedly 44C (112F).

As a side note, we recently read that on the last auspicious bath day in Haridwar, during the Khumb Mela, there were an estimated 1.45 crore (40.5 million ) pilgrims trying to reach the river to bathe. In the crush, seven were killed in the crush. We’re thankful that we had long left town.

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