Kangra Fort: An Architectural Gem in Himachal Pradesh

In the heart of Himachal Pradesh lies a remarkable stronghold, the Kangra Fort. Revered by the locals, it has inspired a famous Pahadi saying, "He who holds the Kangra fort, holds the hills." This stronghold, adorned with both opulence and strategic significance, has drawn the attention of countless dynasties throughout history. From the Greeks to the Kings of Kashmir, Afghans to Tughlaqs, Timurid rulers to Mughals, Gorkhas to Sikhs, and ultimately, the British, all have sought to control this illustrious fort.

Today, as we gaze upon its majestic yet weathered structure, we gain a profound understanding of its historical journey—a testament to the evolution of a once formidable bastion into an intriguing, picturesque ruin.

As the oldest fort in India, it not only boasts historical significance but also serves as a vivid witness to the rich heritage of the Katoch dynasty, one of the oldest Indian dynasties.  

  • The Kangra Fort, an eminent historical edifice, is situated in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India.
  • It is alternatively referred to as 'Nagarkot' and 'Kot Kangra.'
  • Perched upon a hillock, it enjoys a picturesque setting between the Manjhi and Banganga rivers, amidst the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar range.
  • This formidable fort proudly holds the title of being the largest in the Indian Himalayas and is entrusted to the vigilant care of the Archaeological Survey of India.

The Origins of Kangra Fort

Myth and Legend

Numerous legends and myths envelop the origins of the Kangra Fort, with its history closely entwined with the illustrious Katoch dynasty. The roots of this dynasty are believed to trace back to the mythological tale of Raktbeej Vadh, an event narrated in the Markandeya Purana. In this tale, Goddess Ambika engaged in a fierce battle against the demon Raktbeej, who possessed the uncanny ability to resurrect with each drop of blood that touched the earth. It was during this battle that a drop of the goddess's sweat fell to the ground, giving rise to the first Katoch, Bhumi Chand. Legend has it that Bhumi Chand played a pivotal role in the goddess's triumph over the demon, and as a reward, he was granted rulership over Trigarta—the land of the three rivers, namely the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej—encompassing the Kangra region.

References to the Katoch dynasty are not limited to mythology alone; they extend into the epic narratives of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, reinforcing the dynasty's historical prominence. Local folklore attributes the construction of Kangra Fort to Rajanaka Susharma Chand, who, after his defeat in the Mahabharata battle as an ally of the Kauravas, sought refuge at the confluence of the two rivers, where the fort now stands.

Historical Records

According to Sir A. Cunningham, an eminent figure in the realm of Indian archaeology, the first recorded historical reference to Kangra, then known as Jalandhara, appears in Ptolemy's texts. This ancient record chronicles the Katoch King Parmanand Chand as the renowned King Porus, celebrated for his valiant confrontation with Alexander the Great. Etymologically, the term "Kangra" is believed to have evolved from "Karna Garh," a name steeped in fascinating history. In ancient times, Jalandhar encompassed a vast territory named after a demon, Jalandhar, who, according to mythology, was vanquished and laid to rest by Lord Shiva beneath the earth. King Susharma Chand's choice to erect the fort over the area that represented Jalandhar's ear (termed "karna" in Sanskrit) led to its nomenclature as "Karna Garh". Over time, this transformed into "Kan Garh" in Hindi before ultimately evolving into the name "Kangra."

A Legacy of Wealth and Devotion

The Kangra Fort was not only known for its strategic value but also for the treasure it held. Hindu rulers and devout individuals used to send offerings of gold, silver, precious stones, and large jewels to the revered deity of the Brijeshwari temple in Kangra. This act was considered a path to virtuous karma. Over time, this wealth amassed within the fort, concealed in secret treasure wells. The treasures within these chests were said to be of immense value. It's documented that there were 21 secret treasure wells in the vicinity of the fort, each measuring approximately 4 meters in depth and 2.5 meters in width. Ferishta, in his work Tarikh-i Ferishta (1612 CE), describes this accumulated wealth as "7,00,000 golden dinars; 700 maunds of gold and silver plate; 200 maunds of pure gold in ingots; 2000 maunds of silver bullion and 20 maunds of various jewels, including corals, pearls, diamonds, rubies, and other precious properties."

A Saga of Sieges and Plunder

The tales of the Kangra Fort's extraordinary treasures spread far and wide, inevitably attracting invaders. This marked the beginning of a turbulent history, replete with sieges and plunder by both native and foreign assailants. In 470 CE, Raja Shreshta Sen, the King of Kashmir, launched an invasion, but the Katochs successfully defended the fort. This marked the first major attack on the Kangra Fort and was followed by a series of invasions.

One of the most renowned sieges occurred in 1009 CE when Mahmud of Ghazni besieged the fort, successfully looting 8 out of the 21 treasure wells. Al-Utbi, in his work Tarikhi-i-Yamini (1021 CE), elaborates on the scale of the wealth, stating, "The amount was so huge that the backs of camels could not carry it, nor vessels contain it, nor writer’s hands record it, nor imagination of an arithmetician conceive it."

Subsequent years saw the fort plundered by Muhammad-Bin-Tughlaq in 1337 CE, and it changed hands several times in battles and treaties. Mughal Emperor Akbar himself is believed to have attempted nearly 52 unsuccessful sieges of the fort before it was finally occupied in 1620 CE after a 14-month siege. This marked the onset of Mughal rule over Kangra, which lasted for over a century.

In the 18th century, Rajanaka Sansar Chand Katoch led a resurgence of Kangra. With the support of Sikh forces, he reclaimed the Kangra Fort, ushering in a "Golden Age"for the Katoch dynasty. He revitalized the local culture and tradition, attracting artisans, painters, musicians, craftsmen, and more from around the world to Kangra. He even established the "Kangra School of Miniature Painting," producing around 40,000 paintings under his patronage.

Despite his accomplishments, Sansar Chand's ambition ultimately led to the downfall of the Katoch rule. In the early 19th century, the fort was besieged by a combined army of Gorkhas and local rulers. With the assistance of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, the Gorkhas were repelled, and the fort passed into Sikh hands. Following the Sikh war of 1846, the British took control of the fort, believed to have looted five existing treasure wells.

The Kangra Fort remained under British control until it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1905. Subsequently, the British relinquished the fort, returning it to the Katoch kings.

Today, Kangra Fort stands not only as an architectural marvel but as a living testament to the wealth, valor, and resilience that shaped the course of its storied history.

The Architectural Marvel of Kangra Fort

The Kangra Fort, a formidable stronghold seated upon a lofty hillock, unfolds a captivating tale of architectural grandeur. Spanning an impressive area of approximately 4 kilometers, this majestic fortress is enveloped by towering ramparts and an imposing wall that have withstood the tests of time. Perched upon a steep rock, the fort commands a position of authority over the valley below, exuding an aura of indomitable strength. Within the realm of Kangra Fort's architecture lies a treasure trove of history and strategic design.

Ramparts and Wall: Guardians of the Fort

The Kangra Fort's physical presence is an awe-inspiring sight, flanked by high ramparts that encircle the entire edifice. These formidable structures, meticulously crafted, serve as the first line of defense. They stand in stark juxtaposition to the natural landscape, adapting to the contours of the hill, a testament to the architectural ingenuity of the era.

Key Features:

  • High, imposing ramparts encircle the fort, contributing to its impregnable nature.
  • The strategic positioning of the wall provides a commanding vantage point over the valley, enhancing its defensibility.
  • Crenels and Merlons: The battlements are adorned with closely packed merlons, strategically indented by crenels. This architectural feature served dual purposes: providing defensive cover for the fort's occupants and facilitating surveillance of the surrounding areas.

The Moat: A Natural Barrier

A remarkable feature of the Kangra Fort's design is the moat, ingeniously carved into the rocky terrain. It acts as a natural barrier, effectively separating the fort from the outside world. The moat finds its source in the confluence of the Banganga and Majhi rivers, enhancing the fort's defenses by creating an additional layer of protection.

Notable Traits:

  • The moat is hewn from solid rock, a testament to the engineering prowess of the era.
  • Its strategic location, connecting the Banganga and Majhi rivers, ensures a continuous flow of water, bolstering the fort's defenses.

A Glimpse of the Fortress

Shah Nawaz Khan, author of Ma‟asir-ul-Umara, offers valuable insights into the Kangra Fort's architectural magnificence. According to his accounts, the fort is perched on the summit of a high mountain, boasting an impressive array of defenses:

  • 23 Bastions: These strategically placed strongholds add to the fort's formidable appearance and defensive capabilities.
  • 7 Gates: A series of gates, designed with both security and accessibility in mind, facilitate entry and exit from the fortress.
  • Circumference: The interior circumference measures 1 Kos & 50 chains, with a length of 1⁄4 of a Kos & 2 chains, a width ranging between 15 & 25 chains, and a towering height of 114 cubits.
  • Large Tanks: Within the fort's confines, two large tanks are a testament to the strategic and practical aspects of its design.

A Blend of Eras: Medieval and Ancient Architecture

The architecture of Kangra Fort is a harmonious fusion of medieval and ancient fort design. Its layout is a living testament to the architectural and engineering brilliance that prevailed in this region during ancient times. The visual beauty of the fort is evident in its architectural elements, including:

  • Arches: Graceful arches that stand as a testament to the aesthetic sensibilities of the era.
  • Domes: Elegantly crafted domes that add a touch of sophistication to the fort's design.
  • Exquisite Artwork: Carvings of intricate and exquisite artwork that showcase the artistic prowess of the time.
  • Rock-Carved Figures: Figures etched into the very stone of the fort, providing a glimpse into the cultural and historical nuances of the era.
Commending Triumph Through Architectural Marvels

The conquerors of Kangra Fort left an indelible mark on its storied history, commemorating their victories with resplendent gates and temples that stand as architectural marvels and cultural treasures.

1. Jahangiri Darwaza: A Tribute to Mughal Grandeur
Attributed to Mughal Emperor Jahangir

The Jahangiri Darwaza, a masterpiece attributed to the illustrious Mughal Emperor Jahangir, serves as a portal to the past. Its intricate design and regal presence reflect the grandeur of the Mughal era.

2. Ahani and Amiri Darwaza: Gates of Inauguration
Attributed to the first Mughal Governor, Nawab Saif Ali (Alif) Khan

The Ahani and Amiri Darwaza, attributed to Nawab Saif Ali Khan, the first Mughal Governor, carry the legacy of inauguration. These gates stand as a testament to the fort's evolving history.

3. Ranjit Singh Darwaza: Honoring Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Attributed to Maharaja Ranjit Singh

The Ranjit Singh Darwaza, dedicated to the valiant Maharaja Ranjit Singh, encapsulates the triumphs of a great ruler. This gateway is a celebration of his enduring legacy.

4. Handeli or Andheri Darwaja: Gateway to Mystery

The upper gate, known as the Handeli or Andheri Darwaja, exudes an aura of mystery, beckoning explorers to uncover the fort's enigmatic past.

5. Darsani Darwaja: Guardian of Temples

The Darsani Darwaja, also known as the Temple Gate, is flanked by images of the revered Ganga and Yamuna Goddesses, standing as a guardian to the sacred precincts within.

Palace Courtyard and Stone-Carved Temples

The palace courtyard, perched at the highest point of the fort, offers a panoramic view of the surroundings. Below it lies a vast courtyard adorned with stone-carved temples, each a testament to architectural finesse and religious significance.

Temples and Treasures

Within the fort's precincts, an array of temples stand as a testament to its cultural and religious significance. Notable among them are the Laxmi Narayan, Ambika Devi, and Shitlamata temples. These well-preserved relics showcase the beauty of Nagara architecture. The fort also features a Jain temple complex and a stepwell known as Kapoorsagar. A polygonal watchtower to the southwest offers panoramic views of the Kangra Valley.

Kangra Fort's gates and temples are not mere structures; they are a gateway to a rich tapestry of history and architectural excellence. Each element carries a unique story, inviting visitors to delve into the timeless legacy of this remarkable fortress.

A Legacy Preserved

Today, the Kangra Fort enjoys the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). While the ravages of time may have left the fort in a state of ruin, its legacy remains unblemished. It serves as a poignant reminder of the opulence and grandeur of a bygone era and continues to be a source of cultural and historical treasure for enthusiasts of history and heritage.
The Kangra Fort, while a shadow of its former self, continues to captivate with its architectural beauty and the echoes of history that reverberate within its walls. Despite the passage of time, the indomitable spirit of this architectural marvel endures, reminding us of its glorious past.

Happy Exploring!

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