A guide to Kangra Fort – where history meets nature

posted in: Asia, Heritage, Himachal Pradesh, India | 18

If I were to pinpoint one highlight of my trip to Dharamshala, it would be my visit to Kangra Fort. Being one of the oldest forts of India, the history buff in me thoroughly enjoyed Kangra fort. What made it appealing was that the dose of history was accompanied by dollops of nature. If you think that these were my only reasons, well, you need to seriously read through this guide to Kangra Fort. Not only will you get the useful travel tips for Kangra Fort but generous helpings of mystery and thrill. What else can you expect from a fort that survived 52 attacks!

My enigmatic tour of Kangra Fort

Kangra fort may not be as glamorous as many of the Rajasthan forts like the Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur. It may not even have the ingenuity and sophistication of forts like the Golconda fort with its acoustic marvel. However, it has a strong legacy of its own – which makes it an important tourist attraction in Kangra Valley. Let me start with the location and eye-popping facts about the fort. Then, we can get onto the Kangra Fort history and make our way to the key attractions of Kangra fort. I will also, give you a brief glimpse of the Kangra fort museum. So, let’s begin this travel guide to Kangra Fort.

Facts about the Fort of Kangra

The only thing that I knew when I entered the fort was that it was one of the oldest forts of India. As I listened to the audio guide to Kangra Fort along the way, I came across very interesting facts about this fort. Some of these facts are there for you to see while others are documented by various people in history. In some ways, this section is a teaser of things to come!

The Katoch family tree as displayed at the Maharaj Sansar Chand Museum
  • Located between the rivers Majhi and Ban Ganga, the Kangra Fort is the largest fort in the Himalayas. It is spread over 463 acres and is the 8th largest fort in India.
  • It has been built on a cliff and at one point, along with the cliff and the wall of the fort measures 400 feet.
  • There are several wells within the fort – not for water. They are or rather were filled with treasures. Some found and some yet to be found. How, what and why, makes an interesting tale that I will share in my tour of Kangra Fort.
  • The lineage of the royal family of Katoch –  the original owners of the Kangra fort – can be traced back to the period of Ramayana and Mahabharata. In fact, if you go to the Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum, the manager there will proudly show you the family tree. He will point out the significant historical leaders and explain their role in Indian history. The records of the mythological era might have been lost with time but the rest is still there 😀
  • Thanks to all that treasure, Kangra fort was attacked over 50 times. And the structure, being so strong, survived all of this. It only collapsed partially during the earthquake of 1905.

Time to go forward with my virtual Kangra Fort tour – you will enjoy these facts better as you read the story.

History of Kangra Fort

It is not possible to separate the history of the fort from that of the Katoch dynasty. The roots of this dynasty go back to the time when Goddess Ambika fought a demon called Rakathber. With every drop of the demon’s blood, he came back to life. Goddess Ambika wiped her brow and the sweat fell down. From that, the founder of the Katoch dynasty – Bhumi Chandra was born. He helped the Goddess defeat the demon and in return, was blessed with a kingdom that ran from Tibet to the sea. The kingdom was called Trigarth  – meaning land of three rivers.

The rare texts belonging to the Katoch Dynasty as displayed in the Kangra museum

The Raja of Trigarth is said to have helped Lord Rama’s sons – Luv and Kush in their battle against Laxman. Therein comes the Ramayana connection while during the Mahabharat era, Rajanaka Susarma Chandra is said to have aided the Kauravas. While none of these can be proven, the historical events after this definitely have a written account.

  • The Katoch King Parmanand Chandra finds a mention in Ptolemy’s text as the famous Porus who defeated Alexander the great.
  • It is believed that the fort was called Nagarkot and was built in the 4th century. It was a protector fort. There was a famous saying regarding the fort – “The one who conquered Kangra, would control the hills”.
  • The first major attack on the fort came from the Raja of Kashmir in 470 A.D.
  • In 1009 AD, Mahmud Ghazni invaded the Kangra Fort and looted their wells. Years later, Rajnaka Jagdish Chandra of Katoch reclaimed his legacy by defeating the invader.
  • The Tughlaq Kings and the famous Mughal Emperor Akbar tried to conquer the fort but failed.
  • The Mughal Emperor Jahangir was successful in the attack on Kangra. The Mughals held the fort from 1622 to the late 1780s, after which the Sikhs captured it.
  • However, the Sikhs could hold it only for a while before the original dynasty through Maharaja Sansar Chand captured it back
  • Post the death of the Maharaja, Ranjit Singh of the Sikh dynasty annexed the fort. From there, it went to the British took over. They used the fort to station their troops

It was only after the devastating earthquake of 1905 that the British vacated the Kangra fort and gave it back to the Katoch kings. The earthquake of 7.2 magnitudes destroyed quite a few structures within the fort and also, the towns of Kangra, Dharamshala and McCleodganj. Today when you visit the Kangra fort, you will see remains of the fort that survived the attack of humans but succumbed to the force of nature. The crumbling walls have enough allure for you to want to know the whole story. And that is where, having a guide to Kangra Fort – audio or human, will really help!

Guide to the Kangra Fort Architecture

Your paper guide to Kangra Fort

The name Kangra comes from two words – Kaan meaning ear and garh referring to a fort. This refers to the shape of the fort. The fort stands high on a mountain and there is just one way to approach it. The location itself, is what gives it a natural defense. The various gates of the fort are positioned in a winding manner, giving enough opportunities to defend the fort. It is only when you reach the last gate, that you enter the living quarters of the fort. Sadly, the earthquake has brought down most of the structures within but the few that remain, are perfect for you to get a glimpse of this mighty fortress.

The gates of Kangra Fort

With a map in hand and time close to sunset, our host recommended that we go straight to the top of the fort for the view. We could listen to the audio on our way back. We took the advice but could not blindly go past those gates. Each of the gates had something unusual for us to photograph and enjoy. So, while I did listen to the guide, it was only partially. I did not switch on the audio tour but I did not at the same time rush straight to the top. 😉

Ranjit Singh Gate

Maharaja Ranjit Singh Gate of the fort of Kangra

The first gate was the last one to be built by the Sikh King –Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It leads to a corridor that had remains of a water tank. There is nothing much to see here until you reach the next gate.

Ahani Gate

View from Ahana gate to Amiri Gate

When you reach the double storied Ahani gate, you will see a long passage with dome-shaped openings on one side. The entire paved pathway leads to another small opening called the Amiri Gate. Both these gates were built by one of the Muslim rulers. The Ahani gate is the one with the iron spikes while the Amiri gate was referred to so as it was the gate of the nobles.

Along the walls of Kangra fort between the two gates

If you have a guide or are listening to one, then your attention will be drawn to one particular domed wall with lots of sculptures. This is the wall of Katoch crest. Here you will see the family deity – Goddess Ambika. Next to her is the God of Good Beginnings – Lord Ganesha. Between these two, you can spot a deer and that is the actual Katoch sign.

The carved Katoch symbol in the center
View from Amiri Gate

Jahangiri Gate

Jahangiri Gate at Kangra Fort

Exiting through the Amiri gate, your uphill trek will get you to turn right and get a view of the lower defensive walls of Kangra fort. Immediately, you will come across the next gate called the Jahangiri gate. Built by the Mughal emperor – Jahangir, the gate is a symbol of the Mughal victory over Kangra fort. The gate I believe was built on top of an existing gate. It has a small inscription on the side that gives details of Jahangir’s victory. Before you exit through the next gate, you must step up to the rampart area. This is where I got an amazing view of the Dhauladhar peaks.

View of Dhauladhar peaks from the ramparts next to the Jahangiri Gate.

Andheri Gate

The passage narrows towards Andheri Gate

The next gate will feel like a squeeze as compared to what you saw of the previous gates. I believe that is by design. The Andheri gate is one of the two oldest gates of Kangra Fort and allows only two people to walk side by side. I could see a few abandoned buildings in the open courtyard that followed the gate. Ideally, if I had a little more time, I would have hopped over to see what those were. I have a feeling they might have been one of those abandoned wells. On the way up, the setting sun had me rushed and on the way down, the guard chased us out. 😉 Well, it was closing time.

Darshini Gate

Darshini gate with Yamuna and Ganga on either side

The last gate leads to the residential area of the fort. The most recognizable feature of this gate are the two carved deities on either side of the entrance. One of them is Ganga and the other Yamuna. The courtyard that you enter into has an ancient peepul tree with lots of broken buildings. The structures collapsed during the earthquake of 1905. However, even in those ruins, you are going to find a lot of beautiful stories.

Temples of Kangra Fort

The Peepal tree courtyard of Kangra Fort

The first set of ruins that you will encounter after the Andheri gate are those of three different temples. The idols in all but one have vanished. One has been deliberately plundered by the Muslim invaders and the other one has been lost with the Earthquake. Even if you are short of time, do not miss this section. You will be fascinated with the stories around the temples.

The collapsed temples of Kangra fort, Himachal Pradesh

Ambika Mata Temple

Ruins of Ambika Temple

In the map that will be given to you at the entrance, this temple appears next to the courtyard of ruins. There isn’t much left. Lone pillars and carved stones are all that you will see of the original temple. This temple was the key one for the Katoch rulers as Goddess Ambika is deemed as their clan deity. After all, she was the one who started the dynasty (See the history section for the whole story).

The courtyard of ruins next to the temple ruins.
Lone remains of the stones from the temple

It is believed that the original idol was made with Gold. When Mahmud of Ghazni invaded the fort of Kangra, he found 8 of those treasure wells. He loaded his horses so much that even they could not carry off the wealth. Not only did he boast of that, but he ordered for the statue of Ambika Devi to be melted down. He claimed to have made his gold bathtub with that. Listening to it on the audio guide to Kangra Fort, I felt a bit enraged. The dude was absolutely barbaric. Hmmm!

Holy Jain Temple

A smaller shrine stands next to the ruined temple of Goddess Ambika. This is the only one that has an idol within. It is the statue of a Jain God – Lord Adinath. The temple is said to have been built when Lord Adinath was alive. Owing to this, it continues to be a holy spot for Jains. Even today, during certain festivals, the community comes here to offer their respect and seek the blessings of the Lord.

The lone shrine of the partially collapsed Jain temple

One regret that I have is that when I reached the Jain temple, it was open. A caretaker asked me to come in and see the statue for myself. However, the clock of the setting sun was ticking and removing my hiking boots would have taken time. I chose to drop by on my way out. Little did I know they would close the temple and well, that for me remained incomplete.

Laxmi Narayan Temple

Carved stones outside Laxmi Narayan Temple

Once you have crossed the Darshini gate, it is natural you will gravitate to your left. The big carved stones that are kept there are bound to attract you. That is where the Laxmi Narayan temple used to be. You will see the inner wall when you walk in through the gate. It might seem like any other ruin until you go around its back.

The front of Laxmi Narayan temple at Kangra Fort
The carved remains of the back of the Laxmi Narayan temple

WOW! I bet you will be saying that! The entire exterior wall is carved. I could not stop picturing how the entire temple might have looked. In some ways, I pictured an elaborate temple like the one in Ranakpur, where every inch of the wall had a different tale etched. I pictured a serene atmosphere with the temple bells ringing and faint murmurs of the mantras in the courtyard. It was a pity and a blessing that only a part remained of this legacy. At least we had some vision of what it might have been.

The Kangra Fort Palace Courtyard

Mahlon ka Darwaza to the palace area of Kangra Fort

Climbing up further towards the highest point in Kangra fort will take you through a not so well preserved gate – the Mahlon ka Darwaza. As the name suggests, this is the gate to the palaces. Here you can see various corridors. These lead to the bedroom and various courtroom areas of the Palace. I urge you to take a few diversions and enjoy the view of the landscape around the fort. At the end of that uphill passage, you will come across one of those huge wells that lie empty.

Views of the landscape from the palace area of Kangra fort
The well and the views

Not only did Ghazni loot 8 of the 21 wells, the British too, but also took away the treasures from 5 more of those wells. The rest of the well is still an enigma. No one knows where they are. If rumors are to be believed, they are still filled with wealth. There is plenty more on the subject that you will hear from your guide to Kangra Fort. Frankly, that bit is what makes the whole fort tale so interesting.

Sunset at Kangra Fort

The Terrace and the highest point of Kangra Fort

The last stop as per the map and the guide to Kangra Fort is the Terrace. That was supposed to be the start of my tour of Kangra fort but I am glad to have paused and seen a few things before I got here. The sun was just about to set and I got this amazing view of the Ban Ganga river and the town yonder.

Sunset in Kangra Valley

It was that golden hour where the golden rays caused the mountains to blush pink. Standing there in the Terrace of one of the oldest forts of India, I looked around the ramparts and the surviving structure of the fort. I could see huge armies trying to rush uphill in a quest to capture the hills. I could imagine the alarms being set off by the watching guards on the terrace. Maybe rocks were rolled onto the path of the climbing armies. Or maybe cannons were fired. There was no doubt that the battle was fierce. After all as they said – “Those who ruled the Kangra Fort, ultimately ruled the mountains”. 

Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum

Some silverware displayed at the museum

My imagination was disturbed by the whistles of the guard. He chased us down the fort allowing us just enough time to playback the audio guide of Kangra Fort. In a fast-forward mode, we heard the entire story before we piled onto our car to head to the Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum. The museum is the initiative of the present-day Katoch family who has given some of their ancestral belongings for display here. There are some rare texts, ancient weapons, princely attires, jewelry and even their silverware.

The royal bedroom displayed at the Museum

What I found pretty interesting were the miniature layouts of their actual bedrooms, the royal living room and well, even the elephant howdahs. There are some beautiful Kangra miniature art on display at the museum. When you get here, don’t miss the Katoch emblem on top the green, intricate doors.

The pretty doors and crest at Sansar Chand Museum

Our hi-tea setting was at the museum and though it was way past the time for tea, we still enjoyed the spread offered by Hyatt Regency Dharamshala. At the far end, I could see the high fort of Kangra and with the first sip of tea, I resumed my interrupted imagination of the heydays of this mighty fort. The museum added colors to this blast from the past. I am sure when you visit the Kangra fort, you too will piece together the glorious past of the fort.

How to reach Kangra Fort, Himachal Pradesh?

  • Kangra airport is just 14 km from the Fort. The same airport serves the town of Dharamshala and McCleodganj. There are quite a few domestic flights that get you here.
  • Kangra and Dharamshala are well connected by road and rail.
  • You will need to hire a car or cab to get to Kangra Fort.

Where to stay in Kangra?

  • There are two key areas for you to stay in Kangra. The first is near Kangra Airport. This will be equidistant from most Dharamshala attractions including Kangra Fort. None of them are walkable. You will have to hire a car to get around.
  • Dharamshala’s main town is a good area for you to stay. If you stay around the Bus stand or the Dalai Lama temple, a lot of restaurants and tourist attractions will be walkable from your Dharamshala hotel.
  • Hyatt Regency is located in Dharamshala – Dharamkot area. It is a convenient location and offers a very luxurious and comfortable stay. You should check out a complete review of the same by clicking through this link.

What is the best time to visit Kangra Fort?

Kangra is pleasant from April to September. Winter is a little harsh here with snowfall. Kangra Fort opens at 9:00 am and closes by 5:30 pm. It is a good idea to catch the sunset from the fort. Keep aside at least one hour to see the fort.

Travel Tips

  • The good news for you is that the audio guide for Kangra Fort is a part of the entrance fee. It is INR 150 per Indian adult and INR 300 for a foreign visitor.  The audio guide is very well presented and I highly recommend that you use the same. The museum ticket is separate and pretty nominal at INR 5 per person.
  • There is a lot of climbing to be done. Wear flat shoes when visiting here.
  • There are restrooms at the entrance of the fort as well as at the Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum. The museum cafe offers short eats and snacks.
  • Photography is allowed at the fort but not at the museum. In case you are wondering how I got the photographs, well, we just got special permission.

Booking resources for Kangra

  • Consider GetyourGuide for a tour of Dharamshala. The tour takes you through the Tibetan and Hindu attractions at Dharamshala. It also includes a free pick-up from your hotel.
  • This link to Booking.com will help you with your Dharamshala and Kangra stay. 
  • If you prefer booking through Tripadvisor.com, then you can click through this link. You can check the reviews of the top Kangra hotels and book through the same link. 

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