(To read the first part of this travelogue, Sirhind and Pragpur, click here).
After all the fun she had in Pragpur, the LO was not keen to leave. So, after a quick post-breakfast round of the premises, during which she collected a little green feather and sundry other treasures, the LO reluctantly consented to being bundled into the car.
Pragpur is less than two hours’ drive from Palampur, but one route lies through the historic town of Kangra, which is the district centre and also home to one of India’s most interesting forts.
With a circumference of 4 km, the Kangra Fort rises 500m above the confluence of two rivers (the Banganga and the Majhi). We bought our tickets (₹25 per head for my husband and me, nothing for the LO) and opted for an English-language audio guide for ₹177. This audio guide proved to be a blessing: it was a well-designed, informative one, and (given that the fort has the bare minimum signage—just the names of some gates), extremely useful.
Although it’s high up the mountain, the Kangra Fort is so designed that you climb gradually (especially if you’re stopping every now and then to listen to the audio guide).
This fort has a very long and eventful history. One of its earliest appearances in history is during the conquest by Alexander the Great: Puru, or Porus, who came up against the Macedonian invader, ruled Kangra Fort.
For much of its history, Kangra Fort was held by its ruling dynasty, the local Katoch clan (a descendant of which provides some interesting anecdotes as part of the audio guide). The Katochs have been not just political heads, but also religious heads to some extent: the Ambika Devi Temple within the Fort is India’s oldest temple dedicated to Ambika, an avatar of Durga.
Where there are temples, and wealthy (plus religious) businessmen in the surrounding area, there will be donations to the temple—and the donations to the Ambika Devi Temple were in such vast quantities that deep wells were dug in the fort to store that treasure. Of course, such things do not stay hidden for long, and the fort’s legendary treasure attracted invaders: Mahmud of Ghazni attacked in 1009, and—according to legend—the treasure was so vast that he ran out of camels to carry it all back to Ghazni.
As we trudged up the fort, we first reached the Ranjit Singh Darwaaza, named after the famous king of Punjab, who was among the many to attack Kangra Fort (and one of the few to actually succeed in capturing it). The LO, who remembered Ranjit Singh from when she visited Amritsar’s Gobindgarh Fort, was very excited and hopped about, one eye closed (imitating the one-eyed warrior-king, you see), until we got her back on track.
Beyond the Ranjit Singh Darwaaza are other gates, separated by slopes: the Ahini Darwaaza, the Jahangiri Darwaaza (built by Jahangir when he captured the fort after a siege of 14 months), the Andheri Darwaaza, and the Darshini Darwaaza. The Darshini Darwaaza is the last of the gates and is flanked by very worn-out statues of the river goddesses Yamuna and Ganga (the statues are 2,000 years old, so their condition is understandable).
The Darshini Darwaaza marks an important space in the fort, because beyond this lies the inner citadel. Through the gate and up, past a 400-year old (possibly even older) peepal tree…
… you come to the Ambika Devi Temple, beside which is another small temple. The Ambika Devi Temple is so revered that even today, once a year the Katochs hold a havan here to which all of Kangra is invited. By the time we got to this spot, the LO was feeling very hot and thirsty. Fortunately, there are water taps outside, so while her father helped the LO drink up, I climbed the stairs past the temple.
These steps lead to a terrace on which once stood the royal apartments. Now there’s nothing here except some uninspiring ruins and a grand view of the Kangra Valley.
Having seen the terrace and realized that it would bore the LO, I diverted her and my husband to a place that I thought would interest both of them. Right opposite the Ambika Devi Temple, if you cross the steps and thread your way through the disc-like pillar bases that litter the area, you come to a narrow ‘doorway’ of sorts that leads you to the back of what looks—from the front—like a plain old stone wall.
The back of this wall, however, is exquisitely carved, every inch of it a beautifully intricate bit of stonework.
The LO was suitably impressed.
The fort seen, we made our way down, and visited the small ASI Museum which is just below the fort, inside the gate to the complex. This museum was a bit shabby: it had only a handful of stone sculptures (and none adequately labelled), a model of the rock-cut temples at nearby Masroor, and—these were the most interesting of all—reproductions of some photos of Kangra Fort from the early 1900s. Kangra and a large part of the surrounding area was devastated by an earthquake in 1905, so these photos offered a glimpse of what the fort was like before that happened.
From Kangra Fort to Palampur is only about 36 km, and the road is good (it is my belief that Himachal has some of the best hill roads in India). We therefore arrived at our destination in Palampur, Taragarh (a palace once owned by the Maharaja of Kashmir, but now a part of the WelcomHeritage Group) in time for a late lunch.
Taragarh isn’t a fabulous hotel to stay in: the first room we were ushered into was shabby and worn-down, but when the geyser started spewing rust-red water and the staff couldn’t do anything about it, they ended up having to shift us to a suite. This was not just larger and brighter and cleaner, it also had two window seats. Two, which meant both I and the LO could have a window seat to sit in and read!
As it happened, we didn’t spend much time sitting and reading in the window seats, because as soon as we’d sit down at a window seat, we would be treated to the view outside, and we’d decide we wanted to go on another round of the gardens.
The gardens, you see, are what make Taragarh the place it is. Like The Judge’s Court, Taragarh is set in spacious and very green grounds, crowded with trees and full of birds (in the case of Taragarh, also monkeys, which the staff chases away every now and then).
Giving the monkeys a wide berth, we explored the gardens. We discovered pretty chains of orchids hanging from a chinar tree (the orchids were there on lots of other trees as well, but they looked the prettiest on the chinars)…
We gushed over the hydrangeas (and the LO was very surprised to discover that one hydrangea bush could have flower heads of blue, mauve and pink—all her favourite colours, too). We admired the barbets and the purple sunbirds in the trees.
We went for a little walk one morning, exploring the narrow band of trees behind Taragarh. While we tracked an elusive woodpecker here, the LO trudged about, looking for purple wildflowers—until she realized that dozens of little burr-like needles had latched on to her jacket, her jeans, and her socks. Much sobbing ensued and it took the combined efforts of both parents to not just pull off all the offending needles, but to comfort her and let her know that all woods didn’t do that to you.
(Incidentally, some needles escaped our eyes. That night, when the LO got into our shared bed—and insisted on putting her jacket on under the duvet—we discovered some more. Ouch).
Palampur has its share of sights to see. Many years ago, my husband and I had spent a couple of days in Palampur and explored the territory, so we knew what was there to be seen (and it’s all still there). There is the pretty Tashijong Buddhist Monastery, which has a very scenic location on a hilltop. There’s an artists’ colony called Andretta, which—while it is situated in a green, unspoilt setting—doesn’t have enough to interest the average amateur (my perception may be coloured by the fact that when we visited, the only person around was a somewhat sour and unhelpful potter who made it quite clear that we were not welcome—and all we got to see by way of products or production was a very small batch of pottery).
There is also the Sobha Singh Art Gallery, a modest but fine collection of paintings (including some iconic ones, like Sohni-Mahiwal and Bhagat Singh) by the painter. And there is the ancient Baijnath Temple, a carved stone temple that is highly venerated and draws hundreds of devotees daily.
With the LO in tow and only one full day (not counting the few hours of the day we arrived) at our disposal, we decided to take it easy and not drive the many kilometres to Baijnath, Andretta, or the Sobha Singh Art Gallery. And climbing up all the way to Tashijong was out of the question. Instead, we decided to stick to the tea gardens of Palampur.
Although all of Kangra is known for its tea, Palampur is the real epicentre of the tea industry here. This may not have the reputation of Darjeeling or Assam, but it’s good tea (and the gardens make for pretty pictures).
We first went to the Palampur Co-operative Tea Factory, hoping to get to see the tea manufacturing process here, but while the factory was open and there was an officer (rather inarticulate and unenthusiastic) to show us around, no work was in progress.
We came away none the wiser, but stopped outside at the factory’s sales counter to buy some tea. There, my husband asked the salesman where we could go to see a tea garden, and were directed to the Wah Tea Estate.
I thought the ‘Wah’ of Wah Tea Estate was a cheesy tribute to what they hoped tea drinkers would say after drinking the tea from this estate. Not so; as it turned out, the Wah in question is the cantonment town in Pakistan, from where hailed Sikandar Ali Khan, the man who established the Wah Tea Estate in 1857. The family migrated to Pakistan after Partition, but the estate lives on under the same name.
We walked through the tea gardens—lovely and green, with the tea pickers just beginning to wind up for the day, their baskets brimming with tea leaves. About five minutes of leisurely walking, and we came to the small and delightfully old-fashioned tea factory.
The Wah Tea Estate offers a guided tour of the gardens and the factory, at ₹150 per adult. We opted for this, and set off soon, led by a man who quickly made friends with the LO (she reminded him of his own daughter, he said, who is about the same age as the LO, and of a similar temperament). He told us a brief history of the estate, and mentioned that this is the largest tea estate in Himachal Pradesh: it covers 500 acres, of which half is tea gardens, while the other half is forests.
Our guide then took us through a part of the garden first, showing us how leaves are picked (bud and top two young leaves); how bushes are periodically pruned, and what trees are planted to provide the much-needed shade for the tea bushes (Sapindus mukorossi or the Indian soapberry, known in Hindi as reetha—our guide even found the LO a fallen reetha nut, which she has carefully brought back home, so that she can see how it can be used to work up a lather).
The Wah Estate, besides producing regular black and green tea, also makes flavoured teas, mixed with lemongrass, tulsi, roses, chamomile, cinnamon and so on—all of which they also grow. The LO had a great time sniffing the crushed lemongrass she was given, playing with the tea seed the guide found and gave her (tea seeds, while also being used to grow more tea bushes, can be crushed for oil—tea seed oil is pretty expensive and is known for its medicinal properties, primarily as a reliever of joint pains).
After this, we went back to the factory, where our guide took us around, showing us how the tea leaves—6,000 kg of them are processed here every day—are treated, and how green tea differs from black in its processing. From the withering of leaves to their rolling, onto the drying, where hot air blown from a massive wood-fired oven heats the leaves. The guide gave us an interesting piece of information: the engine in use here, which blows the air onto the trays of leaves and keeps them rotating, was made by the same company that made the engines for the Titanic.
After checking out the room where the tea is graded and packed, we went on outside, where six samples of tea had been brewed for us to taste: green, black, chamomile, lemon grass, tulsi, and rose. I sipped only the lemongrass and rose teas (both of which were lovely), but the LO, following her father’s lead (and quite thirsty by then) insisted on having a taste of every single sample on offer.
Once we were done, our guide invited us to explore the tea garden on our own, if we were inclined to do so. We were thirsty and tired by then, though, so (having bought some tea, including that fragrant rose tea), we returned to our car and away.
Later that day, we explored the gardens of Taragarh a bit more. We saw two cats fighting in the woods, and later, one of the cats by itself. The LO (who has a thing for cats, having a feline friend back home, a cat that wanders outside our balcony) immediately named this cat ‘Spots’. Which was singularly appropriate, I thought.
And that was Palampur. We didn’t want to be separated from the gardens of Taragarh, the LO was certain she’d miss Spots (though she never got close enough to really even say hello), but other sights awaited. In Dharamshala and McLeodganj. Watch this space to read that travelogue, the last in this series.