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chamba devi cherian



Chamba the quint town in Himachal Pradesh is where I have grown up. This

is cradled between the Dhaula Dhar and Pangi ranges, nurtured by the River

Ravi. And the borders of Chamba touch Jammu and Kashmir. It is a land of

untold natural beauty, deep historical antiquity, rich and varied culture and

ecological bio-diversity resplendent with historically and architecturally

important buildings. Perched on a plateau overhanging the river Ravi, the

town is named after Champavati, a daughter of Raja Sahil Varman of the

Bharamaur royal house who shifted his capital here in 920 AD. Isolated by

high mountains in its beautiful valley, Chamba over the centuries was

allowed to develop its own style of ‘Pahari’ art and architecture. The people

of Chamba still worship Champavati as a goddess. Accoding to another

legend, the town is called Chamba after the champaka flowers, which grew

in abundance.    The region between the Dhaula Dhar and Pangi ranges

constitutes the drainage area of the River Iravati which means refreshing that

flows in a deep gorge immediately behind the Dhaula Dhar range and

parallel to it. Much of this heritage has been preserved and Chamba, known

for the splendour of its temples and handicrafts, is replete with artistic

masterpieces. How we played hide and seek in this still intact fine group of
six ancient shikhara style stone temples (dating back to 8 th century) are

dedicated to Lord Shiva, Vishnu and other deities. Among them the richly

carved Lakshmi Narayan temple is the oldest structure. Other evidence of

Chamba’s heritage can be seen in the famous collection of miniature

paintings from the Kangra, Basholi and Chamba schools at the Bhuri Singh

Museum, as well in the murals and other artifacts at the Rang Mahal Palace.

I do not think the simple people would know the price of a Kangra painting

today.    It is nearly every home there on the walls since generations.

Chaugan, the grassy meadow at the heart of the town, is also the center of its

cultural activities. People go for their walks here kids playing with dogs

relishing the desi ghee Aloo Tikis and getting drunk seems to be their pass

time. In July/August, each year, the Minjar fair is held here. Valley Gods

and Goddess in their majestic palanquins are brought down from the

mountains to pay homage to Lord Raghuvira, the presiding deity of the

valley.   During the week long harvest fair, the ground comes alive as

villagers in colourful dresses celebrate with sport, song, dance and music.

The Hari Rai temple near the Chaugan (dating back to the 11 th century)

known for the four armed bronze statue of Lord Vishnu (Chaturmurthi) is a

masterpiece in metal craft. Overlooking the town a little distance away, the
temple of goddess Chamunda Devi has some of the finest wood carvings

that adorn its exterior and interiors.

The architectural heritage, the historical traditions, the myths, the mountain-

lore, the socio-ecological culture of Chamba are specially pertinent because

they are as vital to the existence of the community today as they were at the

time of its inception. Its myths and artistic traditions are unrecorded, passed

down by word of mouth, its religio-cultural systems are undocumented, a

belief in their credibility being instinctual rather than cerebral. It would be a

regrettable error to let them pass into obscurity as they may well do with the

fast pace of market forces changing naturo-cultural equations. For a

community long nurtured on a rich multi-faceted historical and traditional

heritage, the break down of its socio-cultural systems would cause fatal

psychic and moral injury. The material condition of his existence is fast

changing, and just as rapidly, so is his culture. However, the community

here is a community that is sufficiently conscious to find meaning in its past.

A study of the dynamics of its natural and cultural inheritance can go a long

way in conceptualizing its development in economically sustainable and

socio-ecological terms. The dangers that would arise from alienating Earth's

living forms from Mankind's communion with them need not be
undermined. The preservation of the relevance of this culture's past in the

contemporary context of the rapid change that it is facing is of vital

importance. A festival to celebrate did reaffirm and revitalize its culture,

besides throwing up for us areas for further intervention.

With a past like this it is no wonder than the local minister Harsh Mahajan

wanted to celebrate thousand years of Chamba town with great aplomb and

shown. So it was celebrated with the Union Tourism minister Ambika Soni

and the Chief Minister Vir Bhadra Singh doing the inauguration of the

festivities. Invitations were sent to Chambials living all over the world.

Chamba town was lit up for this one week in a traditional way. Local folks

songs with the local dham (food) was of 24 hours in the big Chowgan.

Chamba’s cuisine is fairly distinctive and even now, the traditional festive

meal, the dham is cooked by the hereditary caste of cooks, the Bhotis.

The folk songs and dances of Chamba are an essential part of its culture.

The folk theatre form ‘Harnatar’ is still popular and is staged regularly

before the festival of Holi. This is a full fledged play with characters and

costumes while the dialogue and situations are normally spontaneous.
Popular musical instruments in the Chamba region are Shankh, Ransinga,

Nag Pheni, Thali Ghada, Bhana, Karnal, Pohol, Dhons, Kahal, Kansi, Hasat

Ghanta, Nagara and Drugg.        This was put together by Prem Sharma,

Director of Language & Culture. The historical story of Raja Sahil Varman

on the advice of his great guru and for his daughters love he shifted to

Chamba Puri on the bank of Iravati. Rani Sunaina later dreamt that one

member of the royal family will have to sacrifice their life to do away with

the draught. Sunaina then sacrificed herself and the stream of pure water

carriers on. Hence comes Sui Mela every year where the Chambials pray to


Historically, Chamba State is one of the oldest principalities in Northern

India, having been founded in the middle of the 6 th century AD, it’s

inception a fall out of the turmoil caused by the Hun invasions in the North

West that led to the disintegration of the Gupta Empire. In early times, it

possibly formed a part of the kingdom of Kashmir. The town’s archeological

and historical significance is undisputed, an important pointer to its antiquity

being the discovery of an eighth century brick temple of the Gupta period

there, preserved in the Bhuri Singh Museum, and icons of Vishnu and

Vaikuntha, enshrined in the Laxmi Narayan and Hari Rai temples dating
back to the eight and ninth centuries. The veracity of the state's historical

antiquity is remarkably well preserved in a wide repository of archeological

remains - copper plates, historical documents, genealogies, title deeds and

inscriptions in wood, stone, brass, silver and gold. The historical veracity

establishing the founding of Chamba in the tenth century is well documented

in the books by Vogel and Hutchinston and the State Gazettes listed in the

attached bibliography. In the politics of history, Chamba acquired a unique

status, being the only North Indian state to have been ruled by a single

dynasty since the sixth century AD. On the 15 th of April, 1948, Chamba

became a part of the State of Himachal Pradesh.

Temple architectural styles in the Chamba Valley are varied and

representative, the Lakhna Devi Temple at Bharmour and the Shakti Devi

one at Chatrarhi unique in the intricate carving of their wood, dating to the

eighth century, and done in the classical style of the post Gupta period.

Nagara temples built of stone in the Pratihara style dot the valley. Later

wooden temples from the 17th century are adorned with figurative work,

inspired from the Mughal-Rajput painting traditions.
The superb iconography of the marble, bronze and stone images enshrined

within these Nagara temple are worshipped to date, with a veneration that

speaks volumes for the community’s aesthetic and mythic synchronistic

view of their cultural inheritance. Metal casting and stone sculpture are

traditional art forms in Chamba. Bronze casting, in particular, was a fine art,

affording Chamba the status of a foremost center in the casting of this metal,

as early as the eighth century. Stone sculpture dates back even earlier, the

early stone sculpture of Surya discovered at the village of Gun belonging to

the seventh century. Both stone and bronze sculpture clearly bear Gupta,

Pratihara, Kashmiri and even Pala influences.

The art of Miniature Painting was practiced in Chamba from the 17th to the

19th centuries. Ragmala, Dasavatara, Bhagvata Purana, romantic themes of

the Nayika Bheda, and portraiture were the main subjects that these

exquisitely wrought miniature paintings depicted. Mural painting, too, was a

finely honed craft in Chamba. The temples of Chaumunda Mata at Devi

Kothi, Shakti Devi at Chatrarhi, and Shivadvala in Obri are fine examples of

this art, while there are remnants of the folk tradition of Bangdwari, the

panting of gods and goddess on the walls and in the doorways of homes, in

some of the older homes of the town.
The Chamba ‘Rumal’ is perhaps the most famous of Chamba’s crafts and it

began as an item to cater to the royal household. And from there, the

products of this domestic craft spread to every household that could afford

them or whose womenfolk could create them. At its simplest, the Chamba

rumal, literally, handkerchief-was a piece of cloth used as a small drape or

scarf. Steadily this embroidery began covering a range of items of daily use-

caps, handfans, pillow-cases and wall hangings.

Embroidered with a double satin-stitch, ‘dorukh’ it displays the pattern as a

positive on both sides of the cloth. The earliest Chamba rumals are felt to

have been created from about the mid-eighteenth century-and have had an

unbroken lineage as it were, to the present day. The themes that unravel in

the stitches are born of the artistic traditions of the hills. The ‘Krishna Lial’,

is a favoured theme. The ‘Nayika Bhed’, hunting expeditions, battle scenes,

architecture, and wealth of geometrical and floral designs have been deftly

transferred on to cloth. The base cloth was originally ‘mal-mal’, finely

woven cotton fabric and the embroidery was done with silken threads. The

quality of the rumal is determined by the density of the embroidery and the

minuteness of the stitches. The traditional designs and sizes have adapted to
present-day requirements-napkins, tablecloths, wall decorations and bed-


The peace loving and simple minded chambials are not your conventional

victims of hurry and worry. Moved by the mountains around them they

have however strong beliefs not spirits. Spells and superstitions that have

been handed down over generations. All this makes them quaintly charming

and eternally appealing. And as the millennium celebrations wind on these

people continue to celebrate life while recognizing that they are interiors of a

legacy that mixes a long history with a living tradition.

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