The Kangra Fort, situated on the outskirts of Kangra in the state of Himachal Pradesh is a testament to the grandeur and affluence of its rulers and a witness to many invasions. It is the oldest fort in India and has been the seat of the Katoch dynasty which is claimed to be one of the oldest dynasties of the Indian subcontinent. It stands on a cliff in the lap of the Dhauladhar mountain range between the Manjhi and Banganga rivers. As the fort has undergone the ravages of invaders and nature, it does not stand today in its original form. Its layered history, political legacy, strategic position, and architecture, provide a glimpse of the glory of ancient India.
Several legends and myths attempt to explain the origins of the Kangra Fort. The history of the fort and the Katoch dynasty is intrinsically linked to one another. The roots of this clan can be traced to the mythological event of Raktbeej Vadh, mentioned in the Markandeya Purana. According to legend, Goddess Ambika fought the demon Raktbeej, who resurrected with every drop of his blood that fell on the earth during battle. During the battle, while wiping her sweat, a drop fell on the earth, which is said to have created the first Katoch, Bhumi Chand. It is believed that Bhumi Chand assisted the Goddess in defeating the demon. As a reward, the Goddess bestowed upon Bhumi Chand the kingdom of Trigarta, denoting the land of the three rivers, the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej. Kangra is a part of this region. References to the Katoch dynasty are also found in the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Local legends credit Rajanaka Susharma Chand for building the Kangra Fort. It is said that after being defeated in the battle of Mahabharata as an ally of the Kauravas, he retreated to the confluence of the two rivers.
According to Sir A. Cunningham, a pioneer of Indian archaeology, the first recorded historical reference to Kangra, then known as Jalandhara, occurs in Plotemy's text. The record talks about the Katoch King Parmanand Chand as the famous King Porus who vanquished Alexander the Great. Etymologically, it is believed that the term Kangra has been derived from the term Karna Garh which has an interesting history. In ancient times, Jalandhar covered a vast territory named after a demon called Jalandhar who is believed to have been slain by Lord Shiva and buried under the ground. Since King Susharma Chand (mentioned in the Mahabharata legend) chose to build the fort over the area covering Jalandhar’s ear (karna in Sanskrit), it came to be known as Karna Garh, which subsequently became Kan Garh in Hindi, before evolving into Kangra.
A popular Pahadi saying states, “He, who holds the Kangra fort, holds the hills”. Impressed by the juxtaposition of opulence and security, numerous political dynasties such as the Greeks, Kings of Kashmir, Afghans, Tughlaqs, Timurid rulers, Mughals, Gorkhas, Sikhs, and the British, tried to bring the Kangra Fort under their control. Even today, a mere look at this majestic structure allows one to comprehend its strategic significance and historical development over the centuries. The strong fort that baffled the great kings of the past is now an interesting picturesque ruin.
It is believed that the Hindu rulers and rich devotees used to send gold, silver, precious stones and large jewels to be presented to the presiding deity of the Brijeshwari temple in Kangra. Such an act was believed to bring virtuous karma. Over time, this wealth started to accumulate in secret treasure wells. The quantity of wealth held in the treasure chests of the fort is said to be immense. It is believed that there were 21 secret treasure wells in the vicinity of the fort, each around 4 metres deep and 2.5 metres wide. Ferishta, (Tarikh-i Ferishta, 1612 CE), describes the accumulated wealth to be “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 – corals, pearls, diamonds, rubies and other valuable properties.”
The tales of the enormous treasures of the Kangra fort traveled far and wide and lured invaders. Thus started the saga of sieges and plunder by native and foreign invaders alike. In 470 CE, Raja Shreshta Sen, the King of Kashmir invaded Kangra but the Katochs defended the fort successfully. It was the first major attack on the fort of Kangra and was followed by a series of invasions. One of the most famous sieges of the fort, however, happened in 1009 CE, when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the fort. He is said to have looted 8 out of 21 treasure wells of the fort. Al-Utbi records the details of the siege in his work Tarikhi-i-Yamini (1021 CE). He mentions that, “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.”
Muhammad-Bin-Tughlaq plundered the fort in 1337 CE but could not hold it for long. In 1351 CE, during the reign of Rajanaka Roop Chand Katoch, the fort was again attacked by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. The siege stretched for months without either side winning. In the year 1540 CE, Khawas Khan, a general of Sher Shah Suri, conquered the Kangra fort. A treaty was signed to maintain peace. After the downfall of the Sur dynasty, Kangra caught the attention of the Mughals. Mughal Emperor Akbar is believed to have attempted almost 52 unsuccessful sieges of the fort. Finally, in 1620 CE, the fortress was successfully occupied by Akbar's son Jahangir after a 14-month siege. The Katoch king Raja Hari Chand was killed and the Kangra kingdom was annexed into the Mughal Empire for almost a century and a half.
A minor named Rajanaka Sansar Chand Katoch ascended the throne of Kangra in 1775 CE. He ushered in what has been called the Golden Age of the Katoch dynasty. He recaptured the Kangra fort with the help of the Sikh forces of Jai Singh Kanheya. In return, he had to offer some territories to the latter. Sansar Chand acquired the title of “Chhatrapati Naresh” and “Pahari Badshah”. He rejuvenated the local culture and tradition. During his reign of 20 years, he contributed significantly to the construction of new temples, villages, forts, palaces, and gardens. He also brought artisans, painters, musicians, dancers, craftsmen, jewellers, sword manufacturers, and cannon makers from all over the world to Kangra to work. He established the “Kangra School of Miniature Painting”, and under his patronage, around 40,000 paintings were produced.
Sansar Chand gradually captured nearly all of the surrounding areas of his kingdom, including Chamba, Kahloor, Mandi, and Sirmaur. He garrisoned a large army and accumulated a huge amount of wealth to conquer the plains and restore the Katoch kingdom to its former glory. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab successfully repelled his invasion on the plains. Sadly, his ambitions ultimately led to the downfall of the glorious Katoch rule in Kangra. In the early 19th century, the fort of Kangra was besieged by a combined army of Gorkhas and local rulers. Sansar Chand sought assistance from Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. Ranjit Singh's vigorous attack in 1809 CE uprooted the Gorkhas. The fort of Kangra passed into Sikh hands as a result of a treaty signed on August 24, 1809 CE. After the Sikh war of 1846 CE, the British eventually took the fort. They are believed to have looted 5 existing treasure wells of the fort. The fort was occupied by a British garrison until it was severely damaged by an earthquake on April 4, 1905. After the devastating earthquake, the British vacated the fort and handed it over to the Katoch kings.
The formidable Kangra fort, perched on a hillock, covers an area of approximately 4kms and is guarded by high ramparts and a massive wall. The steep rock on which the fort stands gives it a commanding position over the surrounding valley. The battlements of the fort are built along the hill's slope, to provide multiple layers of defense. These are endowed with closely packed merlons that are indented by crenels. A moat, cut into rocks, that connects the Banganga and Majhi rivers, separates the fort from the outside world. Shah Nawaz Khan, the author of Ma‟asir-ul-Umara states that, “The Kangra fort is situated on the summit of a high mountain. It is extremely strong and possesses 23 bastions and 7 gates. The interior circumference is 1 Kos & 50 chains – length 1⁄4 of a Kos & 2 chains, width between 15 & 25 chains and height 114 cubits. There are 2 large tanks inside the fort.”
The fortifications are an impressive blend of medieval and ancient fort architecture. Its layout is a striking illustration of the architecture and engineering that prevailed in the region during ancient times. The aesthetic beauty of the fort is evident in the arches, domes, carvings of exquisite artwork, and rock-carved figures. Physically, the fort is now a mere shadow of its past glory. However, the magnificent structure that once stood can be envisaged, despite its present condition.
The fort's conquerors erected gates to commemorate their victories, such as the Jahangiri Darwaza (attributed to Mughal Emperor Jahangir), the Ahani and Amiri Darwaza, (attributed to the first Mughal Governor Nawab Saif Ali (Alif) Khan), and the Ranjit Singh Darwaza, (attributed to Maharaja Ranjit Singh). The upper gate of the Kangra fort is known as the Handeli or Andheri Darwaja. Another gateway called the Darsani Darwaja or the Temple Gate is flanked by images of the Ganga and Yamuna Goddesses. The palace courtyard occupies the highest point of the fort, and below it is a large courtyard with stone-carved temples of Laxmi Narayan, Ambika Devi, and Shitlamata. The relics of the Laxmi Narayan temple and the Shitlamata temple are remarkable examples of Nagara architecture. The Ambika Devi temple is of great significance as the Goddess Ambika has been worshipped for centuries as the clan Goddess of the Katoch kingdom. Right next to the temple of Ambika Devi, is a Jain temple complex with the idol of Lord Adinath. These temples are simple and small, compared to the Nagara temples, but well preserved as the deity Adinath's idol is still worshipped by Jain devotees. Alongside the Jain temple complex, there are two standing pillars. The upper portion of these 12-sided pillars is adorned with purna kalasha forms. There is also a stepwell called Kapoorsagar and is a significant attraction of the fort. A polygonal watchtower to the southwest of the fort provides a view of the panoramic Kangra Valley.
This historic fort is now under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Although the fort lies in ruins today, the passage of time has not been able to diminish the splendor of its legacy. On the one hand, the fort is a reminder of the opulence and grandeur of a bygone era. On the other hand, its great antiquity still offers connoisseurs of history a rich treasure of heritage and culture.