It was already dark, but Chamba was nowhere in sight. The bus had been dragging itself painstakingly through the treacherous and serpentine roads for more than four hours and considering the ill-advised descent from Dharamshala to Chakki Bank earlier that day, we’d already spent 7-8 hours on two different buses that day. Occasionally, we’d see small dots of light anticipating the approaching town, only to realize that they are stray red herrings. Travel in the Himalayas is exhilarating in daylight but extremely taxing when it is dark. You can no longer enjoy the sights and the vehicle moves uncomfortably, giving a feel that it can fall off the edge at any moment.
Nevertheless, finally the bus reached the bus stand in Chamba at around 9 pm and after some scouting, found a cost-effective lodge lorded over by manager with picaresque qualities who called himself Khatri. The entire alley seemed full of similar accommodations.
Around the Chougan and the Market
Most of the promotional materials mention that Chamba is the “valley of milk and honey”. I could not figure out the honey part but I did find high quality dairy products in the restaurants so I think they are probably correct. While it is not very far from McLeod Ganj, it is markedly different in several ways. For one, it is a typical Indian town and not designed to pamper the westerners like McLedo Ganj or for that matter Goa. The hotel menus offer generous Indian palette rather than the so called “continental” stuff and yes it is milk tea that rules here and nobody cares about black tea, green tea or any such non tea.
The heart of the town is a large plane ground called Chaugan. Chamba people seemed to take their cricket very seriously and Chaugan was the main venue for the same. The main markets and businesses are spread in the nearby areas. The rest of the settlements are scattered around the hills that surround the town. Although small, the town was pretty crowded and bustling with activities. Most of the major buildings displayed a distinct architecture and as we found out later, were built by the ruling monarchs of the erstwhile princely state. Amidst all the shops selling Indian sweets, woolens and other apparels, one workshop caught our attention. This was the one where artisans were busy creating Chamba Rumals, handkerchiefs with intricate embroidery that mostly depict mythological stories.
Chamba is situated in the banks of River Ravi which becomes one of the five great rivers downstream in the Punjab region. It is not a mere river but a slice of ancient and somewhat enigmatic history of the region. Ancient Vedic texts call it “Iravati”, which of course is much more feminine and alluring (One may find it interesting that the Irrawaddy in Myanmar also has the same etymology and mythology associated with it). The water is clean and pristine greenish blue here, as one would expect in the mountains. We did not get a good view of the river while approaching the town because it was already dark. And the next day we realized that it would be a lot of hard work to climb down to the banks of the river. So we gave up on the idea but the good part is that there is a nice promenade on the river side of the Chaugan where you can walk around and enjoy the view. When tired one can sit at the obviously named Ravi View café, have some snacks and tea and keep enjoying the view.
Bhuri Singh Museum
The Bhuri Singh Museum, established by and named after one of its monarchs, is a good place to understand the culture and history of the region. There are scores of artefacts, statues and royal weaponry stored in the museum. Unfortunately some of them lack detailed information and explanation. But the best part here was the section of Pahari style of miniature paintings of the region mostly those of Chamba, Kangra, Basohli and Guler style of paintings. To my delight, some of the imagery were pretty violent for the land of Gandhi. Mythological events, historical battles, Kamasutra positions, nothing has been left untouched by these artists.
And yes, I also found the classical version of Snake and Ladder.
Lakshmi Narayan Temple
There are several temples in Chamba and they mostly boast of similar styles of architecture. The temples are not too big and mostly looked congested. We spent most of our time in the Lakshmi Narayan Temple.
Chamba was idyllic and peaceful. There was an option to venture nearby attractions such as Dalhouse, Khajjiar, and Bharmour but instead of those we opted for what was arguably the most confusing, unplanned and finally the most was a rewarding trip to Sach Jot via Bairagarh. But that is another story!
Chamba Travel Guide
How to Reach Chamba?
The nearest major city in the plains is Pathankot in Punjab. You can reach Pathankot by train from Delhi or any other big city. You can even get flights to Pathankot. From there you will get buses. The road bifurcates at a place called Bannikhet from where you turn left to Chamba or right to Dalhousie. If you are coming from the inner side of Himachal, you may ask around for buses at Dharamshala or Kangra.
Where to stay in Chamba?
We stayed at a godforsaken lodge where a double room cost INR 500. Even cheaper options are available. For a costly but standard experience with the family go to The Iravati operated by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. Even if you do not stay there you can visit the restaurant out there which offers very good food and warm service.
Best Time to Visit Chamba?
The spring and early summers are expected to be the best time. But we were there in the late autumn or early winter in November and it was pretty pleasant at around 10-15 degrees.
What to See & Do in Chamba?
Chaugan is the heart of Chamba. It is basically a vast field around which the town is built. On one side you have the hills dotted with structures while the other side you can see the Ravi River. There is always some activity going on there. sometimes a fair is organized or otherwise, you can see people playing or just roaming around. You can also do the same and then you can explore the nearby markets and eateries when bored.
Bhuri Singh Museum
Bhuri Singh Museum is located in the heart of the Chamba town, in close proximity to the Chaugan. It was founded in 1908 to preserve the cultural heritage of Chamba region. The museum possesses more than 8500 antiquities and objects related to art, archaeology, craft, and cultural anthropology. Initially, this museum was started with the paintings added by Raja Bhuri Singh but now it includes rich collections of items such as carved doors from the old palaces, copper plate grants, frescoes, miniature paintings, and many other items of the historical period. The inscriptions (prasastis) found in various places of the district in Sarda script have been preserved here. It remains open on all weekdays from 10 AM to 5 PM, except Mondays.
Akhand Chandi Palace
Akhand Chandi Palace in Chamba was built by Raja Umed Singh. The green coloured roof is a distinct feature of the palace along with structures like hand-painted walls, delicately carved doors, exquisite glasswork, and distinctive window frames. The palace was later redesigned, renovated & modernized by Raja Sham Singh. Post-independence, the building was sold to the Himachal Pradesh government in 1958 which was then converted into a college building. It offers excellent views of other major attractions of the town from the top.
Rang Mahal is one of the largest monuments in located in the Surara Mohalla of Chamba. It is famous for its seamless blend of British & Mughals architecture and boasts of high fort-like walls. There are beautiful wall paintings depicting royal lifestyle of Rajas(Kings) during that time which adds to the beauty of Rang Mahal. This monument has now become the Himachal Emporium, a popular shopping destination for local handicrafts and apparel including the iconic Chamba Rumal. The place is popular for its unique embroidery work on silky fabrics. Rang Mahal attracts thousands of tourists for its historic & architectural charm. The visiting time for the palace is from 10 am to 1.00 pm and 2.00 pm to 5.00 pm from Mondays to Saturdays.
Lakshmi Narayan Temple
Built in the 10th century by Raja Sahil Verman, Lakshmi Narayan Temple is the largest & oldest temple in Chamba. It stands at the top of the Dogra Bazaar and has six beautifully carved stone shikharas dating back to the 10th & 19th centuries. These temples are dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Shiva. Among all of these, the largest and the oldest one in north, is dedicated to Lord Lakshmi Narayana (Vishnu). The others are dedicated to Lord Shiva, Radha Krishna, Chandragupta, Trimukeshwara Swamy and Lakshmi Damodara. The temple continued to be improved by later kings of Chamba over time.
Sui Mata Temple
The Sui Mata temple was built in honor of the ultimate sacrifice of queen Sui, wife of King Sahil Varman, to bring water to the region. It is said that there was no water in the region for years & the King was advised to sacrifice his son or wife to bring water. Sui eventually offered herself for sacrifice to save her son and after her death, the water began to flow into the village. It is decorated with a beautiful painting that depicting life of the queen and every year a fair is organized in the 2nd half of March, which is attended by Married women and girls to pay respect to the queen.
Chamunda Devi Temple
Chamunda Devi temple is dedicated to Goddess Kali, who is the goddess of war. It is situated 2 Kms above Chamba over a hilltop offering enchanting views of Chamba valley and river Ravi. The temple can be reached either by climbing the steps or by a motorable road till the back entrance. It was built by Raja Umed Singh in 1762. It is the only wooden temple with a gabled roof in Chamba. The entire roof is designed with floral designs. During Navratras, people from all over India visit it and get the blessings of Chamunda Devi.
Gauri Shankar Temple
This is an ancient temple devoted to God Shiva and Goddess Parvathi. It was constructed in the eleventh century. It is considered to be one of the oldest temples in Chamba which has a great historical as well as cultural importance. The structure speaks of the greatness of Gupta regime, as the temple construction was sponsored by the great king Yugkar Varman.
Dayanand Math is a major spiritual center in Chamba district which is based on the teachings of the Arya Samaj. It is situated in Julhakri & was founded by Swami Sarvanand Maharaja of Punjab. At present, there is also a Sanskrit College here as well as a school, an Ayurvedic Pharmacy and a Vedic Library.
Champavati Temple is named after the pious daughter of King Sahil Varman. The Shikhara style architecture of the Temple is one of the major attractions of the Temple. According to legend, Champawati used to visit the place of a saint for religious discourse & when King got suspicious he followed her only to find that the place was deserted & he heard a voice. He was commanded to construct a temple in her memory in her daughter as she disappeared.
Located at a distance of 25 Kms from Dalhousie & 40 Kms from Chamba, Chamera Lake is a reservoir formed by Chamera Dam. Due to lack of aquatic life in the lake, it has become an ideal spot for water sports like swimming, sailing, kayaking, motor boating & water skiing etc. It gets really hot during the day and temperature drops to single digits at night. This scenic lake is surrounded by pine trees & beautiful green valleys which makes it a perfect getaway for everyone.
Where to go after Chamba?
Chamba is just the entry point for the district. Not far from Chamba are the famous colonial hill station of Dalhousie and the alpine meadows of Khajjiar. Lesser known is Bharrmour, which is actually the original capital of Chamba and the gateway to Manimahesh Kailash Yatra as well as Kugti Pass. Even lesser known are the Churah as well as Pangi Valleys, both of which have been included in my list of most offbeat regions in Himachal.