A fort does not come readily to mind when one thinks of a Himalayan mountain or culture. And I have often wondered why. After all, the mountains are land inhabited by people and therefore their history would be a history of cultures that changed and evolved over time. And where there are humans, there will be ambitions that would have to be explored and defended, which means conflicts and resolutions and which in turn ought to mean citadels, and palaces and forts.
When one arrives in any new place, we seek (consciously or otherwise) signs and evidence of those that have passed before, and how they lived and time permitting, we may even delve deeper to see if we can recognise the remnants of cultures past and how they coexist or survive with the current culture of the place.
The Kamru Fort is one such icon of the history of one of the many peoples that inhabit and make up the Himachal. I say this because when we go to a new region or state or country, we tend to see everyone as one people even though we know and can often see they are not. For instance, everybody from India would be “Indian”, which is a national identity. But in every nation there would be many states or nation-states, and going beyond the cliche of diversity, each such state is likely to be a political or social entity comprising several chiefdoms or tribes or such larger association of peoples and within each such tribe or chiefdom there would be clans based on kinships and within such kinships would be families and within the families are you and me – the people.
When we finally arrived in Sangla Valley after an arduous drive across one of the toughest mountain roads in the world, I had my first glimpse of a culture of cultures in the Himalayas. The Sangla valley undulates in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh in India. Along the valley is a series of historical villages that have been settled for centuries along the Baspa River. These villages reflect the diversity of the people and their ancient cultures and beliefs, and the way of life that evolved as a response to the environment they live in.
And right at the heart of this valley lies Sangla town, which is a centre-street at the juncture of the various paths to the little settlements, villages and houses dotting the general area. This town-centre serves as a meeting point for news, trade, and the commercial enterprise of the Sangla town (shops, restaurants, grocery shops, et al). And it is here that you see the Himachali, North Indian, and Tibetan influences that shape the valley, just as you start seeing the co-existence of the three primary religious influences in the region: Ancient Nature-Animism, Hindu (though not necessarily modern-day mainstream Hinduism), and Buddhism. Going back to the people within peoples conversation: there are as many as Nine distinct languages spoken in Kinnaur district with at least four having prevalence in Sangla itself. And this is apart from the national language, Hindi.
The Kamru Village and Fort, situated up the mountainside two kilometres from Sangla town, displays vividly this co-existence of cultures in everyday life and living. The government website on Kinnaur provides a quick and useful summary of the history of the district and the historical importance of Kamru. Therefore, I will limit myself to an account of what I saw, perceived, and inferred.
We headed out to find Kamru Fort at around 5 pm after a late lunch at the hotel in Sangla. And soon as we reached an ‘entrance gate’ at the foot of the steep climb, we found ourselves studying Buddhist symbols and art-panels on the walls. Everyone person we met was smiling and happily pointed in the general direction of somewhere up and beyond whenever we hopefully asked for “Kamru Fort?”.
It took us a while to realise that the entire stretch was Kamru village and that the Fort was not only a part of the village complex but stood at its pinnacle. The village is made up of houses built of stone, slate slabs, and wood in an architectural style typical to the area. It seems a challenging land, with tremendous physical hard-work an everyday reality. And yet, the demeanour of the people was open, welcoming and kind. Ladies climbing down the path offered us apples as we laboured up. Another woman offered us roasted grain, and we ate it all up, soaking in the mountain air, the peaceful stirring of the wind, and enjoying the steep climb.
The path eventually led to a Temple complex, which houses a Buddhist temple, a Hindu Temple to Lord Badri Vishalji, and a Hindu Temple to Lord Hanuman. The architecture, offerings, and experiences again reflected the harmony between the different cultures of the region. We were offered roasted grain, and dry fruits at the temple and having filled our pockets we set off again.
The final stretch to the Fort gets steeper and then there it stands, a looming stone and wood complex standing guard over the village and its surroundings. The guard-cum-caretaker of the complex greeted us and regaled us with the history of the place and local folklore. Apparently, the Fort and its complex is around 700-800 years old. Inside the complex is a Temple to the Goddess Kamakhya Devi and several other structures. Holding centre-stage is the Kamru Fort, a multi-storeyed medieval palace that was the seat of erstwhile rulers of the region (erstwhile Bashahr state). Folklore has it that the Kamru Fort citadel houses 36 crore gods and goddesses.
Standing in the courtyard of Kamru Fort, it was easy to imagine the strategic importance and advantage of the location – you could see all around for miles, and up above and back, the huge mountainside protected the location from approach.
With dusk on our heels, we ambled our way down the hillside, talking to the people, sharing a chuckle with them here, accepting another apple there, and munching on the roasted grain and dry fruits.
If you do plan to come to Himachal Pradesh some time in the near future, do keep the Kamru Fort in Sangla valley in your mind. It’s a hard day’s journey from Shimla (which is where you are likely to arrive and stay initially), but the journey is more than worth it, specially if you are looking for flavours of history culture, and rural hospitality. And of course, once you are here, there’s a lot more to Sangla valley beyond the Kamru Fort.
The Shimla-Sangla route: