THE MONUMENT IS ready for a royal celebration — the Raj Tilak (coronation) of a Katoch king. The Kangra fort — which has been mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as by Ptolemy in his writings on Macedonian king Alexander the Great, is the oldest and grandest fort in the Himalayas, 20 km from Dharamshala, in Himachal Pradesh. After climbing the 250-odd stone steps of the fort — 2,500 ft above sea level — through the arched Jahangir Darwaza, one reaches a small courtyard adjacent to the Ambika Devi temple, filled with guests from all over India — members of the Katoch family as well as descendants of royal families from Jodhpur, Rampur, Odisha and Jharkhand.

The actual ‘coronation’ or Raj Tilak is very simple — a tika of blood drawn from the thumb of a relative of the newly crowned Maharaja — the 52-year-old Mayo College-educated Aishwarya Dev Chand Katoch of Kangra-Lambagraon, the 489th descendant of Rajanaka Bhuma Chand, who founded the Katoch dynasty (one of the oldest in the world) around 2,350 years ago, followed by a tilak of red kumkum. Aishwarya, wearing a brand-new Himachali style velour choga (long jacket), and carrying a sword, looks resplendent in a new polki diamond necklace and sirpech (a brooch adorning the turban), as his wife Shailja and son Ambikeshwar flank him on both sides, surrounded by pundits.

Maharaja Sansar Chand’s silver throne 
at the museum, with 
300-year-old British 
era royal uniforms 
behind it.
Maharaja Sansar Chand’s silver throne at the museum, with 300-year-old British era royal uniforms behind it.

It’s been a year since Aishwarya’s father, Raja Aditya Chand Katoch, passed away, and the family is in the mood to finally celebrate after a year of mourning. Aishwarya’s mother, Rajmata Chandresh Kumari of Kangra-Lambagraon (also the Princess of Jodhpur), has been a Cabinet minister with the Congress government. “It took us about a year to plan the ceremony,” says Aishwarya, a few days after his Raj Tilak. His wife Shailja, Princess of Sailana and a cookery expert, created the menu, comprising of traditional Kangra food — chana dal, rajma, chole, and sweet rice — which fed the 4,200 guests from Kangra, as well as the family’s 250 guests. Their 24-year-old son Ambikeshwar has been in charge of the colourful orange and pink tents, the decor and set-up, and the local trumpeteers who played during the ceremony.

And on this festive occasion, as the local residents of Kangra — Dharamshala and nearby villages — throng the fort area, after accepting prasad and water — an offering of the family’s deity Ambika Devi — the significance of the fort comes to mind. Built by the founder of the Katoch dynasty, Raja Bhuma Chand, the fort and its treasures of gold, jewels, and silver doors, became the cynosure of invaders’ eyes, such as Muhammad of Ghazni (who looted tonnes of gold, diamonds and precious stones in 1009 AD), and Muhammad Bin Tughlaq (the Turkic Sultan of Delhi, who invaded the fort in 1337). In 1620, emperor Jahangir snatched the fort from Raja Hari Chandra Katoch and occupied it until 1750.

The Kangra fort may now belong to the government, but the temple inside, as well as the Royal Kangra Museum or Maharaja Sansar Chandra Museum and Cafeteria are very much part of the family’s trust, as is the ancient Sujanpur Fort, some two hours away from Dharamshala. All these are open to the public.

The silver bed of Maharaja Aishwarya Katoch’s grandmother, now on display at the museum.
The silver bed of Maharaja Aishwarya Katoch’s grandmother, now on display at the museum.

Just like the fort that they rebuilt from scratch after the 1905 earthquake, using old photographs and paintings, the Katoch royals opened the compact, artefact- and painting-filled museum for the public in 2002. The first thing that greets upon entry into the arched middle room is the silver throne that once belonged to Maharaja Sansar Chand of Kangra, surrounded by silver palanquins and silver stools. There is crockery from Europe, as well as crystal glasses and vases, sports trophies collected over the years, telescopes, binoculars, padlocks, old religious manuscripts, even baby clothes, stamps, coins and costumes — 100-year-old achkans and lehengas (that once belonged to the Rajmata of Jodhpur), ornate embroidered chogas, swords, family photographs, urns, pots, and lastly, a map that traced the entire Kangra royal lineage from the first ancestor, to Ambikeshwar. “All these things were lying in stores,” says Aishwarya. I wanted people to see it, and now displayed in the museum,” he adds.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the museum is the collection of Kangra miniature paintings — pahari miniature paintings with Mughal and Rajput influences, that were patronised in the hilly regions, made famous by Maharaja Sansar Chand who cultivated the artists who had fled the court of Aurangzeb, after Nadir Shah’s invasion, after 1690, because they no longer enjoyed Mughal patronage. Besides the 17-odd paintings on display, there’s also a separate art gallery just outside the museum. “Here artists hold classes on miniature painting for foreign and Indian visitors,” says Aishwarya. “They can also display their art, for museum visitors to purchase.”

But what’s fascinating is the Katoch rulers’ connection with far-off Mongolia. “One of the Mongolian prime ministers wrote in 1920 that one of the princes of Kangra by the name of Mangal Chandra came to settle in Mongolia,” says Aishwarya. “This was around 8,000 BC, so if you add 2,000 AD, our family goes back to 10,000 BC!”

Today, Aishwarya manages several estates. He owns the Sujanpur fort, a stunning, ancient fort two hours away from Dharamshala, which has two large, unique idols: the first, an idol of lord Shiva made of ashtadhatu (eight metals in equal proportion — gold, silver, copper, mercury, iron, lead, zinc, and tin), and a Ma Parvati idol made of pure gold. He also runs his homestay Cloud’s End, which is a 100-year-old British Colonial-style summer villa built on a slope with various cottages, and features an exceptional wood-panelled room (made of deodar pine trees). He also helps the poor in his village, funding the education of the underprivileged. There’s a 1,000-acre corporate forest near a place called Maharaj Nagar, which jointly belongs to some 20 people (former staff and their families), along with Aishwarya’s own family. “Nobody can sell that land,” says Aishwarya. “And everyone gets a monthly pension from it. They are allowed to use wood and leaves from the forest, as it’s a commercial forest for forest farming.” There are mango orchards, and a lychee orchard, along with a kattha plantation (what goes into a paan).

Is Aishwarya grooming his son Ambikeshwar as the next king of Kangra? “Generations will change, as will mindsets,” says Aishwarya. “Of course, he has to be proud of his legacy and heritage. He has to maintain it. He’s after all, the custodian.”

With change being the only constant, one can take that as a positive!

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