Shielded on all sides by high mountains, CHAMBA was ruled for an entire millennium by kings descended from Raja Sahil Verma, who founded it in 920 AD and named it after his daughter Champavati. Unlike Himachal states further south, it was never formally under Mughal rule and its distinct Hindu culture remained intact until the first roads were built to Dalhousie in 1870. When the state of Himachal Pradesh was formed in 1948, Chamba became the capital. Today, just a handful of visitors make it out here, passing through before or after trekking, or stopping off to see the unique temples.

The chaugan, a large green used for sports, evening strolls and festive celebrations, marks the centre of town, overlooked by the imposing old Rang Mahal palace, now a government building.

Bhuri Singh museum

At the south end of the chaugan, the Bhuri Singh museum holds a reasonable display of local arts and crafts. Its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Kangra miniature paintings, depicting court life, amorous meetings and men and women smoking elaborate hookahs, are much bolder than their Mughal-influenced Rajasthani equivalents. The museum’s best feature is its small cache of rumals. Made by women since the tenth century, rumals are like embroidered paintings, depicting scenes from popular myth. Today just a few women continue this tradition, but a weaving centre in the old palace is attempting to revitalize the art.

The temples

The intimate complex of Lakshmi Narayan temples, behind Dogra Bazaar west of the chaugan, is of a style found only in Chamba and Brahmour. Three of its six earth-brown temples are dedicated to Vishnu and three to Shiva, all with profusely carved outer walls and curious curved shikharas, topped with overhanging wooden canopies and gold pinnacles added in 1678 in defiance of Aurangzeb’s order to destroy all Hindu temples in the hill states. Niches in the walls contain images of deities, but many stand empty, some statues lost in the earthquake of 1905 and others looted more recently.

Entering the compound, you’re confronted by the largest and oldest temple, built in the tenth century and enshrining a marble idol of Lakshmi Narayan. The buxom maidens flanking the entrance to the sanctuary, each holding a water vessel, represent the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, while inside a frieze depicts scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Temples dedicated to Shiva fill the third courtyard. In the inner sanctuary, you’ll see sturdy brass images of Shiva, Parvati and Nandi, inlaid with silver and copper brought from mines nearby. Outside the temple complex, coppersmiths manufacture curved ceremonial trumpets and brass hookahs.

Of Chamba’s other temples, the most intriguing is the tenth-century Chamunda Devi temple high above the town in the north, a steep half-hour climb up steps that begin near the bus stand. Decorated with hundreds of heavy brass bells and protecting a fearsome image of the bloodthirsty goddess Chamunda, the temple is built entirely of wood, and commands an excellent view up the Ravi Gorge. Back in town, south of the chaugan near the post office, the small, lavishly carved eleventh-century Harirai temple contains a smooth brass image of Vaikuntha, the triple-headed aspect of Vishnu.