Around 215 kms from Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, you will find one of the finest forts in India. Built at the confluence of River Beas’ tributaries, the Banganga and Patalganga, this fort has played a pivotal role in the region’s history. Said to be built in the shape of an ear or ‘kaan’ in Hindi, for starters it gave the whole valley its name - Kangra, from ‘Kaangarh'. In the 18th century CE, it was from his court here that the famous Pahadi king, Raja Sansar Chand seeded one of the great artistic outpourings from the rich Himalayan ranges - the famed Kangra art, before hubris brought him and his kingdom down.
– Built in the shape of an ear or ‘kaan’ in Hindi, it gave the valley its name - Kangra, from ‘Kaangarh’
Built by the Katoch dynasty that began its rule in the area in the 11th century CE, the Kangra fort withstood many attacks including one by Muhammad Bin Tughlaq of Delhi in 1333 CE. One of Tughlaq’s most hare-brained ideas was to send an army through the Kulu-Kangra region on what was called the Qarachil expedition. Later 16th century CE Mughal era historians like Badauni and Ferishtah have mentioned that this was part of a larger plan to invade China! Tughlaq’s soldiers, however, faced a complete rout at the hands of the Katoch clan in Himachal. Almost the entire army of 10,000 was destroyed!
Centuries later in the 1550s CE, the young emperor Akbar headed an expedition towards the north and reached Kangra in 1556 CE. Seeing the strength of the Mughal army, the then ruler, Raja Dharam Chand, submitted before the Mughal ruler and agreed to pay tribute. Kangra was later given as jagir to Raja Birbal, Akbar’s favourite minister and the Katoch king had to give Birbal almost 200 kgs of gold, to renounce his claims on the fort. But in 1620 CE, Emperor Jahangir, killed the Katoch king, Raja Hari Chand and annexed the Kangra kingdom into the Mughal Empire. It remained so for almost a century and a half.
– Kangra was given as jagir to Raja Birbal, Akbar’s favourite minister
But by the mid-18th century, as the Mughal Empire began to crumble, one of the descendants of Raja Dharam Chand, the 16-year-old Sansar Chand, decided to take advantage of the weak central rule. He forged an alliance with the Kanhaiya Misl, one of the twelve Sikh Misls that ruled Punjab before Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and re-captured the Kangra fort in 1774 CE. After 154 years, Kangra was liberated from Mughal rule and the young Sansar Chand was feted as a hero and saviour. The rise of a new son of the soil, marked the beginning of a golden age in the Valley of Kangra and the region.
Having regained his kingdom and happily settled in the old family fort, Sansar Chand quickly focused on expanding his kingdom. He conquered the kingdoms of Chamba, Mandi, Suket, Nahan, Bilaspur (present day regions in Himachal Pradesh) all the way up to the border of Jammu. By the 1800s, Sansar Chand was among the most powerful rulers in the region, with a kingdom spreading across 27,000 square miles and encompassing most of present day Himachal Pradesh.
As the Kingdom of Kangra expanded, so did the royal wealth. It is in the use of the riches he accumulated, that Sansar Chand really made a mark. A visionary leader and an aesthete, Sansar Chand emerged as one of the greatest patrons of art. He established what were called the ‘Chhattis Karkhanas’ or 36 workshops each dedicated to a different art and craft. Most notable among them was the Kangra school of painting. Under his patronage, more than 40,000 paintings were produced, gaining fame across India. He was also a patron of architecture and built the fort at Tira Sujanpur (in the present day Hamirpur district of Himachal Pradesh), outside Kangra with a splendid durbar hall, palaces, temples and gardens. Such was the fame of Sansar Chand that he was commonly referred to as ‘Pahadi Badshah’ or Emperor of the Hills.
– A visionary leader and an aesthete, Sansar Chand emerged as one of the greatest patrons of art
All would have gone well for the ‘Emperor of the Hills’ had he not decided that he wanted a little more. The fall of the great Sansar Chand came when he decided to attack the small kingdom of Kahlur (present day Bilaspur) in 1805 CE. This turned out to be a spectacular mistake.
Under attack, the Raja of Kahlur appealed to the powerful Gorkhas of Nepal for help. Unlike the petty hill rajas, the Gorkhas were masters of hill warfare and powerful fighters. On the other hand, most of Sansar Chand’s army was made up of Rohilla Pathan mercenaries from the plains of Rohilkhand. An army of 40,000 Gorkhas crossed over the Sutlej river and invaded Sansar Chand's kingdom. They crushed Sansar Chand’s army and quickly captured fort after fort, in his kingdom. By 1809 CE, Kangra itself was under threat from the Gorkhas.
Faced with a terrible and embarrassing defeat, Sansar Chand turned west, to Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab for help, while also continuing to negotiate with the Gorkhas. In return for help against the Gorkhas, Sansar Chand promised Maharaja Ranjit Singh the fort of Kangra and the surrounding 76 villages, while he would keep the rest of the kingdom for himself. He promised the same deal to the Gorkhas to get them off his back. The shrewd Ranjit Singh was quick to catch on to Sansar Chand’s plan to keep the Sikhs and Gorkhas fighting each other, while he ruled Kangra.
Finally, the Sikhs cut off the supplies of the Gorkhas and inflicted a crushing defeat on them. Ranjit Singh then demanded that Sansar Chand keep a part of his bargain. Caught by surprise at the turn of events, Sansar Chand tried to wriggle out of his promise. However, Maharaja Ranjit Singh took Anirudh Chand, Sansar Chand’s son prisoner and marched into the Kangra fort.
Finally, Sansar Chand lost almost all that he had. All he got from the Sikhs was a small personal estate or jagir in lieu of which he had to pay an annual tribute of Rs 2, 00,000 to the Lahore Durbar.
It was a humiliating fall for a man who had ruled almost the entire Himachal region and earned the title of the ‘Pahadi Badshah’ or the Emperor of the Hills
The last days of Sansar Chand were spent in his estate in Tira Sujanpur in the Hamirpur district where he gave up his territorial ambitions and instead enjoyed the pleasures of a lavish court. Here he patronized poets and artists. The spectacular wall paintings and temples of Tira Sujanpur are reminders of his life in exile.
Sansar Chand passed away in 1823, after a rule of 47 years. After the fall of the Sikh empire in 1849, Kangra was taken over by the British. Today the Sansar Chand museum at Kangra with its priceless collection of Kangra paintings is the only legacy of this great king.