Not far from the beautiful but touristy resort town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh is a page straight out of a fairy tale. We are headed to Naggar, just 21 km south of Manali, to a sleepy town on the edge of a craggy outcrop circled by snowy mountain peaks. Barely making it to tourist itineraries, Naggar was once the seat of the Kullu kings, and their royal abode – Naggar Castle – still invites guests to experience its charms.
At 5,600 feet above sea level and with a panoramic view of the Beas Valley to die for, it is easy to see why Naggar was chosen as the royal capital. The castle is said to have been built by Raja Sidh Singh in 1460, and he and his successors ruled from here till 1660, when the capital was moved to Sultanpur, 20 km away and less than 2 km from Kullu.
Naggar Castle is an exquisite example of Kath Kuni architecture, a Himalayan style that uses alternate layers of wood and stone to make sturdy but beautiful abodes. According to local legend, the stone for the castle was brought from the Baragarh Fort on the other side of the Beas river, with workers forming a human chain to transport the material across. The wood used in the castle is Deodhar, which grows extensively in the region.
Occupying a commanding position on the edge of the cliff, Naggar Castle is nothing like those in the Disney movies. It is elegant and there are delicate wood carvings everywhere. The castle is only a couple of storeys high, its sloping roofs, airy verandahs, arched wooden balconies and wooden staircases creating a warm and welcoming ambience. And, if you can peel yourself away from the crackling and cosy fireplace, you can take a grand tour of the castle.
Naggar Castle may have a delicate and fragile quality but its 42-inch-wide walls conceal great strength. The castle survived the 1905 earthquake, which devastated the region and destroyed the villages around it.
The castle’s rooms and living spaces are arranged around two courtyards. Till the 19th century, this royal abode was divided into two sections – the king’s quarters and the public buildings, which included the kitchens, out-houses and offices.
Colonel AFP Harcourt, the British Assistant Commissioner of Kullu in the 1870s, described the villages and houses of the valley in great detail and found the architecture here to resemble that of Switzerland. He was also an amateur artist and painted a beautiful watercolour painting of Naggar Palace in 1869.
After the end of the First Anglo-Sikh War (December 1845 to March 1846), many lands including Naggar were ceded to the British by the Sikhs. Naggar Castle was bought by Major Hays, the first British Assistant Commissioner of Kullu. Hays made the castle his headquarters and considerably renovated its interiors to include European elements.
– According to a local tale, Major Hays acquired the castle from Raja Gyan Singh in exchange for a rifle!
In one of the courtyards of the castle is the Jagatti Temple. According to local folklore, a stone slab inside the temple, measuring 2.5 x 1.5 x 2 metres, was transported by bees from a mountain to make Naggar a celestial seat. The temple is extremely important to the local community.
Outside the castle are slabs of stone described by Harcourt as “tombstones”. He counted more than 140 of them in the 1870s but only a few have survived. Not much is known about them but, according to most interpretations, they may be memorial stones to the Kullu Rajas based on the figures carved on them.
In 1978, the castle was handed over to the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Corporation, which turned it into a luxury hotel and created a small museum in the basement to showcase local artefacts and arts. It displays objects such as local musical instruments, folk dance costumes and implements for tea and butter making.
The castle is not the only place of significance in Naggar. The town was also the home of Nicholas Roerich, the famous Russian artist, writer, explorer, archaeologist and spiritualist, who spent the last two decades of his life here with his family. Roerich, whose daughter-in-law was Devika Rani, the legendary leading lady of Indian cinema, also died in Naggar and was cremated here. Across the road from the Roerich Estate is a winding path that leads to Urusvati, the Himalayan Research Institute set up by the Roerichs.
These are only the highlights of this sylvan town. Veer off the beaten track and, who knows what you may find.