Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh
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Gobind Sagar’s submerged temples
If you are on your way to celebrate a white Christmas in Manali, slow down as you reach Bilaspur town and carefully look over the wide valley to your left. You will see a grassy, treeless ground. Grazing cattle and a few pointy mounds break its monotony. The mounds may remind you of temple spires, and that’s what they are. What you are seeing is the ghost of the old Bilaspur town, lost in the waters of Bhakra Dam’s Gobind Sagar reservoir more than 60 years ago.
Every winter, as the mountain snows that feed the Satluj river harden, the reservoir level falls till the river shrinks to its ancient girth below Bilaspur. By late December the ground is hard and dry enough to explore on foot. On a sunny day you can stand in its midst and imagine what the English explorer and veterinarian William Moorcroft saw when he passed by in the early 1800s.
“Bilaspur is not unpicturesquely situated on the left bank of the Satluj, which is here a rapid stream,” Moorcroft wrote in his journal. “The Raja’s dwelling, whitened and decorated with flowers in fresco, is neat but not large. His garden contains chiefly pear and apricot trees, rose bushes and beds of narcissus.”
Bilaspur was never a large town, nor the kingdom very rich. It stretched north to south on the Satluj’s left bank and occupied about 5 sq km of area. The 1931 Census records 713 houses and 2,673 residents in the town. By the 1950s, when it was abandoned – or relocated uphill as New Bilaspur – the town had acquired a semblance of modern life.
There was the Shree Uma Club where women could read, and play table tennis and other games. A 500-seat cinema showed movies. The 1975 Gazetteer of Himachal Pradesh says, in its early days the hall management regularly told the audience not to panic on seeing the projected images and hearing the recorded sound.
Bilaspur also had the Shri Bijai War Memorial women’s hospital with a clinical lab and operation theatre. It was built to commemorate the state’s contribution in the first World War.
All of these stood on the vast Sandhu-ka-Maidan, which also served as a makeshift airfield. “Twice have aircraft landed on the once exciting and vast Sandhu field,” the Gazetteer notes.
The town kept growing although the sword of Bhakra Dam had hung over it since at least the late 1930s. In the 1950s, when Dr MS Randhawa – of the Green Revolution fame – visited the town he found the then king, Raja Anand Chand, had added a large Krishna temple beautifully decorated with mural paintings by the Bengali actor and artist Sarada Ukil.
According to an early plan, Bhakra Dam would have stood 152 m tall. At this height, it would have partially submerged Bilaspur, 56 km upstream. Eventually it was decided to make the dam as high as was safely possible – about 225m from its lowest foundation. As a result, in 1963 Gobind Sagar stretched to a distance of almost 100 km behind the dam. Bilaspur was obliterated.
Well, not immediately, nor entirely. Dr Randhawa paid another visit in October 1970. In his book, Travels in the Western Himalayas in Search of Paintings, he writes that while the town’s palaces were crumbling, “the stone temples still show remarkable vitality and are intact, and would remain so for long. When the level of the lake rises, their tops could still be seen above the water level.”
He was right about the temples – more than 50 years and as many more submersions later, they are hanging on. Everything else is gone. There’s no sign of the palaces, nor of the stone and cement homes. It’s hard to believe that for 300 years this ground was the capital of a hill kingdom.
The Bilaspur royals trace their roots to Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. The new kingdom they founded in the Himachal hills was called Kahlur, not Bilaspur, and until 1654 they ruled over it from other places. That year, Raja Dip Chand, a year into his reign and just 21 years old at the time, shifted his capital here.
The Gazetteer notes that he chose the site on the advice of four faqirs – two Hindu and two Muslim. It was already a place of worship on account of the Beas Gufa – sacred to the sage Vyas of Mahabharat fame – above the chosen ground. Legend has it that the sage used to winter here while spending the summer at Beas Kund – origin of the Beas river – near Rohtang Pass.
Dip Chand named his new capital Beaspur, but with the passage of time the name got corrupted to Bilaspur. He also built a palace called Dholar but it probably wasn’t the one that Moorcroft saw. Although the Kahlur rajas ruled from Bilaspur right up to Independence, the town was always at the Satluj’s mercy. It was washed away in a massive flood in 1762. In 1803, an earthquake caused a landslide that dammed the Satluj for some weeks. When the dam burst, Bilaspur was washed away again.
But the temples, some of which were already about a thousand years old, survived each time. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) says most of the shrines were built between the 10th and the 16th centuries and were dedicated to Shiva. Of these, the temple of Ranganath Shiva was the most important and an annual fair was held around it every May.
The royal family had its own special goddess, Rani Deomati, one of their ancestors in Chanderi. Pregnant at the time of her husband Raja Shib Chander’s death, she was dissuaded from performing sati on his pyre. Many years later, when she had seen her son installed on the throne, she performed the sacrifice.
The hill kingdoms had a tradition of honouring sati with stone memorials. Dr Randhawa, who was an art connoisseur, noted the presence of the Bilaspur temples but reserved special praise for its sati stones. “Some of the sati stones are carved in an artistic manner and are historical records of great importance … I felt that the sati stones deserved to be salvaged.”
Before the town was submerged, the deities housed in the ancient temples were removed to a new temple on higher ground. Plans to relocate the temples have been aired often, but not a stone has moved. With each passing year the temples are buried deeper in silt. If you want to see them, you will have to park your car by the road and walk down the hillside.