Chaini Kothi: Saving A Himalayan Wonder

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    Deep in the Tirthan Valley, there is a temple that has stood for centuries and is a splendid example of the unique building style of the Himalayan region. The Chaini Kothi, dedicated to Goddess Jogini, has braved the frequent tremors the area is known for, but is unlikely to survive the neglect it faces.

    Despite its rare beauty and historic value, you’d be surprised to know that Chaini Kothi does not figure on any heritage lists – not that of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) or the Himachal Pradesh list of historic buildings. After a decade and a half of on-ground campaigns and the ‘blessing of the gods’, there is now finally an attempt to save this Himalayan gem and restore it.

    Chaini Kothi is an unmistakable landmark in the little village of Chaini, in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. Its spectacular architecture exhibits the indigenous styles of Dhol Maide and Kath Kuni, which are found along the belt of the Himalayas that stretches from Afghanistan to China. Sadly, just a few thousand such structures are left and, in India, Chaini Kothi is the tallest of them all.

    Steeped in legends and myths, it is difficult to gauge the temple’s age as it has never been studied for its historicity. Locals believe the temple complex is between 400 and 800 years old and is said to have been built as a fortress by a king called Dhadhu in the 17th century. Today, the complex houses the temple of Goddess Jogini, who is revered by people in this and the surrounding five valleys.

    Prof O.C. Handa, who has written extensively on the history and architecture of Himachal Pradesh, says that, according to lore, the Kothi got its name from Rana Dhadhu’s wife. The story goes that Dhadhu, the local chieftain, had rebelled against his Kullu overlords and was killed in battle. In return for surrendering the village to the Kullu kings, his wife insisted that it be named after her, so that the family would be remembered.

    Despite its uniqueness and historical significance, the Chaini Kothi complex has not even been documented by the ASI, which is responsible for protecting monuments of national importance.

    It has also been ignored by the State Department of Language, Art and Culture, which lists locally significant monuments.

    Interestingly, the ASI has listed 43 monuments in the state in its list of monuments of national importance, of which 34 are temples. The state has listed five monuments of state importance, all of which are temples.

    The last listing of monuments of state importance in Himachal Pradesh was done in the 1980s. In fact, the State Department has prepared the paperwork for eight more monuments to be included in the State List but the government hasn’t yet processed it. Chaini Kothi doesn’t figure even on this list of eight, and is waiting for the second phase of this updating!

    In an area prone to frequent earthquakes, Chaini Kothi has seen its share of damage through the years – and it has weathered a lot. The walls have developed deep cracks, and the tower of the temple has developed a dangerous tilt, which suggests that it may not survive another major tectonic event.

    Swapnil Bhole and Shabbir Khambaty, Mumbai-based architects, first spotted the temple 15 years ago and have been working on the documentation and conservation of indigenous architecture in this region. Chaini Kothi caught their attention and, over the last 14 years, they have been trying to convince the villagers of the need to restore the temple. They made a breakthrough last year, when the villagers finally recognised the fragility of the monument and the need to protect it.

    It wasn’t easy. Bhole says they were able to get this far only after persistent efforts at sensitising the community to the need for conservation.

    Now a local committee has been set up to protect and conserve the temple.

    It is composed of 30 locals from different walks of life who are passionate about protecting the shrine. Called the ‘Rishi Shring Chehni Fort Renovation and Protection Committee’, the body is registered under the Himachal Societies Registration Act 2006, giving the process legitimacy and a structure.

    Jagmohan Thakur, a resident of Chaini, a lawyer as well as the head of the committee, told us that it was the deteriorating condition of the temple that had triggered the need for action. The residents of Chaini had called a public meeting to discuss their concerns, and it was at this meeting that a decision to constitute the committee was taken.

    Interestingly, locals allowed Bhole and Khambaty to proceed with the conservation effort only after they received the ‘blessings’ of Shringi Rishi – one of the key deities in the region – at a local shrine in the village of Banjar.

    This created the much-needed momentum for the conservation plan, and the committee is now keen to use radiocarbon dating on the wooden elements of the structure to ascertain its age.

    While the restoration of Chaini Kothi has not received any support from the government or a funding body, locals residents have decided to raise the funds themselves. They hope the 10,000-odd families in the surrounding five valleys, as well as local temples, will contribute towards the restoration project. Contributions are needed not only in the form of financial resources but also manpower and materials, especially from the master masons that are well versed in the vernacular styles.

    The actual restoration work is still some months away but the active participation of the villagers living around this great temple complex is a turning point in the attempt to save Chaini Kothi.

    This story is an inspiring example of how local communities can come together to preserve their heritage. For far too long, we have looked to governments and government agencies to support historic monuments. Whether they have the resources or even sufficient interest in doing so is anyone’s guess. Hence, it is time to raise questions and drive change.

    Chaini Kothi is representative of the issues that heritage conservation faces across the country – lack of documentation, listing, awareness and resources even as monuments crack and crumble under the weight of neglect and helplessness. The answer, therefore, lies in the intervention of stakeholders and experts, who can bring passion, expertise and the much-needed motivation to conservation projects.

    We hope the government offers some support and recognises these endeavours. The community spirit that brought the people of Chaini Kothi together is to be lauded and we hope this model is repeated in other communities across India.

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