Tikkaraj Aishwarya Katoch of Lambagaon, known as ‘Ash’ to his close friends, is a modern prince who’s reviving the heritage of his father’s former royal State of Kangra, in Himachal Pradesh. As the son of Chandresh Kumari Katoch, a former minister who’s also the Princess of Jodhpur, Aishwarya has had unrestricted access to his maternal uncle, the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s palace. “I’ve seen Jodhpur since I was a baby; I was born there,” he says. “I’ve copied my uncle as far as setting up my museum in Kangra is concerned, and the heritage work I’ve done in my area. He’s been a great influence, and I’ve tried to recreate what I could in Kangra.”
And Kangra, the name of which embellishes a valley, district, and town in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, is rich with history. “We’re the oldest surviving dynasty in the world – Udaipur claims the same,” says Aishwarya. “If you look at the Kangra dynasty, our official records show that we’re descended from King Porus. That makes us 326BC, which is far beyond any state of Rajputana or whoever claims ancient descent.” He adds that his father, Raja Aditya Katoch of Lambagaon, is the 488th father to son lineage in his family, “an unbroken lineage with no adoption”, with an ancient history. “And the Kangra Fort is the oldest dated fort of India,” he says.
With this treasure trove of history to dig into, it’s only natural that Aishwarya opened up the Royal Kangra Museum to honour his ancestor Maharaja Sansar Chandra, a great warrior who went on to defeat the Mughals and reclaim his ancestral fort of Kangra. It’s also got the largest collection of Kangra miniature paintings in the world. If you see the Museum today, it’s impeccably organized with beautifully showcased artefacts, all thanks to Aishwarya’s dedication. “When I came of a certain age, I would see celebrities, visitors, and diplomats from abroad come to visit His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Dharamsala lies around 20 km from the Fort),” he says. “And they knew nothing of the local history, culture, art, and crafts. That’s when I started the Museum.” Today, the audio guide for the Fort and the Museum, has a short introduction by His Holiness.
He’s also reviving miniature art and supporting artists who are descendants of those artists who painted for his forefathers and made the Kangra School of Art world famous. “The paintings are for sale there and in Dharamsala, as we get a lot of tourists in the 18-room former English summer cottage that my father manages, Cloud’s End Villa,” says Aishwarya. “We don’t take money from the artists as we’re trying to promote them. They paint in front of the visitors.” There’s also a Museum shop that sells colourful local Kangra caps, shawls, and socks. He’s also trying to revive local music, which is in danger of getting corrupted by Punjabi pop songs. “We organize functions where they can come and sing authentic Pahari music, which we ensure is not diluted with pop songs,” says Aishwarya.
Aishwarya is also a hotelier, with three enviable properties. The first is in a bird sanctuary overlooking the Maharana Pratap Sagar, a 475 sq km lake. The Lodge at Pong, a six-room hotel, is perfect for birdwatchers and anglers as there are migratory birds to be seen, and fishing and boating to be done. The second is a jewel-like mini-palace called Surajgarh Fort, which lies just 180 km from Delhi in Rajasthan. “It’s not an inherited property,” says Aishwarya. “We wanted to do something in Rajasthan, as all my cousins have hotels that are running successfully.” But rather than compete with them in Jodhpur or Jaipur he chose far off Shekhawati district. “It’s an old fort, with 25 rooms, a swimming pool, and the largest kitchen east of Jaipur, measuring 5,000 sq ft.” Aishwarya’s also inherited the 300-year-old Mahal Lambagaon in his father’s ancestral village, where he’s made a pretty 12-bedroom property amidst mango trees, that is hired by locals for weddings in the area. And while his wife Tikkarani Shailja Katoch, Princess of Sailana, has inherited mouth-watering non-vegetarian dishes from her father’s stash of recipes – the cuisine of Sailana State is world-famous – Aishwarya is focusing on promoting the authentic vegetarian dham or temple food famous in Kangra. “You can pre-order it, or can eat it at the restaurant café, overlooking the Fort,” he says. A real step back in history.