Do you know that the 1905 Kangra earthquake (M7.5) knocked off parts of the Masrur rock-cut temples in Himachal Pradesh like 2015 Nepal earthquake (M7.8) destroyed heritage buildings in the country?
Many optimistic survivors pick the faint signals of hope from death and destruction gifted by the powerful quakes. They conserve and / or rebuild the lost assets. For example, the Masrur temples were conserved and repaired.
However, the fear quotient, especially that is a consequence of earthquake, probably runs high among residents of the fragile zones like Himalayas. This fear compels them to express faith in the powers of various gods and goddesses. One of the manifestations of the faith is a desire to woo the deities with the best shrines, where the ambience may facilitate a connection between the two. Several beautiful and relatively durable shrines, including Masrur temples, therefore have been built in the Himalayas.
Go and see the temples before they completely succumb to another natural disaster.
Temple building skills
The rock cut temples are a visual tour of temple building skills. Limited access to the temples ensure a clean and less crowded ambience for browsing through the skills at a leisurely pace.
Discovery of temples
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) manages and maintains these protected ticketed monuments. ASI first recorded Masrur temples in 1875. But the preservation and restoration work was initiated by Harold Hargreaves, an officiating superintendent of Northern Circle of ASI, in 1915. He looked after Buddhist and Hindu Monuments.
The big complex is carved out of a single colossal rock of sandstone that is about 757 meters tall. According to legends, Pandava brothers of Epic Mahabharata created the monolithic edifice. Instead of cursing their fate in the long exile, they created a timeless masterpiece. Is it not an inspiration?
ABCD of the temples
The brothers followed all atypical elements of a nagara style temple. However, the earthquake damaged the temple built in 7-8 centuries AD severely. Four temples out of nineteen temples were reduced to rubble.
The principal shrine, surrounded by seven small shrines known as roof shrines, receives the first sun rays daily. The two small shrines are as tall as the shoulder of the main shrine.
Although the complex was originally dedicated to Shiva, the principal sanctum currently has stone statues of Ram, Sita, and Laxmana, the protagonists of Epic Ramayana. The sanctum is locally called Thakurdwara, where Ram is worshipped as an incarnation of Visnu. The figures on the lintels indicate its Saiva origin.
The lintels and the main temple door also have leaf motifs.
This is a temple-mountain that means a temple imitating the proportions of a mountain. The spires simulates mountains, especially the Kailash, home of Siva.
They have earned two epithets: Himalayan Pyramids and Ajanta of Himachal Pradesh.
The Masrur Temples are one of the few monolithic rock-cut temples in India. Other monolithic include temples of Ellora and Mahabalipuram and Chaturbhuj Mandir in Madhya Pradesh.
The monolithic structure somewhat saved the complex from natural disasters, whereas inaccessibility owing to remoteness protected it from invaders’ onslaughts.
Free-standing monolithic structures of these proportions are rare in the Himalaya.
The remaining attractions of the temples
Carvings on the doorframes feature images of Durga, Ganesh, Indra, Kartikeya, and Surya.
The rectangular pond within the complex always has water. The pond is currently home to catfish (magur). You can feed them.
The temples afford views of the Dhauladhar Range. The rear of the complex looks at the Beas River flowing to the west of the temple.
Lotus decorations surrounded by the diamond-shaped pattern adorn the ceiling of the sanctum and antechamber.
The rough walls of the sanctum seems to be unfinished. The walls do not have any decorations. The wall height is more than the width of the square sanctum.
The remains of magnificent pillars consist of square bases. Ornate kalashs crowned the pillar capitals.
Kumbha and kalasha, probably the symbols of fertility, are carved on the panels and the walls.
The main temple is a hollowed out structure and faces the old pond.
Conforming to ancient temple building traditions, the main deity shrine faces the east. Other three sides have not been dug out. The surrounding rock-cut caves might have doubled as shelter for devotees.
The lintel features five deities seating on the lotuses. The row above the deities is decorated with peacock images.
Anatomical details and emotive expressions of the sculptures remind the skills of craft persons of the period when modern sophisticated tools of the trade were non-existent.
You can climb the staircase leading to adjacent rocks of the same sandstone ridge for a bird’s eye view of the complex.
A pair of spires (shikhars) frames the entry to the pillared hall (mandapa).
Two cruciform shrines stand in the eastern court. The northern cruciform shrine has a 16-sided spire. The design of the spires having multiple faces uses technique of rotating squares.
The flat roof has small spires on the corners. Barrel vaulted structures are located amid these small spires.
The main spire is built on the small principal cella.
A layer of horseshoe patterns on the receding sides of the spires feature three-faced bhadramukhas in a semicircular recess.
Conservation and development
The Department of Tourism and Civil Aviation planned to improve connectivity of the The Indo-Aryan temples.
View of Michael W. Meister
According to Michael W. Meister (2009. Prajnadhara: Essays on Asian Art, History, Epigraphy and Culture in Honour of Gouriswar Bhattacharya. Editors – Gerd J.R. Mevissen and Arundhati Banerji. Kaveri Books, New Delhi), there is only one temple.
Whether it is single temple or a group of temples is beyond the scope of this feature. It is in the domains of archeologists and architects to decide that may take several rounds of time consuming debates before arriving at the conclusion. But you can still enjoy the beauty and spiritual merits of the temple complex.
Who commissioned and constructed the temple complex?
Due to lack of documentary evidences, inscriptions, and ancient travel accounts, the Masrur temples never gained popularity. It is difficult to say that who actually commissioned and built the temple. Different scholars have interpreted the complex differently. For example, some scholars believe that Katoch kings of Jalandhar (Punjab) built the complex. Michael suggests that the complex was built during reigns of Lalitaditya and Yasovarman who ruled in the eighth century.
Some scholars claim that the temple complex resemble Angkor Wat built in 9-14 centuries in Cambodia.
There is no agreement on the dates of construction. The period may range from 6-8 century.
Excited to see the temples, check our photo story, The Mighty Temples of Masrur in Kangra, to visit the shrine (s) from your internet friendly gadgets.