In his book, ‘Coronation of Shiva – Rediscovering Masrur’, Prof. Narinder K Singh says. “I travelled some 1800 years back in the history, to find this monolithic temple standing majestically on the top of a hill in the Shivalik hills of Himachal Pradesh. At first sight, it looked like a great ship of rock wrecked on the top of the hill. It filled me with a sense of wonder and awe. This was a journey of rediscovery that I want to share with my readers.”
And this is exactly what I felt- a sense of wonder and awe, when we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Masrur Rock Cut Temples, during a recent trip to Himachal Pradesh. They are a group of 15 Hindu temples located in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, India. They are believed to have been built between the 8th and 10th centuries CE, during the reign of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty. The temples are carved out of a single rock and feature intricate carvings of Hindu deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Durga.
In the entire country, there are four monolithic rock cut temples. They are Kailash Cave of Verul, Ellora, the Mahabalipuram Pandav raths rock cut temples in the Coromandel Coast, the rock cut caves of Dhamnar and Masrur in Himachal Pradesh. Archaeologists acknowledge that these rock cut temples of 8th century A D are world heritage sites, but have not received attention because of their remoteness and lack of documentation. The temple complex was first reported by Henry Shuttleworth in 1913 bringing it to the attention of archaeologists. Later Harold Hargreaves of the Archaeological Survey of India surveyed it independently.
The temple’s centre has a principal shrine which unlike most Hindu temples does not face east, but faces northeast towards the snowy Himalayan peaks of the Dhauladhar range.
Architecture of the temple
The temples were carved out of monolithic rock with a shikhara and provided with a sacred pool of water as recommended by Hindu texts on temple architecture. The temple has three entrances on its northeast, southeast and northwest sides, two of which are incomplete. Evidence suggests that a fourth entrance was planned and started but left mostly incomplete. The temples follow a version of the Nagara architecture, a style that developed in Central India, particularly during the rule of the Hindu king Yasovarman, an art patron – this architecture that was developed and refined in central India in the centuries before the 8th century. Yashovarman, was a powerful king of Kannauj, who extended his rule from Jalandhar to Trigartha which included the Kangra region within his domain (see reference of Pandavas and Trigartha below). Historical evidences strongly point to Yashovarman as the creator of Masrur.
The main spire of the the central temple is flanked by subsidiary spires of smaller size, all eight symmetrically placed to form an octagon (or two rotated squares). These spires of the temple seem to grow out of the natural rock that makes the mountain. Above the main sanctum, the rock was cut to form the flat roof and the second level of the temple naturally fused with the rising main spire (shikhara) as well as the eight subsidiary shrines. All spires in the Masrur temple are of Nagara style.
The Kangra valley region with Masrur in the Himalayas was ruled by smaller jagirdars and feudatory ‘Hill Rajas’, who paid tribute to the Mughal administration for many centuries. he arrival of the colonial era marked another seismic shift in the region’s politics. By the late 19th century, British India officials had begun archeological surveys and heritage preservation efforts. The first known visits to study the Masrur temples occurred in 1887. A British empire officer Henry Shuttleworth visited and photographed the temples in 1913, calling it a ‘Vaishnava temple’, but later Harold Hargreaves, then an officer of the Northern Circle of the Archaeology Survey of India, noticed the Shiva linga in the sanctum and he corrected Shuttleworth’s report. Hargreaves report described the site and listed iconography at these temples from different Hindu traditions, and also speculated on links with Mahabalipuram monuments and Gandhara art.
The temple complex, as we saw, was carved out of natural sandstone rock. In some places, the rock is naturally very hard, which would have been difficult to carve, but is also the reason why the intricate carvings on it have been preserved for over 1,000 years. The temple complex has a sacred pool in front on the east side. The construction of the sacred pool is dated to the early 8th century.
By the 19th century, Hargreaves noted that the temple escaped the onslaught of Muslim invaders because of its remoteness. However, the severe and devastating Kangra earthquake of 1905, managed to damage and crack many parts of the temple. However, the main temple remained standing, because of its monolithic nature built out of stone in situ.
The main sanctum has nine seated deities, with Lord Shiva in the centre. With him are Vishnu, Indra, Ganesha, Kartikeya and Durga. The shrines around the central shrine feature five Devis in one case, while other shrines reverentially enshrine Vishnu, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Surya, Indra and Saraswati. The avatars of Vishnu such as the Varaha and the Narasimha are presented in the niches. We also observed the presence of large sculptures of Indra, Surya, Varun, Agni and other Vedic deities (pictures below).
Michael Meister reported that the Masrur temple and the 8th-century Prasat Ak Yum temple found in Siam Reap, Cambodia have parallels, in that both are temple mountains with a symmetric design.
Local lore: According to a local legend, the Pandavas (from the epic Mahabharata), resided here during their exile (Agyatvas), from their kingdom and built this temple. It is said that the identity and location of Pandavas was threatened to be exposed and, so they decided to relocate and this is why the temple complex was left unfinished. This folk lore is not found in the epic. However, the kingdom of Trigartha, of which Kangra was part of has been mentioned in the Mahabharata several times. It finds mention first in the Rajasuya Yagna performed by Yudhishthira. Despite its hoary past, this temple is a great reminder of the great artistic wealth of India and the uniqueness of this creation.
Leaving you with the pictures that I took during the visit.
Sculptures of Surya with his 7 horses (left) and Indra with his vehicle Airavata – the elephant (right)
Nearest Airport: Gaggal Airport of Dharamshala (25 kilometres )
About 5 kms from a small village called Lanj in the Dehra Tehsil of Kangra District, Masrur is about 45 kms from Dharamshala