Majestic Masrur

Published : Jan 07, 2015 12:30 IST

The 19 temples of Masrur, built during the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., make it the largest rock shrine in northern India. Here, engraved projections on the shrine on north-eastern side.

The 19 temples of Masrur, built during the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., make it the largest rock shrine in northern India. Here, engraved projections on the shrine on north-eastern side.

HAD it not been for the enthusiastic young man working with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Kangra Fort in Himachal Pradesh, we would never have visited Masrur, a place not known to many. From Kashmir House in Dharamshala, where we were staying, the 60-kilometre route to Masrur ran through picture-postcard villages and tight bends, where fast-flowing streams seemed to vanish and reappear at every turn. Since the trip was completely unplanned and the destination was a not-so-popular tourist spot, there seemed to be no lead that we could follow—like the time it would take to reach there, availability of food, and so on. The absence of significant literature, especially among popular travel writing, has kept the ruins of the largest rock shrine in northern India almost unknown.

When we reached the majestic ruins, the architectural splendour held us spellbound. A group of 19 temples carved out of a single huge outcrop of sandstone, it is testimony to the extraordinary skill of their makers. Such monolithic free-standing single structures are practically unknown in the Himalayas. They are found in peninsular India, at Ellora and Mamallapuram, but neither is carved out on the top of a hill. Hewn out of a mountain ridge almost 2,500 feet (762 metres) high, this single-stone monument is built in the classic nagara style. Though not enough evidence is available to determine its exact period, historians put it at between the seventh and eighth centuries.

The first traceable reference to the structure dates back to 1875, when a list of monuments was prepared, but it was only in 1913 that a useful and reliable plan of the ancient ruins became available, published by H.L. Shuttleworth. A written account by H. Hargreaves was published later, in 1915-16. The April 4, 1905, Kangra earthquake destroyed four of the 19 temples and severely damaged most of the others.

Since there are no inscriptions and no written history available, little is known about who commissioned them and who constructed them. Unlike the Ellora caves, which were never lost to oblivion because of their close proximity to the trade routes, Masrur remained unknown to people. Surprisingly, there is no mention of these temples by any traveller who may have visited Masrur in the ancient or the medieval times. Perhaps no traveller did. The remote location and inaccessibility, though, served to save the rock temples from the ravages of invaders, while the monolithic character saved them from total destruction from natural causes. There are some theories that they were built by the Katoch rulers from Jalandhar, Punjab, whose territory extended up to this region and who may have made this their temporary capital in that period.

This rock-hewn structure is about 170 ft (52 m) in length and about 120 ft (36.5 m) wide. The main temple faces east (actually north-east), flanked by smaller shrines that rise up to the middle of the central shrine. Most of these have collapsed, especially the shrines on the south and the west. Above the main temple and level with the now-missing roof of the mandapa , the shikharas (spires) mark the sanctum of the two smaller shrines. A similar arrangement of these smaller shrines, now destroyed, may have been present at the back of the monument so that the main temple stood in the centre surrounded by smaller ones. The receding flanks of the shikharas are carved in layered horseshoe patterns, with geometric precision, and on them are three successive bhadramukhas carved within a semicircular alcove.

The complex has, apart from the main shrine, 16 subsidiary shrines—two flanking the main shrine, 12 comprising the corner shrines and secondary shrines, and two on the rooftop. There are also two shrines that are not part of this group, yet carved out of the same rock, at the extreme arms of the main shrine. All are situated in perfect symmetry with one another and also with the main shrine.

The main temple faces the Dhauladhar mountain range and is known locally as thakurdwara, or the abode of Vishnu. The religion may have spread here later. This seems to be the only hollowed-out pillared structure. The ceiling of the antechamber is an intricately carved open lotus pattern, surprisingly undamaged, and it is surrounded by diamond-shaped carvings on the sides. This is in contrast with the plain walls of the garbha griha and the mandapa. The exquisitely carved square bases of the four giant pillars still standing at the entrance to the mandapa seem to be at the same point where they were sculpted. The sanctum sanctorum has three worshipped deities, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita, in black stone. These are of recent origin.

The door of the main temple and the receding door columns are beautifully carved with leaf motifs and there are equally exquisite carvings on their corresponding lintels ( lalata-bimba ). It may be assumed that this was a Siva temple because of the sculpted figure on the lintel, along with several other figures. The collapsed capitals of the pillars with an elaborate foliage and kalash design that is replicated on almost all entrances, including the garbha griha , tell a story of perfection and exemplary skill. A similar stone doorway with fine engravings leads to a twisting stairway that goes up to the roof of the main shrine.

The hollowed-out main shrine in front of the ancient tank faces east —perhaps following the traditional orientation of the principal deity to the east. The southern, northern, and western sides are not dug out. Each has a false door, which gives the impression of incompleteness. These shrines are also exquisitely carved with images and foliage patterns.

To the east of the temples are rock-cut caves. These may have been the resting places for devotees who visited the Siva temple.

Though the temples on the southern and western sides have crumbled, one can have an idea of the original art from the shrine at the north-eastern side. The better preserved or the least damaged eastern niche is profusely carved. Five seated gods on what look like lotuses are found on the lintel, with a pair of exquisitely carved peacocks above. Images of rasas are evident in the panel engravings on the north-eastern side. In the north-eastern shrine we found a form that looked partly female. Some of the best preserved carvings are on each of its graduated projections. The niches are engraved with the omnipresent kumbha , kalasha , Indra seated on Airavat, Durga, and Kartikeya seated on a peacock. The prolific presence of the elaborately designed kumbha and kalasha on walls and panels indicates that they may have been adopted as symbols of fertility. One of the most striking figures is that of Siva on Nandi. The well-sculpted and proportionate body left one wondering how such minute details of the human anatomy could be carved on hard sandstone. Two hill-rocks on either side, part of the same ridge, are separated from the complex by a corridor each. Climbing the rock on the north-west side, one gets a bird’s-eye view of the entire complex. It is an overwhelming sight.

The graceful and perfect dancing forms, the studied emotions on each of the figures, and the fine ornamentation give the impression that these were done only in the recent past. The unique design, outstanding architecture, and powerful figures find resemblance in Angkor Wat (ninth to 14th centuries). Mystical Masrur may have been a precursor to the world’s largest temple complex.

The remote location of these temples has been the main cause of their neglect, the current state of maintenance notwithstanding. On the other hand, their inaccessibility saved them from invaders, unlike Kangra Fort, which was invaded by Mahmud of Ghazni and again by Firoz Tughlak. When we took the picture of the entire complex from across the ancient pond where we also found time to feed the magur (catfish), it seemed to me that a range of tower-like peaks from an exceptional civilisation was spiking upwards in the evening light, ready to come alive again. We came away thanking the unknown gentleman at Kangra Fort for directing us to this missing link of Indian art history, the grandeur of the Dhauladhars with the Beas winding around it.

It was a holiday, and still there were hardly a dozen visitors. The absence of any commercial activity in the form of tea shops and souvenir counters has helped keep the surroundings reasonably clean. We paid the lone guard-cum-ticket collector the Rs.5 entry fee fixed by the ASI for gaining entry into our magnificent past! Can we make it a World Heritage Site?

Haimanti Dey is Senior Publication Coordinator, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi.

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