THE ROCK CUT TEMPLES OF MASROOR
Amitha Venkatesh Iyengar
When you talk about rock cut temples in India, what would be the first thing that would come to your mind? The seaside temples in Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram, as it is now called) in Tamil Nadu or the majestic Ellora temples of Maharashtra.
Soon after my marriage, my hubby got posted to the beautiful Himalayan getaway called Palampur. Every weekend of our tenure there was spent exploring the state of Himachal Pradesh – be it Kulu, Manali, Shimla, Chail, Dharamsala or Dalhousie. But weekends were too far apart for adventurous souls like us. So every day, when hubby got home, our trusted ‘Hamara Bajaj’ got kick-started on an exploration of the Kangra valley and its inhabitants. The omnipresent and magnificent Dhauladhars bear testimony to our numerous escapades.
One day, somewhere in an old tourism brochure, I came across a mention of the Rock-cut Temples of Masroor in Kangra valley. Himachal calls itself the Land of the Gods…and rightly so. Few Indian states can match it for the sheer variety of holy shrines. And yet, almost no one around Palampur seemed to have heard of Masroor. Those were days without the Internet.
An old village Sarpanch, who had been a taxi driver in a previous life, pointed us towards the township of Kangra and adviced us to look out for the Nagrota Suriyan link road. That was enough to get us going.
It was a rainy evening, but the clouds seemed to have spent themselves and patches of clear blue sky were seen. We knew that we had at least 4 hours of clear skies. Packing our raincoats, some sandwiches and soft drinks in our dear old Chetak, we set out on one of our most memorable outings. The drive was beautiful, but time was ticking away as sunset was fast approaching. Riding on a scooter gave us a magnificent 360 degree view of the hills and valleys all around us. At one point we were riding on a narrow ridge with a steep drop on both sides of the road and a huge orange sun lighting it all up.
After nearly 30 Km of riding, we came across an Archeological Survey of India signboard stating that Masroor was only a few more kms uphill. That was the first real confirmation that we were not on a wild goose chase.
The ASI signboard also had a painting of the temples, but nothing prepared us for the sight at the top of the hill. The Rock-cut temples of Masroor are the only temples of their kind in north India. Partly destroyed by earthquakes in the past, the remaining structures hint at a glorious past. Hewn by hand out of monolithic rocks, the temples were carved by master craftsmen around the 7th or 8th century AD in the Indo-Aryan style. A rectangular pond reflects the 15 shikars built around a central shrine. Stone idols of Rama, Sita and Laxmana in the main shrine are worshipped to this day. The richly ornamented temple walls also have images of Shiva which suggests that the temples may at one time have been dedicated to Mahadeva. The ASI has shifted some of the carved stones to the State Museum in Shimla.
We managed to take a few snaps in the dying sunlight, before gobbling up our sandwiches and gulping down the soft drinks. The sound of the first few raindrops on the trees around made us rush back to our scooter for our raincoats. Soon we were headed back for Palampur, having notched up another adventure on our belt.
While researching rock cut temples, I discovered that there are only four examples of temples cut out of free standing rocks in India. The first two are of course, the famous ‘Rathas of Mamallapuram’ and the ‘Kailashas of Ellora’. I’ve just written about the ‘Temples of Masroor’. The ‘Dharmnatha temple in Dhamnar’, near Pattan, Rajasthan is a fourth such structure. No points for guessing where we are headed for during our next annual leave!