The Kailash Temple at Ellora, carved out of a single rock, is perhaps the most famous rock-cut temple in India. But do you know that, in faraway Himachal Pradesh, another rock-cut temple complex would have been one of the most spectacular temples in India had it not been destroyed in an earthquake? This is the famous temple complex at Masroor in Kangra. Who built these temples and why they built them remains a mystery to this day.
The 8th century CE rock-cut temples at Masroor are 232 km from Chandigarh in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. To reach Masroor, you have to pass through a number of hairpin bends in the hills of Kangra, through valleys and lush forests. Located in the Beas River Valley, you arrive at the rear of the temples, which leave you a little underwhelmed after such a long journey. But as soon as you enter from the side, the temple complex slowly begins to reveal itself. And when you reach the front, you are overawed by the sheer magnificence of these medieval shrines.
The ruins of the temple complex, carved out of a single rock, stand in front of a large kund or pool of water. The temples face north-west and look towards the towering Dhauladhar range of mountains. They are the only known rock-cut temples in the Greater Himalayan region.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) estimates that they were built between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. But we know nothing more about them. The Masroor temple complex is a riddle for historians and archaeologists as its date of construction cannot be established from any credible source. Also, there are no inscriptions revealing patronage or the period of the construction on the temple itself or in any historical texts.
The temple complex is built in the Nagara style of temple architecture, which evolved in Central India as well as in Kashmir from the 8th century CE. It is believed the temple complex may have been built by guilds of artisans who moved between these two regions.
The region surrounding the temple is of great antiquity. In ancient times, it formed part of the ‘Trigarta’ or ‘Jalandhar’ Kingdom, which finds mention in the Mahabharata as well as in the works of 5th century BCE grammarian Panini. The region lay on an important trade route that connected Central Asia, Kashmir and Punjab with Tibet, making it very rich and prosperous.
The famous Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited the kingdom in 635 CE, on his way to the Kulu Valley, and wrote about its great prosperity. It is very plausible that the Masroor temples were built either by wealthy merchants or by the Kings of Kangra. In those times, such a grand complex could not be constructed without wealthy patrons. After their heyday, the temples surrendered to the forests, where they lay hidden for centuries and were known only to the locals.
Then, in 1835, an Austrian explorer, Baron Charles Hugel, stumbled upon an ancient temple in Kangra that he thought resembled the one at Ellora. Another European traveller made a note of the temple in 1875 but the British, who were ruling India back then and were involved in major archaeological work in the subcontinent, took little notice. Sadly, before the Masroor temple complex could be documented, it was largely destroyed in the great Kangra earthquake of 1905. This earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and had Kangra as its epicentre, was one of the most devastating the region had ever seen. It killed 20,000 people and destroyed much of the region’s historic monuments such as the Kangra Fort as well as the Masroor temples.
In 1913, A British official named Henry Shuttleworth visited the Masroor temples and brought them to the attention of Harold Hargreaves, an official of the ASI. Hargreaves studied the temples and published his findings in 1915. Soon, the complex was brought under the protection of the ASI.
At first glance, the Masroor temples appear to be a complex of individual shrines but they are actually a composite of temples which together make up one single integrated monument. The main shrine, which originally housed a Shiva Linga, is now known as ‘Thakurdwara’ and contains idols of Ram and Sita. They were probably placed thereafter in the 1905 earthquake.
In front was a large mandapa or assembly hall with elaborate pillars, which has completely collapsed, although the steps that once went up to the roof can be seen on two sides. Surrounding the main shrine are the remains of temples dedicated to Durga, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya and other gods and goddesses.
The complex is well preserved and receives a number of tourists who come to marvel that this remarkable feat of human creativity. But the temple continues to guard the secret of its origins.