Day excursion to Masroor in Himachal Pradesh happened to be one of the highlights of our summer vacation at Mcleodganj. The temple standing magnificently on a hill crescent is a unique example of monolithic temples in the sub Himalayan region. In the absence of inscriptions and any other epigraph or literary records the patronage of the temple cannot be ascertained. However, on the basis of architectural and sculptural decorations, the temple has been assigned to the 8th century A.D.
The receptionist at the Bhagsu Hotel, Mcleodganj, where we were spending the week – a good address, worth recommending, was clueless when we asked for directions to Masroor! He even wondered why we were going to a place that was off the standard list of touristy sites, and which hadn’t been worth the effort according to the few who had visited it! Yet, we were determined to see it and embarked on the trip on a balmy morning, following a good breakfast and a darshan of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The route was uncharted as we had no directions except for the road sign at Ranital en route from Delhi, which said Masroor – 8 km from Lunj. We drove downhill to Sanaura via Gaggal (all of 22km), and took the road to Lunj. Twenty-four km of ghat road, over hills and through forests presented enchanting views. We even encountered, smouldering trees at a spot, remnants of a raging forest fire not so long ago. Lunj is more of a road junction, where the roads from Ranital and Jwali intersected – a couple of dhabas that’s all. By this time the noon sun was blazing, we had decimated the packed lunch we had brought with us and downed a couple of cold drinks. Now doubtful whether we were doing the right thing – we finally arrived at Masroor, 10 km later and one look at the edifice made us exclaim that the journey was well worth the trouble.
In India, there are only four single rock cut temples as this style originated around the 7th to 8th century – ‘Rathas’ of Mammalapuram, ‘Kailashas’ at Ellora, temple complex at Masroor in Kangra and the ‘Dharmnatha’ temple at Dhamnar, 65 miles to the South East of Jhalra Patan in Rajasthan. The Rathas and the Kailashas are built in the Dravidian style, whereas the Masroor and Dhamnar ones are in the Nagara style. But unlike the other three, Masroor stands on the top of the hill. The magnificent structure built with a cruciform design bears resemblance with Angkor Wat.
Folklore says it was the Pandavas who built it during their agyatwas. A reference to the temple appears in a list of monuments prepared in 1875 by the Punjab Government where it was mentioned ‘Thakurdwara temple in the village of Masroor, Tehsil Dehra’. It was only in 1914 that Hargreaves visited it and noticed its unique character and prepared a report for its restoration. Situated at an elevation of 601 meters, the temple complex has nine shrines today. Six or more have vanished, thanks to the vagaries of nature and vandalism of man. There is a huge water tank carved out of the rock with perennial natural water supply. Beyond the tank one sees the majestic Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas. There is no habitation around this desolate place, except a tiny hamlet.
In the centre of the complex stands the principal and the most elaborately carved cave-the Thakurdwara, enshrining the black stone images of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana facing east. The temple consists of a square Garbhagriha, an Anthrala, a rectangular Mandapa with four massive columns and a Mukhamandapa with four subsidiary shrines on either side. The magnificent entrance to the Garbhagriha has five sakhas, ornamented with graceful and dainty floral patterns, bands of diamonds, etc. The tall pilasters of the Antharala, Mukhamandapa are ornately embellished with diamonds, Ardh-Padma pair of Ghatapallava and superlative motifs. The massive columns of the Antharala show a plain shaft rising from a vase of foliage designs. These stand on a square pedestal with diamond motifs. From each side of the Mandapa, a staircase ascends to a roof terrace. It appears that this temple was originally dedicated to Shiva as indicated by the presence of figures of Shiva on Lalata on the lintel of the stairway. Elsewhere we also found figures of Karthikeya on peacock vahan. The terrace afforded a panoramic view of the surrounding hamlet with terraced fields. The sikhara over the Garbhagriha has the entire temple plan carved on its side. The tank was full of fish and few local children were feeding them crumbs. The serene environs captured the enormity of the magnificent temple architecture, no less in beauty than rock cut temples of Mamallapuram, Ellora and Dhamnar.
On the return journey, we were treated to refreshing tropical downpour and stupendous view of hills and valleys. We also discovered a pleasant route via tea gardens and Kunal Pathari through to the Circuit House – just in time for delicious piping hot momos at Baldev ki dhaba at Lower Dharamshala!