“Kehte hain, Pandavon ne yeh mandir banaya tha” (They say, that it was the Pandavas who built these temples), says the ASI guide, at the Rock Cut Cave Temples of Masroor. I look at him, askance, expecting a bit more information than that. “But some other king would have rebuilt the temples” I insist, trying not to override his mythological beliefs, hoping to get some historical information. He shrugs, clearly knowing nothing more, and turns instead to show us some of the depictions of deities he does know. My questions continue, and his confusion increases. “Are you studying these temples?” he asks, flicking looks between me and my son. “No, I just write about them” I reply, and he is satisfied. “Lots of people come here to study these temples and write about them. We are applying for UNESCO World Heritage Status” he adds proudly.
Masroor lies in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, and these temples have been carved out of the sandstone monoliths which make up the landscape. No one seems to know who carved them. The Pandava story is a part of established mythology. Among the many legends, it is said that these temples were carved out at night, and work had to be halted when it was morning, which is why some shrines remained unfinished. Other legends talk of a ‘stairway to heaven’, which the Pandavas attempted to create, and which, as is usual, Indra managed to obstruct.
More interesting than the legends however, is the architecture – the Nagara style – which dates the temples to the period between the 7th and 8th centuries. Carved out of solid rock, it isn’t just the size which is impressive, but also the detail. The intricate carvings on the pillars and spire, not to mention the few niches still standing, is awe inspiring, to say the least.
This must have once been a temple dedicated to Shiva. His family is present all over, from Karthikeya, who is rarely seen in the northern parts of India, a few forms of Parvati, and Shiva himself. Besides, there are depictions of Indra, Surya, as well as the Sapta Matrikas (seven forms of the goddess) and Ashta Lakshmi (8 forms of Lakshmi).
However, in the main shrine today are images of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. It is said that these idols were found here around the same time that the temples were discovered. The locals arrive to offer their prayers regularly. The interiors of the shrine are also beautiful, covered with floral carvings.
|The garishly decorated idols stand in sharp contrast to the restrained elegance of the ruins|
|Beautiful carvings on the ceiling of the sanctum|
There are many short inscriptions too, but according to the guide, none have been deciphered so far. This only adds to the mystery of these temples, leaving us in the dark about who built them, and for what.
We forget all such questions though, when we climb a staircase built into a nearby hill. Right on top is a store house, part of an old fort which might have stood here years ago. Today, it is used to preserve the relics found here, and keep them in relative safety.
However, what is most impressive, is the view. Below us, the sandstone spires seem to rise from the lush greenery, as if reaching for the skies. Beyond them, lies the Kangra valley, and somewhere further on, the Dhauladhar ranges. It is a beautiful sight, one which inspires faith. Whoever built these temples certainly moved mountains to do so. No wonder we attribute it to the Pandavas!
|The view, from the hill|
Back at the temples, I spend some more time wandering around. I want to soak in as much as I can, of these beautiful shrines, and all the stories they hold.
|These look like Saptamatrikas too, but the numbers don't add up... Could they be the Nava Durgas?|
It is believed that part of the damage to these temples is a result of the 1905 earthquake. It is also believed that these temples were never finished, probably because a part of the sandstone fell down during the construction. It is difficult to know which part fell when. There are empty spaces and niches all over. On the nearby mountains are more niches, all empty.
|Part of the spire which has fallen. There is one school of thought which suggests that this fell during the construction, which is why work on the temples was abandoned.|
|One of the many empty niches on the nearby hills|
The central structure remains intact though, and so does a narrow staircase which leads to the top. A new bunch of tourists are up there, despite the scorching sun, trying to clamber up the spire. The guide runs to call them back, warning them, of the danger to both, the structure, as well as themselves.
“Stupid people” he mutters as he passes me. “This is why we are hoping for the UNESCO grant. That money can help us hire more people to care for this place.” he adds, as he senses my agreement. He is the only ASI person here on duty. Nearby is a village, and the locals are his only company, his only helpers. As of now, only a few people visit. All that will change if this is declared a World Heritage Site.
|Beyond the pond is the village school.|
Masroor is sometimes called, rather fancifully, the Ellora of Himachal. The temples are indeed beautiful, but the resemblance ends with the carvings on the rock. The temples stand tall, but the stories are still buried within the stones. Whose vision was it that made men hack away at stone to create these masterpieces? Why did they stop? Were they victims of war or natural disasters? Why was work never resumed? It is these unanswered questions that make this temple an enigma. We are free to infuse these stones with our imagination, seek to understand the history they witnessed.
Which is why you should visit these temples of Masroor, whether they are chosen as World Heritage Sites or not. They are our heritage, one we should be proud of.
This post is part of my series on my #summertrip 2015, and I hope to take you along with me as I recount stories from my month long trip, which took me across the country. To get an idea of all the places I visited, and what you can hope to read about, click here.
- The Himachal Series-