India's Masrur rock-cut temples

By David J. Patten
This item appears on page 26 of the January 2016 issue.
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Visitors walking on the ruined temple towers of Masrur. Photo by David J. Patten

In the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the magnificent, mysterious, ruined, rock-cut temples of Masrur (or Masroor) are located 20 miles from Kangra and only 35 miles from Dharamsala. The temple complex can be reached easily by car. Nevertheless, the site is remote and few foreign tourists make the effort to visit.

I visited Masrur in March 2013 while on the “Mountains, Temples & Hill Stations” tour with Exodus (Emeryville, CA; 800/843-4272, www.exodustravels.com). On the day we visited, it was gratifying to see many Indian nationals exploring the site.

There were 10 to 20 steps leading up from the road to the ancient site, but the temples, themselves, were situated on a relatively level, though rocky, pavement. Some temples had a few steps leading up to them. Brave visitors who wanted to gain access to the upper temple levels could climb the steep stairways that went as high as the temple roofs.

Masrur was discovered by Europeans in 1875, then written about in 1913 and again in 1915. It was declared a national monument in 1914. 

It is rare to find a rock-cut-temple site in northern India. Lesser rock-cut sites in India’s north include the Dharmanath Jain Temple, near Dhamnar in Rajasthan, and the Thal Temple in Uttar Pradesh. Rock-cut sites are rare because of the difficulties in carving natural rock outcroppings, including coping with fault lines and variations in the hardness of rock strata.  

Conjecture and legends surround Masrur. Much of its sculptural decoration has been so obscured by weathering, defacement and damage from the 1905 earthquake that it has been difficult to identify the deities to which the temples were originally dedicated.

The main temple now houses images of Ram, Lakshman and Sita and is used as a temple dedicated to Vishnu. Originally, the main temple was probably a Shiva temple, considering the central figure of Shiva on the main temple doorway and other Shiva images in the temple complex. Some of the best extant sculptural panels are preserved in the state museum in Shimla.

Most authorities date Masrur to the eighth to ninth centuries and primarily the late eighth century, based on its affinities to India’s classic Gupta style.

Also questionable is the number of temples originally at the site. Some say there were 19. Only 15 remain. Then there are the tantalizing remains of structures and architectural fragments that lie on the temple’s hillside site, giving rise to the idea that a settlement may have been built nearby.

In spite of its ruinous state, Masrur — about the size of a football field and standing high on a rocky ridge — is still impressive. Its location provides vistas of the Dhauladhar mountain range and the Kullu Valley’s Beas River.

There is also the reservoir, 50 meters in length and carved from sandstone, standing in front of the rock-cut buildings, reflecting the magnificent temples in its waters. I believe the view of the surrounding countryside from the far side of the reflecting pool is about as good as any view you’d get from the top of one of the nearby temples.

I found Masrur inspiring, incomparable, inscrutable and incredible.

DAVID J. PATTEN

Saint Petersburg, FL

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Visitors walking on the ruined temple towers of Masrur. Photo by David J. Patten

In the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the magnificent, mysterious, ruined, rock-cut temples of Masrur (or Masroor) are located 20 miles from Kangra and only 35 miles from Dharamsala. The temple complex can be reached easily by car. Nevertheless, the site is remote and few foreign tourists make the effort to visit.

I visited Masrur in March 2013 while on the “Mountains, Temples & Hill Stations” tour with Exodus (Emeryville, CA; 800/843-4272, www.exodustravels.com). On the day we visited, it was gratifying to see many Indian nationals exploring the site.

There were 10 to 20 steps leading up from the road to the ancient site, but the temples, themselves, were situated on a relatively level, though rocky, pavement. Some temples had a few steps leading up to them. Brave visitors who wanted to gain access to the upper temple levels could climb the steep stairways that went as high as the temple roofs.

Masrur was discovered by Europeans in 1875, then written about in 1913 and again in 1915. It was declared a national monument in 1914. 

It is rare to find a rock-cut-temple site in northern India. Lesser rock-cut sites in India’s north include the Dharmanath Jain Temple, near Dhamnar in Rajasthan, and the Thal Temple in Uttar Pradesh. Rock-cut sites are rare because of the difficulties in carving natural rock outcroppings, including coping with fault lines and variations in the hardness of rock strata.  

Conjecture and legends surround Masrur. Much of its sculptural decoration has been so obscured by weathering, defacement and damage from the 1905 earthquake that it has been difficult to identify the deities to which the temples were originally dedicated.

The main temple now houses images of Ram, Lakshman and Sita and is used as a temple dedicated to Vishnu. Originally, the main temple was probably a Shiva temple, considering the central figure of Shiva on the main temple doorway and other Shiva images in the temple complex. Some of the best extant sculptural panels are preserved in the state museum in Shimla.

Most authorities date Masrur to the eighth to ninth centuries and primarily the late eighth century, based on its affinities to India’s classic Gupta style.

Also questionable is the number of temples originally at the site. Some say there were 19. Only 15 remain. Then there are the tantalizing remains of structures and architectural fragments that lie on the temple’s hillside site, giving rise to the idea that a settlement may have been built nearby.

In spite of its ruinous state, Masrur — about the size of a football field and standing high on a rocky ridge — is still impressive. Its location provides vistas of the Dhauladhar mountain range and the Kullu Valley’s Beas River.

There is also the reservoir, 50 meters in length and carved from sandstone, standing in front of the rock-cut buildings, reflecting the magnificent temples in its waters. I believe the view of the surrounding countryside from the far side of the reflecting pool is about as good as any view you’d get from the top of one of the nearby temples.

I found Masrur inspiring, incomparable, inscrutable and incredible.

DAVID J. PATTEN

Saint Petersburg, FL