I love government buses. They may be slow and even very late at times but they will go to remote villages even if there are just a few passengers. There is no bus to the village of Masroor from Kangra but there is a 10 am bus that can drop me three kilometers to the village. Ten o’clock comes and goes. It is quarter past ten and I am still waiting at the Kangra bus station. The place is new and already a busy landmark. Both government and private buses use the station. Those private buses who wish to avoid paying the toll charge, stop briefly on the road outside. At 10.25 am, a man rushes to the bus with brown bags tied at one end. He dumps the bags into the bus. They are slightly wet in the morning’s rain. The bus conductor curses the guy for being late. Now that the post has arrived we are ready to leave. Other than the driver and the conductor, I’m the only one in the bus.
The bus stops at a couple of places to drop or pick up postal bags. When I arrive at a little village, the rain has thinned. I get off the bus and start walking to Masroor. It is an uphill road in the midst of fields and forests. A cowherd is coming my way with a dozen cows walking ahead of him. Women are working in the nearby fields. Some repair work is being done on the road. The rain has brought a new coat of freshness to this green landscape. Small rocky escarpments peep from occasional breaks in the green foliage. These rocks seem the perfect natural material for the making of the 15th century rock-cut temples of Masroor.
Do not expect anything grand in the temples of Masroor. In comparison to the Kailasha Temple of Ellora, they are nothing. The temples stand on a hill with wide views of the beautiful countryside that surround them. I can make out as many as twelve shikaras cut out in the rekha nagara style with articulations that are probably unique to the far north. There is one main shikara that towers over the sanctum at ground level. The others are subsidiary shikaras. Many of these are incomplete structures – door jambs without sanctums, lumpy blocks of unchiselled rocks next to partially done reliefs, empty aedicules that may have been intended to reveal a deity. A stairway gives me access to a higher level. It enables me to study the shikara reliefs at close range. The artistry is wonderful. Had they been completed to design, the entire complex might have become more famous.
I see a large block of stone reclined against a broken shikara. The stone block has clearly broken away and slid down the shikara. Elsewhere in the complex there is a lot of evidence of damage to the structures. Next to the stepped tank that faces the temple group are stone fragments collected from the damaged temples. I ask the caretaker about the damage.
‘There was an earthquake in 1905. Much of the damage is from that time,’ he says. He is taking shelter under a shed. Workers who had been working on the temples earlier when I arrived, cleaning, dusting or repairing the stonework, are now sitting around in the shed. The rain has picked up the last half an hour and it is coming down heavily. I am having to walk around with my umbrella open.
I admire the sharp reliefs on pillars facing the main sanctum. The overhanging roof, cut out of rock, is no more. Gods can be made out from fragments of their vehicles which are more easily discerned – Nandi, peacock, elephant, horses. Door jambs with beautiful motifs, lintels packed with fluid figures and dwarpalakas are a testament to the high skill of these medieval artisans whose names are never mentioned anywhere. Chaitya motifs being to appear in first-cut lines but remain unfinished. Entrance to intended sanctums remain closed. In one case, such an entrance looks like a royal seat carved in stone. After all these centuries, this is still a temple in the making. Medallions framed into neat panels take form out of surrounding natural rock. Half medallions burst with floral magnificence. Miniature figures decorate lintels as a well-dressed group. Shikaras carved in reliefs over real shikaras capture my attention for minutes. The details in these modest temples are truly remarkable.
The sun peeps from behind moving clouds for brief spells. As the light glints off the wet rocks and sculpted reliefs, the rocks come alive. The reliefs pop out boldly. The gods and their attendants seem to breathe and their skins perspire. Their eyes contain a sparkle as brilliant as the sun’s. The rocks darken in the rain to a warmer tone. They are now the skin of gods, the moistened petals of lotuses and the folded wet garments of garland bearers.