The great Sun Temple at Konark was conceived as a colossal chariot of the Sun God, Surya, with twelve pairs of exquisitely carved wheels, drawn by seven galloping horses as if emerging from the turbulent waters of the Bay of Bengal. The Temple is located in Konark, a small town in Puri district; it lies on the coast by the Bay of Bengal. It is connected by road to both Bhubaneswar (65 kms) and Puri (35 kms). We visited this divine, historic and awesome place recently from Puri, as a part of our Orissa (now Odisha) Golden Triangle pilgrimage.
Even in its present state (it lost its soaring tower long ago), the temple stands in majestic solitude beyond a vast stretch of golden sand. The stupendous size of this perfectly-proportioned structure is matched by the endless wealth of decoration on its body – from minute patterns in bas-relief, executed with a jeweller’s precision, to boldly modeled, free – standing sculptures of an exceptionally large size. As you read this article you must refer to the attached photographs and see the attached video to better understand and appreciate this historic Temple.
The name Konark or also called as Konarak is derived from the name of the presiding deity, and means Arka or Sun of the Kona or corner. Early European mariners referred to the Main Temple as the Black Pagoda, as opposed to the White Pagoda (the white-washed temple of Jagannath) at Puri. Both were important landmarks on their voyages in the Bay of Bengal.
Konark Sun Temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, not just for its architectural and sculptural excellence, but also because it is an outstanding testimony to the 13th century kingdom of Orissa (now Odisha) and a monumental example of the personification of divinity. And since long this Temple is considered to be one the seven wonders of India.
According to ancient texts, the temple was built by Samba, the son of Lord Krishna and his wife, Jambavati. The handsome Samba was cursed by his father for an act of impropriety and became a leper. After twelve long years of penance to Surya he was cured and decided to build a temple to honour the Sun God.
According to Bhavishya Purana, Samba brought Maga families (the Magi Sun-worshippers of Iran) from Sakadvipa, because local Brahmin priests refused to worship the image. Alien features, like boots, on the Surya images are an influence of these immigrants.
The original locale of the episode was probably on the banks of the Chandrabhaga (modern Chenab) in Punjab, a spot that came to be known after Samba as Mula-Sambapura, identified with modern Multan (in Pakistan). In fact, the Sun Temple of Multan finds a glowing description in the 7th century accounts of the Chinese chronicler Hieun Tsang.
The shifting of the legend to Konark took place when this area became a centre of Sun worship. A shallow pool of water, within 3 kms of the temple, is known as Chandrabhaga, and pilgrims take a ritual dip in it even today.
Historically, King Narasimhadeva I of the Ganga dynasty (1238-64) built the temple, locally called Surya Deul. It is said that twelve hundred men worked to complete it in 16 years. As a copper plate inscription of his son, Narasimha II, states with pride, “King Narasimha built a Mahakutira (great cottage) of Ushnarasmi (Surya) at Trikona”. Some scholars surmise that the temple was erected as a memorial by the ambitious monarch after a victorious military campaign against the Muslims.
Abul Fazl, the chronicler of Akbar (1556-1605), paid tribute to its colossal grandeur when he wrote in the Ain-i-Akbari: ‘Even those whose judgement is critical and who are difficult to please stand astonished at its sight’. In early 17th century when the Mughals ruled the subah of Odisha, the image of Surya was removed to a shrine within the precincts of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. In the 18th century the Aruna Stambha, the pillar dedicated to the Sun God, was removed to Puri by the Marathas who planted it at its present site, in front of the temple of Jagannath.
Forsaken by the presiding deity, the temple crumbled through neglect and decay. The lofty tower over the sanctum collapsed, and by the mid-19th century, when archaeologist James Fergusson visited the site, most of the plinth and the exquisite wheels and horses were engulfed by rising sand from the sea.
Debala Mitra writes that it was not just the cruel forces of nature, the temple also suffered at the greedy hands of man. The king of Khurdah removed some sculptures to decorate his own fort, while local people removed the fallen stones with alacrity.
Extensive steps were taken for the conservation of the temple by the British government from the beginning of the 20th century. The removal of sand and debris revealed the grandeur of the temple complex for the first time in centuries. The initial task of conservation, essential for rendering the monument stable was completed by 1910. At the same time, large scale plantation of trees was undertaken between the temple and the sea to check the advance of drifting sand. Since 1939, the Archaeological Survey of India has been doing continuous work at the site.
The Sun Temple is the finest example of the Odisha style of temple architecture that includes such fine masterpieces as the Lingaraja Temple in Bhubaneswar and the Jagannath Temple in Puri.
The seven horses of the Sun Temple symbolise the days of the week, and the twelve wheels, the months in a year. The resemblance to a chariot ends with the wheels and the horses; the rest of the temple follows the traditional plan for Odisha temple architecture, consisting of the rekha deul or sanctum, originally topped with a tower or shikhara, that ended in a rounded pyramidal curve. This is connected to the assembly hall, the jagamohana. At a slight distance from the jagamohana stands the pillared hall of the bhoga mandapa where offerings were made to the Gods.
It is the exquisite carvings on the outer walls of the structures at Konark and the free-standing sculptures that give the temple its unique character. Every carving was designed to blend in with the architectural plan of the Surya Deul, creating a temple that is both a brilliant architectural design and a composite showcase of magnificent sculpture.
Among the statues are huge war horses straining at their reins, rampant elephants and lions that show great vitality. In contrast, are the subtle charms of nymphs, dancers, the mithuna or erotic couples in various moods of lovemaking and the sensual alasa kanyas or indolent damsels. Royalty can be seen in processions, parades and hunts.
The exquisite Wheels of the Sun Temple Chariot carved on the face of the jagamohana platform are so realistic that they even have an axle kept in position by a pin as it would be in an actual bullock-cart. K.S. Behera says the magnificent wheels are ‘the crowning glory of the temple…which imparts a monumental grandeur unique in the realm of art’. The thin spokes have a row of alternative beads and discs, while the broad spokes broaden further near the centre where they become roughly diamond-shaped. In the centre are richly carved medallions, containing numerous deities, erotic and amorous figures and kanyas in various poses. Similar medallions also occur on the face of the axle.
The Main Temple, the Surya Deul, consists of two structures the rekha deul or the sanctum where the image of the deity once stood, and the assembly hall or jagamohana. It is this structure that is designed as a chariot of the Sun God.
The deul and jagamohana stand on magnificent platform, over 4 m high, with its façade richly carved. Miniature representations of temple-like structures (khakhara-mundis) are carved in close succession along the platform. In the niches of these khakhara-mundis are mainly figures of beautiful women. Erotic couples and voluptuous young women flaunting their beauty in various stylized postures are other recurring motifs in the friezes on the platform.
Twelve pairs of colossal wheels are carved on the sides of the platform. Each has 16 spokes radiating from the axle, with ornately carved medallions depicting various deities, while the seven horses gallop together beside a broad flight of steps.
Little remains of the sanctum except the platform but it does give an idea of the original structure, which was a square chamber with a shikhara that rose to over 60 m! Three larger-than-life statues of Surya, called the parasa devatas, were placed in niches of the temple wall. These statues were so placed that they caught the Sun’s rays at sunrise, noon and sunset.
The life-size image of Surya in the southern niche stands majestically on a chariot drawn by seven horses while only the upper torso of Aruna, the charioteer is shown. Draped in a short dhoti and with feet covered by long boots, the figure of Surya is heavily bejeweled with necklace, armlets, ear-rings and a short crown, all richly embellished. In his hands are stalks of fully blossomed lotuses, a characteristic attribute to Surya. Around the head is a carved halo with tongues of flames at the outer edge. At the crown of the halo is kriti-mukha flanked on either side by a flying figure blowing a conch, while around the edges are ten divine dancers all playing on musical instruments. Near Surya’s right foot is the royal donor with folded hands, his sword kept flat on the ratha. The kneeling figure near the left foot evidently represents the family-priest of the king. While at the extreme ends are the goddesses of dawn and pre-dawn, Usha and Pratyusha, dispelling darkness by shooting arrows. The 3.45 m high Surya images in the western and northern niches, are similar in most essential details to the one on the southern nich.
The Jagamohana or assembly hall (or porch) remains the best preserved building in the complex. Its extant height is about 39 m. A cubed structure with a tiered pyramidal roof, it has recessed walls with opulent carvings. Beautiful proportioned doorways lead inside but the interior has been blocked to arrest the walls from subsiding.
Two lions, each rampant on a crouching elephant, are in front of the eastern stairs of the bhoga mandapa; two elephants, richly decorated and fully harnessed, on the north; and two gorgeously caparisoned war-stallions on the south, originally guarded each of the three staircases of the jagamohana. The animals – masterpieces of Odia art, were originally mounted on a partly-carved platform. The animals on the north and south sides have been re-installed on new pedestals.
The Aruna Stambha, a free-standing pillar in chlorite with the figure of Aruna, the charioteer of Surya, on its crown originally stood between the jagamohana and the bhoga mandapa. Of exquisite workmanship and elegant proportion, the Aruna Stambha now stands in front of the main gate of the temple of Jagannath at Puri, moved allegedly to prevent its desecration at the hand of Muslim invaders.
In front of the eastern steps of the jagamohana, is a large, pillared hall on a high platform that is approached by a flight of stairs. This structure, now without a roof, is the Bhoga Mandapa where offerings were made to the Gods. Some call it the nata mandir (or dance hall, or festive hall) because of the panels of dancers and musicians chiseled over the face of its platform, plinth and walls that give the mandapa an air of permanent celebration.
On the face of the bhoga mandapa platform are carved rows of khakhara-mundis or niches with sculpted figures, mostly of women and erotic couples, while on either side of the khakhara-mundis, are female figures. These women are portrayed in a variety of poses with their arms raised over the head, holding the branch of a tree or a flower, fondling a child, or wringing water from the wet hair. Some of the niches near the corners contain seated dikpalas, guardians of the directions, while some others have images of deities or even of elephants. Higher up the platform wall is a row of geese, and another of an army of infantry, cavalry, elephants and palanquin-bearers in procession.
To the west of the main temple is the Mayadevi Temple, dedicated to one of the wives of Surya. But in all probability, the temple was built for Surya, a presumption substantiated by the figures occupying the niches in the sanctuary. This temple, which archaeologists claim was built earlier than the Main Temple, was reclaimed from sand as late as the beginning of the 20th century. Consisting of a sanctuary and a porch, it is fronted by a platform and a compound-wall made of laterite.
The pedestal inside the sanctum was found empty when the temple was unearthed. However, according to local lore, the missing image, called Ramachandi, in now in worship in a temple 8 kms from Konark, and was removed to its new abode when the Muslims overran the temple.
In 1956, a small temple, a little over 2 m tall, was discovered to the southwest of Mayadevi Temple. Facing east, the temple, locally called Vaishnava Temple, has Vaishnava affiliation and this irrefutably proves that the worship of deities other than Surya was conducted within the Sun Temple enclosure.