By Swathi Gopalakrishnan
One of the grandest examples of creative genius, the Sun Temple of Konark in Odisha stands out among India’s 29 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. What makes this monument unique is how its intricately carved structure and form, imagined and created entirely in the semblance of a celestial chariot carrying Surya, also succeeds in adhering to the stylistic precepts of Kalingan architecture. Rabindranath Tagore described the temple as one where “the language of stone surpasses the language of humans”.
The Sun Temple is also one of the five monuments on India’s new banknotes—look closely at the reverse of the new Rs 10 note; it contains the ornate wheel of the chariot!
This magnificent tribute to the Sun god, a 13th century late-style Kalingan temple, forms part of the golden triangle of Odisha, along with Puri and Bhubaneswar, and attracts tourists, pilgrims, and history and art lovers. Leading dancers from India and abroad take part in the five-day Konark Dance Festival held in December in the backdrop of the temple. Originally built on the shoreline of the Bay of Bengal, the temple is now a little away from the sea. Chandrabhaga is the nearest beach, which received a Blue Flag certification for environmental cleanliness in June 2018. On the seventh day of Magha (January–February), a fair is held here and crowds descend to take pre-dawn purification dips. A sand art festival is also held in December.
Also known as Arka Kshetra, the Sun Temple was conceived and built by King NarasimhadevaI, of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, and is perhaps the greatest achievement of his reign as well as of the third-period style of Kalingan temple architecture. UNESCO describes the Sun Temple as “the culmination of Kalingan temple architecture, with all its defining elements in complete and perfect form”.
Architecture and Structure
The name Konarkis said to have been derived from kona or corner, and arka for the sun god,and refers to hismagnificent images on the three sides, across east to west, that catch the rays of the sun as it rises and sets. The chariot is mounted on 24 intricately carved wheels, 12 on each side, and drawn by seven mighty horses, symbolic of the seven days of the week or the seven metres of Sanskrit prosody. The set of wheels symbolises the 12 months in a year and 24 hours in a day,with each wheel having eight spokes, a spoke each for a prahar, which is a three-hour time measure used to divide the day in ancient times. The narrative strength of the sculptures, especially those depicting war scenes and activities of the King, and the famed erotic images, are the hallmark of this unique tribute.
The Sun Temple has been “an invaluable link in the history of the diffusion of the cult of Surya”, as UNESCO describes it. The cult originated in Kashmir during the 8th century and spread to Eastern India, and has been mentioned in the Puranas. It personifies the sun as a divine being but as one, true to its scientific origin, that plays a key role around creation, a fact that also connects to the erotic images in the upper storey of the structure.
The Sun Temple complex comprises the Natamandapa or the dance hall with intricately carved pillars of dancers and men and women in erotic poses, the 100-ft high Jagamohana (the assembly hall) and the Rekha Deul (sanctum), the largest and tallest structure 70 m high. The Rekha Deul-Jagamohana complex forms the chariot while the Natamandir stands apart. There is no presiding deity in the sanctum, just a carved image of the supplicating king.
The entrance of the Natamandapa has a pair of monumental gajasimha sculptures of a lion crushing an elephant holding a man, said to be an allegorical reference to the ruinous fate of those who succumb to greed (elephant) and pride (lion). The erotic imagery showcased in the second level of the temple, is attributed variously to Brahmanism and Tantric beliefs systems. It also served as an incentive forincreased fertility, in the aftermath of the Kalinga wars that caused huge devastation and loss of human life.
Three types of stone, chlorite, laterite and the greenish Khondalite, were used in the temple, fully finished, polished and fitted together using iron cramps and dowels, so that the joinery was almost invisible. The entire structure was held together by two magnets. Because of the colour of the stones, it became known as the Black Pagoda among the seafarers of the period.
Legend has it that architect Bisu Maharana was unable to find a way to fix the crown stone, but his young son Dharmapada solved the conundrum, and then leapt to his death to save his father from ignominy and the workers from getting killed. The story also goes that the temple was built by Samba, son of Krishna, who was cursed by leprosy. When Samba was cured after 12 years of penance on the advice of Surya, he built the temple for the God.
According to the Kenduli copper plate inscription of 1384 CE, Narasimhadeva built the temple to fulfil his predecessor Anangabhima III’s vow to expand the famed Jagannatha temple of Puri. The inscription as well as other texts of the period proves that the temple had been completed and regular worship used to take place.
Current status and Conservation
Historical records exist about the temple being completed in 12 years, and around 1200 artisans were paid from the royal exchequer; the king had threatened to behead all workers if the temple was not completed in time. However, the temple was used for worship for only a short time. Periodic Islamic invasions since the 16th century, structural flaws such as soil incompatibility andunsuitability of stones used, and weathering took their toll, and the compromised structure collapsed in 1837.
The Jagamohana is the only structure that is fully intact, with extant structures such as the plinths, the lower walls of the Rekhadeul and some of the pillars in the Natamandapa. The subsidiary temples dedicated to Mayadevi (formerly to Surya) and Narayana, and a Bhogamandapa, or refectory, are merely skeletal. The Aruna Stambha, originally in front of the main staircase, was moved to the Puri Jagannath temple in the last quarter of the 18th century.
Much of the freestanding statuary and panels are now lying with the Konark Museum and the National Museum in Delhi. The Archaeological Survey of India is in charge of the conservation of the monument, the only World Heritage Site in Odisha designated as far back as in 1984. With the temple located close to the shoreline, natural decay has been hard to prevent.
Did you know?
- The Sun Temple of Konark has been referenced in Abul Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari, who was Akbar’s court historian in the late 16th century.
- The sculptural depiction of a giraffe and foreign traders points to ancient trade connections between India and East Africa.
- The spokes of the wheels are also believed to serve as sundials.
- The temple had quite a few magnets, and the topmost one was believed to have been removed as it disturbed the navigational compasses of seafarers.
- Make sure you visit the museum within the temple complex with artefacts and sculptures from the temple.
(This article is based on the article on Konark Temple on http://www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.)