The magnificent Sun Temple at Konark is the culmination of Orissan temple architecture, and one of the most stunning monuments of religious architecture in the world. The poet Rabindranath Tagore said of Konark that ‘here the language of stone surpasses the language of man’, and it is true that the experience of Konark is impossible to translate into words.
The massive structure, now in ruins, sits in solitary splendour surrounded by drifting sand. Today it is located two kilometers from the sea, but originally the ocean came almost up to its base. Until fairly recent times, in fact, the temple was close enough to the shore to be used as a navigational point by European sailors, who referred to it as the ‘Black Pagoda’.
Built by King Narasimhadeva in the thirteenth century, the entire temple was designed in the shape of a colossal chariot, carrying the sun god, Surya, across the heavens. Surya has been a popular deity in India since the Vedic period and the following passages occur in a prayer to him in the Rig Veda, the earliest of sacred religious text:
“Aloft his beams now bring the good, Who knows all creatures that are born, That all may look upon the Sun. The seven bay mares that draw thy car, Bring thee to us, far-seeing good, O Surya of the gleaming hair. Athwart in darkness gazing up, to him the higher light
we now Have soared to Surya, the god Among gods, the highest light.
So the image of the sun god traversing the heavens in his divine chariot, drawn by seven horses, is an ancient one. It is an image, in fact, which came to India with the Aryans, and its original Babylonian and Iranian source is echoed in the boots that Surya images, alone among Indian deities, always wear.
The idea of building an entire temple in the shape of a chariot, however, is not an ancient one, and, indeed, was a breathtakingly creative concept. Equally breathtaking was the scale of the temple which even today, in its ruined state, makes one gasp at first sight. Construction of the huge edifice is said to have taken 12 years revenues of the kingdom.
The main tower, which is now collapsed, originally followed the same general form as the towers of the Lingaraja and Jagannath temples. Its height, however, exceeded both of them, soaring to 227 feet. The jagmohana (porch) structure itself exceeded 120 feet in height. Both tower and porch are built on high platforms, around which are the 24 giant stone wheels of the chariot. The wheels are exquisite, and in themselves provide eloquent testimony to the genius of Orissa’s sculptural tradition.
At the base of the collapsed tower were three subsidiary shrines, which had steps leading to the Surya images. The third major component of the temple complex was the detached natamandira (hall of dance), which remains in front of the temple. Of the 22 subsidiary temples which once stood within the enclosure, two remain (to the west of the tower): the Vaishnava Temple and the Mayadevi Temple. At either side of the main temple are colossal figures of royal elephants and royal horses.
Just why this amazing structure was built here is a mystery. Konark was an important port from early times, and was known to the geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD. A popular legend explains that one son of the god Krishna, the vain and handsome Samba, once ridiculed a holy, although ugly, sage. The sage took his revenge by luring Samba to a pool where Krishna’s consorts were bathing. While Samba stared, the sage slipped away and summoned Krishna to the site. Enraged by his son’s seeming impropriety with his stepmothers, Krishna cursed the boy with leprosy. Later he realized that Samba had been tricked, but it was too late to withdraw the curse. Samba then travelled to the seashore, where he performed 12 years penance to Surya who, pleased with his devotion, cured him of the dreaded disease. In thanksgiving, Samba erected a temple at the spot.
In India, history and legend are often intextricably mixed. Scholars however feel that Narasimhadeva, the historical builder of the temple, probably erected the temple as a victory monument, after a successful campaign against Muslim invaders.
In any case, the temple which Narasimhadeva left us is a chronicle in stone of the religious, military, social, and domestic aspects of his thirteenth century royal world. Every inch of the remaining portions of the temple is covered with sculpture of an unsurpassed beauty and grace, in tableaux and freestanding pieces ranging from the monumental to the miniature. The subject matter is fascinating. Thousands of images include deities, celestial and human musicians, dancers, lovers, and myriad scenes of courtly life, ranging from hunts and military battles to the pleasures of courtly relaxation. These are interspersed with birds, animals (close to two thousand charming and lively elephants march around the base of the main temple alone), mythological creatures, and a wealth of intricate botanical and geometrical decorative designs.
The famous jewel-like quality of Orissan art is evident throughout, as is a very human perspective which makes the sculpture extremely accessible. The temple is famous for its erotic sculptures, which can be found primarily on the second level of the porch structure. The possible meaning of these images has been discussed elsewhere in this book. It will become immediately apparent upon viewing them that the frank nature of their content is combined with an overwhelming tenderness and lyrical movement. This same kindly and indulgent view of life extends to almost all the other sculptures at Konark, where the thousands of human, animal, and divine personages are shown engaged in the full range of the ‘carnival of life’ with an overwhelming sense of appealing realism.
The only images, in fact, which do not share this relaxed air of accessibility are the three main images of Surya on the northern, western, and southern facades of the temple tower. Carved in an almost metallic green chlorite stone (in contrast to the soft weathered khondalite of the rest of the structure), these huge images stand in a formal frontal position which is often used to portray divinities in a state of spiritual equilibrium. Although their dignity sets them apart from the rest of the sculptures, it is, nevertheless, a benevolent dignity, and one which does not include any trace of the aloof or the cold. Konark has been called one of the last Indian temples in which a living tradition was at work, the ‘brightest flame of a dying lamp’. As we gaze at these superb images of Surya benevolently reigning over his exquisite stone world, we cannot help but feel that the passing of the tradition has been nothing short of tragic.
Close by is one of the most attractive beaches of the world – the Chandrabhaga beach.
By air to Bhubaneswar, Konark is 65 km from Bhubaneswar by road and 40KM from Puri by road.
While many visitors prefer to stay at Puri or Bhubaneswar and make a day trip to Konark, excellent accommodation is available at Konark at the Panthanivas run by the Odisha (Orissa) Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) and the Yatri Nivas run by the Department of Tourism, Govt. of Odisha (Orissa).