To See the Sun God

Surya, the Sun God has always interested me. I have over the years bought and gifted umpteen terracotta or metal images of the face of the Sun God, created as a face surrounded with flames, or rays – an image that looks rather like a flower.  Sometimes the face has wide open eyes and a smile and others with droopy half-closed eyes and a serious face. They come large and small and make perfect gifts.

But is this the correct image of Surya? Anyone who has visited the Konark temple, will agree that he is better looking than most of the other gods. Every depiction that I have seen of Surya, is that of a male figure, of splendid noble stature - standing tall with a lotuses in each hand, with a benign look on his face. One might say he knows how important he is. He controls the night and day of our planet and also perhaps of so many others.   

Konark, also referred to in Indian texts by the name ‘Kainapara’, was said to have been an important trading port in the early centuries. The Konark temple that dates to the 13th century, though historians talk of evidence that suggests that a sun temple was built earlier in the same location, at least for centuries earlier. Now a village, Konark located 35 km northeast of Puri and 60 km southeast of Bhubaneswar on the Bay of Bengal coastline of Odisha, the Sun Temple is said to have been built around 1250 AD, by King Narasingha Deva l, of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Konark is considered a classic illustration of the Odisha style (or Kalinga) style of Architecture. The temple complex is unique in its design, the remains of which has the appearance of a 100-foot high chariot with huge wheels and horses, all carved of stone. The temple was earlier more than 200 feet tall, but unfortunately much of it is  now in ruins – the large ‘Shikhara’ over the sanctuary, was earlier much higher than the ‘Mandapa’ the remains of which we can still see. However, the ‘Surya Devalaya’ as it is known, has survived and continues to be a splendid sight with intricate carvings and iconography.

The Sun God, Surya is represented as rising in the east and travelling rapidly across the sky in a chariot drawn by seven horses – this may be considered ‘iconography on a grand scale’.  He is usually seen as a resplendent standing person holding a lotus flower in both his hands, riding the chariot drawn by seven horses. The seven horses are named Gayatri, Brihati, Ushnih, Jagati, Trishtubha, Anushtubha, and Pankti. Typically seen flanking Surya are two females who represent the dawn goddesses, Usha and Pratyusha. The goddesses are often shown shooting arrows - a symbol of their challenge of darkness. The architecture is also symbolic, with the chariot's twelve pairs of wheels corresponding to the 12 months of the Hindu calendar. Each of the 24 stone wheels are approximately 12 feet in diameter, pulled by seven horses. It has been said that viewed from inland, during dawn and sunrise, “the chariot-shaped temple appears to emerge from the depths of the blue sea carrying the sun.”

The upper levels and terrace of the Sun Temple contain larger and more significant works of art than the lower level. Here there are images of musicians and mythological personalities as well as sculptures of Hindu deities - including Durga in her Mahishasura guise, killing the ‘Asura’ in buffalo form. The walls of the temple from the base through to the highest level, are ornamented with reliefs, many created with the finest miniature details. The terraces contain stone statues of male and female musicians holding various musical instruments.

The Konark temple is also known for its erotic sculptures of couples in various stages of courtship and intimacy. These images are included with other aspects of human life as well as deities that are typically associated with tantra. Other large sculptures were obviously a part of the gateways of the temple complex. These include life-size lions, elephants, and demons – each trying to subdue the others.

So far, the cause of the destruction of the Sun Temple is still unclear – it may have been natural damage or deliberate destruction of the temple by Muslim armies between the 15th and 17th centuries. It is said that European Sailors have mentioned the Sun Temple in their reports as early as 1676. They referred to the Sun Temple as the ‘Black Pagoda’ - probably because its tall tower was a black silhouette against the sun. Similarly, Puri’s famous Jagannatha Temple was known as the ‘White Pagoda’ and both temples were known to be important landmarks for sailors in the Bay of Bengal.

The ‘Chandrabhaga Mela in February is a splendid time to visit the Sun Temple. This is when thousands of pilgrims gather every year to worship Surya, the Sun God. 

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari