Here comes the Sun

Fascinating history and art make Konark temple a must visit

Here comes the Sun
This is the 13th century. For 12 years, 1,200 men have stayed away from their homes and toiled to build a temple by the sea and now it is complete. Except for the pitcher-shaped capstone. It refuses to sit firmly on the temple top. Head sculptor Bisu Maharana is a troubled man. There are just 12 hours left to the 12-year deadline set by King Narasimhadeva. If Maharana and his men fail to complete the construction, they will all be executed.

Just then, a 12-year-old boy asks to meet Maharana. He detects the problem, offers a solution. Work goes on through the moonlit night. The capstone is finally in place. The boy has saved 1,200 lives, or has he really? If the king hears that a mere boy could solve an issue 1,200 skilled workers could not, will he not execute them anyway?

The workers urge Bisu Maharana to kill the boy. About to do so, Maharana discovers that it is his own son Dharmapada, born soon after he had left home. To spare Maharana his agonising dilemma, his son jumps to his death from the temple top. Just as Arka, the sun, rises from a “kona” or a corner of the sky to shine on the magnificent Konark sun temple.

While Konark sun temple in Odisha is dedicated to the rising sun, the sun temple at Martand in Jammu and Kashmir worships the mid-day sun and the one at Modhera in Gujarat, the setting sun.

The drive to Konark is pleasant, through the Balukhanda Konark wildlife sanctuary, the path dotted with frequent “deer crossing” signs. National highway 316 then runs parallel to the casuarinas of Chandrabhaga beach. But for the temple, and the annual dance festival in winter, there is not much else in Konark.

At dawn, I watch the sun light up the temple, its magnificence but a memory that still draws curious multitudes. As they enter the precincts this morning —men in spotless dhotis and women in colourful sarees — they are snapped up by guides eager to dispense with their knowledge for a fee. I am atop a nearby rampart, and cannot be offered such guidance. But then I have been here before, drawn by the fascinating history and the art.

The Konark temple is the idea of a sun god riding a chariot with 12 pairs of wheels and seven horses exquisitely expressed in stone. The wheels represent the cyclical passage of the months, and the horses, the days of the week. The larger-than-life idols of the sun wear waist girdles and boots. The attire reveals foreign influence: worship of Mehr — or Mihira or the Sun God — came to India with the Magas from Persia.

Different levels of the temple are named after parts of the human body. The temple offers a holistic view of the journey of life. Intricate sculptures show cavalry, indolent damsels, erotic couples and playful children. There are elephants, horses, lions and geese. Men, presumed to be from east Africa, are gifting a giraffe to the king. There is music and martial arts, sex and sermon. Or there was.

All the sculptures we see now are on the porch or the Jagamohana, and the pillared bhoga-mandapa, a hall without a roof. When the main sanctum crumbled, those clearing the debris found no deity within. Many explanations were given: that the idol had been made of wood, and so it had crumbled too, that it had been taken away by Muslim invaders, that no worship had ever been held because of Dharmapada’s sacrifice.

The soul has left. The body remains in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). A few of the sculptures have been preserved in the professional, sanitised and lifeless confines of the ASI museum nearby. Plain blocks of stone and ugly iron pipes hold up the crumbling structure — even as a relentless sun slowly claims what was always his own. zz


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