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.
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'.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
: By air to Bhubaneswar, Konark is 65 km from Bhubaneswar by