The Classical Kalinga Architecture owes much of its resurrection to the Sun Temple at Konark (popularly called the Surya Devalaya due to the God being a Sanskritic deity), that manifests the brilliance of this style that had flourished way back during the Magadhan Empire, something that no other temple in Odisha (the Pidha deula) bears an exact resemblance of, to this level of inherent intricacy.
The emergence of this Sun Temple and the architect of the fabulous colossal structure that stands tall today, are however speculative and much debatable.
Although most historians and archaeologists attribute the bricklaying of the present imposing structure to King Narasimhadeva I (around 1250 CE) of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty, it is to be noted that there exists not one, but four principal sun temples in the subcontinent, apart from many smaller ones.
Referring to the Samba Purana, which details us on the chronicles of Lord Krishna’s ineffectual son Samba, Sir Alexander Cunningham in his work entitled “The Ancient Geography of India: The Buddhist Period, Including the Campaigns of Alexander, and the Travels of Hwen-Thsang” notes that it was him, who had first built both the Sun Temples, one at Konark and another at Multan. Samba was originally a blessing from the Lord Ardhanareeshwar (half male, half female form of the all powerful Trinity in Hinduism) and had turned out to be extravagantly mischievous, more than his father was, during his childhood!
Even though Samba was a Kshatriya warrior prince of the Lord himself, he relentlessly mocked the rishis, often playing pranks with them, as a result of which he had to bear the burden of two crucial curses from these Mahatmas, that were later to cost heavy for the Yadavas.
The first, which he incurred as a result of abusing Rishi Durvasa, was a curse that rendered him afflicted with leprosy. A cure to being affected such then, was a blessing from the Lord Surya himself. To please the lord, as legends say, Samba erected monumental temples in his honour at the present sites of Konark and Multan, and as an obeisance to him, went into deep penance for twelve long years at Mitravana, on the banks of the then Chandrabhaga.
The Sun temples of Martand and Modhera, however have no resemblance to classical mythology. Both of these have their own history, the first being built by the Karkota dynasty of Kashmir and the second by King Bhima I of the Chalukyas.
In his 1993 book ‘Hindu Art’, T. Richard Blurton describes Surya as an irradiant deity standing tall, with a lotus having been bequeathed to his hands and Aruna, his charioteer leading the horses and urging them to forge ahead. These horses, as per Roshen Dalal’s 2010 book called ‘Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide’ are named, “Gayatri, Brihati, Ushnih, Jagati, Trishtubha, Anushtubha, and Pankti.”
Noted historian and author Heather Elgood has observed that the God Surya is flanked by Usha and Pratyusha, goddesses of the dawn, who are together seen challenging the dark and embodying a vibrant tomorrow ahead.
The principal chariot (pidha deula that exists today) has twenty four elaborate stone wheels (each, as opinionated by James C. Harle to be nearly 12 feet (3.7 m) in diameter) that are found to draw it ahead, tugged by seven horses! These wheels are symbolic of the changing time, representing the twelve months of the Hindu calendar, divided into two halves that are known as the Krishna and the Sukhkla.
The Sun Temple had originally been inlaid with three peculiar types of stone. For the door lintels and sculptures, chlorite had been used. Laterite had been preferred for the staircase and the cynosure of the temple platform. Another stone called Khondalite was used for every other part of the temple.
Going by the official UNESCO data on Konarak , it is found that there originally existed four spectacular structures within the courtyard premises that stands colossally wrecked today. The sanctum sanctorum (vimana; best example seen in Jagannath Temple and the Lingaraja Temple), estimated to have had a height of almost seventy metres fell straight in the year 1837 and is not sighted today. The chariot structure or the devalaya is the mandapa audience hall (or the jagmohana) and is about thirty nine metres tall. The other structures whose relics are found today, include the Nata Mandir (dance hall) and the Bhoga Mandapa (Dining hall for the prasadam).
The temple’s walls are replete with ornamentations carved out in a convoluted manner, a significance in them being the geometrical patterns and the motifs that they bear. Talking about the base foundation sculptures, we come across various Hindustani musical instruments that include the Veena, mardala and gini.
Regarding a sculpture, now present at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, its description states, ““In this Konark sculpture Narasimha is depicted with his guru, probably the yogi Acharyraja. As king, Narasimha, named after the ‘man-lion’ incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, ruled Odisha and neighbouring regions of eastern India from 1238 to 1264. He held political control over the region in which the Sun temple was constructed and was the actual patron of the temple, yet he is shown as smaller than his guru. The guru sits cross-legged, with one arm raised in a gesture of explanation. The bearded king, seated in the centre of the sculpture, is stripped of all royal symbols. His sword lies on the ground in front of him. Instead of a weapon he holds a palm-leaf manuscript, the original medium for transcribing sacred texts in India. Beside the king are two attendants: one sits reading a palm-leaf manuscript; the other stands with his hands joined together in a demonstration of reverence. On the lower register, on a smaller scale, four warriors stand with shields and weapons.”
There are various other structures that have been carved out erotically, representing gods and humans engaged in sexual activities which in Sanskrit, is referred to as maithuna.
Moreover, there are other relief features that carve out life stories of Krishna, various mythological women, soldiers, animals, aquatic creatures and sculptures that portray lions overpowering elephantine beasts, elephants killing demons and demons terrorising the netherworld! Apart from these intricately carved out structures, there was once extant an Aruna pillar, devoted to the charioteer of Lord Surya, which the Maratha invaders had replaced and positioned near the Jagannath Temple.
Hinduism is a very vast religion with almost different cultural beliefs and practices for devotees of different gods and goddesses. There are separate depictions of the Goddess (Shaktism), of Lord Vishnu and his avatars (Vaishnavism) and Lord Shiva (Shaivism).
This temple, although having faced serious invasions towards the end of the medieval era by Kalapahad and later almost on the verge of a wane due to less or no preservation efforts, is now, one of the most marvellous sites to behold, owing to the restoration efforts by the British Government and now by the Archaeological Survey of India that have significantly highlighted what was the unfettered glory of this devalaya!
To narrate the modern day relevance of the temple architecture and art, it would be best to quote Vandana Saini who says, “The wheel makes us move forward, but it moves on the axle of the past!”
Writer is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London.