Konark Sun Temple: One of the Most Outstanding Architectures of Medieval India
The Konark Sun Temple, announced as the UNESCO World heritage in 1984, is among the many wonders of the world. I have always been attracted to heritage sites and every time I visit Konark, I learn something new. This massive and magnificent structure is spellbinding and although mostly in ruins, it still upholds some of the best architectural and sculptural art of the 13th century Kalinga that is today’s Odisha.
Every single time I walk straight towards the Sun Temple, there is an inexplicable awe that strikes all senses. As the auto rickshaw dropped me about 1 km away from the temple (no vehicles are permitted beyond this distance from the temple premises), I walked past hundreds of visitors. The ruins, standing the test of time, are visible from the distance. Today, the whole structure is undergoing a great deal of repairs to preserve the heritage.
I queued up in the line at the ticket counter to buy my entry ticket. On both sides of the pathway, there are various local shops selling shells, conches, cowries, numerous handcrafted items made from coconut, palms and a wide range of local goods. It’s a sunny humid morning and by the time I reached the entrance gate to show my ticket to the security, I was too excited to get into the realm of history.
History of the Sun Temple
There are different documentations regarding the exact time of construction of this temple. Taking into consideration the different views, the Konark Sun temple was constructed in the middle of the 13th century between 1240 and 1270 A.D. by King Narasimha Dev I of the Ganga dynasty. About 1200 artisans were involved in the construction under the leadership of master artisan Bishu Moharana. The temple construction was completed in 16 years! The king spent a lavish amount of State revenue to construct the temple. At present currency rates, the estimated revenue then spent equals to some 2,00,00,00,000 INR (Two hundred crores of rupees).
The documentations of the reasons behind constructing this grand temple are also varied. Some say that the King built the Sun temple in the memory of his lady love, Mayadevi, who was the princess of the historical Sisupalgarh. Another story puts forward that the father of King Narasimha Dev, Raja Anangavim Dev, believed that his son was born with the blessings of the Sun god. So, the queen, the mother of Narasimha Dev advised to build the temple as a tribute to the Sun god. Again, another story tells that the King had a deformed spinal cord and he built the temple for the Sun god to get rid of his deformity and have a healthy offspring.
The Temple Structure at Konark
The temple is built in the shape of a gigantic chariot with 12 wheels on both the sides and 7 horses in front of the temple. It has three parts – the main temple (“Viman”), the porch (“Mukhasala” or “Jagamohan”) and the Hall of Dance (“Nata Mandir”) or Hall of Offerings (“Bhoga Mandap”). The entrance gate makes a common passage to all the parts of the temple. The main temple and the porch are built on a common platform while the Hall of Dance is built on a separate platform.
The structure of the Konark Sun Temple has been an architectural wonder. The artisans of the 13th century had constructed the main temple, the porch and the hall of dance at the eastern gate in such a way that the first ray of the sun would fall on the head of the idol of the Sun god placed on the throne of the main temple, passing through the doors of all the temples.
As mentioned above, the main temple and the porch are built on a single platform (“Pitha”). It stands at a height of more than 16 feet from the ground. The platform has two sections. The first section on the ground level is about 1 foot in height. It has elephants carved in it throughout along with royal army, palanquin bearers, and hunting postures. On this first section of the platform, the wheels stand. Above the wheels, lies the other section of the platform which has similar carvings on it. Beside the wheels, there are many other beautiful sculptures of gods, royal court, hunting and humans.
According to Hindu mythology, the Sun god moves in his chariot that is drawn by 7 horses. Since such a massive structure couldn’t be supported by just two wheels as a real chariot, the artisans created 24 wheels that are affixed on the platform. The main temple has 12 wheels on both sides; the porch has 8 on both sides; and the staircase on the eastern front has 4 wheels on both sides.
The wheels have a diameter of about 9.9 feet; 8 thick spokes and 8 thinner spokes in each. Some experts say that the wheels are symbolic of time. The total number of 24 wheels symbolizes 24 hours of the day or 24 fortnights of the year; the 7 horses represent the 7 colours of the sunlight; the 8 thick spokes represent the 8 “Praharas” or time divisions of the day. The wheels are designed like a sun-clock to know time as per the positions of the sun during different times of the day. The wheels also have intricate carvings of various gods and goddesses, motifs, etc. on them.
The Main Temple
The main temple has completely collapsed and currently only the 30-feet high exterior broken walls stand as the ruins of the heritage. The broken walls are 20-25 feet thick. As it has completely crumbled down, it’s difficult for commoners to imagine where exactly the entrance and doors were.
On three sides of the wall of the main temple – north, south and west – are the huge sculptures of three gods, known as “Parsva Devatas”, which are almost in ruins but hold testimony to the finest specimens of Konark sculpture. There are different views regarding who these gods are. According to some views, they are three forms of the Sun god. The god on the southern side is described as the morning sun or the rising sun and is called “Mitra”; the god on the western side is described as the mid-day sun and is called “Punsan”; the god on the northern side is described as the evening sun or the setting sun and is called “Haritasva”.
According to other views, the three gods here represent the Hindu Trinity of the Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwar. The sculptures are now broken and eroded to a great extent. The northern side has almost lost it completely and new identical structures of different materials are being installed currently. Some experts are also of the view that there were three temples dedicated to each of these three gods on three sides of the main temple but all of them have fallen.
There were 4 big lion-like animal structures each rampant on elephants projected on the higher parts of the walls on all four directions just above the height of the porch. They are called Flying Lion. All have collapsed. At present, you can witness the remaining pieces of the flying lion that was on the eastern side of the main temple preserved on a platform adjacent to the northern side of the porch inside the temple compound.
As the main temple has collapsed, the exact height cannot be measured. However, information collected from various ancient documents and from scholars suggest, the temple was probably 230 feet high. So, Konark Sun Temple, was perhaps the highest temple in not just Odisha but in India!
It’s a layered structure. There are 3 tiers of layers on the walls of the porch. The roof of the porch was constructed in a pyramidal shape on the parapets of which were the sculpted figures of celestial women musicians with various instruments. There were also marvellous figures of Lord Shiva or “Bhairava” sculpted.
The present height of the porch is 130 feet. Two sections of the upper part of the roof have collapsed – “Kalasa” and “Dhwajapadma”- that were 20 feet high in total. So, the original height of the porch or “Mukhasala” was 150 feet. There were four doors made of black chlorite on the four directions. The western door led the way inside the main temple. The breadths of the doors were more than 14 feet. The eastern door had two pillars in front that housed the famous “Navagraha Paata” on iron beams of 21 feet length. It had collapsed in 1628. At present, except the eastern door, the other doors are also non-existent. The western and southern walls and roofs of the porch had also collapsed and repairing jobs are being carried on till date. Only a few remaining stairs on each of the four directions now hold testimony to the existence of the four doors.
The entry inside the porch is barred since 1904. The door is blocked/sealed with boulders, stones and sand. So, visitors can only witness the exterior of the building and tread across the platform. There were also total seven life-size horse structures on both the sides of the staircase of the eastern gate of the porch. All of them are broken and damaged. Only two of the horses still stand in their original position.
Also, on the eastern staircase, there was a pair of flying lion which have now been moved and placed at the entrance of the Hall of Dance.
The Hall of Dance
It stands on a separate basement or platform in front of the porch. It is at a distance of 30 feet from the eastern gate of the porch. The height of the platform is almost equal to that of the main temple. The Hall of Dance is also known as the “Bhoga Mandap” or the Hall of Offering among local folks. The roof of the hall has completely collapsed and at present, only the remains of the walls stand.
The platform is divided into three sections. The first section lies about 2 feet high from the ground level and is laden with carvings of lotus petals and creepers. The second section is about 9 feet high and has small temples around with carvings of numerous dancing female figurines, elephants and creepers. The third section, 4 feet high, also has similar carvings like the second section. There are 4 flights of stairs and 4 doors on each direction of the hall.
The sculptures of the Hall of Dance are now the only testimony to the brilliance of the craftsmanship of the Konark Sun Temple in the past. The roof was similar to the porch according to scholars.
Inside the compound of the Sun Temple, there are six more temples including the Goddess Ramachandi Temple in the south-west direction behind the Sun Temple and Lord Vishnu Temple behind the Ramachandi Temple. There were also kitchens, bathing areas, etc. inside the compound. However, only the remains of these structures can be seen.
Also, there are magnificent idols of war horses and war elephants that are now placed on newly constructed platforms on the northern and southern side of the temple. During excavation, 14-feet high compound walls were discovered surrounding the temple complex. Through east to west, the wall runs for 857 feet and from north to south, it is 540 feet.
Conservation of the Temple
As the Konark SunTemple was an essential landmark for the mariners on the shallow beach of Odisha, the Marine Board of the British-era suggested for its conservation. Since conservation involved huge expenditure, the then Governor General did not sanction the proposal. It was only in 1901 that the temple underwent repairs and some renovations under the then Lieutenant General of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, Mr. John Woodworn. Till 1938, the conservation was being done by the State Public Works Department, after which it was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1950 after independence. The Government of India then appointed a committee comprising eminent archaeological engineers, civil engineers, artists, architects, geologists, and chemists for taking preservative measures for restoring the temple. The main idol of the Sun god that was worshipped here was discovered during excavation and was moved to Delhi in 1951 in the Indian Museum. At present, both the Central and State governments are taking vigorous steps for preserving the temple.
Moving around the temple compound and exploring each of the structures take one into a time travel. I enjoyed every bit of my history trip and before leaving the temple compound, I took out a minute to include myself within the frames of this heritage.
The marvellous Konark Sun Temple also finds mention in Abul Fazl’s The Ain-i-Akbari II. Mentioned as the “Black Pagoda” by Sir John Marshal, now stands as a testimony to the brilliance of the medieval architecture of Odisha. Although it is now in a state of ruin, its magnificence still attracts tourists and travellers from across the globe.