It is the most distinctive edifice of its kind in the world — the Sun Temple in the coastal town of Konark in Orissa. The 13th-Century temple is designed as a huge chariot with 12 pairs of exquisitely-carved massive wheels pulled by seven galloping horses, with the Sun God in the sanctum as the charioteer. The design symbolises passage of time as commandeered by the Sun, with the wheels representing hours of the day and horses, days of the week.

As visitors drive towards the monument under a dense canopy of avenue trees, it comes into view rather suddenly, stunning the viewer with its sheer magnificence. The vast complex stands majestically in a well-tended garden with pleasing lawns and trimmed bushes. Right at the front are two huge sculptures, each depicting a fierce lion pouncing on a crouching war elephant, which in turn holds a man captive. A short flight of steps leads to a multi-pillared dance hall, whose roof is missing. A stately porch follows, topped by a soaring pyramid-like structure. The main sanctum at the rear is bereft of any tower. In sculpting, ornamentation and elegance, each of these structures vies with the other in astonishing the onlooker.

Thanksgiving

Grateful for the birth of a healthy son, King Narasimhadeva I of the Eastern Ganga dynasty is believed to have built the temple in thanksgiving to the Sun God. As many as 1,200 artisans worked on it for over 12 years.

According to another legend, Lord Krishna's son Samba was cured of leprosy after worshipping the Sun God, and he built the temple in gratitude. Even today, people bathe in the sea off Konark and pray to the Sun God in a bid to ward off skin ailments.

Filigree in stone

The entire edifice stands out for the richness of carvings. Each of the 12 pairs of wheels is artistically designed with eight major and eight minor spokes, a rim and a hub. Embellished with figures of deities, amorous couples, animals and flowers in a filigree of etchings, the wheels appear to exhort people to move cheerfully with the times, taking life in their stride.

Of the seven stallions sculpted originally, only one remains. A pair of war steeds and a couple of enraged elephants, all life-size, stand on separate pedestals to the south and north of the porch, distinctly away from the main structure. The tense expression on their face, the contours of their taut muscles and their entire posture leave a lasting impression on the visitor. As many as 2,000 elephants line the base of the main temple. A panel near the sanctum depicts an elephant and its riders facing a giraffe under a forest canopy.

Carnival of life

A great carnival of earthly life and a rich pageant of heavenly beings present themselves in stone all over the temple complex — on the walls, pillars, pedestals and plinths, and in niches. There are friezes animated by dancers and musicians, courtesans and sages, celebrities and commoners, celestial nymphs and divinities, and hunters and animals. Strikingly attractive damsels can be seen in a range of poses — wringing water from wet hair, caressing a bird, arms raised over the head, playing musical instruments, fondling a child or simply striking a sensuous pose. Mythological figures, including human-headed serpents and demons, abound. The king and facets of his daily life, including royal hunts, processions, victories and religious activities are writ large everywhere.

On the porch tower, which is the cynosure of all eyes today, master sculptors have crafted large-sized nymphs making music with gay abandon on cymbals, drums and wind instruments. In their midst stands the multi-headed Bhairava, the fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva associated with annihilation.

Equally popular are the several erotic sculptures showing couples locked in amorous postures. Celebrities, nobles, warriors, merchants, commoners and even sages participate in this sensual extravagance.

The sanctum once had a lofty tower, more than 200 ft tall, adorned with striking imagery and floral motifs. Inside, on a richly embellished pedestal, a gigantic statue of the Sun God stood in serene profundity. Today, unfortunately, neither the tower nor the presiding deity remains.

Super specimens

However, on the sanctum's exterior are three statues believed to be copies of the presiding deity; these are housed in niches on the southern, western and northern sides respectively. Regarded as “super specimens of the iconographic art” the sculptures, more than 11 ft in height, mesmerise visitors in no small measure.

Their benign and poised bearing, elaborate ornamentation and finely carved drapery linger long in the mind.

At the feet of the statue on the southern side, whose two arms have been mutilated by invaders in times past, can be seen the kneeling images of King Narasimhadeva and his bearded guru. The statue on the western side is similar, while the one on the northern side is seen riding an energetic horse.

Decay and restoration

With invading armies mutilating large sections of the temple, followed by centuries of wear and tear by natural elements, the temple fell into gradual decay. At one stage, the sanctum had been reduced to “an enormous mass of stones with vegetation grown all over”.

After British rulers and, later, Indian authorities took interest in restoring and conserving the temple, the edifice has managed to regain some of its past glory. In 1984, UNESCO accorded the monument a World Heritage Site status. As the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has written of this mighty treasure of ancient India: “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.”

(This article was published on December 22, 2011)
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