When the sun’s rays are angled just right, ‘astonishing’ doesn’t begin to describe the sight before your eyes. It’s more like an explosion in gold at the Modhera Sun Temple in the town of Modhera near Ahmedabad in Gujarat.
The temple, one of the most exquisite in Western India, is situated in Modhera, once a mighty capital of the Solankis. While the dynasty ruled from here from 942 to 1305 CE, the Modhera Sun Temple was constructed by King Bhima I in the 11th century CE and is dedicated to the Sun God.
Both the central shrine and the mandapa are on a raised platform. Although the temple complex was completed in the 11th century CE, it was built in phases, with the kunda’s construction preceding the construction of the temple, and the mandapa being added a little later.
The temple is located at 23.6 degrees latitude, close to the Tropic of Cancer. It is said that the temple has been built in such a way that during the solar equinox, the first rays of the sun used to light up the now missing Surya image in the sanctum, and during the summer solstice the sun shines directly on top of the temple, casting no shadows.
The temple’s architect is not known but its sheer grandeur has led art historian Percy Brown to call him a ‘weaver of dreams’.
The temple’s construction has been ascribed to King Bhima I (1022-1063) in the year 1026-27 CE. According to archaeologist H D Sankhalia, the date has been accepted for two reasons – the back wall of the shrine has an upside-down inscription stone which reads ‘Vikram Samvat 1083’ i.e. 1026-27 CE; and because its architectural style closely resembles that of the Adinatha Jain Temple at Dilwara, which is dated to 1031 CE.
The main shrine is almost equally divided into the garbagruha and the gudhamandapa. The garbhagruha is 11 sq ft on the inside and, unfortunately, the image of the deity has been lost. Around the garbagruha is the pradakshinamarga for circumambulation around the deity. It has the image of Surya carved in niches. Although the interior walls are severe for their lack of ornamentation, the doorway itself is carved with images of Surya surrounded by dancers and amorous couples. These, however, are badly mutilated. This structure was surmounted by a shikhara, which has collapsed over time.
In most of the sculptures, Surya is shown standing with two lotuses, one in each hand, and being driven by seven horses. Interestingly, Surya is shown wearing boots in most of his depictions, which according to historians and art historians is a Central Asian influence.
The sabhamandapa is the most opulent structure in the temple complex and is believed to have been the last structure to have been constructed. The external and internal walls are exquisitely carved with sculptures and decorative elements like toranas. Sankhalia writes that each of the corners of the sabhamandapa is cut into a series of recessed corners, which gives the building the appearance of a star.
Many small scenes are depicted on the walls, ceilings and lintels of the sabhamandapa, which Sankhalia has interpreted as scenes from the Ramayana. This would constitute the first sculptural representation of the epic in an ancient temple in Gujarat.
Since the shrine and the sabhamandapa were built at different times, there is a slight but perceptible difference between the sculptures and ornamentation of the two. While the ornamentation in the main shrine is a little restrained, that within the dancing hall is more elaborate. According to Sankhalia, the simplicity of the interior of the shrine is balanced by the immensity of carvings on the outside.
Sankhalia writes that in front of the sabhamandapa, next to the kunda, there stood a kirtitorana or triumphal arch. Unfortunately, the base and the torana itself have disappeared and only two pillars remain. Through these pillars, a flight of stairs leads to the kunda. According to Sankhalia, the kunda at the Modhera Sun Temple may have been the inspiration for the Sahastralinga Talao.
The kunda itself is a rectangular tank of water with stone paving on the outside. From the ground level, the kunda gradually proceeds down to the water level via a series of terraces and recessed steps. Within the kunda, there are many small shrines in the niches on the walls and steps.
Interestingly, like many other historic sites in India, Modhera too was ‘rediscovered’ by the British. It was first brought to light by Colonel M Monier-Wiliams, who recorded the existence of the temple in his report as Surveyor General in 1809. Later, A K Forbes, a colonial administrator and author of Râs Mâlâ: Hindoo Annals of the Province of Goozerat, in Western India, was the first person to provide a detailed description of the temple and draw its plan.
While the Modhera temple is generally accepted to be dedicated to the Sun God, Surya, historian and archaeologist Kirit Mankodi has posited that a blend of deities was worshipped here, including Shiva and Surya.
The temple is not a place of active worship today but it is still a sight to behold and a testament to the glory of the Solankis and the heights they reached in the early years of the 1st millennium CE.
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