It is very unusual for an entire temple to be built in the form of a grand, ornamented chariot. But the Sun Temple at Konark in Odisha is anything but ordinary. Representing the apogee of Kalinga architecture and among the finest examples of temple architecture anywhere in the country, the Sun Temple is situated in the town of Konark, 35 km north-east of the coastal city of Puri.
Built in the 13th Century CE by King Narsimha Deva I of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty, the Sun Temple, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya, and is styled in the form of his magnificent chariot. Built from Khondalite stone, the temple has 12 pairs of beautifully carved, massive wheels and is drawn by seven galloping horses.
The temple is around 100 feet high and, as stunning and imposing as it looks, it is only half its original height. What we see today are the ruins of the original shrine, whose shikhara once took the temple to a height of 200 feet.
However, the shrine’s most impressive feature is its exquisite reliefs that cover every inch of space. A rhapsody in stone, these friezes and motifs are carved in intricate detail. They include male and female figures, mythical figures and carvings of animals, and represent scenes depicting hunts, royal processions and military scenes. Together, the countless reliefs lend an air of exuberance to the temple.
History & Legend Between the 5th and 15th Century CE, the Eastern Ganga Dynasty ruled the historic Kalinga region, which corresponds to large parts of modern-day Odisha and parts of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Narsimha Deva I of the dynasty, who ruled from 1236 to 1287 CE, issued orders for the construction of a Sun Temple at Konark in 1244, as Konark has been known as the abode of the Sun God since ancient times.
Konark is described as the holy seat of Sun worship in various scriptures and is referred to by names such as Surya Kshetra in the Shiva Purana and Skanda Purana. It is also known as Maitreyavana in a few ancient texts such as the Kapila Samhita (one of the Upapuranas), associated with the legend of Maitreya, the Bodhisattva who is supposed to have meditated here.
‘Konark’ is widely believed to be a combination of two words, ‘kona’ (corner or angle) and ‘arka’ (sun), probably due to its geographical positioning as the place where the ‘sun appears to be rising at an angle’. What makes this site even more sacred is a legend that says that Lord Shiva himself worshipped the sun here to atone for his sins.
While there are many other texts that mention Konark as being an important place of sun worship in India, there’s one that contains a legend about the ‘first Sun Temple’ at this site. This temple is mentioned in the Samba Purana, an ancient text dedicated to the Sun God, Surya, and it tells the story of Lord Krishna’s son Samba in its initial chapters.
According to this legend, Samba built a Sun Temple in Konark in the 19th Century BCE, after his 12-year-long sun worship at Maitreyavana (ancient name of Konark) cured him of the curse of leprosy. This is said to be the origin of the sun worship tradition in Konark.
The next Sun Temple believed to have been built at the site of the temple we see today was constructed in the 9th Century CE by the Somwamshi dynasty, also called Keshari Dynasty, of Eastern India. The Keshari dynasty ruled a few parts of modern-day Odisha, mostly the region known as Kosala, between the 9th and 12th Century CE, while the Eastern Ganga Dynasty ruled other parts of modern-day Odisha and neighbouring regions.
Eastern Ganga King Anantavarman Chodaganga captured the territories under the Keshari dynasty, bringing their rule to an end. A text called Madal Panji, which chronicles the famous Jagannath Temple of Puri, and dates back to the 12th Century CE, mentions that King Purandara Keshari of this dynasty built a Sun Temple at Konark in 870 CE. It is said that the remains of this temple can be seen behind the existing Sun Temple in the compound and it is known as Chhaya Devi or Mayadevi Temple.
Temple-building in Odisha reached its peak between the 7th and 13th Century CE. During the rule of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty (5th to 15th Century CE), the practice of worshipping the sun once again flourished, especially at Konark. There are many legends associated with the reasons that led King Narsimha Deva I to build a Sun Temple here.
Author Balaram Mishra in his book The Sun Temple Konark (1986) lists a few of these legends. According to one of them, Narsimha Deva’s father Anangabhima Deva worshipped the Sun deity at Konark, which resulted in his birth. Narsimha built the great Sun Temple to express his parents’ gratitude for the gift of a son. However, in copper plate inscriptions of Narsimha II, dating to 1295 CE, it is mentioned that Narsimha Deva I built the temple to fulfil a vow by his father to expand the famed Jagannath Temple of Puri, which was built by their ancestor, Chodaganga (1077–1150 CE).
Narsimha Deva I was a powerful monarch and an able warrior, and other legends associate the construction of the Sun Temple to mark the king’s victory over Tughral Tughan Khan’s army. An officer of the Mamluk Sultanate of Delhi in the mid-13th century, Tughan Khan was defeated by Narsimha Deva I in the provinces of Varendra (now in Bangladesh) and Rarh (a region between the Chhota Nagpur Plateau and Ganga Delta) in 1244 CE.
The temple may also have been built as a mark of expansion of Narsimha Deva’s territory. He ordered the temple’s construction in 1244 and it is said that it took 12-14 years for it to be completed. Sadashiv Samantray, the chief architect of the kingdom, was tasked with overseeing this prestigious and mammoth project.
The Sun Temple is a wonderful culmination of all the defining elements of Kalinga architecture and includes a jagmohana (audience hall), shikhara (crown), vimana (tower) and natmandir (dance hall). Legend has it that the temple’s plans were so accurate that the first rays of the rising sun fell on the image of Surya enshrined within the garbha griha or sanctum sanctorum of the main temple.
The shrine is built in the form of a grand and mammoth chariot of the Sun God, Surya, who is believed to move across the sky in a chariot drawn by seven horses. The temple platform is ornamented with 24 intricately carved wheels, which represent the 24 fortnights of the year, the 12 months of the year or the 24 hours in a day.
The seven horses are believed to represent the seven days of the week, while some believe they stand for the seven colours of sunlight. Each wheel of the chariot bears eight spokes, symbolic of the eight praharas (intervals) of each day. According to another interpretation, the sun being the source of life-giving energy on earth, the wheels are also symbols of the wheels of life.
Between the chariot wheels, the plinth of the temple is decorated with detailed reliefs of animals, musicians and dancers, and erotic figures. Carved figures, human and mythical, images of gods and goddesses, cult icons, motifs and designs cover the exterior walls, from top to bottom. Exquisite artwork depicting daily life also adorns the walls of the natmandir.
The Sun Temple that you see today was part of a much larger complex and was a major pilgrimage centre. In the 8th Century CE, when Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited what is present-day Odisha, he recorded that Konark was a flourishing centre of Buddhism.
Abdul Fazal (1556-1605 CE) in Ain-E-Akbari says that besides the Sun Temple, there were six other temples inside the compound of the Sun Temple, and 22 other temples in its vicinity. The grand temple we see today is only a part of the original temple complex, which fell to ruin for reasons unknown.
With only the jagmohana intact today, parts of the other surviving structures are the plinths and lower walls of the Rekha Deul or big sanctum, and some of the pillars in the natmandir. The Rekha Deul is the largest structure in the temple complex. Along its three sides are subsidiary shrines with life-sized sculptures of Surya in chlorite, reached by three flights of stairs. The three sides of the jagmohana are punctuated by carved doorways and carved staircases, all with monumental images of horses and/or elephants. The hall also consists of statues of musicians.
Historians and scholars like W W Hunter, Andrew Stirling and James Fergusson, who visited the site at different times during the 19th century, have left behind accounts and sketches of the Sun Temple at Konark. Their records tell us of the remains of the main temple complex during that time, also showing how the temple has undergone further degradation over the years.
Rajendra Lala Mitra, an Indian Indologist and historian who visited the site in 1868, wrote that the “temple proper is also now totally dismantled, and forming an enormous mass of stones, studded with a few papal (peepal) trees here and there, and harbouring snakes, from the dread of which few care to approach it”.
Excavations were conducted at the temple site at different times during the 20th century. They revealed subsidiary temples and structures such as Mayadevi Temple and Vaishnava Temple, which can still be seen today. Remains of a bhogmandapa (kitchen hall) are also present, although fragmented. Most of the remains and panels have been moved to the Konark Museum, which is in the same compound and is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Sun Temple at Konark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and among the most-visited monuments in India today. It tells us of the once-popular cult of Surya, with its temples strewn across India. From the Martand Sun temple in Kashmir, to Modhera in Gujarat, Lonar in Maharashtra and Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, each shrine is an ageless wonder and a celebration of different styles of architecture in the subcontinent.
In the Name of the Sun