According to Hindu scriptures, Makar Sankranti is considered to be an auspicious occasion as the Sun makes its way to the North reaching the Makar Rashi or Capricorn. From this day, the Sun is regarded as Uttarayan or northward bound. Makar Sankranti is one of the few festivals where the Sun God is worshiped in India. Despite the power that the Sun is believed to yield in prayer (the Gayatri Mantra is one of the post popular Hindu chants), the fact is that there are only a handful of Sun temples in India.
The origins of Sun worship date back to the Bronze age, with the Sun being worshiped in ancient Egypt, Africa and Central and South American cultures. The representations of the Sun in India go back to the Neolithic period, but in the absence of historical evidence we cannot be certain if Sun was worshiped or not. The Sun has been found depicted in the Neolithic pottery found at Piklihal in Lingsaur district of Karnataka as well as in the paintings in the rock shelters of Singhanpur in Raigar area of Chhatisgarh.
The earliest reference to Surya in India, appears in the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas (estimated to date back to 1500 to 1200 BCE), as the dispenser of darkness. In fact so powerful was the Surya, that he sat at the head of a whole series of solar deities like Savitr, Vivasvant and the Ashvins. The horse was considered to be the vahana (vehicle) of the Sun god.
In the later Vedic period, the concept of the Sun God evolved even further. He was invoked as creator, nourisher, protector as well as the destructor of the universe. The Greek writer Athaneus (200 BCE) in his Deipnosophistai (The Learned Banquet) mentioned that Indians worshiped Soroadieos (Suryadev).
The Sun worship also appears in the great Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, through rituals such as Ashwamedha yagna, the recitation of Gayatri Mantras, and the ritual salutations to the Sun god in the morning and evening. Interestingly, all the noted kings mentioned in the Ramayana like Harishchandra, Manu, Ikshvaku, Dashratha, Lord Ram, Luv and Kusha are all referred to as Suryavanshis or descendants of Surya. Lord Hanuman is said to have paid homage to the Sun God before departing for Lanka in search of Sita.
In the Mahabharata, there is a mention of one thousand and eight sun worshippers in the camp of the Pandavas. This could be a reference to the Sauras, or the cult of Sun worshippers which existed in ancient India. There is also a hymn in the Mahabharata called the ‘Suryashtottara Shatanama Stotra’ which are the 108 names of the Sun God, taught to Yudhisthira by Rishi Dhaumya. Interestingly, in the Mahabharata unlike the Vedas, the Sun God appears in human form in the tale of Kunti and her son Karna, the son of the Sun God.
Moving away from the epics and religious literature, earliest anthropomorphic representation of the Sun God dates back to the Mauryan period dating back to 3rd century BCE, and was found near Patna in Bihar with a terracotta circular disc in which shows the Sun God mounted on a chariot drawn by four horses. A terracotta images of Surya have also been found at Chandraketugarh, on the medallion of Bharhut and a railing of the Bodhgaya Stupa dating back to 2 century BCE.
However, the revival and large scale worship of the Sun God only began from the Gupta period in the 4-5th century CE. During this period, there was a powerful ‘Saura’ sect of Sun worshipers. Since a lot of the visual imagery of the epic Mahabharata dates back to the Gupta period, it comes as a no surprise that the Sauras are mentioned in the Mahabharata. The Sauras believed that one could attain spiritual emancipation (moksha) by worshipping the Sun. However, over the centuries, the Saura sect declined and merged into Vaishnavism.
However, Sun worship is still practiced among the numerous tribes of India, especially in Odisha. The Saoras and Juangs, two important tribes of Odisha worship Sun as their supreme god and pay homage to the Sun during harvest, marriages and the birth of children. The Khaira tribe of Mayurabhanj district in Odisha, also worships the Sun God under the name of Dharani Devata.
The supreme deity of Bondo tribe of Malkangiri district is called Mahaprabhu who represents both the Sun and the Moon. The Santalas inhabiting the hilly region of Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar worship the Sun God as ‘Thakur’ or ‘Sing Bonga’ or ‘Dharam’. Similarly the Kondh tribes of Southern Odisha worship the Sun God under the name of ‘Bona Pennu’, for good crops.
While Sun worship has declined across India, there are remnants in the form of historic Sun temples that stretch from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. We take a look at some of the most important and historic Sun temples in India:
The Sun Temple at Martand
The Sun Temple of Martand in Jammu & Kashmir was built as one of the grandest temples in north India. Five miles from Anantnag, it was built by King Lalitaditya of Kashmir between 725 & 756 CE.
Apart from the grand scale of this temple complex, what also stands out is the architectural confluence it represents. It blended architectural styles like the Gandharan, Gupta, Chinese, Roman and even Greek.
The temple consisted of a central shrine surrounded by 84 smaller shrines. It was built on a plateau from which the entire valley of Kashmir and the Pir Panjal range can be seen, even today. While the temple was destroyed in the 15th century CE, its impressive ruins still stand tall.
Sun Temple at Konark
The Sun Temple at Konark, in Odisha, is the most iconic Sun temple in India.. Built by Narasimhadeva I of the East Ganga dynasty in 1255 CE, it is built to resemble the resplendent chariot of the Sun God, with elaborately carved wheels. Interestingly, the chariot has 24 wheels, each representing a fortnight of the year and the 8 spokes of each wheel serve as sundials, symbolic of the 8 praharas (divisions) of the day.
Over time, the great temple deteriorated and its main dome collapsed. It was over-run with vegetation and was referred to as the “Black Pagoda” by European travelers in 17th and 18th centuries. However, in the 19th century, the debris from the area was cleared out by the colonial administration and Konark was rediscovered again. Today, the Sun Temple of Konark is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sun temple at Modhera
The most prominent Sun temple in western India is the Sun Temple at Modhera, in Gujarat built by King Bhima I of the Solanki dynasty in 1026-1027 CE.
The sanctum sanctorum of the temple is designed to allow the first rays of the rising sun to light up the image of Surya during solar equinox days. On the day of the summer solstice, the sun shines directly above the temple at noon, casting no shadow. Interestingly, the iconography of the Surya in the temple has central Asian influences. The Sun God is depicted wearing peculiar central Asian boots and belt.
Sun Temple at Lonar
A magnificently carved Sun temple is located at Lonar in Maharashtra, near the famous Lonar crater. Believed to have been built in the 12th century CE, by rulers of the Chalukya dynasty, this was later converted into a Vishnu temple. The Vishnu here is represented in the ‘Daitya Sudan’ (killer of demons) incarnation. On the ceiling of the temple, there are carvings depicting Vishnu killing Lonasur – a demon said to be hiding in the Lonar lake!
Sun temple at Bhuleshwar
This sun temple located in the narrow by-lanes of Bhuleshwar, near Marine Drive in Mumbai is one of the youngest sun temples in India and perhaps one of the few in active worship. It was built in 1899 by a Gujarati businessman Harjivan Vassanji Maniar. It is believed that Maniar was suffering from a skin ailment which was cured by worshiping the Sun God and he built this temple as a mark of his gratitude. The temple opens every day at sunrise and closes at sunset.
Sun Temple in Kumbhakonam
The temple town of Kumbhakonam has a Sun temple dedicated to the Sun God. The temple is said to have been built by Kulottunga Chola (1070 – 1122 CE) , the Chola king who is said to have established Chola rule over Srivijaya in the Malay archipelago. He was a great sun worshipper and is said to have built sun temples in Nagapattinam and Pudukottai as well.
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