Friday, December 21, 2012

The Majestic Konark Sun Temple

    In the middle of the 13th century A.D. Narasimhadeva-I, the king of the Ganga dynasty laid the foundation for one of the greatest architectural marvels of ancient India - the Sun Temple of Konark. The temple honours the Sun God, a relatively minor entity in the Hindu pantheon, and is a notable exception to the general rule of the main deity being either Lord Shiva or Vishnu or their kin. The entire temple is in the form of the huge chariot drawn by seven spirited horses on twelve pairs of exquisitely decorated wheels or chakras at its base. Though the temple provides a rare and detailed insight into the lives of people in ancient India, sadly it's mostly in ruins now.

    Tagore wrote of Konark - "Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.” These particular stones give us a remarkable rendition about the lives of people in those times. The sculptures include deities, musicians, apsaras (celestial beings), dancers, lovers, and myriad scenes of courtly life, ranging from hunts, boxing matches and military battles to the royal meetings in durbars. Intricate botanical scenes describe the rich natural heritage at those times and geometrical decorative designs like the decorated chakras show the engineering ingenuity of those times. Konark is not as much a temple as it is a celebration of life.
Ajay and I in front of the Natya Mantapa with the Temple behind it. The two gaja-simhas are just behind us.
    The temple is held together by iron rods attached to blocks of stone and a few iron bars provide earthing and structural support. Like most other temples of those times, it is built out of weathered sandstone which lends itself to creating intricate sculptures. It has three distinct structures – The outer Natya mantapa with intricate dance poses, the pyramid-shaped audience hall (128 ft.) and the partially destroyed main sanctum (229 ft.)

The Natya Mantapa:
    An appreciation of music and dance is essential to understanding ancient Indian temple architecture. The Natya mantapa of the temple is filled with 128 sculptures of artists dancing and playing various musical instruments.  Two gaja-simhas (elephant-lions - mythical creatures) at the eastern entrance welcome visitors to the temple. The temple was not just a place of worship, it provided a platform for art and culture to flourish.
The various poses in the Natya Mantapa
The Audience Hall:
    The temple displays a fusion of South and North Indian architecture and also imbibes distinct designs never seen before in Indian temples. The audience hall is surprisingly pyramidal in shape, generally not a shape associated with Indian temples, and the main sanctum is the typical Aryan shape. Orissa in those times was known to export hemp and there is a scene where Raja Narasimha Deva meets emissaries from Africa; so it is entirely possible that the pyramid-shaped audience hall temple was influenced by the pyramids of Giza. To answer the obvious question of how the people in that sculpture were identified as African - there’s a huge giraffe in the frame and the men are wearing skirts!

    Only one of the seven proud horses that carried the chariot shaped temple remain today, bravely leading alone what he once led with his brothers. The entrance to the sanctum of the main temple through the audience hall has been walled off by the British in 1905, ostensibly to preserve the 'super specimen of old Indian architecture'.
The pyramidal audience Hall behind the last of the seven horses.
The Main Sanctum:
    Though the main sanctum was partially destroyed, three granite statues of the Sun God survived and adorn the main sanctum on all sides but the Eastern one. These statues are made of granite, unlike the rest of the temple which is made of soapstone. The statues convey the mood of the Sun God at various stage of the day – the Southern statue is childlike and eager, the Western is manly and solemn and the Northern one looks tired, probably due a hard day's work! These statues are perhaps a reference to the various stages of life as described in the Hindu scriptures.
The now destroyed main sanctum of Konark(Southern Side). Notice the statue of Sun God on the top.
Rest of the Temple:
    The name Konark is derived from the Sanskrit word Kona (meaning angle) and Arka (meaning sun). The sun temple, no surprises here, faces the East and has 12 chakras that can be used to tell the time of the day based on the angle of the shadow they case. The bottom layer of the temple has sculptures of thousands of elephants, used either in battle or in construction of the temple. Elephants were used to haul stones using a specially built ramp. Some are of the opinion that these elephants were given drugs to enhance their strength and forced into musth to enable them to carry the huge rocks they would have otherwise been unable to. A few of the scenes even describe the gruesome execution of prisoners by these elephants.

     The temple has two beautiful statues of war elephants on the northern side and two intricately carved war stallions on the southern side crushing enemies. Surely a trophy of a king who loved war too much... There is a well nearby that probably served as the water source for visitors. Behind the main temple, there is a temple for the main deity’s wife - The Chhayadevi temple and another brick temple from the 10th century.
One of the two impressive war stallions on the Southern side of the temple
One of the two elephants on the Northern side of the temple
Konark Museum and ASI Restoration work:
    The Konark museum nearby has quite a few of the relics that had fallen off from the main temple. There are even pictures of how the temple would have looked if the main sanctum had not been destroyed. There is also an interesting frieze with the five main Indian Gods - Indra, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Surya. 

    This temple is unfortunately not as well preserved as Khajuraho or other South Indian temples. After enduring centuries of sea breeze eroding the walls of the temple, wars with zealous Muslim rulers intent on wiping out Hindu artifacts and British treasure hunters interested more in loot than conservation, the temple is a pale shadow of what it was. The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) has done quite a bit of conservation work to ensure structural integrity at Konark; but just about managed to make the temple unsightly in the process. Many broken statues have been shoddily fixed using cement and and reeks of underpaid plumbery instead of stellar work by the nation’s premier conservation society.
The five main Hindu deities - Indra,Brahma,Vishnu,Shiva and Surya
Sexual Symbolism at Konark:
    Konark was built when Buddhism was on its last legs in India. In a way, its ostentatious sexual symbolism was a statement of triumph over a rival religion that promoted asceticism as a way of life. Sensuously modeled figures in various poses are placed prominently in upper levels of the temple (perhaps to avoid those pesky little kids from getting too curious at an early age). The sculptures of the male and female naga (snake) Gods coiled together symbolize fertility. 

    The temple also served as a place to educate people about the arcane secrets of Kamasutra. A few of the sculptures depict various intercourse positions and orgies, bestiality, lesbianism, childbirth and age old mechanisms to treat venereal diseases like gonorrhea. In a land where the men died early in the multitude of wars their kings waged, widow remarriage was openly encouraged and polygamy was subtly encouraged through these erotic sculptures. In modern day Victorian India, quite a few of these topics are taboo; clearly ancient Indian society was more open, puns intended.
one of the many sensuous sculptures of Konark
The story behind the construction:
    There is a sad and probably apocryphal story about the construction of the temple that the local guides love to tell with embellishments. In the last stages of building the temple, the architects face trouble fixing the huge magnet on top of the second (now destroyed) tower. The king threatens to behead everyone involved in the construction if the work is not completed in time. A young boy, who is not associated with the workers, figures the way out and fixes the magnet during the night when the rest of the workers are asleep. The workers wake up, realize that they might still be put to death for their failure to get the job done and demand that the boy kill himself in ritualistic self-sacrifice to save them. The young boy surprisingly obliges by jumping into the sea. The temple gets off to an ignominious start and is deemed unfit for prayer and worship. Not sure how pleased the king was with that, if at all this story were true!
Leogryph - A mythical creature
The Destruction of the Temple:
    The guides blame the British for the destruction of the temple and claim quite a few artifacts are in the Britain. Hmm, something to look out for when I visit London museum! History however tells a different story and blames Kalapahad, the general of Bengal Sultan Sulaiman Khan Karrani. In 1568 AD, his men hacked through the stone arches and displaced the Dadhinauti (Arch stone), leading to the collapse of the tower. It is said that the presiding deity of Konark Temple was secreted away during that phase for safeguarding and never found again. The Natya mantapa survived longer and was partially destroyed by Marathas. By the end of the 18th century Konark was abandoned and turned into a dense forest and the abode of pirates.
Raja Narasimha Deva meeting emissaries from Africa - Noticed the Giraffe and the long skirts?
    The kings of the old envisioned and built these magnificent temples for posterity, structures that tell the story of art, life and the Gods themselves. If you ever have a chance to get there early in the morning, stand atop the platform of the natya mantapa; imagine the sound of the waves washing ashore while the crimson sun lights up the beautiful temple, imagine the singers and the dancers lost in their morning performance for the king and finally imagine the sculptors focused on building the next master piece. This my friend, is Konark, the place where the Sun God begins his journey.


dimpy roy said...

Nice temple. A UNESCO World heritage site, the Konark Sun temple is a stunning monument of religious architecture. The Konark Sun Temple is probably the highest point in Orissa temple architecture. Explore more about Konark Sun Temple.

sr devraj said...

Awesome article... hanuman chalisa

Swathi said...

Very beautiful post and the images of the temple are really good.Thanks for sharing the information about your temple visit. Universal Travels