The 13th century Sun Temple at Konark is one of the finest Hindu temples in the country. Dedicated to the Hindu Sun God Surya, the sheer scale of the monument coupled with the exceptional quality of carvings, the picturesque setting, and partially ruined condition makes a visit to this magnificent building unforgettable.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the construction of the temple we see today is attributed to the eastern ganga dynasty king Narasimhadeva I (circa 1238–1264 A.D.). Unlike most other ancient Hindu temples, we know quite a bit about the planning and construction of Konark due to a chance discovery in a local village during the 1960s. Palm leaf manuscripts written in Sanskrit in the Odiya script were recovered and subsequently translated, contributing greatly to our understanding of how the temple was constructed and the mammoth effort in terms of planning and labour that were involved.
These records also tell us that the temple we see today was constructed over a 12 year period by a workforce of 1,200 men, on the site of an earlier 9th century temple which was also dedicated to the Sun God Surya. We also know that it took 12 years of the kingdom’s revenue to fund the entire construction project.
What follows in this post is mostly a photographic tour of the site interjected with some observations and details where possible. I arrived at the site perhaps a little too late having stopped off at Gangeswar Temple near Gop beforehand (well worth seeing by the way), and even by 9:30am the site was already quite busy with perhaps the best of the morning light for photography already gone.
Click on any of the images to view them in a larger format.
Having entered the temple complex you are immediately confronted by a pair of colossi, two lions rampant on crouching elephants, images that are frequently used in promotional materials about the Konark.
What many visitors do not realise is these two statues are not in their original location but have been relocated here, probably to give that wow factor as you first enter the complex. These two lions together with a pair of war stallions and a pair of elephants once guarded the three staircases that led to the main temple porch, what remains of the other carvings, which have also been relocated, we will see later on.
Analysis of these sculptures has revealed evidence that they were once covered in plaster and painted dark red. It’s interesting to think about how much the use of colour may have been incorporated into the visual impact of Konark, for all the massively impressive art we see today in the form of carvings, the original temple may have appeared quite different to the eye.
Immediately beyond the lion colossi is a staircase leading up to the Bhoga Mandapa platform.
This is a detached free-standing structure believed to be a festive or dance hall due to the sheer volume of carvings depicting musicians and dancers that almost completely cover the platform, walls and pillars of the hall.
A very similar structure also known as the Bhoga Mandapa can be seen at the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to compare the two as non-Hindu’s are lot permitted into the Lingaraj Temple.
Although the quality of the carvings here are perhaps not quite up to the quality of what we will shortly see, they are still mind boggling in terms of the volume and diversity.
Here we have erotic couples, dikpalas, elephants, geese, infantry and cavalry armies, musicians, dancers, devotees, lions – it’s an awful lot to take in !
Continuing on from the Bhoga Mandapa you are immediately faced with the Jagamohana, the assembly hall (or porch) of the Konark temple.
Foreign visitors to this site without a guide might be misled into thinking this is the temple in it’s entirety, but sadly that is far from the case.
The soaring sikhara (tower) has long since crumbled, and there are conflicting opinions as to when and how this came to be. We know that the sikhara was partially still standing in the 1800s, a sketch by James Fergusson in 1847 clearly shows it, but even by then it was beyond the point of being stabilized and reconstructed.
On my visit access onto the temple platform itself was not permitted, but thankfully much of the scaffolding that has covered the temple for years has been recently removed. That said, the Jagamohana is so vast in scale that in reality you need to step back to take it all in. This is like your typical Orissan temple architecture on extreme steroids, the scale of this temple is both impressive and totally unique.
Another relatively unique aspect to Konark is the design to resemble a chariot, with 12 intricately carved giant wheels (more on that later), pulled by a team of 7 horses – all frozen in time. Although the remains of these horses are scant and fragmented (there is one good example), it is clear that these sculptures are quite unlike anything else being produced in this period anywhere in the world.
At over 4m high and with the facade richly carved, the temple platform is probably the highlight of any visit to Konark, and rightly so.
The motifs here are immensely varied; erotic couples, young women flaunting their beauty in a variety of poses, nagas, vyalas, soldiers, elephants, court scenes, but also images depicting practices and rituals from daily life.
One example of this is a carving of what appears to be a woman straddling a fire, which scholars believe depicts a process of healing the vagina after childbirth. The Bonda tribe in Odisha still perform this practice today.
It’s hard to take in all that is on show here, there’s just too much of it ! I have to confess that my experience was also slightly impacted by the volume of selfie-obsessed visitors who seemed more interested in proving they were at Konark rather than really enjoying the detail of the monument itself. The other noticeable thing for me as a western visitor was just how noisy it was, people shouting at the tops of their voices interspersed with guard’s whistles as another yet visitor ventures into a forbidden zone somewhere.
I appreciate this is a cultural thing, in the west we are so used to being silent when we visit a place of worship such as a church or cathedral, but in India temples were never necessarily expected to be silent places. All that said, I’m just being honest in how my experience went. It was no different at the Taj Mahal last year, which was marred by the number of visitors and their behavior so much that I’ve yet to actually even blog about my revisit to the mausoleum.
Anyway, back to the temple platform and what is probably the most iconic image of Konark, the magnificent stone carved wheels.
With this architectural innovation, the temple is converted into a colossal chariot. Each of the 12 pairs of wheels has eight spokes with a central medallion and protruding central axle, often with an axle pin still depicted.
The medallions on the wheel spokes are richly carved depicting numerous deities and erotic and amorous figures in various poses. It pays to take some time to look at the detail here, and just how exquisitely everything has been both carved and planned.
Similar medallions occur on the face of most of the axles, with images such as Krishna playing on a flute amidst cowherds, people seeking mercy, and a king seated on an elephant facing a group.
The carvings behind and around the wheels are staggering. It pays to walk around the temple platform a few times as some areas are preserved better than others, and it gives you plenty of time to spot something new and different, which I guarantee you will on every single circuit.
The Konark Sun Temple is now over 2.5km away from the shores of the Bay of Bengal due to changes in coastline, but in ancient times it was built right next to the sea at the confluence of the river Chandrabhaga. In the early 19th century the British sailors had renamed the temple the ‘Black Pagoda’, in contrast to the ‘White Pagoda’ at Puri. Both were important visible landmarks for mariners, but the temple’s location has been a mixed blessing for Konark. The salty sea air and heavy seasonal rainfall has played a large part in the deterioration of the carvings we see today, and efforts continue today to try and stem the rate of decay that is occurring.
Ironically, the coastal location of Konark has also helped in preserving the monument to some degree. The preservation of the intricate carvings on the temple platform and wheels is partly due to them having all been buried under sand brought in by the coastal winds over the centuries. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the facade of the platform and the famous chariot wheels were ‘rediscovered’ during archaeological excavations. As an archaeologist myself, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have felt like to be involved in uncovering these masterpieces.
What did surprise me about Konark was the number of erotic carvings on display, some estimate 40% of all Konark’s carvings consist of erotic or amorous scenes. The most famous temple site for such things is of course at Khajuraho, I presume this is because the carvings there are slightly better preserved as the volume of such art at Konark would appear to be far more prevalent.
I never hire a guide when visiting monuments in India, I prefer to do my research beforehand and get prepared for my visit. This is in part because I find the quality of guides to be extremely inconsistent, some will provide you with the well researched facts, others will embellish facts beyond what is possible (e.g. claiming a mural is 500 years old when it depicts someone who wasn’t live even 200 years ago). Overhearing the guides at Konark, there are a lot of theories regarding the significance of the frequency of chariot wheels, elements within the wheels, and of the stone horses pulling the chariot.
According to some guides I overheard, the 7 horses represent the days of the week and the 12 pairs of wheels represent the 12 months of the year. The 24 wheels signifies 24 hours of a day, and the 8 major spokes signifies three hour periods of a day. Others claim the wheels of the chariot have been interpreted as the ‘Wheel of Life’, and portray the cycle of creation. Another theory is that the 12 pairs of wheels may also represent the 12 signs of the zodiac.
The theory that I am least convinced about is that some of these wheels acted as sundials. The wheels each have 8 wider spokes and 8 thinner spokes. The distance between two wider spokes represents 3 hours, the thinner spoke between two wider spokes is represents 1.5 hours. There are 30 carved beads between one wider spoke to the next thinner spoke, so each bead represents 3 minutes. The sun dial would show the time in an anti-clockwise direction, with the top center wider spoke representing midnight.
For this sun dial theory to be true, you need to have a stick (or your finger) placed right in the middle of the center of the wheel ‘hub’, and observe where the shadow falls on the wheel rim. None of the wheels have any hole at the center where a stick could have been fitted, and neither do any of them show signs of unexpected wear at the center, so I remain unconvinced by this. Any circular carving on the facade of a south-facing wall could act as a sundial, and I tend to lean towards this being a by-product of the design rather than actually being an integral element of the design. Just my personal opinion…:-)
The walls of the Jagamohana contain large sculptures that are more vivid than those of the lower walls. Many of these consist of sexual couplings leaving very little to the imagination, in addition to mythical beasts.
At higher levels on pyramid-shaped roof (Gandi) are further sculptures depicting musicians, these are so far away that it’s almost impossible to make out the details with the naked eye. Zooming in (200m lens by the way, with cropping) you can start to make them out a more clearly.
Note also how the edge of the roof tiers (Gandi) have been intricately carved themselves with various procession scenes, a detail that is near impossible to make out normally and yet unimaginable effort has been put into incorporating such detail into the fabric of the roof.
Three large chlorite sculptures of sun god Surya still exist on the lower section of the now ruined sikhara. On the south and west examples Surya is shown bejeweled, wearing long boots and standing in a chariot pulled by seven horses. Access is to see these carvings up close is no longer possible due to the top of the platform being out of bounds.
Limited access to the Jagamohana meant I could only inspect the eastern (main) entrance from a distance. The entrance is fashioned from green chlorite, consisting of eight architraves, each with its own distinctive motif.
In an attempt to preserve and stabilize the Jagamohana, the interior of the hall was bricked up long ago and filled with sand, which was poured into the cavity via a hole that was drilled down from the roof. A large stone at the foot of the entrance way is carved with the words :
‘To preserve this superb specimen of old Indian architecture the interior was filled by order of the Hon’ble J. A. Bourdilon, ISO Lieutenant Governer of Bengal A.D. 1903‘
To the west of the main temple are the remains of a smaller temple named after one of the wives of Surya, although it is widely thought that it was built for Surya.
What remains can be seen today were almost completely buried by sand and were excavated at the same time as the temple platform facade in the early 20th century. This temple, which is thought to pre-date the main temple, consists of a compound wall, porch and sanctuary.
Local legend says that an image from this temple (Ramachandi) was removed when Muslim invaders overran the temple complex and it is now in worship at a temple 8 km from Konark.
Channels cut through the temple platform acted as a drain, leading to some wonderful chlorite gargoyles, one depicting what appears to be a crocodile head with a fish in its mouth.
Situated on platforms near the northern and southerly extent of the temple compound, two richly decorated elephants (north) and two war stallions (south) have been relocated from their original positions.
These together with the two lions previously seen in front of the Bhoga Mandapa used to flank and guard the northern, eastern, and southerly staircases to the Jagamohana (porch).
These are masterpieces of Orissan art, and like the lions are believed to have once been plastered and coloured dark red.
Located to the south of the Bhaoga Mandapa is a laterite platform with a few rows of pillars surviving.
This has been interpreted as a kitchen for the cooking of food and offerings. A nearby well when emptied some years ago contained a small chlorite image of Ganesha which is now displayed in the local ASI museum (which I sadly did not have time to visit).
This small temple was only discovered in 1956 and is located in the south-west corner of the temple complex. The temple clearly had Vishnu affiliation, which proved that it wasn’t only Surya that was worshiped at Konark. I’m unsure if any remains of this temple are visible on the ground today, it was the only part of the temple complex I failed to explore.
Navagraha Temple (Nine Planets Temple)
Almost certainly missed by 99% of visitors to Konark, the Navagraha Temple is just north of the temple complex and is reached by turning left immediately after you leave the compound.
The modern Navagraha Temple (Nine Planets Temple) was specifically built to house a huge stone slab measuring 6m long, 1.2m high and 2m deep. The black chlorite stone is richly carved with idols of the nine planets; the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu. This was originally set above the Jagamohana ornamental doorway, it’s an architectural feature you find on almost all Orissan temples, but of course here on a much grander scale.
The panel remained intact under debris at the Jagamohana for possibly centuries until it was rediscovered during temple clearance. At the time the Asiatic Society of Bengal wanted to remove it to Calcutta for exhibiting in a museum as it was such a rare specimen. To facilitate its removal, the slab was longitudinally cut into two pieces in 1893, the thought of doing this makes me squirm quite frankly. But its heaviness even after cutting and the sandy uneven terrain all around made it impossible to move. It was subsequently left abandoned 400m from the main temple and remained discarded for over 60 years. The Government of India subsequently stepped in and arranged for its installation in a separate shed close to the temple compound.
That concludes a short(ish) virtual tour of Konark Sun Temple. The site has been in the news quite frequently recently, firstly to announce the removal of scaffolding that has encased the temple for a number of years, but more excitingly the news that after 117 years the ASI are planning to remove the sand from inside the Jagamohana.
So exciting times ahead for this monument, new discoveries are bound to me made, and perhaps one day in the future visitors will be able to once again walk on the temple platform and take a finally look inside.
The Konark Sun Temple is open 6am (sunrise) to 8pm every day. Visiting the temple early in the morning is highly recommended.
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