Situated on the south bank of the Darikeswara river just 6km west of Bankura in West Bengal, the Sun Temple at Sonatapal is both hugely impressive and somewhat mysterious.
This remarkably solid brick-built temple, attributed to the 11th century CE, stands on a plinth which itself sits on a low mound surrounded by trees. The exact depth of the plinth is impossible to determine as the ground level has built up over the centuries. Although some of the structure has been reconstructed in the last century, most notably the top of the shikhara, there is no evidence that a mandapa ever existed in front.
This tall curvilinear rekha deul temple represents the predominant style for temples in West Bengal in the pre-Muslim period. Starting in the late 7th or early 8th century CE, these structures increased in both height and complexity whilst retaining basic features until their decline in the 12th century CE.
The temple was once covered in plaster and was richly and profusely ornamented. Much of that plaster has sadly disappeared now although in some places it is still present. As the plaster merely covers the ornamentation of the brickwork beneath, it is thought this is contemporary and not a later addition to the temple façade.
The best preserved plaster resides in areas of the temple better protected from the elements. It is in one such area of the façade that a remarkable little image still survives, the only such survivor in fact. About two-thirds up the front elevation of the temple, protected by the projection forwards of the temple entrance, is an image which appears to be perhaps Jain or Buddhist in nature, although the facial expression doesn’t quite fit with that thought. If anyone is able to help me identify this please do so in the comments below ! This is again detail that was carved into the brickwork with plaster then applied over the top.
The temple entrance is of course also of note for the unusual style of overlapping openings. Measuring 3m wide at the base, there are altogether 61 courses of brick with sixteen overlaps on each side as the entrance tapers to a point at the apex. This is almost identical to a similar entrance to the sanctum at the Siddheswar Temple in Bahulara, but there it is completely concealed from view externally by later alterations.
Considering the impressive external footprint of the temple, the sanctum inside measures just 4m square. The use brick interposed with mud cement as a construction method necessitates the need for thick walls. It takes 33 brick/mud courses to achieve just 2m in height. There is no idol in the sanctum, aside from Shiva’s trident placed vertically into a small square cutting in the floor. Up above is a huge void, tapering to the top of the temple.
With the lack of much iconography and no idol in the sanctum, it’s hard to understand exactly why this has been deemed a Sun Temple. Close to the temple on the low ground that floods during the monsoons are several mounds, themselves often producing bricks. Villagers claim these mounds and the temple were part of a great fort that was built here by Salivahan two thousand years ago, when this place was known as Hamiradanga. It is also worth noting that some Jain relics have been discovered in Sonatapal village in the last century, and the whole Bankura district was once under the influence of Jainism.
Accessing Sonatapal by car is likely to prove problematic as the roads are not in great shape. In all likelihood you will need to park your vehicle some distance away and make the last leg of your journey on foot. Fortunately with the temple situated on a low mound surrounded by flat plains, it’s very easy to spot where you should be heading for.
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Categories: India, Sun Temple - Sonatapal, West Bengal
…huge void, tapering to the top of the temple… is an outstanding photo! Thanks Kevin!
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Thank you !
Seeing that did take me by surprise, but with bricks it’s the only possible way.
Any thoughts on the image tucked away on the exterior ?
Indeed a beautiful temple. Loved the entrance and hollow structure tapering up. Thank you for showing us a part of unexplored India
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Thank you !
Fascinating, a colleague forwarded this to me. I’m only sorry I missed it last time I was in the area.
The map is very useful. When you say the last bit is by foot, do you mean about 1km or more/less please?
I go annually to from Kolkata via Barrackpore and Joyrambati up to Purulia for my charity (www.saveachildindial.com), so next trip I shall seek out this temple. Any other neat ideas to deviate to see on my next journey?
Louise (temple and textile addict)
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Hi Louise. It’s much less than 1km, my driver was a little nervous to get closer to the village so we abandoned the car on a raised trackway surrounded by paddy fields.
An earlier post on my site details my itinerary when I did the West Bengal road trip, I haven’t finished documenting everything as I saw so much !