Rightly listed as a World Heritage Monument, the magnificent Sun Temple at Konark is the culmination of Odishan temple architecture, and one of the most stunning monuments of the world. Nobel Laureate Poet Rabindranath Tagore said, 'here the language of stone surpasses the language of man'. It is true that the experience of Konark is impossible to translate into words.
The massive structure in solitary splendor surrounded by drifting sand is located three kilometers from the sea, but originally it was reported to be closer for which it was used as a navigational point by European sailors, who referred to it as the 'Black Pagoda'.
Built by King Narasimhadeva in the thirteenth century, the entire temple was designed in the shape of a colossal chariot, carrying the sun god, Surya, across the heavens. Surya has been a popular deity in India since the Vedic period and the following passages occur in a prayer to him in the Rig Veda, the earliest of sacred religious text :
"Aloft his beams now bring the good, Who knows all creatures that are born, That all may look upon the Sun. The seven bay mares that draw thy car, Bring thee to us, far-seeing good, O Surya of the gleaming hair. Athwart in darkness gazing up, to him the higher light, we now have soared to Surya, the god among gods, the highest light."
So the image of the Sun God traversing the heavens in his divine chariot, drawn by seven horses, is an ancient one. It is an image, in fact, which came to India with the Aryans, and its original Babylonian and Iranian source is echoed in the boots that Surya images, alone among Indian deities, always wear.
The idea of building an entire temple in the shape of a chariot, however, is not an ancient one, and, indeed, was a breathtakingly creative concept. Equally breathtaking was the scale of the temple which even today, makes one gasp at first sight. Construction of the huge edifice is said to have taken 12 years time and 12 years of revenues of the kingdom.
Set at the centre of a spacious courtyard enclosed by a compound wall and subsidiary shrines and structures, the temple complex consists of broken Deula (main temple)and Jagamohana (porch) on a raised platform, fashioned as the lower part of the chariot. The Natamandir (Hall of Dance) infront of the Jagamohana and a shrine of Chhaya Devi on the south west corner are two detached structures. Just outside the temple compound, a monolithic stone panel with images of nine planets is housed in the Nabagraha Shrine (this is a living shrine in active worship).
The main tower, which is now collapsed, followed the same general form as the towers of the Lingaraja and Jagannath temples. Its height, however, exceeded both of them, soaring to 227 feet. The jagmohana (porch) structure itself exceeds 120 feet in height. Both the tower and porch are built on high platforms, around which are the 24 giant stone wheels of the chariot. The wheels are exquisite, and in themselves provide eloquent testimony to the genius of Odisha's sculptural tradition.
On three sides of the collapsed tower are three images of the Sun God. The third major component of the temple complex is the detached natamandira (hall of dance), which remains in front of the temple. On the south west corner stands the Mayadevi Temple. On either side of the main temple are colossal figures of royal elephants and royal horses.
A popular legend explains that one son of the god Krishna, the vain and handsome Samba, once ridiculed a holy, although ugly, sage. The sage took his revenge by luring Samba to a pool where Krishna's consorts were bathing. While Samba stared at them, the sage slipped away and summoned Krishna to the site. Enraged by his son's seeming impropriety with his stepmothers, Krishna cursed the boy with leprosy. Later he realized that Samba had been tricked but it was too late to withdraw the curse. He was therefore advised to pray to Sun God who can cure him of the ailment. Samba then traveled to this place and performed 12 years penance to Surya who, pleased with his devotion, cured him of the dreaded disease.In thanks giving, Samba erected a temple at the spot.
History, however, records that the World Heritage Monument was built by King Narasimhadeva-I, in mid 13th century A.D., probably as a victory monument, after a successful campaign.
The temple is a chronicle in stone of the religious, military, social, and domestic aspects of the thirteenth century royal world. Every inch of the temple is covered with sculpture of an unsurpassed beauty and grace, in tableaux and freestanding pieces ranging from the monumental to the miniature. The subject matter is fascinating. Thousands of images include deities, celestial and human musicians, dancers, lovers, and myriad scenes of courtly life, ranging from hunts and military battles to the pleasures of courtly relaxation. These are interspersed with birds, animals (close to two thousand charming and lively elephants march around the base of the main temple alone), mythological creatures, and a wealth of intricate botanical and geometrical decorative designs.
The famous jewel-like quality of Odishn art is evident throughout, as is a very human perspective which makes the sculpture extremely accessible. The temple is famous for its erotic sculptures, which can be found primarily on the second level of the porch structure. It will become immediately apparent upon viewing them that the frank nature of their content is combined with an overwhelming tenderness and lyrical movement. The same kindly and indulgent view of life extends to almost all the other sculptures at Konark, where the human, animal, and divine personages are shown engaged in the full range of the 'carnival of life' with an overwhelming sense of appealing realism.
The only images, in fact, which do not share this relaxed air of accessibility, are the three main images of Surya on the northern, western, and southern facades of the temple tower. Carved in an almost metallic green chlorite stone (in contrast to the soft weathered khandolite of the rest of the structure), these huge images stand in a formal frontal position which is often used to portray divinities in a state of spiritual equilibrium. Although their dignity sets them apart from the rest of the sculptures, it is, nevertheless, a benevolent dignity, and one which does not include any trace of the aloof or the cold. Konark has been called one of the last Indian temples in which a living tradition was at work, the 'brightest flame of a dying lamp'. As we gaze at these superb images of Surya benevolently reigning over his celestial world, we cannot help but feel that the passing of the tradition has been nothing short of tragic.