What could be more spectacular than an entire monument built in honour of the Sun, whose great chariot travels through the sky measuring out Time and driving away darkness and ignorance? According to sacred literature, the Rig Veda, the sun or Surya is described as:
Filling heaven, earth and the space between; the sun is the inner self of both the moving and the motionless. The splendid bay horses of the sun, bright and swift, celebrated and revered, mount the back of the heavens and encompass earth and heaven in a day.
Dawn, the beautiful goddess, awakens the people, making their path easy, high on her lofty chariot arousing every creature, Down spreads out her light at the beginning of days...
In Hindu mythology the great sun travels through the sky on a seven horse chariot, its arrival heralded by the beauty of the Dawn. As the sun moves through the heavens in each season, it is accompanied by a set of hermits, gandharvas or flying musicians, celestial maidens, serpents, and giants who sit as envoys on the chariot. The sun, in mythology, is given two wives from whom many children are born: the senior one is Samjyna and the other Chaya (shadow) who always remains (at a safe distance) behind her fiery husband.
This is the concept underlying the Sun Temple at Konark. It is a huge stone chariot designed like a mighty temple cart being pulled across the sky. As the sun measures time, the temple's symbolism incorporates the same theme and is fashioned with twelve wheels, the months of the year, and each wheel has sixteen spokes ( that are said to work as a giant sundial, with the shadow falling at a particular angle each hour of the day). The chariot is drawn by seven horses, the number of days in the week and the seven colors constituting light.
Sun worship has ancient roots in India and West Asia, and there are many sun temples to be found in the Indian subcontinent. Nowhere else, however, was the scale and magnificence of this temple ever attempted again.
Like the sun, in whose light all creatures grow and in whose warmth all life blossoms, Surya is poetically attributed with powers of healing. An ancient ritual, that survives to this day, is performed at the beach near Konark (the coastline has moved over three kilometers away from the temple in the intervening 700 years). In a myth we are told of a son of Krishna afflicted with leprosy, of which he was cured by his unceasing worship of the sun. Others too bathed by the temple beach and were cleansed of their afflictions. Even today people believe in the curative powers of the sun and thousands throng to the beach (on the seventh bright day of the waxing moon in the Hindu month of Magha (January-February) near Konark to absorb the touch of the sun. it said that an earlier temple to the sun marked the site. It was in this hallowed area that Narasimha, the Ganga ruler, chose to build in the thirteenth century this monument in homage to the preserver of life on earth.
The Surya Mandir or sun temple complex is a huge open rectangular enclosure, which once must have had some beautiful gateways. The entire temple is aligned east to west to follow the path of the heavenly sphere. Standing in front, detached from the main temple, is the square Nat Mandap or dance hall. Like the principal shrine, this mandap is also built on a high platform profusely decorated with dancing figures, musicians, and lovers celebrating the glory of the sun. There are steps on all four sides that lead up to a pillared hall, which no longer has a roof. The eastern steps of the Nat Mandap are flanked by wonderful (rather fierce looking, or are they smiling?) rampant lions that pounce of kneeling elephants.
The main temple entrance stands directly behind the Nat Mandap. In front of the eastern entrance was erected a free-standing chlorite pillar or dhvaja stambha of the temple. This pillar carried Aruna, the charioteer of Surya, on its crown. The dvaja stambha was moved from this location and placed in front of the main gate of the temple at Puri.
To enter the temple there are three stairways, each guarded by animals, like the crouching elephant and lion on the eastern side, well caparisoned elephants to the earth, and lovely richly decorated horses on the southern side. Positioned along the side of the stairway are the caparisoned, prancing horses of the sun chariot, their reins held firmly by great attendants who control the horses so that they move only at the measured pace that we call time. One of the most beautiful extant examples of the energetic sun horse is installed on a platform on the southern side of the complex.
The temple is built on an elevated platform, which has bands of sculptures on it. Walking around the temple one cannot but admire the creative energy of the artists who displayed, on the walls of this temple, almost every conceivable thing that prospers under the light of the sun: animals and plants, fish and fowl, men and women. The lowest panel of the temple has a row of elephants gamboling in the forest. This must be the most superb example of animated, humorous, and highly sensitive Indian art bubbling with an effervescent love for nature and all that is natural. There are sculpted friezes of all the activities that are witnessed by the sun each day: warfare and love-making, music and dance, hunters, courtiers, sages, saints, and animals frolicking peacefully in the forest.
Along the platform of the temple are positioned at regular intervals the twelve great wheels of the sun chariot. Each spoke, hub, and rim of the wheel is minutely carved with auspicious figures of deities, amorous couples, and floral wreaths and scrolls. Like a gigantic wheel of time that relentlessly moves on, the images on the wheel urge one to be happy and joyful, to be at one with life and all of nature.
The entrance stairway leads to the gigantic mandap or jagamohan of the temple. this structure, which is intact, rises to a height of 38.4 meters above the ground. The jagamohan is square in shape with three stairways leading up to it on three sides (east, north, and south). The main eastern doorway of the mandap is breathtaking. The door-frame is made of chlorite and consists of eight facets, each on a different plane and with elaborate carvings. While the doorways are made of chlorite and khodalite blocks. This somewhat inferior stone has weathered badly, sustaining pits and crevices. The color of the stone is a wonderful motley yellowish-pink that changes its hue with the moods of the sun to whom it is dedicated. At early dawn the temple is pale, at high noon it is an almost wheatish-white color, and in the flaming colors of the setting sun it turns to a glowing pinkish-orange.
Above the main body of the jagamohan rises an enormous tiered pyramidal roof. It is divided into three segments by the alignment of its tiers. In these intervals are placed huge larger -than-life stone figures of musicians: female drummers, cymbal players, and flutists. These gigantic musicians appear small and proportionate in the perspective of the over all scale of the temple. They symbolize the heavenly sky nymphs who herald with joyful divine music the arrival of dawn, the beginning of a new day, and the journey of the sun. Above the musicians are a a row of powerful lions who hold up the massive finial and amalaka (the kalash and finial are now missing).
Behind the jagamohan is a jagged platform that marks all that remains of the sanctum and the towering roof of the temple. Until 1848, a fragment of this tower was still standing and it was estimated that its original height would have been around 60 meters when it was intact. Much of the tower apparently collapsed through disuse of the temple, the inferior quality of stone used, fierce sea gales, and lightning.
There are several large images kept in the niche of the outer temple wall. The image of Surya (one that stands 1.88 meters high at the entrance of the National Museum, New Delhi) contains all the classical symbols of identification. The tall, handsome sun deity stands erect on a base which represents the seven-horse chariot, with his charioteer, the lame Aruna, seated in front of him. Aruna is always shown in action, with lifted reins and whip in hand, for his journey never ends. Surya is draped in a dhoti, or loincloth, and his torso is shielded by chain-mail. Surya wears high boots and is the only deity in the Hindu pantheon to do so, for shoes are for walking and hence unclean, but some leniency had to be given to Surya given the nature of his occupation and his fiery hot chariot. (The boots led many historians to surmise that Surya was originally a god imported into Indian from West Asia and the fire-worshiping communities who once lived there).
One can only imagine the splendour, pomp, and color that must have enveloped the temple when it was first built: the temple complex and subsidiary structures built for various rituals, stalls and shops clustered around selling items for worship, and thousands of people from every walk of life thronging to worship Surya, the light of their lives. Today the temple stands shorn of its noble tower, with only the pyramidal roof of the jagamohan to give some idea of the scale of the grand concept and design of the chariot of the sun.
• What's in the neighbourhood
There is a small but fine Site Museum at Konark with some beautiful sculptures and carved friezes from the sun temple.
The temple and beach town of Puri is only 33 kilometers away from Konark. Though none-Hindus are not allowed into the temple compound, Puri is a typical religious center with streets lined with shops and handicrafts, rest-houses and ashrams. One major road leads to the mighty temple dedicated to Jagannath (Krishna), the lord of the Universe, and this is one of the greatest pilgrimage centers in India. The temple was built in the late twelfth century with additions over the years. Its great towering rekha duel rises to a height of 57.7 meters and belongs to a mature phage of Orissan temple architecture bearing an affinity to the Lingaraja Temple at Bhubaneshwar. Each year, in the month of June-July, a great festival called the Rath Yatra (or jatra), the chariot procession festival, is held here. Over a hundred thousand people assemble to help haul the mighty wooden temple chariots of the gods on their annual procession. There are three chariots for Jagannath (Krishna), his brother Balabhadra, and sister Subhandra. One needs to witness this grand occasion to understand the Surya Temple at Konark, for here it comes alive. Temple chariots, some 14 meters high on sixteen wooden wheels, with conical cloth-canopied roofs that reflect the temple tower and decorated with colorful banners flying in the breeze, are hauled by thousands of human devotees. These chariots of the gods moving through the streets, like the Sun Temple, have ancient roots in the psyche of the people.