The magnificent Sun Temple at Konark is the culmination of Orissan temple architecture, and one of the most stunning monuments of religious architecture in the world. The poet Rabindranath Tagore said of Konark that 'here the language of stone surpasses the language of man', and it is true that the experience of Konark is impossible to translate into words.
The massive structure, now in ruins, sits in solitary splendour surrounded by drifting sand. Today it is located two kilometers from the sea, but originally the ocean came almost up to its base. Until fairly recent times, in fact, the temple was close enough to the shore to be 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, in its ruined state, makes one gasp at first sight. Construction of the huge edifice is said to have taken 12 years revenues of the kingdom.
The main tower, which is now collapsed, originally 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 exceeded 120 feet in height. Both 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 Orissa's sculptural tradition.
At the base of the collapsed tower were three subsidiary shrines, which had steps leading to the Surya images. The third major component of the temple complex was the detached natamandira (hall of dance), which remains in front of the temple. Of the 22 subsidiary temples which once stood within the enclosure, two remain (to the west of the tower): the Vaishnava Temple and the Mayadevi Temple. At either side of the main temple are colossal figures of royal elephants and royal horses.
Just why this amazing structure was built here is a mystery. Konark was an important port from early times, and was known to the geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD. 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, 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. Samba then travelled to the seashore, where he performed 12 years penance to Surya who, pleased with his devotion, cured him of the dreaded disease. In thanksgiving, Samba erected a temple at the spot.
Mistaking the sea at Puri for the Yamuna River, Sri Chaitanya jumped in and was washed by the ocean 33-km north to the Konark area, where an astonished fisherman caught him in his net.
The Sun Temple
The Orissan King 'Raja Narasimha Deva' built this temple in the 13th century. It took 1,200 workmen over 16 years to build. It is believed that the temple was no longer used from the early 17th century when the temple was desecrated by Muslim invaders. In 1904 the sand around the temple base was cleared.
This impressive temple resembles a huge chariot with 24 huge wheels being pulled by seven horses. Great pairs of large intricately carved wheels were carved on both sides of the 4m high platform that the temple is on. There are two rows of 12 wheels on each side of the temple. Some say the wheels represent the 24 hours in a day and others say the 12 months. The seven horses are said to symbolize the seven days of the week. There is a dancing hall here, an audience hall and a high tower too. This temple was once called the Black Pagoda by sailors because it was supposed to draw ships into the shore and cause shipwrecks.
There is a nice quiet beach about 3-km from the temple. The currents can be strong here, so swimming can be dangerous. Not far from the beach is a pond where Krishna's son Samba is said to have been cured from leprosy. Every year during the full moon phase in the month of Magha there is a festival called "Magha Saptami Mela". People bathe in the pond at night and then watch the sun rise over the sea the next morning.
The Sun Temple Museum
The Sun Temple Museum run by the Archaeological Survey of India has a excellent collection of sculptures from the temple ruins. One can also purchase the "Archaeological Survey of India's Sun Temple-Konark" from here. It is not sold at the temple itself.
This place approachable by jeeps is just 8-kms from Konark. Recent excavations have brought this small village into the limelight with the discovery of antique images of Buddha seated in "Bhumispara Mudra" along with the image of "Heruka".
Here one may visit the shrines of 'Laxminarayanan', 'Amareshras' and 'Barahi'. Barahi is a deity dating back to the 9th Century AD and is worshipped according to tantric practices. She is a mother goddess with the face of a boar and is holding a fish in one hand and a cup in the other.
7-kms from Konark, it is accessible by road (Marine drive). Ramachandi is situated at the confluence of the River Kusabhadra and the Bay of Bengal. It is a beautiful spot and Goddess Ramachandi, the deity of Konark, is worshipped here.
Washed by the clear blue waters of the Bay of Bengal it really lives upto its name. 'Astranga' literally means varied colours. 55-kms from Konark, the sunset is a spectacular scene. It is a famous fishing harbour.
Kakatapur lies 45-kms from Konark. Well connected by regular bus services from Puri Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack . It is situated in the Prachi valley and is known for the shrines of Goddess 'Mangala' and 'Banadurga'. Legend has it that direction for locating the holy log from which is created the icon of Lord Jagannatha comes from her. The much-famed 'Jhamu Yatra' is celebrated in April - May where the devotees walk over a narrow trench strewn with lighted embers. It is a major festival here.
Pipli, close to Konark, is a centre for applique work.