Enigmatic Konark

Poet Rabindranath Tagore said about Konark, ‘‘Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.’’ There can’t be any doubt about it.
Today this magnificent replica of Sun God’s chariot is in a bad shape, deteriorating daily, unable to resist the devastating rigors of time. It is an unfortunate fact that Konark is a victim of nature’s cruelty. Continuous stone erosion and weathering have already taken a toll and blunted the fineness of the delicately carved figurines. Soft stone is deteriorating fast due to salt action, wind, humidity, rain-water, algae and fungal growth. Whatever remains, remains in a very precarious state.
‘‘Those who are critical and difficult to please, they stand astonished at this sight,’’ wrote Abul Fazal, the famous court historian of King Akbar—in ‘Ain-i-Akbari’ about the grandeur of Konark’s Sun Temple. He also described that the temple was built during the reign of King Narasimha I (1238-1264 AD).
In early 20th century when Konark was accidentally discovered and dug out of the sand that had covered it for over two centuries, it was hailed as one of the most beautiful and unique architectural discovery. Historian Sir John Marshall was mesmerized. He wrote, ‘‘There is no monument in Hindustan which is so stupendous and as perfectly proportioned as the Black Pagoda and none which leaves so deep an impression on the memory.’’ Sadly, the sands of time are once again slowly eroding remains of this wonderful structure.
My first introduction to Konark was through playwright Jagdish Chandra Mathur’s Hindi play ‘Konark’ which was a part of our Hindi syllabi. Since then I was longing to visit the historic temple. My dream became a reality only after more than 40 years.
Standing there, under cloudy skies, the beauty and grandeur of the Sun Temple of Konark left me awed and curious. It looks spellbinding. The thoughts about the missing links in temple’s life cycle automatically cropped up . . . like an impossible jigsaw puzzle, the history of Konark is shrouded in mystery. Starting from its construction, consecration to collapse, legends and theories abound. Truth is no historian, archaeologist, researcher can claim with certainty the real story behind this world famous edifice.
Many stupendous and magnificent temples were built in Odisha between 7th to 13thcentury and many of them can be seen at Puri, Bhuvneshwar and other places. Temples built much before Konark are in far better condition. Strangely no big temple was built in Odisha after Konark. Somehow all artisans too went missing or all royal patronage suddenly ceased. Another curious fact is no other temple of that period was built at a lonely secluded location, far from the people and near sea.
Here, I do not wish to discuss about the construction, history or destruction of this awesome structure as a large amount of information is already available. Pt. Sada Shiv Rathsharma—the first Oriya honoured with a ‘Padmashree’—has excavated many of the theories surrounding Konark in his book titled ‘Sun Temple of Konark’.
The original temple had a main sanctum sanctorum (vimana), which was supposedly 229 feet (70 m) tall. But no trace of it has been found, it must has fallen off. The surviving ruins of the principal structure, the audience hall (Jagamohana), can be seen. Supposedly it was about 128 feet (30 m) tall. Among the structures, which have survived to the current day, are the dance hall (Nata mandira) and dining hall (Bhoga mandapa). Konark is famous for its twelve pairs of elaborately carved stone wheels or ‘Sun-dials’, some of which are 3 meters wide. Templeֹ’s chariot shaped structure was designed with seven pairs of horses pulling it. The pair of horses represented seven days of week. Apart from this, the temple follows the traditional Kalinga style of architecture. It was built mainly with Khondalite stones, available nearby.
The Konark temple is dedicated to the sun god. The structure is purposefully oriented towards the east so that the first rays of sunrise strikes the gigantic sun idol kept inside the main temple. These sun dials are so scrupulously and scientifically carved that even today one can calculate the exact time by the rays of these dials. Konark’s name too is an amalgamation of words ‘kona’ (corner) and ‘ark’ (sun). The intricate artwork, iconography, symbolic motifs and varied themes all together give Korark a distinct, unparalleled, identity.
Today the reconstructed remains of this UNESCO World Heritage structure stands on a sprawling 12-acre patch close to the Bay of Bengal. Konark is, undisputedly, an example of elegance and beauty. The heightened level of creativity, the intricate carvings, the erotic scenes telling tales of creation and procreation and its architectural magnificence is a source of joy and sadness simultaneously.
The Story of Dharmapada
Many legends and stories are associated with Konark. One of them is of Dharmapada. 12 year old Dharmapada sacrificed his life to save twelve thousand craftsmen. Dharmapada was the son of great temple architect, Bisu Maharana. Bisu Maharana was almost always away from home and Dharmapada had never met him, but he mastered the intricacies of Odiya temple architecture from the manuscripts and drawings describing details of temple construction, left behind by his father. Dharmapada wanted to see and meet his father Bisu Maharana. After a long and torturous journey Dharmapada reached the sea shore where his famous father was busy supervising the construction of the Sun temple. Dharmapada was joyous, his father too embraced him but soon the son noticed that something was troubling his father.
Bisu Maharana was not happy with the construction. 12 years of hard work, but the temple was still incomplete. The top stone or the Kalash was yet to be installed. Every effort of the craftsmen had gone in vain. They tried again and again, but each time the top stone rolled off. None could visualize what the problem was and how to tackle it. All were nervous and afraid. King Narsinghdev had announced that if the temple was still incomplete by the next morning, then all the 12 thousand craftsmen would be beheaded. Bisu Maharana was deeply worried as he was the head of the craftsmen.
Dharmapada had studied temple designing from his father’s notes and drawings. He thought and found the fault and also the appropriate solution. With his help, the Kalash was finally put in place by midnight. Thus the lives of the craftsmen were saved. But Dharmapada knew if the king came to know how a 12 year old child found the solution where all other failed, he will be angry and surely kill them all. Dharmapada was concerned about the humiliation of the skilled workmen including his father. To save everyone from king’s wrath he decided to kill himself. He made his way up to the temple top and from there jumped into the sea. The people of Odisha remember Dharmapada with great love and pride. Many stories and poems were written in praise of him.
Purpose of Building Konark at this Place
Ancient Odia texts tell that King Narasimhadeva loved the beauty of the sunrise and the roaring voice of the sea. The river Chandrabhaga which is now dead, was once flowing near to the north of the temple site and was joining the sea. King wanted to build a temple in praise of the Sun god and wanted it to be unique. He selected the place for his proposed temple.
According to an interesting legend, once Samba, the son of Sri Krishna, incurred the displeasure of Narada. Angry Narada revenged himself by getting Samba afflicted with leprosy. Ultimately, when Samba, was found innocent, he was advised to practice penance in the Maitreyi forest for 12 years, to please Surya (Sun God) to cure him of his disease. He acted accordingly. Sun god appeared before him and asked to recite the twenty-one different names of the deity. Next morning when Samba was taking his bath in Chandrabhaga, his hands came in contact with a stone in the water. He immediately lifted it up and saw an image of Surya (Sun God) standing on a lotus pedestal, holding two lotuses in his hands. He carried the image to his hermitage and installed it in a temple, built earlier. With Sun’s blessings Samba was completely cured.
As per another legend it is believed that there was a pool nearby the temple site. Once King Narsimhadeva dropped a stone in the pool and it was galloped by the Raghab Fish. On knowing this, the goddess Dhama got disturbed. She gave a suggestion to Sivai Santra (a minister of King Narsimhadeva) to construct a temple at the place. Thus, the Sun temple is believed to have been built here.
It’s also believed that few other temples were part of the large original campus. Two smaller ruined temples have been discovered nearby. One of them is called the Mayadevi Temple. It is located southwest from the entrance of the main temple. The second one is Vaishnava Temple, located some distance from Mayadevi Temple.
The Destruction of Konark
It is almost impossible to conclude as how beautifully grand this temple stood in its full glory. It is also difficult to guess how long it remained intact and what caused its decay. The exact date and reason for the fall of this magnificent Konark is in mystery. Almost nothing is available in History. Scholars too differ in their opinions, but there is no dearth of stories.
Some historians believe that the temple was never completed. They believe that the untimely death of king Narasimhadeva left the artisans without royal patronage and the construction of the temple suddenly stopped. As a result the incomplete haphazard structure eventually collapsed. But this view is not widely accepted. The records of ‘Madala Panji’ of Puri Jagannath temple, as well as from some copper plates dated 1278 AD, state that the king Narasimhadeva reined till 1282. Many historians argue that the Konark temple was completed between 1253 and 1260 AD.
Another legend of temple’s destruction is associated with its ‘kalash’ or load stone atop the temple. Due to its magnetic effects, vessels passing through the nearby sea were drawn to it, resulting in heavy damage. To save their shipping, the Portuguese voyagers took away the load stone. Due to its displacement, the temple columns and walls lost their balance and eventually fell down. But there is no record of any such incident is available in history. The story of a powerful load stone or ‘magnetic kalash’ too remains a myth.
The most popular and believable legend about the destruction of Konark rests with the Kalapahad. According Odia history Kalachand Roy or Kalapahad (after he converted) was a general of Bengal Governor Suleiman Kirrani. He invaded Orissa in 1508. He destroyed a number of Hindu temples, including Konark. He broke images in many of the Hindu temples in Orissa and ravaged temples of Midnapore, the Khirachora Gopinath temple of Balasore, and the Khiching temple of Mayurbhanj, the temples of Bhubaneswar, Puri, and Jajpur & Cuttack. As it was almost impossible to destroy massive Konark, he ordered to displace the Dadhinauti (Arch stone) of temple. This made the temple to collapse. Stones fell down from the temple top and slowly the whole structure was damaged.
Though there is no proof, but some scholars believe that a big earthquake was the cause of Konark’s sad fate. Some other believes that the temple was affected with a damaging thunderstruck. Experts find this theory unacceptable.
The Erotic Sculptures of Konark
The Konark temple is also famous for its erotic sculptures (maithunas) that show couples in various stages of courtship and intimacy. Some historians see these erotic and other images that depict the various aspects of human life as well as deities as part of the tantra tradition. But this is not supported by local literary sources. Such images and erotic scenes are part of the integrated part of the art of many Hindu temples. In Konark maithuna scenes, present in the higher layer (above the basement and middle layers), are part of the decoration of the temple. These sculptures reveal the thorough knowledge of human anatomy that the artists had. Many explanations have been offered for these erotic sculptures, but no single explanation has resolved the mystery.
Lowell Thomas, American traveler and broadcaster described Konark as the most beautiful and at the same time the most obscene building in the world.
A.K. Coomaraswamy, the pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian heritage, mentions that the Indian sex-symbolism is ‘sacramental’ and may be a symbol to the union of the individual soul with the universal spirit. Coomaraswamy described the erotic sculptures as symbolic of the illusory world of pleasure in contrast to the solemn character of the inner side of the sanctuary. The outside of the temple represents various activities that belong to the ‘samsara’; beyond that and within the temple is the image of God. He writes, ‘‘The worshipper must overcome the world of pleasure to find this god.’’
Stella Kramrisch—an authority on Indian art, a teacher and a curator—opines that the sculptures may be a symbol of ‘symbol of Moksha’, because the ecstasy of sexual love is many a times compared to religious ecstasy derived in merging of the human soul with its deity.
Some connect these erotic figures with Tantric rituals. Historian K.C. Panigrahi believes that these erotic figures were in all probability meant to test the self-restraint of a visitor before he was entitled to reap the merits of his visit to the god.
Among all the explanations offered for the depiction of eroticism in the Konark, Coomaraswamy’s holistic explanation looks like more believable. He says that such a characteristic feature of the temple architecture in India could be thought of as a representation of the rightful place of ‘voluptuous ecstasy’ in human life. The erotic sculptures in temple reflect the life and vitality of the times; they are the expressions of a happy people who took delight in the pursuit of pleasure. Noted historian Prof. K.S. Behera too agrees with this explanation in his book ‘Konark, the Black Pagoda’ and accepts this as most credible.
Erotic sculptures are also found adorning the walls of the temples of Khajuraho, Somnathapura, Halebid and Modhera, among others, and depict coitus and its many variations in all their glory. These erotic sculptures represent a society where artists had the freedom to sculpt a buxom woman happily embracing her lover and a time where seeing maithuna (couples engaged in coitus) on temples did not evoke disgust in public perception.
Relocation of the Parts of Konark Remains
In 1859 the Asiatic Society of Bengal proposed, and in 1867 attempted to relocate an architrave of the Konark temple depicting the ‘Navagraha’ to the Indian Museum in Kolkata. This attempt was abandoned later. In 1894 thirteen sculptures were moved to the Indian Museum, Kolkata. Locals objected to it and removal of further pieces ceased. In 1903, when a major excavation was attempted nearby, the temple was filled with sand and sealed to prevent the collapse of the Jagamohana as ordered by then-Lieutenant governor of Bengal, J.A. Baurdilon. The Mukhasala and Nata Mandir were repaired by 1905.
As per historical texts, there was an ‘Aruna stambha’ (Aruna’s pillar) between the main temple and the Nata mandira, but it has been moved to the Jagannatha at Puri sometime after its excavation. According to historian James C. Harle (The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, 1994), the old texts suggest that the complex was originally enclosed with a high wall with gateways on three sides.
Historian Andrew Sterling, who was also served as the administrator and Secretary to the Commissioner at Cuttack wrote that the temple had “an air of elegance, combined with massiveness in the whole structure, which entitles it to no small share of admiration.” He also wrote that temple sculpture had “a degree of taste, propriety and freedom which would stand a comparison with some of our best specimens of Gothic architectural ornament”.

English arts administrator, art historian and author of numerous books about Indian art and architecture, Ernest Binfield Havell commented that the Konark temple is “one of the grandest examples of Indian sculpture extant”, adding that they express “as much fire and passion as the greatest European art such as that found in Venice.’’
‘‘When nine flights of steps are passed, a spacious court appears with a large arch of stone upon which are carved the sun and other planets. Around them are a variety of worshippers of every class, each after its manner with bowed heads, standing, sitting, prostrate, laughing, weeping, lost in amaze or in rapt attention, and following these are divers musicians and strange animals which never existed but in imagination.’’ (Abul Fazl in ‘Ain-i-Akbari’)
Standing there, lines of renowned Odisha poet Jayanta Mahapatra’s poem ‘Konaraka’ came floating in my mind:
‘‘Konaraka, black is sleep cold become of my silent land messenger of death.
Here the little boy in a dream waved to the Man once and death hung its peace;
An indifferent time of stone marks the brunt-out funeral and
The sunrise that journeys again and again to call this grief of man its own.
×                       ×                       ×
I must carry the stone I found in the late afternoon light.
Me not think of myself only, and my pain which possesses.
These last breaths of my life.’’

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Architectural Treasure: Sun Temple, Konark


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