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Konark Sun Temple, Konark

Konark Sun Temple Overview

The Sun Temple at Konark Magnificent in its isolation, the temple of the Sun at Konark (a.k.a Konarak), about 20 miles northeast of Puri, has been hailed as the supreme achievement of the architectural genius of Orissa, coming as it did at the apex of continuous development for centuries. It was built during the reign of the eastern Ganga King Narasimha Deva I (1238-64 see also the Ganga kings), but is now in ruins, with the heap of masonry forming a landmark which the sailors call the black pagoda, to distinguish it from the white temples of Puri. The great tower of this temple has lost much of its height within living memory and the vimana, along with the shrine of the presiding deity has crumbled. However, enough remains to make a conjectural reconstruction possible and it is likely that the basic plan of the temple was not unlike that of the Jagannath and Lingaraja temples. Abul Fazl, Akbar's official historian, appears to have seen the temple before it became a heap of ruins, and records in the Ain-i-Akbari, that he was amazed at the beauty of the spectacle. Although the temple was grandiose in conception, there is reason to believe that it was never quite completed, for the grandeur that the plan of the temple sought to achieve was too ambitious to be carried out in practice.

The Classic Orissan Temple Structure : In the classic Orissan temple, such as the Lingaraja at Bhubaneshwar, there was a hall of celebration in addition to the Hall of Dance, in which the Devadasis performed. Here at Konark the two structures seem to have been amalgamated. The inner arrangement of the hall, divided into bays by thick pillars, falls into nine compartments, thus forming a ground plan known as the "Graha-Abha-Mandapa", used in ancient India for the construction of stages. This fact, together with the profuse carving of musicians, and so forth, would argue that this pavilion was a 'Natamandira'. But it may well be that Narasingha intended to build another structure between this and the 'Jagamohana', much as happened at the Lingaraja, and it is a fact that the building farthest from the 'Deul' is generally a "Bhogamandapa" in Orissan temples. Whether this was his intention or not, this hall would also have been used for banquets. Food was ceremonially offered to the sun god, and a portion of the offering returned as blessed and given to the devotees as consecrated. This custom takes place in every living Hindu temple. There is also the important ritual of feeding the Brahmins in order to gain spiritual merit, another custom still practiced. The southern door of the hall led directly to the kitchens. From the inside one can see that the hall was aligned to the eastern door of the main temple. This was to allow the rising sun to fall on the image in the holy of holies each morning. There may well have been a ritual opening of doors to allow the light to shine through the hall, for there are large holes in the floor that were probably sockets for wooden doorjambs.
The Festivities : In fact, Orissa has had a history of independence and military honor second only to that of the Rajputs. Since earliest times the main annual festivals of the Hindu calendar in this part of the country have been military, rather than religious, affairs. Until recently the autumn festival of 'Dusserah', celebrated all over India as a worship of Durga, consort of Shiva, was an aboriginal hunting festival in Orissa. Reserved forests were thrown open to the general public for hunting; the ancestral weapons were brought out and worshipped in each village, and the warlike past of the community was relived in ancient myth and songs. Leadership, bravery, and strength have always been the valued qualities here.
An Abode of Sun God : The temple was conceived as a massive chariot lying on an east-west axis, in which the Sun god, Surya, was pulled across the sky. Each day his journey brought life and light back to earth and his procession was a continual rejoicing. The chariot had twenty-four wheels, and was pulled by seven horses, representing the seven days of the week and the seven sages who govern the constellations. Sun worship is central to India. The standard daily prayer of the Brahmins is the 'Gayatri', addressed to the sun, and on an esoteric level, the sun symbolizes the divine Self within. The idea of procession is also an integral part of temple worship. Deities are shown to the public on feast days and festivals and are pulled around the town in brightly decorated chariots. The most famous of these processions takes place every July, in nearby Puri. This is the festival of the Jagannatha Temple. A form of Vishnu, Shri Jagannatha, is paraded in an enormous chariot. To the west of the Sun temple stand the remains of two earlier structures: the "Vaishnava temple" and the "Mayadev temple". Thus looking from left to right across the site, one can trace a progression beginning with the earliest structure, the Vaishnava temple, and ending with the latest, the Hall of Dance. The Hall of Dance - Natamandira This pavilion was the scene of ritual celebrations held in honor of the sun god. Such halls are a distinctive feature of Orissan temple architecture. Here there would have been drama, music, dancing, and banquets, as well as daily rituals performed in honor of the lord of all life. One of the unique features of the Hindu temple was the degree to which it penetrated into the daily life of the people. The cathedrals of medieval Europe overlooked marketplaces where goods were sold and mystery plays enacted; the temples of ancient Greece served as stages for certain arts that were considered divine; but it was the Hindu temple that sought above all to glorify human life by turning it into a sacrificial celebration. Only the holy of the holies was restricted to the priest; the outer parts of the temple were open to the public.
The Sculptures Around The Base : Orissa had a particularly vital tradition of dance, and it was there that the 'Natamandira' became a separate structure, independent of the main temple. The sculptures around the base of the hall portray the principal poses as enumerated in the classic text on Orissan dance, the "Sangina Darpana". Other women are shown in a variety of poses, which illustrate their relaxed and sensuous enjoyment of everyday living. Some are at their toilet, bathing, or wringing out their wet hair; others caress a child or adjust a scarf. Everywhere there is a languorous dwelling on the physical charm of these damsels, the divine attendants of the sun god's court. As at Khajuraho, life in all its pleasurable variety is seen as essentially feminine-delicate, creative, and beautiful.
The Three-Tier System : The standing figures on the walls of the pavilion are arrayed in three tiers. Each figure is set in a protruding panel framed by running borders of vine leaves, tendrils, tiny elephants ducks, and animals. These tiers are punctuated further by vignettes of erotic couples locked in close embrace, soldiers on the march, and animals in various positions. The background to all this intricate carving is a wall surface that is not continuous but regularly pitted with small holes, so that it resembles a honeycomb. It seems barely substantial enough to support the carving is a wall surface that is not continuous but regularly pitted with small holes, so that it resembles a honeycomb. It seems barely substantial enough to support the carvings that emerge so boisterously from its checkered shadows. The whole effect is one of fragility combined with softness. This impression is accentuated by the way the scroll motifs tend to be concentrated at the corners of the building, and thus serve to soften any angularity it might have. Each register of frieze is deeply indented, and this adds to the play of light and shade that reduces the wall surface to one rippling arabesque that is at once lively and contained.
Devadasis : The subjects of the carving are not merely decorative. They are records of what went on here. One important institution in the Hindu temple was the 'Devadasis'- the temple dancing girls. These girls entertained the public as well as performing dances to the temple god. They represented an incarnation of heavenly nymphs and portrayed myths and stories from the scriptures. The Devadasis would have danced here in this hall. But however pure its beginnings, the Devadasi institution went into a spectacular decline. By the 18th century there was an entire colony of the girls living in Puri, an old center of Brahminical piety. Under royal guard, the girls were not allowed to marry, as they were officially " married " to Surya, the sun god they served. However, not only the deity enjoyed their charms. The colony was popularly known as "the place where bodies may enjoy relaxation," and out of the six categories of Devadasis residing in this stately pleasure dome; one was called "those who are meant for the king only," and another "those who are meant for the inner apartments only." Perhaps the other four were generally available-at least to the upper echelons of society. The Devadasi system was kept alive by the random recruitment of young girls, often from poor families who were probably only too pleased to see their daughters assured of a good living and themselves freed from having to find a dowry they could ill afford. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to see the system as nothing but a front for wholesale prostitution. Even in its last hours, the custom retained some of its former glory, and some of the Devadasis fulfilled their original duty. The Orissan historian, Dr. K. Mansingha, recalls seeing a brilliant performance of the dancing art in the Hall of Celebration of Orissa's holiest temple, the Jagannatha at Puri. This was in the early years of the present century. Sumptuously clad in heavy gold jewelry from the temple coffers, a young Devadasi danced silently in front of the image for almost an hour. Only her guru, an old man, who played the pachawaj drum, accompanied her. When she had finished, many of her spellbound audience-men and women of all ages-spontaneously rolled over the very ground on which she had danced, so great was their appreciation.
Historical Facts Vs Myths : The temple was actually built by a king of the medieval 'Ganga' dynasty, "Narasingha Deva". The king was popularly known as "Langulia", "the one with a tail." It is possible that he built the temple as a supplication to Surya to remove a spinal swelling of some sort. In the eyes of his subjects, such an act would imply that 'Narasingha' was a descendant of, or even a reincarnation of, Krishna's very own son. It was not unheard of for kings to align themselves in this way with the great heroes of antiquity or even with gods. To discover the roots of one's family tree securely planted in heaven could be a distinct advantage. A less romantic explanation is that Narasingha built the temple to commemorate his victories over the Muslims, who were pushing into Orissa from the west. During his reign he won at least three resounding victories over the invaders.
The Ancient Orissan Armed Force : Under the Ganga dynasty Orissa had a peasant militia of three hundred thousand men, with fifty thousand foot and ten thousand horses, and an elephant regiment twenty-five thousand strong. She was relied upon by the central power in times of crisis, her troops constituting what was, in effect, a national army. Even the Muslims grudgingly admitted that a Ganga king could, at a moment's notice, take the field with eighteen thousand men. And it was in Orissa that the first armed rebellions against the British took place in the early 19th century. This concern with martial arts invaded even the religious sphere. The priests at the Jagannatha temple in Puri were renowned for their physical prowess and exercised daily in the famous religious gymnasia. The 'Pandits' were accomplished and respected wrestlers. Many of the common Orissan surnames, such as 'Dalai' and 'Senapati', originated in Ganga times. Interestingly, the higher posts in the army were held by the priestly Brahmin caste; thus 'Bahinapati' is a common Brahmin name. Narasingha himself was more renowned for his valor than his piety. This, combined with Orissa's impressive military history, supports the theory that Konark was a colossal tower of victory, erected to the sun god in thanks for his earthly representative's victory over the dreaded Muslim. The profusion of carvings, on and around the temple, depicting military subjects, seems to confirm it. At the end of the 16th century, Konark was famous far beyond the borders of Orissa. By then, it had become a great center of pilgrimage and attracted the praise of even such a discriminating critic as Abul Fazl, the court biographer of Emperor Akbar the Great. All that now remains from those glory days is the ruined half of the main temple. Nevertheless, this mere fragment of Konark's former glory constitutes what is often considered to be the most impressive temple in northern India.
The Walls : The walls of the platform of the Hall of Dance are covered by hundreds of figures, carved in living detail. The majority of these are heavenly nymphs of the sort that are to be seen at Khajuraho. They twist and turn like sinuous corkscrews. Most are playing musical instruments-drums, flutes, cymbals-or dancing with their hands above their heads and their hips swinging in joyful movement. The whole wall pulsates with rhythm.
The Gargoyle : As well as the 'Kanyas', some deities are depicted, including Ganesha and the Guardians of the Eight Directions of space, a common motif on temple walls. Also there are instances of a robust humor. One of these is in the gargoyle surmounting a pilaster. The gargoyle is in the form of a man, with the water pipe coming out between his legs. To appreciate this fully, one has to go right into the corner of the wall and look back up at the gargoyle. Then one can see that behind the man crouches a woman, grinning as widely as her playmate.
Indian Craft Traditions : It is worth remembering that Hindu temple art is squarely based on the indigenous craft traditions. This heritage has several important implications. On the technical side it insures the continuing skill of the stone carver, who inherits the trade from his father. This skill is highly prized, for the carver who fashions unworked stone into life acts as a microcosm of the mysterious power that fashions the undifferentiated primordial matter into the world of name and forms and actively transmits them to his material. The scribe does the same with different materials and instruments. In the Indian tradition both primordial matter and pure spirit are eternal and divine; they represent the first duality to emerge from the one. The craft tradition dictated content as well as form. The crafts were rooted in a worldview that was cosmological rather than theological. Their art is not morally educational in the sense of teaching what ought to be done to become "holy"; temples such as Konark and Khajuraho are non-moral. They communicate a vision of a world that is already holy by virtue of its beauty, richness, and exuberance.
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