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Every ancient Indian temple or structure recounts stories of India’s rich heritage, scientific and architectural expertise and immense devotion.  One of the outstanding examples is the 13th century Sun Temple of Konark located on the eastern shores of the Indian subcontinent in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa).

Dedicated to Surya – the Sun God, it is one of the most magnificent monuments of religious architecture in the world, and was declared a world heritage site by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1984. The entire structure was built as a huge chariot carrying the Sun God across the heavens, with twelve exquisitely carved wheels on either side drawn by seven galloping horses.  A major part of the structure which is built from Khondalite rocks is now in ruins, but the elaborate carvings on its wheels, pillars and walls still remain today.

One of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, Konark is a part of the Golden Triangle of Odisha along with Bhubaneshwar (65km) and Puri (35km). This tourist circuit attracts large numbers of pilgrims and tourists. An ancient amphitheatre with the Sun Temple as the backdrop is the venue for the annual Konark Dance Festival, one of the country’s most exciting dance festivals and a great attraction for tourists.

The name Konark is derived from the Sanskrit words Kona (corner) and Arka (Sun) and is also known as Arkakshetra. It is situated on the north eastern corner of Puri also known as Chakrakshetra. The 1st century AD Greek text “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”  mentions a port called Kainapara, which has been identified as current day Konark.

This Sun Temple, one of the grandest in India and said to be the best example of Odisha’s temple architecture, was built around 1250 AD by the Hindu King Narasimha Deva I of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. It took 12 years and 1200 artisans for this most famous masterpiece of traditional Odisha Architecture. A 16th century Mughal account mentions the temple and its cost of construction being 12 years of revenue.

Very interesting! So, this is where I’m travelling to on a hot Thursday morning in the peak summer month of May…

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On the hour-long refreshing drive from Puri to Konark, the last seven to eight kilometres of the smooth road runs parallel to the sea. There are regular bus and jeep services between the two places, but to cut time and travel in comfort in the intense heat, I have taken an AC tourist car.

Vehicles aren’t allowed near the entrance gate. The parking area is half a kilometre away. The road is lined with souvenir shops and food stalls. The temple is open from sunrise to sunset. Both are the best times to visit and perhaps the most crowded too. The temple is oriented towards the east, so that it is bathed in the rays of the rising sun. I purchase the entrance ticket and walk in through the eastern gateway, the main entrance to the temple compound. The temple was originally built on the sea bank, but the waterline has receded since then, almost 3 km away.

In the distance, the famed temple stands majestically supported by scaffolding. The path is lined by souvenir stalls.

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One after another, I’m approached by guides and photographers. But I’m not interested.

On each side of the entrance to the temple stands a huge statue of a lion crushing a war elephant beneath whom lies a man…

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There’s no audio guide nor descriptions for the structures on site. No wonder there are so many guides around. Despite being a weekday, it’s crowded. The temple attracts tourists from across the world, but today I see only domestic visitors. With so many people moving around, it becomes difficult to take pictures. Even after waiting till the other are done with posing against the structures, someone or the other pops into the frame to photobomb and waste a good shot. And to top it all, most of the pictures are coming out blurry.

Walking past the two statues, I enter the Nata Mandir (dancing hall), where temple dancers would pay homage to the Sun God with their performance. Facing the Nata Mandir is the temple itself.

View of the temple from the Nata Mandir…

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Watch my video: View of  the Sun Temple

The temple was built in such a way that the first rays of the rising sun would touch the Nata Mandir and reflect from the diamond in the middle of the idol in the temple’s main sanctum. Simply mesmerizing! And these structures are more than seven hundred years old!

Due to its height, the Nata Mandir offers a good view of the temple complex. Within the area, there are different subsidiary structures.

Even in its partially-ruined state, this architectural marvel reflects the genius of its builders…

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The simhasana (seat of the presiding deity) is made of chlorite stone (a kind of volcanic rock) and is still in existence within the sanctum, but the presiding deity is missing.

Superbly carved intricate sculptures adorn the temple’s exterior. These include deities, floral and geometric patterns, dancers, musicians, elephants, birds, mythical creatures and… lovers in erotic poses.

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Hinduism, the world’s oldest continuously practiced religion, started as a philosophy and a way of life before it became a religion. Hence ancient Indian architecture reflects a fine combination of spirituality and eroticism both of which were part of this philosophy.

Still, if the neatly-carved erotic sculptures on the upper level of the temple walls really surprised me, those around the base of the temple leave me stunned. I thought that the world-famous Khajuraho Temple in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was the only place for ancient Indian erotic art form. Between the chariot wheels, the plinth of the temple is entirely decorated with exquisite stone sculptures depicting various themes, among them many erotic scenes based on the Kama Sutra.

It’s funny that almost all the online travel stories that I read on the Sun Temple before embarking on my tour carried photographs of the carved sculptures of varied themes…

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But none of the erotic group. So here are a few pictures…

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Watch my video: Close view of the Sun Temple

At the base of the temple, the chariot horses…

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And the 3-metre high chariot wheels…

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The 24 chariot wheels are beautifully carved all over. Each wheel has eight spokes which bears a medallion containing figurative carvings.

The elaborately carved wheels of the chariot…

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Yours truly against the backdrop of one of the carved wheels…

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It’s only 10:00am, but the sun is scorching hot.  With no roofed shelters, I walk around the temple at a brisk pace. Architectural figures include war horses and elephants standing on a high platform.

War horse…

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Watch my video: Side-view of the Sun Temple

War elephants…

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The green beautiful garden around the temple is welcoming…

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A smaller ruined temple called the Mayadevi Temple, dedicated to one of the Sun God’s wives…

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The temple backside…

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Three images of the Sun God are positioned at three different sides of the temple in such a way that they are bathed in the rays of the sun at dawn, noon and evening.

One of the interesting unrecorded stories about this temple is that of a huge lodestone mounted atop it.  With magnetic energy, the idol in the main sanctum could float in air. The lodestone was also used as a navigational landmark by ancient sailors. But the lodestone disturbed the movement of European ships along the coast, mostly British ships. The temple was referred to as the Black Pagoda for the frequent shipwrecks that took place off the coast. The British got the lodestone removed which led to an imbalance and the temple collapsed.

Another popular story is that the temple was destroyed by the Muslim governor of that period. The Muslims invaded Odisha in the 16th century and destroyed many Hindu temples including the Sun Temple.

Apart from the lodestone, another unique feature of the temple was the wheel of the chariot. All 24 of them served as sundials.

Once a prosperous port town, Konark’s decline began with the removal of the image of the presiding deity from the temple sanctum. The Sun Temple ceased to attract pilgrimages, the port closed due to pirate attacks. Then, nature took over the destruction.  By the end of the 18th century, Konark had turned into a dense forest. The temple ruins were discovered in late 19th century by British army officers. By then, most of the architectural figures which made the temple famous, were totally buried under huge mounds of sand and debris. Its restoration was started by British archaeologists in the early 20th century. A museum was opened nearby to display some of the sculptures excavated from the site. Some of the sculptures were sent to the museums in Kolkata and New Delhi. Many were shipped to London. In 1924, the temple was opened to the public in its new form. Today, most of it is supported by scaffolding as the stones are slowly getting eroded in the salty air.

I’m running short of time so I decide to skip the nearby museum run by the Archaeological Survey of India. A real pity because I would have thoroughly enjoyed looking around the ancient pieces and the late 19th and early 20th century photographs showing the temple ruins at the start of restoration work.

Outside the gate, there are plenty of ice cream and fresh coconut vendors. I quench my parched throat with fresh coconut water. Being a coastal area, there are thousands of coconut tree plantations but the cost of a fresh coconut is just the same or slightly less compared to my home city of Mumbai.

This is my travel experience at the Sun Temple of Konark. I’m sure yours will be equally delightful or perhaps even more. So, pack your bags and head to this destination on your next holiday… Bon voyage 🙂

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