Tallest of them all

Print edition : June 20, 2008

The ratha, or chariot, of the Sun temple of Konark, with two of its giant wheels up close.-

In the mid-13th century, a grand temple dedicated to Surya, the sun, was built at Konark, Orissa.

BY the 11th and 12th centuries A.D., grand structural temples were being made under the Cholas in what is now Tamil Nadu. In central India, one of the worlds most magnificent temple cities was created at Khajuraho. The medieval tradition of vast temples, which reflected the grandeur of the rulers who patronised them, reached its peak in the 13th century. In the mid-13th century, a grand temple dedicated to Surya, the sun, was built in Orissa, on the eastern coast of India. It was the tallest and the most magnificent temple made in India, the climax of 800 years of building structural stone temples. It was built at Konark by King Narasimhamahadeva I of the Ganga dynasty.

The land of Orissa saw prolific temple building from the 7th and 8th centuries. In nearby Bhubaneswar stand numerous temples. These display the development in Orissa by the end of the first millennium of a distinctive style of architecture and sculpture.

The temple at Konark was made essentially according to the regional style, with a dramatic difference. Its tower, or deul, and its hall, or jagmohan, were designed to be a giant chariot for Surya. The belief is that Surya rides in his chariot, driven by Aruna, or the dawn, across the skies each day. The ratha, or chariot, has 24 large wheels, 12 on each side, representing the months of the year. It has seven horses at the front to pull it forward at a spirited gallop. Perhaps the inspiration for the ratha came from South India, where rathas are used to carry temple deities in processions on ceremonial occasions. The mandapa of the Airavateswara temple of the 12th century at Darasuram, in Tamil Nadu, is an example of a smaller building made in the form of a ratha.

Surya is one of the earliest deities of Indic art. The first known representation is probably the one at the Bhaja caves of western India, of the 2nd century B.C.-

The deul of the Sun temple originally stood over 200 feet (60 metres) tall, higher than any other temple in India. The jagmohan still stands over 130 feet (39 m) tall. The temple is made of three types of stone. Chlorite, which endures very well, was used for the most important areas, including the doorways, the icons in the shrines and the wonderful musicians made high above. Laterite forms the unseen core of the platform and the foundation. The main structures are made of khondalite, which unfortunately weathers very easily. None of the stones is available in the area and must have been brought over long distances by rafts on the river.

Since the earliest of times, the life-giving and vital qualities of nature have been embodied in stupas and at temple sites in India. The worship of Surya is as ancient as that of any other deity. Surya temples stand at Martand in Kashmir, Modhera in Gujarat, Ranakpur and Osian in Rajasthan and at many other sites.

The magnificent temple at Konark has drawn considerable admiration over the centuries. Abul Fazl, the court historian of the Mughal emperor Akbar, visited it and wrote: Even those whose judgment is critical and who are difficult to please stand astonished at its sight.

A fascinating relief at Konark depicts the workers who brought the blocks of stone with which the temple was built.-

Even with its soaring tower lost, the Sun temple is still a picture of majesty and grandeur. The structures are perfectly proportioned and covered with an endless wealth of sculpture. Architecture and carvings are intrinsically linked in the scheme of an Indian temple. Here, the complete harmony and blending of both can be seen.

The jagmohan and the deul are built on the same platform. The giant wheels of the great chariot are against the sides of the platform. These stand over 10 feet (3 m) high and lend the structure a quality associated with epic imagination. The giant wheels remind one of the grandeur that is in all of creation, the magnificence of the divinity that one can awaken within oneself. The wheels are detailed and realistic and even have axles and pins to hold them in place. As with every part of the edifice, they are gorgeously sculpted. Every inch is carved, and miniaturised figures, made in great detail, inhabit all parts of the wheel. In everything big and small, the artist reflects the richness and expanse of the entire world around him.

On the sides of the vast platform is a wealth of relief. The Indian artists love for and observation of animals is seen in the many depictions of elephants. They are presented in their sylvan surroundings, uprooting trees, feeding their young or displaying affection. Other scenes show men trying to capture elephants, which were the prized possessions of the king and the nobility.

DESPITE ITS COLLAPSED tower, the Sun temple is one of the grandest monuments standing in India today.-

In the friezes, men and women are depicted engaged in activities of everyday life. There is a man carrying his goods as street vendors do even today. There is an old woman taking leave of her family. Perhaps she is leaving on a pilgrimage. There is a scene of a royal personage being greeted by a group. These figures are garbed in foreign-type of clothing and have with them a giraffe, an animal not found in India. Military processions are another popular theme.

In earlier art, there was no emphasis on the depiction of armies or the preparations for warfare. Even the dvarapalas, or guardians of the doorways, who carried weapons, conveyed a sense of grace and divine protection, rather than a genuine war-like preparedness. In all parts of the country, attention had by now turned to aspects of military power as well as the divinity of life.

There are numerous depictions of alasya kanyas, or languorous maidens. Since ancient times, all Indian stupas and temples have had such images. They represent the fertility and creative urges of nature, which ensure the continuance of life. Mithunas, or loving couples, can also be seen embracing. These images of the coming together of man and woman continue from the earliest of times in Indian art. They are presented along with everything else of the natural world and of the divine.

It is in the depiction of animals that the Indian artist excels himself. The affection of the parent elephant for its young is heart-warmingly captured. The movement of the tails is very natural and adds a sense of life to the depiction. Truly, this artist saw no difference in the feelings of different beings: humans or animals.-

The grace of the human form and the underlying longing of all of creation to be united in the Lord can be seen in the alasya kanyas. This vision is what gives the art of India its special quality, a vision that sees a unity in all beings: humans, animals, trees, flowers and in all that there is. The desire of man and woman for each other is seen as no different from the desire of every creature to play its role in the interconnected world.

There are numerous Nagas and Naginis on the walls of the temple. These are serpent beings, who represent fertility and the protective forces of nature. The embracing of life and the divinity that warmly protects one can be seen best in the images of Naga couples.

The roof of the jagmohan of the Sun temple is made in the traditional Orissan style, a stepped pyramidical form known as a pidha roof. Some of the finest figures at Konark are on the terraces of the different levels of the roof. Siva, in his wrathful form as Bhairava, guards the temple from evil forces. On either side are beautiful musicians, who herald the passage of the Surya across the skies. Scriptures mention that Surya is to be praised with the accompaniment of musical instruments, the cymbal, the drum and the flute. The musicians appear animated by the music they play and their limbs are poised in rhythmic movement. The faces are finely sculpted. They are carved out of chlorite, which is suited to fine carving.

The warmth and the encompassing protection of the natural order is beautifully expressed in Naga deities, who are part human and part serpent.-

The main entrance to the jagmohan is made in the style of temple doorways that was established by the 5th century. It is made out of chlorite and is fully carved. There are eight rows of carvings; the innermost one is deeply recessed. Among the motifs here are Nagas, loving couples who celebrate the harmony of existence, and the continuous vine of the pulsating life force of the world. Such vines, which carry the bounty and fruitfulness of nature, have been seen in Indian art since the earliest of times. Fine examples of them are in the sculpted reliefs of the stupa railings of Bharhut, Sanchi and Amaravati.

Unfortunately, the main and tallest structure of the temple, its grand tower, has collapsed. The sanctum is in ruins. Of the eight dikpalas that originally faced and presided over the different directions, three are in the nearby archaeological museum and one is in the National Museum in New Delhi.

BY THE TIME this temple was made, in the 13th century A.D., warriors and the trappings of warfare came to be depicted in Indic art, reflecting a changing ethos.-

Around the tower of the temple are the parsva devatas, images most closely related to the main deity in the shrine. In the south, a larger than life-size Surya stands majestically on his chariot with Aruna. Surya is the only Indian deity to be depicted wearing boots, which is not an indigenous tradition. This reflects the constant interaction that was there with the lands on the north-west of the subcontinent. The king and his family priest can be seen kneeling below the deity. This and other images of Surya are made with a certain formality and dignity. They are among the finest examples of the iconographic art of Orissa.

In ancient times, the art of stupas and cave temples was sponsored by the people. It was farmers, fishermen, traders, housewives, monks and nuns who paid for the making of the sculptures and gateways. The purpose of art was to take one to eternal themes, away from the noise and clamour of the material world. The aim was to lose the ego and the concern for the self. Therefore, ephemeral personalities, including kings, were not depicted. From the 8th century onwards, there was a shift, and an emphasis was placed on grandeur and the depiction of regal power and splendour through the making of great temples. Images of kings, in sculptures and in paintings, also emerged.

The Sun temple at Konark represents the high point of monumentality and splendour in the tradition of temple building. It also celebrates the activities and life of the king as never before seen in temples. The niches of the sanctum and of the jagmohan were originally filled with many images of the king. He is shown practising archery with admirers looking on. He is shown at a festival or at leisure, sitting on a swing.

High atop the temple are deities and celestial musicians, who herald Suryas passage across the skies.-

The temple celebrates all of life and the divinity that pervades it all. It also places the king very close to the focus at the centre and celebrates his life and greatness. The guru, or teacher, of the king is made much larger than the king himself. The importance given to the teacher is in keeping with continuing traditions. Narasimhamahadeva I is depicted worshipping the Siva Linga, Vishnu and Surya. Colossal pairs of animals originally guarded the stairway on all sides of the jagmohan. The ones on the east are now placed before the entrance to the bhoga mandapa.

Ferocious lions rear majestically above the elephants crushed below them. They awaken within one the attitude of fearlessness with which one is to face the demons of ignorance that block the path towards knowledge. The devotee proceeds into the temple inspired by these fearless creatures.

Giant elephants and war stallions, made with life-like realism, originally met the devotee at the other entrances to the jagmohan. Today these stand on reconstructed platforms at a little distance from where they were originally placed. The bhoga mandapa is at the entrance to the temple complex.

ONE OF THE sculpted reliefs shows a giraffe being presented to a royal figure. This reflects the contact that was there with the distant shores of Africa.-

The temple represents the entire cosmos. Here, as soon as one enters the sacred ground, one is surrounded by a world of effusive forms which represent the joy of life. In Indic belief, the path to realisation is one that leads to bliss.

The conception of the temple is remarkable. It is as if the temple were a ratha drawn on large wheels by horses.-

Musicians and dancers greet one in the bhoga mandapa. In modern times, the lost form of the classical dance of Odissi was revived largely through the study of the dance movements portrayed here.

Rearing lions at the temples entrance. The entrances to sacred spaces have majestic animals.-

The temple of Konark celebrates life and the energy of the sun. There are elephants, which are made in the ancient tradition, bearing the entire structure upon their backs.

The spokes of the temples wheels present a multitude of images of the world.-

Men and women can be seen amidst their daily activities. There are soldiers, hunters, village folk and noblemen. The vital life of nature is seen in young maidens. The interconnectedness of all beings is expressed in composite creatures, part human and part animal. Nagas represent the benign protection of nature. At the centre of all the movement and the numberless forms of the world is the divinity that pervades it all.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×