Sun Temple

A gigantic restoration effort in Konark

Print edition : July 19, 2019

One of the three extant sculptures of the Sun God on the northern side of the sanctum sanctorum. Here he is riding a horse wearing gumboots, with devotees worshipping him and angels bringing garlands for him. Both the Sun God and his steed are highly ornamented.

A panoramic view of the Sun Temple complex with the remains of the natamantapa and the jagamohana and its gopura. Scaffolding has been erected around the jagamohana for restoration work.

The plinth on which are the remains of the sanctum. High on the wall is one of the two standing sculptures of the Sun God.

The highly sculpted sinhasana in the sanctum on which the deity of the Sun God stood. It has a series of superb carvings on the three sides depicting devotees and the king, kneeling down in worship.

The sinhasana in the sanctum on which the deity of the Sun God stood.

A scale model of the Konark temple as it existed originally. Photo: T.S.S. Subramanian

This massive sculpture of Gaja Simha, made of khondolite stone, was originally on the vimana of the sanctum, facing east. When the vimana collapsed it fell on the adjacent gopura of the jagamohana. It is displayed on the temple's lawns now.

This is a landmark sculpture showing a king holding a bow and arrow and seated on an elephant. Three traders, dressed in long tunics, are gifting the king with a giraffe. This shows that Odisha had trade ties with Africa.

The plinth of the natamantapa with its finely carved figures of women playing musical instruments.

This picture, taken in 1868, show the ruin in which the Sun Temple lay then: The sanctum sanctorum abutting the jagamohana is covered completely with sand and vegetation. Photo: Courtesy: The ASI

This picture, taken in 1868, show the ruin in which the Sun Temple lay then: The deep dilapidation of the jagamohana. Photo: Courtesy: The ASI

This picture, taken in 1868, show the ruin in which the Sun Temple lay then: The main eastern entrance with the flight of steps and the platform reduced to rubble and the wheels of chariot broken into pieces. Photo: Courtesy: The ASI

This picture, taken in 1868, show the ruin in which the Sun Temple lay then: The wheels of chariot broken into pieces. Photo: Courtesy: The ASI

Workers cleaning the lever portion of the jagamohana with soft brushes.

Cleaning portions of the jagamohana structure with water and soap before the paper pulp sheets are applied.

Applying the paper pulp treatment to the lower portions of the jagamohana structure to absorb the salt deposited by sea breeze on them over the ages.

Arun Malik, Superintending Archaeologist.

Shilpa Raturi, Superintending Archaeological Chemist of the ASI, Bhubaneswar Circle.

The Sun Temple at Konark has been built in the form of a huge chariot with 12 pairs of big wheels and drawn by seven horses.

The sculpture of Aruna, the thighless charioteer of the Sun God, in one of the standing sculptures. It is missing in the other standing sculpture of the Sun God.

The ASI has taken up work at the Sun Temple to conserve those portions that are still standing and restore to the extent possible the colossal temple complex, in whose sanctum sanctorum the deity and the vimana over it are no longer extant.

WHY did the eastern Ganga king Narasimha Deva (regnal years 1238 C.E. to 1264 C.E.) build the Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha, on the coast? Did his architects not know about the damaging impact that the winds from the sea, laden with salt, sand and moisture, would have on the incredibly beautiful sculptures of this colossal temple? Did they not want the temple to survive for centuries, especially when they built it with so much of architectural planning and precision? Why did the builders choose the porous khondolite stone for the temple and its sculptures? Were they not aware that khondolite would deteriorate fast and become powdery when exposed to sea breeze? Why did the builders not choose the hardy chlorite schist stone for the temple, especially when they had sculpted three beautiful sculptures of Surya Deva and the embellished door jamb of the temple’s main entrance with it?

These are questions that baffle the archaeologists and conservators of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) even as they battle nature to conserve the Sun Temple. The massive restoration and preservation work under way at the temple includes carefully cleaning sculptures and friezes with water and applying paper pulp on them to absorb salt deposits and then removing the paper pulp. Biocidal and fungicidal treatment of the monument will follow. Stone strengtheners will be applied to weak stones and grouting will be done to fill gaps in the stones.

Even as the massive restoration work, which began in 2012, is pressing ahead, Arun Malik, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Bhubaneswar Circle, inaugurated a project in February 2019 to unearth the hundreds of carved architectural pieces and sculptures lying buried in the sand along the prakara wall of the temple. Called “scientific clearance”, the project involves numbering, photographing and documenting every loose sculpture and architectural part excavated. They will be exhibited in a new museum. “It is a huge project. We will take four years to complete it,” Arun Malik said.

The Sun Temple is the grandest achievement of the Odishan style of art and architecture, with incredibly beautiful sculptures and ornamentation. The size of the sculptures varies from life-size to a few inches. They depict a variety of themes, some audaciously erotic and some secular; dancing apsaras; women playing a variety of musical instruments; taming of elephants; palanquin-bearers; naga kanyas; events from everyday life; battle scenes, and so on. Narasimha Deva built the temple with epic proportions and dedicated it to the Sun God, Surya Deva. The temple has been fashioned in the form of a colossal chariot with 24 giant wheels, 12 on each side, drawn by seven horses.

However, it is not a living temple; no worship is offered. What survives of the main temple now are two parts, both interconnected. One is the sanctum sanctorum, or the garba griha. The other part is the stupendous jagamohana structure, in front of the sanctum. Both the sanctum and the jagamohana have been built on a 3-metre-tall platform that is a few hundred metres long. Today, the sanctum is an empty shell open to the sky, with the towering vimana above it having collapsed a few centuries ago. There is no sculpture of the presiding deity inside the sanctum. The exquisitely carved stone pedestal, called sinhasana on which the deity once stood, is now empty. Archaeologists have estimated that the sanctum, with its extant vimana, measured 61 metres in height from ground level. As the historian Debala Mitra says, although its sanctum has collapsed, the temple “is still a monument of colossal magnificence”.

In front of the sanctum is the gigantic jagamohana, with its pyramidal tower, or gopura, soaring above it. Jagamohana means “that which pleases the whole world, that which is most pleasing”. The cantilever-tiered tower is largely intact and has hundreds of beautiful sculptures, carvings and friezes of lions, life-size erotic sculptures and dancing women. The grand structure stands about 39 metres in height, or 15 storeys tall, from ground level to the gopura’s crown.

About eight metres from the jagamohana, on a separate platform, is the natamantapa with four massive pillars that have sculptures of women dancing or playing on a variety of musical instruments. The natamantapa’s gopura does not exist now.

Today, there is hectic activity all around the jagamohana. Tall scaffoldings have been erected around it and workers perched on them at considerable heights are busy cleaning the sculptures or plain stone blocks with water from hose pipes. Some others are removing dirt from the sculptures with soft brushes. A team is engaged in carefully applying thick wads of paper pulp over the cleaned portions.

Arun Malik said: “First of all, the Sun Temple at Konark is a World Heritage monument and we have to observe international norms in conserving it. The temple has a grandeur all its own. The structure is stable. However, periodic conservation and preservation of the temple is a big challenge because the structure is about 800 years old. Besides, it is situated close to the sea. Salt, sand and moisture carried by the wind accumulate on the surface and harm the sculptures. Khondolite is a very porous stone and deteriorates fast. We do this periodic scientific cleaning to remove the salt by applying paper pulp on the monument.”

The ASI erected the scaffolding in 2012 to study the temple’s structural stability, which was done by the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Roorkee, Uttarakhand. Arun Malik said: “The CBRI has submitted its report to the Government of India. The challenge now is to implement its recommendations.” They include filling the massive interior room of the jagamohana with sand, strengthening its tiered cantilevers and providing them support. “The ASI will implement the CBRI’s recommendations,” he said. “We will shortly take up filling the interior of the jagamohana. We have already done an endoscopy of the structure to see the condition inside.”

This is not the first time that the interior of the jagamohana is being filled with sand. The British did it in 1903 and sealed the three entrances to the structure on the east, south and north with massive buttressing walls to ensure its structural stability. No one has been able to enter both the jagamohana and the sanctum for the past 114 years and so the ASI had to resort to an endoscopy now. At the main, eastern, entrance to the jagamohana is a tablet erected by the British conservators, which reads: “To preserve this superb specimen of old Indian architecture, the interior has been filled in [with sand] by order of the Hon’ble J.A. Bourdillon C.S. Lieutenant Governor Bengal, A.D. 1903.”

Fresh sand has to be poured into the jagamohana now because the sand poured in by the British has settled down considerably. The ASI’s engineers will soon design a special scaffolding to pour the sand from the top through a window called sukhanasi. This is the same opening that the British used.

Shilpa Raturi, Superintending Archaeological Chemist, ASI, Bhubaneswar, said the temple was such a huge structure that the entire cycle of completing the “scientific cleaning” and preservation will take about 12 years. Besides a saline environment, Konark suffered from temperature variations throughout the year. Humidity was high. “All these cumulatively impact the monument,” she said. What posed a big problem in the conservation efforts was that the khondolite stone was of varying quality. The sculptures were made of two, three or four pieces of stones, they were of different compositions. She explained: “The compositional stability of each block, therefore, varies…. So the variation in deterioration is basically because of the compositional stability of the stone.” To preserve these sculptures from further deterioration, the ASI did scientific cleaning, which involved the removal of accretion on them, whether it was dust or any other biological deposit. Often, the roots of vegetation went into the substrata of the stone. So, biocidal treatment was given as a preventive measure.

On the paper pulp treatment, she said: “This is a useful method because it is non-corrosive and non-abrasive. It is a simple interaction between two substrata in hydraulic contact.” After the paper pulp treatment is completed, the monument is cleaned again. Wherever necessary, stones in a fragile condition are strengthened using a solvent. Later, a preservative is applied.

Debala Mitra, in her book Konark, first published by the ASI in 2003, said: “….Among all of Odisha’s hundreds of temples, the one that stands unparalleled in terms of both architectural conception and sculptural brilliance is the great Sun Temple of Konark.” She calls the temple “a monument of epic imagination”, which “is the realisation of the creative upsurge that fired the architects of Odisha for over 500 years, beginning in the seventh century A.D.”.

The Konark temple is a sprawling complex. On the southern, western and northern sides of the tall plinth of the main temple are hundreds of sculptures of varying themes. They include erotic sculptures, naga kanyas, elephants in procession, warriors riding horses, women drying their tresses after a bath, a pandit teaching pupils, a man holding a dog by its tail and beating it with a stick, and women languorously seated on couches with attendants standing around. What draws attention is a sculptural panel that shows a king, armed with a bow and riding on an elephant. A mahout is also seated on the elephant. In front of the elephant are three foreigners, dressed in long-flowing tunics. They have brought a giraffe, and it is obvious that they are gifting the giraffe to the king. The episode takes place under a tree with birds seated on it. There is another panel that shows a giraffe. The panels obviously indicate the trade that Odisha had with Africa. Nearby is another superbly carved panel that depicts a couple standing under a tree and the pallu of the woman’s sari is draped over her head.

The three superlatively beautiful sculptures of the Sun God that have survived are located in three different places. While one shows Surya Deva riding a horse, the other two are identical. They show a tall Sun God standing on a chariot drawn by seven horses. The charioteer is the thighless Aruna. Around the Sun God are flying angels with garlands in their hands, devotees, and so on. The Sun Gods are shown wearing tall gumboots, perhaps a fallout of Persian influence. Interestingly, the statues of Surya Deva at the Sun Temple in Modhera, Gujarat, are also shown wearing tall gumboots. To the south of the temple complex are the remains of a big kitchen, where prasad, or the offering for the presiding deity, was cooked. Of importance are the remains of a temple dedicated to Mayadevi, one of the wives of Surya. It is datable to the 12th century C.E. and was excavated more than 100 years ago to the west of the temple complex. It has beautiful sculptures of Surya riding a horse, Agni and Nataraja with six arms, and carvings of elephants, danseuses, women musicians, and so on.

The remains of a brick temple, datable to 10th-11th century C.E., were excavated nearby in 1956.

The depiction of the 12 pairs of gigantic wheels of the chariot is astounding. They represent sundials. The wheels are so realistically carved that they even have an axle held in position by a pin. The 12 pairs represent the 12 months of the year. Each wheel has 16 spokes, eight thick and eight thin. The wheels, with their spokes, rim and hub, are richly ornamented. They have carvings of warriors riding horses, processions of elephants, erotic couples, women seductively seated on couches, palanquin bearers, and so on. The historian K.S. Behera calls the wheels “the crowning glory of the temple…which imparts a monumental grandeur unique in the realm of art”.

Civil engineers and archaeologists have advanced several reasons for the temple falling into ruin. They attribute it to the subsidence of its foundation, since it was built in a sandy area; a top-heavy vimana; earthquakes; lightning strikes, and so on. However, they are agreed that “Muslim invaders” attacking the main temple and vandalising it in the 16th century C.E. was what triggered the collapse of its vimana. “The general consensus… is that the structure crumbled gradually, the beginning of the decay initiated by the desecration of the temple by the invaders,” Debala Mitra said.

In his book Konarka: The Black Pagoda of Orissa, Bishan Swarup quotes the Puri temple records as saying that “in the time of Raja Mukunda Deva [circa 1565 C.E.], the Mohamedans under the iconoclast Kalapahar attacked Orissa and tried to break the temple of Konarka. Not being able to do so, they carried away the copper kalasa and the dwaja [on top of the vimana].” Bishan Swarup was a civil engineer in the Public Works Department of the Bengal government and took part in the conservation of the Sun Temple, Konark, from 1892 to 1904. His book was published in 1910.

Later, the colossal sculpture of the Gaja Simha on the eastern face of the vimana fell heavily on the jagamohana and punched a hole in its pyramidal roof, said Bishan Swarup. What remains of the sanctum today is the sinhasana, carved with images of a series of women and men devotees, a procession of elephants, and, at the centre, a king, kneeling and worshipping the Sun God, with his sword lying by his side. It was on this sinhasana that the sculpture of the presiding deity stood.

The British, keen to conserve what remained of the temple, started the conservation work in 1901. They cleared the sand and vegetation around the temple, which revealed broken wheels, sundered horses, vandalised sculptures, the collapsed platform, the roofless natamantapa, and so on. When the debris in the sanctum was removed, the sinhasana without the presiding deity came to light.

According to Bishan Swarup, attention then turned to conserving the jagamohana, which was in bad shape, especially on the southern side. Stones kept falling from it, and it was in danger of collapsing. So, the British built massive retaining walls on the eastern, southern and northern doorways as load-bearing members. The passage that led from the jagamohana to the sanctum was sealed. Sand was poured through a funnel into the interior vault through a hole made by a diamond drill on the tower of the jagamohana. Through two other holes originally made for ventilation, the sand was “stirred by means of bamboos as far as possible so as to spread it evenly…. The urgent work of preserving the jagamohana was completed early in 1905”, said Bishan Swarup.

The temple came under the control of the ASI in 1932, which started conservation work on it from 1939. However, major conservation work began only in 1985 and went on up to 1997. It was a massive effort that involved restoring and conserving the tall plinth with its horses, giant wheels, sculptures, carvings, and so on. Arun Malik said: “The big platform [which ran around the sanctum and the jagamohana] was consolidated. The missing stones and gaps were filled with new plain stones as per the conservation policy of the ASI and international standards. These plain stones [slabs] were used to fill the gaps, for strengthening the platform and to facilitate the movement of tourists. Normally, we use plain stones to differentiate the old work from the new.”

When the renewed cycle of conservation and restoration work was under way last year, there were allegations in the media that the ASI was removing the original sculptures from the plinth and replacing them with new ones. It was alleged that the landmark sculptural panel portraying a king on an elephant being presented with a giraffe had been removed. The local police filed a first information report (FIR) on the strength of complaints from reporters based in Konark.

With the issue threatening to blow out of proportion, the ASI used a stratagem to convince sceptics that it had not removed a single sculptural panel from its place and that its conservation work was guided by international norms. It organised an exhibition titled “The Untold Story of Konark” during the World Heritage Week in November 2018 at Konark. It featured photographs of how the Sun Temple was in utter ruins in the 1880s, a drawing made in 1839 that showed a small portion of the vimana standing like a pillar above the garba griha, pictures of the conservation done from 1901 to 1910 and from 1985 to 1997, and latest photographs showing how the sculptural panel depicting the gift of the giraffe was very much in its place. The exhibition silenced the ASI’s critics.

“In the last 10 years, we have not removed a single stone because this is a World Heritage Monument and you have to get permission from UNESCO for any restoration project,” said Arun Malik. “The details have to be cleared by UNESCO.”

Besides saline winds, cyclones and torrential rain that hit the Odisha coast every year also impacted the temple. “In recent times, we have seen a waterlogging problem in the compound of the temple. It is being addressed by improving the drainage system and providing an appropriate pumping system,” Arun Malik said.

An eyesore in the complex is the encroachments and shops that have mushroomed in the protected area (within the first 100 metres of the temple compound no new construction is allowed), on the road leading to the temple. The Odisha High Court directed the removal of the shops but suggested that they be given an alternative location. The shopkeepers went away but came back, an ASI official said. The ASI has approached the State government for a new place for the shopkeepers.

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