It was once even more regally splendid than it is today since it originally consisted of a dancing room, and audience hall and a tremendous tower
which must have been 227 feet high if it conformed to traditional Indian temple proportions. 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 Temple and
Lingaraj Temple . Now only the great hall attests to the past glory of the whole. There is some speculation as to whether the tower was ever really completed or proved to be too much even for the indefatigable builders. 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. Part of the tower was standing in 1837 AD when the English archeologist Fergusson visited it but it had fallen by 1869 AD, and today even the Audience Hall has had to be filled up with stone slabs and sealed off to prevent its collapse. The fact that much of the temple lies in ruins is probably due to the sea’s proximity and the softness of the ground.
Even the architect was baffled by the problems of Konark’s construction. Sibai Santra directed his 1,200 workmen in laying the vast foundations and then tried to elevate the structure itself — without success. Crestfallen and heartsick, he wandered on the beach trying to find a way out of his dilemma and finally fell into a fitful sleep. When he awoke, he found an old woman beside him offering him a plate of hot food. Seizing the plate, he dipped his fingers into the center of the steaming porridge — and burned them. Chiding him, the old woman said, “My son, your manner of eating is like Sibai Santra’s manner of building the temple. You must start from the edge and not in the center, as he throws his stones into the middle!” A wiser man, Sibai Santra started the temple afresh.
And here is what he did. With tremendous originality, he conceived Surya’s temple as the Sun-God’s own chariot. The
Konark Sun Temple
is unique for its supremely imaginative character. The structure as a whole is conceived of as a ‘rath’ on 24 wheels, Time’s winged chariot, which the sun-god rides. Seeing it in its lonely splendor on the sand dunes, one really has the impression that it will take flight toward the sea heard in the distance. The base of the temple is, therefore, an immense terrace with 12 giant wheels, each 10 feet high, on either side. Each structural feature of the temple has a hidden meaning. The seven horses of the chariot represent the seven days of the week, the 24 wheels are the 24 fortnights of the Indian year, and the eight spokes of each wheel are the eight pahars into which the ancients divided the day and night. The three-tiered pyramidal roof crowned by its amalaka finial spire makes you think of the progressive ascent to heaven, and the sculptured themes bear this out. On the raised platform thus created, the temple-building was erected in two conjoined parts forming the Deul and the Jagamohan. The Natmandir and the Bhogmandir were detached structures, all enclosed within a courtyard measuring 865 feet by 540 feet.
As was usual with temples of this period, both the spire which was supported by the half-ruined structure (near the pagoda), and the audience hall, which remains, stood on a high plinth. Now that the hall has been blocked off the entrance to the shrine is inaccessible. Three flights of steps lead up to it from east, north and south, and the main door on the west leads to the principal temple. The three-tiered roof, with spaces between each tier for closer inspection, is covered with elaborate carvings offering a vast play of light and shade. The walls rise to a height of about 45 feet before they begin to contract inward toward the flat stone ceiling crowned with its ‘amalak’ (आमलक).
The carriage of the sun-god is drawn by seven splendidly caparisoned horses, straining their necks to pull the massive chariot. The extraordinary dynamism and mobility of these sculptured animal figures are striking to a degree. In the modeling of sculptures of Konark some softness is noticed in the finishing touch.
Today, this superb edifice lies in ruins, the Jagmohan (जगमोहन) or assembly hall being the only part which is still intact enough to testify to the past glory of the whole.
Not all of the splendid fragments are in their original position. Much of the imposing appearance and vitality of the structure is to be attributed to the pyramidal roof with its three tiers and sculptured groups of figures. The sculpture which embellishes the immense outer surfaces of this architectural masterpiece is no less exquisite in its luxuriance and unrestricted invention than the vast structure itself.
The exterior has been chiseled and moulded either into abstract designs or fantastic human and animal forms, and every motif and subject known to the Indian mind has been drawn upon. The sculptures, executed in hard stone to ensure their preservation, display an exuberance of mood and appearance rarely met with elsewhere. The technique, too, varies from designs carved with minute precision to vigorous groups modeled on a massive scale. An expert has observed, probably on the strength of the latter, that architecture in Odisha is but sculpture on a gigantic scale.
Having seen the sculptures of Sun Temple in Konark, it can be depicted as sensuality portrayed with serenity. Some say that if Konark had not lain in almost total
neglect and obscurity until 1902 AD, it would have taken the place of
Taj Mahal in Agra as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Of the thousands of figures only the three bronzes of the Sun-God himself are in repose. The sun makes his body glitter when it strikes his image at those appropriate times when he is at the height of his glory, sunrise, noon, and sunset. The other statues are like a living, vivid panorama of the Indian mind itself. From abstract designs to foliage to animals and human and mythical beings and ranging in technique from tiny cameo-like precision to powerfully modeled groups of colossal proportions, everything is present at Konark. The doorways are guarded by fierce beasts: on the east by rampant lions resting on the backs of elephants; on the north by majestic elephants, and on the south by the famous “Impetuous Horses with Attendants Trampling Down Men”— this group is a masterwork by itself. The intricate carvings of the wheels and spokes are fine examples of pierced Jalli (जाली) work on stone.
Much of the relief work on the outer walls of the temple at Konark —as of certain other temples in Odisha—has an obviously erotic import. Sensual figures can be seen in the niches and even on the wheel spokes, but there is a sort of mystical aura about even the frankest carvings. Those who have already seen Khajuraho will be used to this kind of sculpture; but while Khajuraho's erotic groups are rarely higher than two feet and often require binoculars for detailed study, Konark presents (in addition to friezes of a rather daring nature) bigger than life-size couples in amorous poses which would be qualified by modem censors as sheer pornography. Yet here, young and innocent Indian girls inspect them with serenity and detachment and with none of the whispering or giggling one might expect. Though the influence of the Tantric doctrines and rituals (involving eating, drinking, and sexual union) is evident in these sculptures, the best interpretation of them is probably this: the sun itself warms all life and thus everything is sacred from the most carnal to the most refined. As the building mounts, the sculptures become more and more serene, to end with the heavenly musicians so charming and graceful you will want to photograph them from every angle. Konark, you will agree, was worth the twelve years that 1,200 sculptors spent on it! This is indicative of the emergence of a phase in Hinduism known as Tantrism, the ‘mithuna’ ritual of which is depicted in the carvings of this temple as well as of the temples in Madurai and Khajuraho. According to Tantric thought, all human experience, which by implication also includes experience connected with carnal desire, has a value, for it is only through experience that man can attain the stage of self-immolation.