Stone sonata

ODISHA'S TIARA

Stone sonata

Decades back, during an extended family holiday to Odisha, I had been denied the pleasure of wandering amidst the erotic sculptures of the Sun Temple at Konark. While the adults made a beeline for the exotic place, we were herded together by a vigilant cousin and taken to splash saline water on each other at the Puri beach.

It was only when I went on a grown-up trip with a few college friends one summer that I realised the sensual beauty of the temple. We giggled, peeped at the stone couples engaged in their amorous pastime, and giggled some more. That was my second visit.

The true appreciation of the aesthetic factor came recently when I visited Konark for the third time. This time around, I was able to understand the beauty of the temple without getting distracted by its erotic art and appreciate Rabindranath Tagore’s description of it — “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man,” the poet had exclaimed.

His description of monuments has always been singular. “A teardrop on the cheek of time” is how he described Taj Mahal. How much more lyrical could one get?

Standing spellbound before the chariot of the Sun God, I paid my homage to the artistes who had created the wondrous structure that has withstood the vagaries of time for centuries. According to historians, this magnificent tribute was constructed sometime in the 13th century. Commissioned by ruler King Narasimha Deva, this is perhaps the only temple dedicated to Surya, although the Sun God is venerated by many. Like Ra, the Egyptian Sun God, Sol, of the Germanic mythology, and the Greek Helios, Surya has found a place in the ancient Indian scriptures. It’s surprising that we have few sun temples in the country, of which the one at Modhera is as famous as the one here.

Once a busy port, Konark became known for its Sun Temple, which even the European sailors learnt to recognise as a milestone on their voyage to ‘Hindustan’. They called it the ‘Black Pagoda’. Although the temple stands two kilometres from the sea today, it was sited right on the edge of the sea when constructed.

The temple was once crowned with a magnetic dome, which was later removed because it caused the magnetic compass in ships to go haywire, leading to shipwrecks. According to a few experts, the granites were supported by iron plates with the powerful magnetic dome. Obviously, the builders of the temple were masters of their art.

For centuries, the black granite structure has braved the saline air, blast of sand and wrath of raiders. What we see now is just the remnants of the glorious structure created by master sculptors.

The seven horses that pull the chariot seemed to symbolise the energy of sun. Ready to gallop away towards the sky with the Sun God at the controls, they look every bit like the vibrant horses in a Husain painting. They represent the seven days of a week, according to some. Sadly, only one of them remains undamaged today. And, we are left with one day of the week.

Flanking the steps that lead up to the structure is a pair of snarling lions poised to strike the errant visitors. Two elephants sit contentedly under their belly, with their trunk wrapped over their prey. Ratan, the guide I hired, had lyrical descriptions to relay. “It’s all about time and timelessness,” he declared, adding, “Surya controls time, yet the sun is eternal.” I marvelled at the chap’s philosophical take on the temple.

Time holder

The Sun God is in control of time and so the seven days of a week, the 12 months of a
year and the eight phases of a day divided into three hours each — are all represented in his chariot. The chariot-shaped abode is carried on 12 pairs of carved stone wheels; each one taller than 10 feet. The wheels, symbolising months in a year, are adorned by sculptures of griffins, elephants, geometric and floral patterns, apsaras, musicians and dancing damsels, wherein comes the artistes’ imagination to fore. Some of the embellished elephants wear an expression of mischief. Most visitors barely get past their fascination with the eroticism to notice the animal line-up of snarling lions, majestic elephants and feisty horses. I would have been guilty of the same omission if an elderly gentleman standing beside me had not pointed out these elements to his grandson.
Most of the original structure has gone, leaving a few reminders of the temple’s glory. Amongst them is the Bhogamandapa, the Hall of Offerings, where ritualistic dances were also performed. This theory is supported by the stone figurines of dancers and musicians on its walls.

A three-tiered roof covered with carved statues tops the temple. It’s said that the idol of Surya was carved out of green chlorite. With Arun, the Sun God’s charioteer, at the feet, it was the pièce de résistance of the temple. It’s also said that the priests of Puri managed to spirit it away during a Muslim attack on the temple, in the 15th century. The idol was saved, but the temple suffered immense damage. What remained of the temple was eroded by the fierce sea winds and sand till the government woke up and began a restoration effort.

If my guide is to be believed, the Sun Temple was first built by Samba, the son of Lord Krishna, and rebuilt by King Narasimha Deva. The idol of Surya was adorned with an enormous diamond, comparable to the Kohinoor diamond, at one time. Whether the fables are right or not, the temple remains one of the most beautiful medieval temiples in India.

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