In all of my admittedly peripatetic life, I have learned two things: one, to go with the flow du jour; and second, to quickly sit up and grab every hint of opportunity that floats past me. So it was one unseasonably hot morning, just as we were passing the overcrowded, unappealing cement nightmare that is now Almora, M suddenly announced, “There is an ancient sun temple near here. Want to go take a look?”
The elegant lady behind the wheel, A, understandably looked a bit startled. In fact, if she had had a crystal-ball peek into what awaited her in the form of the steep, rock-strewn track pretending to be a road, she would have baulked immediately.
But A was a sport, apart from being seized of a curiosity to visit the rare Sun Temple. And so, presently, the car was climbing an impossible incline, where the track soon gave way to rubble, sand and rising dust. A dozen kilometres from Almora, we came upon a signpost that proclaimed ‘Katarmal Sun Temple’, with an arrow pointing up another impossible incline. Do we walk or do we try nudging and coaxing the vehicle further up? The aforementioned heat made up our minds for us, and so we sat quietly as A soldiered on behind the wheel.
Discovery of calm
Oh, there’s another fact that I, as an enthusiastic traveller, have realised portends well for the serious sightseer. That is lack of tourists all heading the same way as you with their noisy chatter, noisy bags of chips and even noisier children. The portends here were better than good: we were the only ones heading to the Sun Temple. As the car painfully made the climb, a sudden bend in the track revealed a cluster of magnificent stone structures blackened with time up on the hilltop. Way back in time, the faithful had carried large pieces of stone up this steep hill to craft shrines that spoke of their devotion. It is indeed a point to ponder.
Once we parked the car on a ledge just below the temple complex and climbed a small but steep incline, there it was, the 9th century Bara Aditya or Vridhha Aditya, the sun appropriately enough lighting up the hoary black stone. The temple complex holds a cluster of shrines, some built in the 9th century, some built later, in the 13th century.
It was built by King Katarmal of the Katyuri dynasty, an obeisance in stone to the Hindu God Burhadita or Vraddhaditya, the ancient Sun God. The main temple, supposedly the tallest in all of the Kumaon region, is cavernous, its stone walls held by metal clamps, and houses a magnificent black stone idol of a seated Surya, flanked by statues of Laxmi-Narayana and Shiva-Parvati. I was told a charming story why Surya is thus seated; he was invited to annihilate the demon Nemi, and when he arrived to do so, he was respectfully offered a seat. So, the powerful god sat himself down and presumably, eventually did what he had come to do. (At this point, I need to state that no internet search threw up corroboration of this story.)
The temple faces east, of course, and the first rays of the rising sun, but of course, fall on Surya, through a crack in the small shrine just opposite the main one. The Katarmal Temple is second in importance only to the famous Sun Temple at Konark. All around the main shrine, which has a broken roof, stand small shrines; once there were 44 of them, beautifully and intricately carved. Then civilisation happened. Soon enough, an idol was stolen from here, resulting in the carved doors and wooden panels of the main shrine being taken to the National Museum, New Delhi. Today, the Katarmal Surya mandir is but a collection of once-sacred relics.
We are here in the wrong season. In cooler climes, the Himalayas that lie just beyond loom up in all their majesty, and the view from the temple that is at an altitude of 2,116 m, is awesome. Today, the haze obscures the Central Himalayan peaks; it is as if they just don’t exist. A, however, is happy. An inveterate birdwatcher, she is now scrambling for her camera, catching glimpses of the blue-throated flycatcher, hawks, the grey-backed shrike, the yellow-bellied fantail and other such identified-by-colour avian life. M is happy too, given that all of us find the place well worth the trek.
It’s indeed a rocky road to the Sun King but then, most good things are not come by easily, are they? Moreover, the way up is a trekker’s delight, in cooler climes, that is.