Rise of the sun

Rise of the sun

The 13th century Konark Temple isn’t just a magnificent feat of art, architecture and engineering, but is the most prolific story book of Kalinga’s glory and culture, writes Madhulika Dash

Konark Sun Temple. PHOTOS BY Arijeet palit & ramhari jena

Even to the most fertile mind, it may seem futile to imagine the grandeur that King Langula Narasimha Deva of Ganga Dynasty would have witnessed as he walked into the newly- built Jagmohana to offer the first prayers on Padmakesara Deula (Sun god’s son’s birthday). Built over a decade with 1,200 of the finest artistes from Odisha, Konark or Arkakshetra, as it would have been known then, was Narasimha Deva’s ambitious project that came to life.

A silpajna (one who is passionate about building temples), the Ganga King’s Konark journey started as a crowned prince when he mobilised 500 of the best silpakars to come with him to Vijayakonda to fund the temple. Such was his zeal that the king funded his project through a series of campaigns, wars and even borrowed great sculptors from his father-in-law to see his project through. Konark wasn’t just a temple for Narasimha, one of the most accomplished rulers who commissioned many temples, including the Kapilash mandir in Dhenkenal, it was his legacy for eternity — a beacon of his victories and time.

On the 11th day of Maha Shukla Paksa (February) of 1258 with the atmosphere charged with the chiming of prayer bells, the echoing of conch horns and priests chanting, Konark looked very much the part of that magnificent vision — a feat that would astound and remain invincible for the future. Of course, the Ganga King, basking in his moment of glory, had no way of knowing the profound effect his creation would have among future generations.

Jagmohana, the entrance through which sunlight falls on the idol
Jagmohana, the entrance through which sunlight falls on the idol

A complete temple

Fascinatingly, even in its early years, Konark wasn’t revered just as the first temple that was completed on time, it was a ‘complete temple’ to see the light of the day. The chariot temple had all the elements of a 13th century grand abode — a Rekha Deula, which held the garbagriha for the idols, the Jagmohana (entrance hall) and the Natyamandir (dancing hall) for the devdasis and artistes to perform. But that was part of Konark’s glory, which was also built as a dazzling and brilliant manifestation of Kalinga’s art and culture. Narasimha Deva built it as a life-size ode to the 13th century Kalinga, a period that was aware about the solar system (nine planets), time (the 24 wheels that work as sundials to 1.5 minutes accuracy), engineering (the first ray of sunlight still falls at the entrance hall or Jagmohana) and the evolved art of living showcased through a variety of themes ranging from the boisterously erotic to sublimely secular.

The temple stood testimony to the liberal thinking of the society at the time where the concept of pleasure played a significant role in the social life as being culturally rich shown through a stream of dancing apsaras; women playing a variety of musical instruments; battle scenes, gods and goddesses; palanquin-bearers; events from everyday life to taming of elephants among others. The spokes of the wheels at the temple for instance not only showed the time but also the activity that each hour was dedicated to for a fulfilled day.

​   One of the 24 Wheels that not only showed time to 1.5 minute accuracy, but also the lifestyle followed by people in the 13th century  ​
One of the 24 wheels or sundials

Precision

It was (and is) by all accounts a celebrated story book that lived, breathed and functioned in a manner that enticed future kings like Raja Purushotama Deva of Khurda Dynasty who commissioned a temple survey in 1610. Put together on palm leaves, the survey has possibly the last accurate visual portrayal of Konark Temple before it vanished for the next 300 years. By 1800, when the temple was excavated, Konark had lost a significant part of its structure and the idols inside, but not the glory.

Konark, even in its dishevelled state stood like the queen of temples that left many, including the colonial rulers, spellbound and in awe. One such person was the former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India and famous archaeologist, Sir John Marshall.

Mesmerised by Konark’s beauty he had written, ‘‘There is no monument in Hindustan which is so stupendous and as perfectly proportioned as the Black Pagoda and none which leaves so deep an impression on the memory.’’ The sheer magnanimity of Konark, along with the architectural magnificence, drew many to its shores, with ratcheted attempts to preserve the slowly dying temple, including the 1903 attempt of saving the main structure by filling it with sand and the recent attempt of cleaning and restoring sculptors. It was also not until its coronation as a UNESCO site, that Konark saw a rise to its former glory. Today, the perfect backdrop to many cultural initiatives like the Konark Dance Festival, International Sand Art Festival and more recently, the Eco Retreat, Konark still exudes the same magic as it did 800 years ago. And has been called Odisha’s near-perfect synthesis of cultural and natural heritage.

Jagmohana, the entrance through which sunlight falls on the idol
Jagmohana, the entrance through which sunlight falls on the idol

Sheer excellence

But for the likes of Vishal Kumar Dev, secretary, Odisha Tourism, who has been instrumental in bringing Konark — and in many ways Narasimha Deva’s finest work — to the limelight, Konark is more than just a historic site, it is a testimony “of our elegant culture and creative excellence.” And the only manner to keep it alive for generations to come, says the commissioner-cum-secretary, “is to turn it into a face of what Konark really stands for ­— a reminder of our brilliant past. Konark, even in its present state still has that profound effect.”

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