According to legend, Narada once tricked one of Krishna's sons, Samba, and led him to a spot where Krishna's many wives were bathing. Outraged by his son's impropriety, Krishna, who was also called upon at the spot by Narada, at once cursed Samba with leprosy. By the time Samba could prove his innocence to his father, it was too late for the curse to be revoked; helpless Krishna then advised Samba to seek the Sun God's blessing to counter the curse. Samba did as suggested and tirelessly prayed for twelve long years. Impressed by Samba's severe penance, the Sun God cured him of the curse. And so, overcome with gratitude, Samba decided to build the most magnificent temple dedicated to the Sun God that there ever would be.
While the art, craft, and architecture of Konark are widely spoken about, the temple is a testament to logic and science too.
Located at the tip of the Odisha, Konark is a tiny hamlet in the coastal town of Puri, and it is here that we get to see the mammoth temple erected in gratitude for the Sun God. It is another matter though that the structure, in its current form, came up only in the 13th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With World Heritage Week being celebrated from 19-26 November, I find myself reflecting on my trip here.
I arrive at Konark after a long and picturesque drive along the coast of Odisha, with the sea on one side and thick vegetation on the other. The road is deserted with barely a soul in sight. I expect Konark to be noisy and chaotic like most tourist places, but it turns out to be a sleepy little village with minimal signs of modernization. On one hand I am glad, on the other, I am worried: what if the place turns out to be a damp squib?
My fears are laid to rest when I spot the tower of the temple. Standing in the middle of a sprawling stretch of flat land, nestled between greenery, with the deep blue sky in the background, the Sun Temple turns out to be one of the most imposing structures I have ever witnessed.
"Do you know madam, what you see here are only the remnants. The main temple, which was almost double its height, was felled almost a hundred years ago when the merchants tried to remove the magnet inside it," says my guide, Vibhuti Bhushan Padhi. He has been a guide here for more than 40 years, and reels off facts even as I gape in amazement at tower of the temple. "The magnet, used to stabilise the structure, was a constant hindrance to the ships sailing across this part of the ocean: it rendered their compass useless," he adds.
The apparently smaller tower stands in the centre over a high platform. Shaped as the chariot of the Sun God, the platform has twelve sets of wheels carved on it. Seven horses—four male, and three female—are seen pulling the chariot. Right in front of the chariot is a high ornate platform, with only pillars and no roof; it is supposed to be the dance hall whose ceiling is believed to have been felled too. Many other smaller structures lie scattered around the periphery of the main temple: a much lower platform with no pillars or roof, only two large elephants, which is believed to have served as a kitchen; a steep flight of stairs, also with two mammoth elephants on it and some loose rocks and statues, and some stray rocks and formations which do not depict much now, but were part of the complex once.
The temple, interestingly, does not have a deity; its sanctum is filled with cement and sand to ensure stability. Some theories suggest that the deity was destroyed along with the main tower; some theories say that it was never present. There were only the rays of the sun, which strategically fell inside the main temple.
Accurate to the last minute, the beautifully carved sundials today are the most popular feature of the temple...
The outer walls of the temple, the platform, the wheels, the horses, and the roofless platform are all richly adorned; there are various imposing statues of the Sun God too, mostly in shiny black stone, extensively crafted by the best artisans of Kalinga. Then there are some, which are not so refined. Clearly, all kinds of artisans worked here—from masters to novices.
Erotica finds room in these walls too, especially in deep crevices where you not only witness man-woman unions, but also woman-woman action; medieval India, it seems, was completely open about sexuality of all kinds.
While the art, craft, and architecture of Konark are widely spoken about, the temple is a testament to logic and science too. One of the many examples of which happens to be the sundial. It is said that no one in modern Konark knew about the existence of the sundials until a sadhu was spotted making some calculations near one of the wheels of the temple. Upon much coaxing, he parted with the secret: the chariot wheels were designed to be used as clocks; he also shared the method to calculate time. Accurate to the last minute, the beautifully carved sundials today are the most popular feature of the temple, drawing thousands of people every day from far and wide, just like it has drawn me from 2000 away.