Surya, the sun: the source of light, life, time, its daily round the oldest story of our ageing and creaking planet. At the Surya Mandir of Modhera in Gujarat, 100km northwest of Ahmedabad, the sun has for nearly a thousand years risen over, and flooded the arches and friezes of a monument built as a kind of resthouse, if not home, for it on earth. The Rig Veda, a text drunken with the sun’s gifts and glories, extols the sun’s eye at dawn as the force that “reveals creation”. On a wintry December morning in Modhera the rising sun not only reveals the world — the sleepy village with its jumble of nondescript houses, the fields and a placid lake part-covered by lotus leaves on which long-legged birds stand still in meditation, a tourist bus disgorging a platoon of chattering schoolboys — but also completes it, as it enters with slowly advancing strides the monument expressly constructed with the arc of its journey in mind.
The idol of Surya inside the Garbhagriha, or Sanctum sanctorum, of the Modhera temple is long gone, plundered by Mahmud of Ghazni on one of his many raids on northern and western India in the 11th century. The temple’s spire, or Shikhara, too, is broken. But to completely destroy the temple’s heliocentric spirit, Mahmud would have had to have possessed the power to throw the sun itself off its course. Twice every year, on the days of the March and the September equinoxes, the rays of the rising sun glide over the Surya Kund (the deep tank that forms the first of the temple’s three distinct but axially aligned features), pass through the arches of the music-hall or Ranga Mandap, pierce the entrance to the main chamber or Guda Mandap, and illuminate the sanctum, where the idol once stood. The spectacle has disappeared, but the thought — of the sun bringing its own image to life on a pre-appointed day as if keeping a vow, of the trajectory of a distant star and that of human intelligence and devotion meeting in a kind of architectural handshake, of a sense (even if fabricated) of concord between the earthly and the celestial realms — thrills the mind yet.
A sculpture of the sun god On this morning, as the caretaker unlocks the door of the Guda Mandap for the schoolboys and us, the sun — “red as the cheek of an angry ape”, as the 8th-century Sanskrit poet Yogeshvara puts it — is rising southeast of the structure’s welcoming arches, and its rays enter the temple at an angle. We are not the first creatures to enter the temple, although this was our aim; as soon as the door is unlocked three pigeons, as if awaiting this moment from dawn onwards, hasten above our heads into the murky interior. Inside, the sanctum is locked and remains so always, as if hiding the absence at its heart. To one side, another locked crevice, this one leading downwards, is apparently the opening of a tunnel built as an escape route. The caretaker insists that it goes all the way to nearby Patan, the capital of King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty (also called the Suryavanshis or descendants of the sun) who built the temple in 1026. Circling the sanctum, we come across the temple’s most permanent residents: Rows of small black bats (or kankadiyas, as the schoolboys call them) ghoulishly suspended upside-down from the ceiling, waiting for the day to run its course before they emerge.
I circle the temple from the outside, where the sun is bringing to life cascading bands of ornamental friezes. Under the gaze of the chipped figures carved onto the temple walls, from the repeated one of Surya on his chariot of seven horses to scenes of sexual congress and childbirth, long-legged peacocks sprint across the temple grounds as if escaping after a heist, and squirrels, sparrows, and pigeons nibble shoulder to wing at titbits amid columns of worked stone. No rites are now performed at the desolate Garbhagriha; the daily round of flowers, incense and fire is now performed at a small Shiva temple, no bigger than a shed, north of the main structure. The most attractive feature of this little outpost is a stone image of bright-eyed Ganesha at the entrance, with his trunk curling, unusually, to the right.
I move on to the ornate pavilion of the Ranga Mandap, smaller but taller than the adjoining temple, its niched façade hosting a profusion of sculpted figures depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Mandap can be entered from all four directions through symmetrical arches or toranas, and the east-facing one leads down to what is today the site’s most enticing feature, the great Surya Kund or water-tank.
Visitors at the ornate Sabha Mandap The tank has two attributes that break up, and fruitfully complicate, what would otherwise be the monotony of steps leading into a pit. One, a number of small shrines, each holding the image of a deity, are built onto the steps on all four sides, giving the tank the air of a self-contained universe. The most striking of these shrines is an enclosure showing Vishnu reclining on his Sheshanaga, surrounded by other forms. And two, the visitor makes the journey down to the water not so much from step to step but from terrace to terrace, which are linked together by steps that cut away to left and right so as to make series of triangles between each terrace. One takes a slow, zig-zag path into the tank; what might be a simple sequence of parallel lines is turned into a set of complex geometric forms that emanate an autonomous allure and mystery within the larger design. The steps and shrines are reflected and doubled in the water below, thick and green as spinach soup. And as one goes down, following the rising sun as it burrows deeper and deeper into the pit and its stonework, the looming Sabha Mandap itself seems to gain in size and stature; the tank elevates and aggrandises what is otherwise a hall of modest size. To sit by the porch of a shrine halfway down the tank graven with figures from divinity, watching the water break into little circles below and the shadows of flying pigeons dart across the dome above, is to enter a realm of marvellous stillness and beatitude, to find oneself at the centre of a framed and concentrated view of the world like that in a painting. At the lowest level, a number of stone slabs jut out above the water, and in better days must have made for a convenient point for drawing up water in pots or studying one’s reflection. Climbing up again to ground level, the visitor feels himself transformed from the one who went in. If our legislators met here rather than in Parliament, might they not be a little more conscientious?
One might think of the tank as an appetiser for the other great architectural landmark in the vicinity, the Rani-ki-Vav or Queen’s Stepwell at Patan, less than an hour’s drive from Modhera. Stepwells are a common feature in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and this one, built within a few decades of the Sun Temple, is among the most marvellous examples of the form.
Like the tank, the Stepwell has a staggered descent, but it can only be entered from one side, the east; the other three sides run straight down at right angles to the ground and form the shaft of the well. Walking down, I feel as if heaven and earth have exchanged places; I go past level after level of sharp-nosed, full-figured deities reverentially captured in different poses, faces serene or half-smiling, eyes darting left and right, legs splayed or crossed, arms delicately outstretched or holding up weapons or musical instruments. Every wall, pillar, arch or nook in the vav ripples with the agitation of faces and limbs suspended forever in stone, and as the day progresses the sun begins at the western face of the well and works its way downwards to light up this rapturous Panorama level by level.
Two-thirds of the way down, at the point where the Archaeological Survey of India has barred further progress, one gazes through the aligned openings in a series of pavilions to see Vishnu on his Sheshanaga on the far wall of the well — as entrancing a darshan as any. The stepwell is surrounded by beautifully tended, rolling grasslands, and as the afternoon sunlight grew strong I lay down on the fragrant grass beneath a neem tree and drifted into an equally blessed slumber. As I receded, my last thought was one of equipoise consistent with my horizontal calm. Just as vividly as the gods have generated the forms and colours of this world, so too have humans in turn envisioned the life of the gods.