Take a bow unseen master I muttered standing in front of the Sun Temple of Konark in Odisha. Although little is known about who designed the temple, which looked magnificent even in its ruined state, the person must have had a great imagination to fashion a temple dedicated to the sun god in the form of a chariot, complete with 12 giant wheels on both sides and seven straining horses in front, yet keeping within the classical rules of Odisha’s temple architecture.
Located about 65 km from Bhubaneswar and 35 km from Puri, Konark forms the third arm of Odisha’s Golden Triangle. The embellished temple walls, the ornamentation on the wheels, the scattered statues of a war stallion or an enraged elephant, all inspire a tremendous sense of awe. Said to be built in the 13th century during the rule of King Narasimha Deva I (AD 1238-1264), the temple is considered an example of the highest level of architectural excellence achieved by the Kalinga school of art. Unesco inscribed the Konark Sun Temple on its World Heritage List in 1984.
Entering from the eastern side, the first structure is a hall with finely carved pillars. This is the bhoga mandap or the natyashala where cultural programmes used to be held in honour of the sun god. Next is the jagamohan or the mukhashala, a porch where the devotees gather, which merged with the sanctum sanctorum or the garbhagriha. According to old records, rising over the sanctum was a curvilinear tower. However, little remains of the sanctum and what we see today is mostly the jagamohan. The concept of time and space has been represented through various aspects.
Round the year, especially during the winter months the Sun Temple draws a lot of visitors. But what most do not know is that this work of art would not have lasted if it was not for a complaint from the sailors of the East India Company, over a couple of centuries back.
According to records, in 1806, the English East India Company’s Marine Board urged the Council in Fort William, Calcutta, to save the Black Pagoda on the Odisha coast from, which served as a navigational landmark. People were removing stones from the pagoda, thus lowering its height. The sea was close to the temple in the earlier days though it moved away later on. The administration sent a party to investigate. They discovered the ruins of an architecturally splendid temple hidden among a forest of trees and creepers. It was also true that local people were carting away the stones to build their homes. Broken pieces were lying scattered. Incidentally, it was later established that the Arun Stambh in front of the Puri Jagannath Temple, a gift from a ruler of Khurda, was actually a part of this temple.
Although sporadic attempts were made to gather and preserve the scattered remains, it was in 1901 that the repair and restoration of the temple was ordered by the government. For the people involved, it was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without any reference to go by. Mistakes happened and had to be rectified. It was during this phase of restoration that the giant wheels were excavated. Soon it became clear that the temple sat in the middle of a sprawling complex, surrounded by smaller temples, a well, a kitchen, etc. The Maya Devi temple was unearthed in 1909.
Now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, the main temple stands surrounded by gardens and pedestrian paths. The complex is dotted with later findings, including stallions, elephants, and other broken pieces. Although most visitors devote only a couple of hours to the temple complex, you may devote an entire day to enjoy the spectacular architecture. The temple complex is illuminated at night. Usually, between December 1 and 5, Odisha Tourism organises the Konark Dance Festival, where apart from watching performances by reputed dancers, you can also enjoy local food and handicrafts at the associated fair.
Getting there: Bhubaneswar, about 65 km by road is the nearest airport and a convenient railhead. Puri, about 35 km away, is also a convenient rail head. Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (http://panthanivas.com/index.php) operates a no-frills but comfortable tourist lodge (Yatri Nivas) in Konark. Luxurious accommodation is available in Bhubaneswar and Puri. The best time to visit the temple is early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is less harsh and not too many people around. Since the complex is open to the sky, it can be hot during day even in winter. So remember to carry sun protective gear and drinking water.
OTDC is holding special day tours from Bhubaneswar during the 2018 Men’s World Cup Hockey Championship (scheduled to begin on November 28) to be held here.