Built by King Narashimha I in the mid-thirteenth century, the Sun Temple at Konark represents the climax of a thousand year evolution of Orissa temple construction. This book describes the numerous myths and theories on the construction, architectural features, Sculptural Programme, as well as the decorative elements of the temple ranging from the sacred to erotic, celestials, and scenes from everyday life.
Well illustrated with layout plans, maps, and photographs, this volume will be indispensable for general readers and informed tourists visiting the site. Students and scholars of history, cultural studies, and art and architecture will also find the work interesting.
Historically the modern state of Orissa, situated on the Bay of Bengal on the northeast coast of India, has been noted as ‘a land of temples’, even in the writings of nineteenth-century scholars. James Fergusson for example, declared that ‘there are more temples now in Orissa than in all the rest of Hindustan put together’, while W. W. Hunter stated that ‘from end to end, it is one region of pilgrimage’. Its great sanctity is likewise extolled in various Sanskrit texts. In the Brahma Purana (26.39—40), when the sages ask Brahma about the most excellent place on earth, that bestows virtue (dharma), love (kama), wealth (artha) and salvation ( moksha) , and that is the most excellent of all holy centres, he particularly singles out Utkala (Orissa) and its four great religious centres: Konaditya (Konark, for the worship of Surya); Viraja (Jajpur, for the worship of Devi); Ekamra (Bhubaneswar, for the worship of Shiva); and Puri (for the worship of Vishnu), considering those who stay there to be dwellers of heaven while the sites themselves yield worldly pleasures and salvation on this very earth. In contrast to the other three religious centres, which are metropolitan areas, Konark is a remote site on a sandy beach near the mouth of the Chandrabhaga river, a dried-up tributary of the Prachi. This feature led Percy Brown to conjecture that the site was selected in order ‘that the practices so wantonly illustrated might be ceremoniously conducted by its addicts in an underworld of their own’. Whereas Bhubaneswar and Puri each have a multiplicity of temple complexes, Konark has a single temple complex. However, its dominating shrine, built by king Narasimha (CE 1238—64) of the Ganga dynasty and dedicated to the Sun god, is the largest temple constructed in Orissa. For its size, it has been considered to be ‘the most richly ornamented building—externally at least—in the whole world’. The overwhelming abundance of sculpture in no way overshadows the architectural splendour of the monument, but as noted by Ananda Coomaraswamy greatly enriches it: ‘it would be hard to find anywhere in the world a more perfect example of the adaptation of sculpture to architecture.’ Its beauty was admired even by the Muslim Abu’l Fazl who, in his Ain-i-Akbari (sixteenth century), remarked that ‘even those whose judgement is critical and who are difficult to please stand astonished at its sight.’
The Orissan style of architecture represents a unique regional variation of the Nagara (northern) style of the Hindu temple and displays its own nomenclature for architectural features. Three architectural orders described in the Vastu text, Bhuvanapradipa, that is, the rekha (with a curvilinear spire), the bhadra or pidha (with a pyramidal roof) and the khakhara (with an oblong bada and semi- cylindrical roof) are employed in various periods in Orissa for the deul (sanctum) of the temple complex. In its mature format however it is the rekha order that becomes the standard plan for this most sanctified part of the shrine while the pidha order becomes the standard plan for the jagamohana or front hall. The balance of these two contrasting superstructures, of a low pidha-deul as being subordinate to the higher rekha-deul, is peculiar to Orissa and greatly enhances the grandeur of the soaring curvilinear spire, as noted by Stella Kramrisch. A particularly distinctive feature of the Orissan temple, evident from the very beginning, is the overall clarity of the total design in plan and elevation. Each individual architectural unit is clearly defined as a self-containing element in the overall decorative programme. Each sculptural image is well contained within its pillar or niche boundaries, adhering closely to the surface. The pagas (vertical elements) that project from the exterior walls are usually designed as mundis (miniature shrines) or replicas of the temple itself, complete with niche and spire. These mundis function as an ornament to beautify the structure and at the same time act as a frame to house or display images of the various deities, Their niches, offsets, and recesses cast shadows that interact with the rounded contours of figure sculpture and the organic profusion of scroll motifs to produce an enmeshed framework of light and dark accents. As miniature replicas they perpetuate the image of the temple, both the terrestial dwelling place of the deity and literally a design of the cosmos, while their niches, Kramrisch adds, serve as windows or exits through which the divinity of the enshrined deity shines forth. The decorative motifs, in addition to beautifying the structure, serve symbolically as auspicious images to protect the temple from real or imagined evils. None of the carvings, in fact, is merely decorative, each ‘has its meaning at its proper place and is an image or symbol’. Although the main temple complex is now a colossal ruin, virtually every scholar or connoisseur who has seen it has been greatly impressed by its monumental grandeur and generally considers it to be the grandest achievement of the Orissan style of architecture, the culmination and climax of a long evolution spanning over seven hundred years.
Probably there has been more written about this monument than about any other single Hindu structure, ranging from critical scholarly studies to popularized editions exploiting the erotic nature of the sculptural decoration. In the earliest studies, the authors were overly impressed with the monumental scale of the temple and its deployment of massive iron beams and prodigious blocks of stone, pondering on the technical problems confronting the Indian architects of the thirteenth century. In more recent studies, emphasis is placed on a critical analysis of the structure and its iconographic peculiarities. A serious drawback to presenting an accurate history of the temple and its later collapse and desecration is the lack of reliability and even authenticity of texts and records purporting to give factual details and historical background. Various accounts often contradict one another, while numerous legends have been fabricated or greatly embellished even by modern scholars. The Madala Panji (Gajapati chronicle of the Jagannatha temple), from which numerous other palm-leaf manuscripts often draw material, for example, was written long after the early history of the Surya Deul and its genealogy and chronology for pre-Somavamshi history are often misleading. Fortunately the long awaited definitive monograph by K.S. Behera has recently been published and the author addresses most of these problems.
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