Post monsoon, the air was still somewhat humid. Temperatures were still in the range of early summer levels. Yet sunshine was welcome, bringing an end to several months of extreme wet weather. Grass had begun to reclaim lands of slush and the air was pure. The air was full of anticipation of a festive season. It had something for everyone.
In October 2011, we set out to the east – a land that worships Goddess Durga. We found ourselves in the midst of a festive season, when we arrived at Bhubhaneswar. The festivity was augmented by the fact that we were being hosted and joined by two of our best friends respectively. The itinerary had no time to waste and we drove to our destinations straight from the airport. We spent a day and a night in a little village on shallow waters. The village had no direct electricity and we were supplied through a diesel generator by our hosts at the village. Thereafter, post a day’s rest at my friend’s place in Bhubhaneswar, we headed to my favourite monument – the Sun temple of Konark. The place wasn’t quite finding a fit in our tight itinerary and had to be slipped in as my part of the bargain.
The grand Sun Temple had undergone a massive change since my first visit more than two and half decades ago. By early 1980s, the Temple was falling apart. More harm was done to it in the century post its discovery by modern India, than all of the previous time, Islamic invaders and nature put together. A British hobbyist discovered the Sun Temple accidentally in early 19th century. He discovered some ruins in deep wild, buried halfway in the earth. Very little realization had dawned on India that its greatest monument ever, lay discovered and vulnerable. Indian princes carried off its exquisite statues to decorate their homes. The stones of Konark were carried off as building material for temples and other edifices. Yet, Konark was about much more than that. Much of it was still beneath the earth, waiting to be excavated.
The Temple which consisted originally of a taller structure had only the stouter structure standing when it was discovered – which today comes across as the main temple in the absence of the lost principal structure. The smaller structure itself it too big for ordinary imagination and is the principal attraction. It is closed from all sides. When I visited in 1984, the ASI was trying to restore the structures and stop the pillage. The former could not be achieved without the latter. The restoration plan included shutting out intruders. The taller structure was still standing partially, with its four walls towering at around 20-25 feet above the ground (a fraction of its original height). A historical anecdote notes that after the conquest of Orissa by Muslims in the 16th century, the general asked his finest archer to aim his best arrow to the temple’s top. The invaders had never seen a Hindu structure as big as that. The arrow is reported to have fallen after halfway journey. The main structure (now fallen) must have been over 350 feet high. The archer was probably a Mughal (Mongol), whose arrows traveled the largest distance – key to their conquest of China and West Asia – with their bows being made of yak bone.
In June 1984, the area was full of watery mud with monsoon showers. And I stole my chance to climb atop the walls with Mahapatra uncle from Cuttack’s music academy, and who was taking care of us at Orissa. I also then climbed down to the open area that these tall walls had enclosed. I was disappointed on not finding a hidden treasure. We got ourselves a photograph – the black & white photograph of me with my parents and the Wheel of Konark adorns a family album.
Konark captured minds and imagination for the better part of a millennium of its existence. The medival (12th to 13th century) holy Hindu text Brahma Puran, details this as one of the greatest places of its time. It details the rituals of worshipping, the running expenses and the edifice itself. The Arab and European sailors when eventually sailed to the South East Asian spice hubs, the Sun Temple of Konark was a landmark – called the Black Pagoda. The ‘black’ understandably comes from the dark color of the stones, seen from a distance.
When built, the Sun Temple was located on a wonderful beach, much like today’s Ganpati Temple at Ganpatupule, near Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. But the sea withdrew over the next few centuries, leaving the Temple a kilometer or more inland.
Who built this great temple edifice? An edifice bigger and grander than anything the subcontinent had seen. In what times was the Konark erected? Time of great Hindu revival in peacetime, or a period of consternation?
By the 13th century, much of India was already in the hands of Muslims. Kalinga (ancient name for Orissa) was on tenterhooks and lived nervously. Narasimha took over the throne of Kalinga in the year 1238 and may have spent some time in settling down. The Turk invaders, ruling rest of India, were by now a trained war machinery of several generations. They chipped away seemingly powerful countries (such as Kalinga) by making small incursions, make plunder, rape and kill, and retire if confronted by a formidable force. This practice was followed for years/decades before weakening the enemy and making a big assault. This was working. It was chipping away the Kalinga state. Between 1100 and 1238, Kalinga saw many such attacks --- inflicting damage to Narasimha’s country.
Izuddin Tughan Khan was the successful Turk ruler (Governor appointed by Delhi Sultanate) of Islamic Bengal. Rulers in Delhi were changing in quick succession, with emperors being murdered one after another. Razia Sultana was one of the Delhi rulers to fall (and be murdered) during Tughan Khan’s tenure as governor. New rulers needed allegiance of the governors, making Tughan Khan important. He was ruling the province with the highest revenue earning – 3 times more revenue than rest of Delhi/India Sultanate.
Instead of succumbing to pressures and surrendering a district or two, Narasimha was planning an offensive. In 1243, Narasimha set out with his army to Bengal, probably in the spring. He was leading the charge himself, supported by his general Paramaideva (also his brother-in-law). Reading from the swiftness of his movements, this may not have been a vast army.
King Narasimha may have been welcomed in southern Bengal --- the districts around modern day Calcutta. Turk penetration in southern Bengal was relatively recent then and the imposed religious restrictions were being resented by the Hindu masses. Khan was probably taken aback by the Kalingan offensive. Initially, either he left the task of repelling Kalinga army to the district forces, or, may have learnt of Narasimha’s army’s advance belatedly. Starting around the spring, Narasimha began to plunder Muslim quarters of Bengal. Khan counters the Orissa army a couple of months later at Katasin (in modern day, around southern part of Medinipur district --- probably not far from Kharagpur), with his own army. At charge of the army himself, Narasimha ensures a gross defeat of the Khan’s army. Tughan Khan deserts his men and runs for his life, seeking shelter at the walled city of Gaur, his capital. Narasimha’s army goes on a mass plunder of Muslim districts of southern and central Bengal. And just before the arrival of monsoon, Narasimha retires back to his Kingdom.
Around the time of next spring, 1244, Narasimha was back in Bengal. By now Narasimha’s army knew Southern Bengal quite well, and neither was there any resistance. During that time the Turko-Afghan rulers of Bengal, their population and standing armies were concentrated in the northern Bengal, stretching 100 km east from district of Malda in present day West Bengal. This means that their colonies were divided by the great river Ganga. To the west of the river lay the provinces called Radha (with core at present day Birbhum district). And to the east lay provinces called Varendra (present day northern Bangladesh, consisting of old districts of Dinajpur and Rajshahi – both of which have now been broken into smaller districts within the republic of Bangladesh). Further north, lay the greatly fortified capital of Gaur (also spelled Gaud). The Kalinga army marched right through the southern districts of Burdwan, Howrah and Hooghly. A great battle took place as Narasimha’s army sacked the provinces of Radha. The Turk armies were defeated by Orissa’s warriors. Turks and Afghans were killed in great number and their cities were plundered. Radha’s heaquarter Lakhanor was reduced. For the soon would-be Sultanate of Bengal, this was disaster at epic proportions. The Narasimha Army crossed the mighty river Ganga and took on the remaining Muslim forces in provinces of Varendra, killing the foreigners in great numbers. It is said that not enough men lived among them to carry on the task of burying the dead. According to one description of Radha after the war (roughly translated) --- The River Ganga was blackened by the kajal washed from the tears of weeping Muslim women, grieving their dead men (inscriptions of Narsimha II & III, R D Banerji – Vol I).
The maker of Konark then orders his army to march north right into the walled city and capital of Gaur, where a defeated governor Tughan was holed up. An alarmed Tughan Khan had begged help from Delhi and the Sultan of India had sent the governor of Awadh, Taimur Khan to Tughan’s aid. But Narsimha’s siege was ferocious and overwhelming. Taimur prefers to be a bystander. In Monsoon 1244, King Narasimha retired to his Kingdom, with the addition of Southern Bengal districts as his new possessions.
Irrespective of who ruled the Sultanates around Kalinga, King Narasimha was just too mighty to be picked on. An attack on him meant that King Narasimha dealt a crashing defeat to his enemies. Narsimha the ruler of Kalinga then on becomes King Narasimhadeva --- the God King and the protector of religion.
King Narasimhadeva brings home not just wealth of Gaur, he brings home something more valuable. The Lion among men (Narasimha) brings back Muslim oppressed sanyasis of Radha and Gaud to rehabilitate and resettle them near the Bhubaneswar area (Lingraj Temple inscriptions, Donaldson).
As we drove from Bhubhaneswar to Konark, we checked in at the government run Yatri Niwas just post noon. The lunch took forever to arrive after we settled for some ‘quick’ Chinese dishes. After an easy afternoon dotted with naps, we headed for siesta – holidays are always tales of over-eating for me. We walked to the Temple well after the sun had faded out of the sky. My host friend Param thought the temple at night would look good. And it did. As we made in through the entry point, my photographic tripod stand was confiscated by a group of casually dressed boys. They said they represented Archeological Survey of India and tripods were not permitted. They were right, Param found from the rules on the ASI website later. The motive of confiscation however was not clear. I doubted safe custody of my tripod, but parted nevertheless to move in the Temple.
My friend was right about the scene post sunset. Lit by electric focus lamps, the temple was gently glowing. There was darkness everywhere else. It helped me imagine what Narsimhadeva’s evening visits to the Temple would have been like. The Temple would have glowed under the light of hundreds of vegetable-oil-fired lamps, placed on the walls and peripheries. The God King would have alighted from his Royal elephant and walked in amid heads of common folks bowing in appreciation, blessings of holy-men and wishes of priests, all gratuitous of the keeper of Hindu religion. The King would take a full circle around the temple spending his gazes at countless sculptures on the walls, depicting his wars, sexual feats, his people, tales of gods, all lit by lamps beneath them. And he craned his neck up to admire scale of his creation. The God King would enter through giant gate of the temple – a gate so big that dwarfed his elephant stabled outside to a puppy. The inside of the temple was kept warm and lambent with lamps burning clarified butter. The gleaming interiors resonated with hymns from the holy books, sung in priestly chorus. As he moved in further, the inner sanctum was a building of unimaginable proportions. Its ceiling heaved up, beyond what the craned neck could keep up to, and melted into the sky. The God King came to worship the Sun God. If the temple dedicated to him is so grand, how grand would the idol image of Sun God be? My vivid imaginations ended there abruptly. We have very little idea of the idol. No one knows where it did go.
As the king came out of the Temple, he settled at the Natya Mandir, opposite the Temple. The God was worshipped in dance dedicated to him – the Odissi. The lit Natya Mandir would have echoed in songs, dancing feet and musical instruments.
My country surprises me every now and then. Nothing can be taken for granted. Two days ago, Rural village folks, hosted their first urban guests in us, but served us the finest chicken pakoda and other stuff I had eaten ever. And now my tripod was safely returned.
Next morning when I revisited the temple at the break of dawn, it seemed very different. Looking from the east, the Sun’s rays fell directly on the temple face with the break of dawn. Lit under the orange sky dotted with white clouds, it made a terrific scene. I was looking at every piece of art carefully. The sculptures positioned on the top of the temple were really big, probably taller than six feet and made of solid stone. I put on my telephoto lens to look. The beautiful statues of gods, nymphs and heavenly musicians were beautiful, but devoid of great detail. Two things struck me. One, the strength of the temple must be phenomenal, to house such mammoths for centuries. Two, the size of sculptures got bigger, as they got higher. The builders were trying to keep the sculptures easily comprehensible and constant in size as seen by the naked eye from the ground level. That may explain why the higher sculptures were not invested with details. There is a large sculpture of an elephant on the north side, just near the boundary walls. The uniformed man guarding the sculpture shooed away crowds in the temple, shouting from a distance, the moment he feared they were getting dangerously intimate with a piece of sculpture or structure. As I photographed the sculpture of elephant holding a man rolled in his trunk from a length, the guard took interest in my camera. He invited me to have a closer look if I liked. We chatted as I wondered why such cruel depiction of man being killed by elephant. The man appeared to me a musician, holding a hand-drum in one hand, even when rolled up in elephant trunk. Was it commonplace in Kalinga to punish people like this? The guard pointed to another compound behind, sheltered from the sky by dense tress, some of them banyan trees with many hanging roots. The compound was littered by a large number of stone blocks. The guard, whose job was to watch it all day, put it in perspective. He said the stones when put together could form a temple bigger than the present! These were stones from the fallen portions of the Konark complex. Where did so much stone come from? Noted author on the subject, Donaldson, notes that stones were transported by river from distance. This was in a location to the south west along the great Chilka lake, where the king had located a quarry. Now dry, the river Chandrabhaga must have been used to transport the stones to the site, by placing them on a raft – probably just the way the gigantic staff at Quatab Minar Complex was transported long distances on Yamuna. Human pulled cranes (tying stones with ropes and then pulling them in position) were employed to convert the stones into the Temple structure.
The temple complex is a massive work in stone, like nothing built in scale or complexity before. With so many meaningful signs and sculptures, the thought is haunting -- what was the maker of the temple trying to convey to us?
Sun has been important among of the Aryan gods. Sun was worshipped from the time immemorial. Sun and fire did not however over time remain central as much to the Indian lands as they did in Persia. Shiva and Vishnu worshippers gained in numbers and sun retracted to being one among the gods. For centuries, if not over thousand(s?) years, the greatest pilgrimage on Indus lands was a visit to the sun temple of Multan (Mulsthan?). The temple is believed to be as old as Hinduism itself. The temple stood on the banks of life-nourishing Chandrabhaga river (now called Chenab), resonating with devotees from even the most far-flung areas of the Hindudom.
In the year 712, Caliph’s General Abdul Bin Quasim sacked Multan. The Sun Temple of Multan was the biggest attraction for the invaders, for it was probably the biggest store of gold in the world. It was customary (even today is; e.g. at Tirupati Balaji Temple) for Hindus to gift gold to their Gods as a token of gratitude for fulfilled desires, such as settlement of a dispute, or birth of a son. Remember, gold also represented currency in those times. The cumulative gold in the Temple could have represented a significant share of Persia’s GDP then (for the sake of illustration). Hiuen Sang describes the gorgeous sun temple in his account when he visited. The ascending Gods, Shiva and Buddha were given their due respect, with idols dedicated to them in the Temple, as later development.
On sacking Multan, Quasim gained control of the temple, violated it, but left it functioning as it was source of great income from pilgrims all over Hindu lands, some as far away as in South East Asia. But incessant Islamic invasions by usurpers inflicted continuous damage to the temple. Two and half centuries after Quasim’s invasion, the greatest Temple of Hinduism was razed to ground by the brutal invader Mahmud (Governor) of Ghazni (a province of Afghanistan). With the loss of its greatest symbol, Hindudom sank in grief. Over the next several years, the sad news traveled to various parts of the Hindu continent.
At Kalinga, Islamic advance was consistently checked. And under Nasimha, finally, five centuries of Islamic advance was reversed. It was time to announce Hinduism’s comeback in the grandest way. The God King - Narasimhadeva started by healing its wounded soul. Sanyasis from Muslim dominions were rehabilitated in Kalingan territories. And it seems likely (I am speculating, given the huge and free – unlike in medieval Europe -- internal immigration, that has characterized India in time) that Narasimhadeva’s Kalinga became a haven for the Hindu asylum seekers from elsewhere. The King wanted to thank the God he worshipped. The King wanted a symbol to express his gratitude to the God who empowered him. His tribute to the God would be worthy of the tribute if it surpassed anything that the world had seen. To celebrate his reign as one of religious and military victory, King Narasimhadeva needed a grand symbol. A symbol so grand that it would have no peer.
He and his architects envisioned one. The Konark Sun Temple, dedicated to the Sun God.
Historians note this with some surprise. King Narasimhadeva was the greatest of the Ganga Dynasty – a dynasty not known for worshipping Sun as its principal deity. It is thought that when Narasimhadeva was eager and anxious, like any other ruler, for a male heir to take his line forward, it was the worship of Sun that proved fruitful. Narasimhadeva named his son Bhanudeva in gratitude --- the first solar name in the Ganga dynasty. It is also important to understand that we Hindus seldom disrespect a God even if the deity of choice is another. The older, original and smaller temple in the Konark complex (called the Mayadevi Temple) is also dedicated to the Sun God (although the only surviving idol is of Mayadevi -- the consort of Sun God). Therefore, I guess that this dynasty had been reposing faith in the God of Luminance for centuries.
It is important to note that as per records, the temple’s building was paid for by contribution from the God King’s personal treasure, as distinct from the state treasury. I have not been able to understand the intention behind this action.
Donaldson and others date the older temple of Sun (Mayadevi Temple) to late 11th century, or early 12th century. To me it does NOT seem to be a mere coincidence that the Mayadevi temple comes up shortly after the fall of the great Sun Temple of Multan. Had the worshippers of Sun at Multan moved in to Kalinga? Are therefore the images on the walls of Mayadevi Temple (and then at the giant Sun Temple itself a century and half later) have some representations from the Multan Temple? I would like to think so. There is a theme in the matter of dresses that adorn all the sculpture characters. The King or the subjects of Kalinga are shown in dresses that we know as our ordinary wear – dhotis and angavastrams for men, for example. But the Gods or celestial beings wear tight muslin-like clothes to cover their legs, topped with equally body fitting ornaments. Where does that come from? It resembles ancient Persia. Were these two categories of sculptures sculpted by sculptors from two different civilisations?
The Purans (ancient and medieval Hindu texts) describe the erection of the Sun Temple by Samba, the son of God Krishna. This legend resonates in most explanations on why and how the Sun Temple was built. The legend describes the Temple being on the banks of the holy river Chandrabhaga. This is ancient name for the river Chenab, now in Pakistan. And the ancient text refers actually to the Sun Temple of Multan, on the banks of Chenab/Chandrabhaga river. The texts refer to the Magi Sun Worshippers of Iran as the priests at Multan temple. King Narasimhadeva had a vision. The Konarka Sun Temple was perhaps his attempt to restore the lost pride of Hinduism with a thunder, making a Temple bigger and grander than the original, but retaining its principal characteristics. The same legend of Multan temple is also applied to the Konark in religious texts. There was a stream near the Konark Temple by the name of Chandrabhaga, running into the sea. The stream perhaps has disappeared in time, but the beach near Konark is called Chandrabhaga Beach – perhaps it is here that the stream ended. Hiuen Tsang describes the grand idol of Multan as being made up of gold and its eyes were made of rubies. We don’t know what did the idol at Konark look like.
Inscriptions or praises of the builder have not been left on the Temple. In Kalingan tradition of greatness, it was not the done thing for a king to leave his written tale or praises on a holy creation. This was probably considered outright advertisement. Irrespective of the size of creation, a temple was a public property and could not be claimed by individuals for propaganda, even if it were the king. However, this practice diluted a little with time, note historians and eventually there was some relaxation. The signatures could be left in general pictures, not specific writing. This explains images in some temples even predating Konark. At Konark, fortunately there is substantial material for us to understand bits and speculate, but not sufficient to have crucial understandings and to draw conclusions.
When back in Mumbai, I looked at photographs of sculptures over and over again. I was thinking of the musician rolled in Elephant’s trunk. It dawned that this was a war elephant holding an enemy in trunk before crushing him to death. The item in the man’s hand was not a drum, it was a shield. The hair of the man was distinct – made up of locks, not flowing hair. The depiction was perhaps of a siddi (African slave) of the Bengal army, being about to be crushed by God King’s war elephant. The Turko Afghans in Delhi, North India and Bengal played it safe, by sending in their African slaves at the most dangerous and difficult situations. They were also the most formidable in wars and ruled the Bengal Sultanate towards the end of the fifteenth century, overthrowing their masters. The African slaves were brought in ships by Arab slave traders at the ports of Konkan, most notably at Chaul (near present day Alibag).
As we moved around the temple, the Giant wheel was calling all the attention. The carvings on the axle and spokes of the wheel portrayed a royal lady’s day. It has left rich information for posterity. There were 12 such wheels. The builders of the Sun Temple seemed to have an obsession with the number 12. To count some of these: The temple is themed as a giant chariot having seven horses and 12 giant wheels. The temple was completed in the 12th year of the King’s reign. Depending on the account, 1200 or 12,000 men were employed to accomplish the building (even if it is a deliberated reporting – the number 12 is important). There is a legend about the crown of the temple, once built was very tough to be fitted. The legend talks of a 12 year boy accomplishing the task.
The architecture and design of great Hindu temples is simply astonishing. Comparing over the European or Islamic architectures, the Indian temples contain highly intricate and ornamental sculptures and designs and yet as you retract a few steps and move away from the monuments, what dominates your eyes is the structure and architecture of the edifice, not the sculptures. The details are always meant to melt into the larger body.
Archeologists are today certain that stones were first put in position and then carved out. This means that there was no room for any error for a sculptor. Each sculpture had to be performed to perfection. Considering that there were over a thousand sculptors on the site, I am wondering who these people were. Extremely accomplished and in large numbers.
As we walked backwards to the eastern side, behind the main temple, there is a half preserved structure of an older temple. It is characterized by some great sculptures and carvings. The one which struck me the most is of crocodile. Orissa is criss-crossed by rivers. The rivers of the region have always been known to have crocodiles in great numbers. Even today, I read in newspapers of sporadic incidents in Bengal, Orissa and Andhra, of crocodiles injuring humans. This is understandable given the overfishing in rivers, enormously increased human presence in the rivers and reduced water, must all be forcing confrontation between humans and crocodiles. Things must have been quite different 10 centuries back, when the older Sun Temple was built (the Mayadevi Temple). Humans and crocodiles must have had lot more space to each other. The Mayadevi temple shows several crocodiles as full sculptures (like statues, and unlike engraved images) on its outside walls. One of those has a fish in its mouth. The fact that a crocodile is shown with its natural food, and not shown attacking humans or vice versa, shows that this civilization obviously knew a lot about the natural world, and was confident --- not suffering misinformation and fear/phobia of crocodiles that we have today.
As you enter through the main gate, you are confronted with the staircase of the Natya Mandir. Two large statues on either side of the staircase, at floor level, deliver the level of awe that the builders probably had in mind. Each statue depicts a great lionoid in an extremely ferocious mood, with an elephant floored under the weight of its torso and in turn, the elephant crushing a man. It is possible though that the lionoid is only towering above the elephant-man scene in a symbolic manner, except that the floored elephant leaves room for doubt. It is a strange sight, one of awe. The expression and appearance has very little resemblance with anything that we know in India today. Some similarity with South East Asian depictions? But historians note that those of SE Asian depictions are greatly influenced by India. I am then encouraged to look inwards. The 200 year old sketches of Henry Creighton, capturing the ruins of Gaur as he watched then, depicts the same lionoid elephant scene. The sculpture that Creighton sketched was older than Konark (Hindu histoty of Gaur ended much before Narasimhadeva’s birth). The sculpture must be lying in some museum in the world, I don’t know where – or may be lost.
The sexual scenes on the Konark walls are interesting. It is also interesting to note that there is a pattern. The scenes disappear as sculptures move higher up on the walls. There are several theories, mostly speculation. One goes about the tantric form of worship that the King practiced, and the practice believed in spiritual attainment via sexual feats. Another goes that the king was trying to arouse sexual interest in an indifferent people. Yet another says that the king was advertising his vitality. Yet another says that the portrayals were displaying the world of hell outside emanating from sexual desires, to contrast it with the godly pleasures of worship inside the temple. And so on. You can choose a theory of your liking. As for me, I believe that sex was a very respectable thing in Narsimhadeva’s open and liberal society. The society greatly encouraged sex and held those with greater firepower in higher esteem. For such a society it would be quite odd if the walls were devoid of sexual scenes. Afterall, Tamerlane headed to India after being attracted by a report that women in India made love in its streets and bazaars. He may have heard it right.
It was broad daylight by now and my cellphone rang. I was being summoned back to the hotel for a timely breakfast. I had clicked over 500 pictures and my memory card was nearing capacity. I and Param wished we could stay here longer. But phone-calls from wives cannot be taken lightly. We headed back instantly.