Just before the short flight of steps leading up to the Surya image, on the right, is a superb recess. This recess typifies the site, since it maintains a balance between mass and detail that is everywhere here and contains stone that varies tremendously in color, texture, and workmanship. Here monolithic figures overlook pillars carved in the tiniest detail.
On the west side rears up a man mounted on a lion, which is on top of an elephant crushing an enemy soldier. There is a tremendous dynamism in this proud tableau, which must be 6-feet (2m) high and is still in pretty good condition. War is balanced by love; on the opposite wall stand a glorious Maithuna couple, again very large, which catches the honeyed evening light from the west.
Due to damage, many of these sculptures are now visibly part of the mammoth rock. They seem to be reverting to the undifferentiated stuff from which they were once fashioned. Sucked back into a wall of solid quicksand, they are frozen in time. The carvings that adorn every inch of the pillars here urge the same metamorphosis on us. Their tracery swirls and twists to produce curling introverted patterns-stone seaweed caught and turned by the pull of the tide.
Like the Celtic motifs they so resemble, like all art shaped by the restless sea, the Konark scrolls ebb and flow in a cadence of ceaseless flux. Such patterns act as gentle mazes, ensnaring the heart with the promise of hidden secrets.
THE SOUTHERN SURYA
Surya is one of the three chief deities of the 'Vedas'. As the source of light, of warmth, of life, and of knowledge, he is the source of all.
One of the wonders of Konark are the three forms of Surya, which are set in the southern, western and northern walls. Made of chlorite, these accessory deities ('Parshva-Devatas') were originally framed, but the frames have long since disappeared. The walls and roof around them are thus all modern.
The Majestic Sculptures
Surya towers majestically over the south side of the compound. His gaze is unflinching yet compassionate, and the full, almost flat quality of the face with its almond-shaped eyes and flattish nose look more Southeast Asian, perhaps Burmese or Thai, than Indian. Konark had extensive maritime connections with Southeast Asian, so it is quite possible that the model for these features came from there.
Yet, the face is not heavy; the gently smiling lips shadow the smooth polished stone, as the cheeks swell out from the nose and catch the light. It has an assured, self-absorbed tranquility that reminds us of the height of Gupta art, nearly eight hundred years earlier.
Surya's body radiates an adamantine strength. Broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted and long-limbed, it is hung with the signs of royalty: earrings, sacred thread, necklaces, an exquisitely worked 'dhoti' closed with a magnificent belt and clasp, with a long pendule hanging down at the front.
Surya is the only Indian god who wears boots-a legacy from Iranian iconography, as is the work on the dhoti. Again, the body has the same fullness of contained energy that vitalizes the sculpted figures of the Gupta period.
A Fine Carving
At first sight the sun god may appear rather too stylized by comparison with the other, more naturalistic carving that adorns the walls of Konark. It is true that hieratic deities are always carved according to canonical convention. But there are several little details that prevent it becoming too formal a figure. The taut body is etched with fineness at the armpits, waist, and ankles; there is no heaviness at all.
The subsidiary figures add a touch of relief to the main one. By Surya's right foot kneels the king, his sword laid down in submission; by his left, the priest. Church and state, the two worlds of man, bow down before the omnipotent source of life. Their faces have the sweetness of mature 'Pala-Sena' art.
The Lovely Figurines
Behind these two stand a charming couple of figures: the bearded 'Dandi' and the bearded and potbellied 'Pingala', the two attendants of Surya. Beyond them, in a Mundi niche, are two warriors; while at the very ends are 'Usha' and 'Pratyusha', the twin divinities of light who in Vedic mythology dispel the darkness with their rosy-tipped arrows. Below is the charioteer 'Aruna', who drives the god's one-wheeled golden chariot, controls the seven horses, and shields the world from the sun's fury. The chariot bears dancers and musicians.
The four standing figures flanking the image are Surya's wives, two on each side. Above these are deities: on the left is Vishnu with his mace and lotus; on the right Brahma, bearded and potbellied, with three of his four heads visible and with matted hair. This portly god is carrying his water pot, stave, sacrificial ladle, and rosary. He is in his role of priest-ascetic. Surya's halo is fringed with tongues of flame and surrounded by various attendants, who frame the ineffable beauty of the main face.
This wealth of subsidiary detail, carved with feeling and vitality, presents a variety that rescues the enormous central figure from appearing too massive or conventional. Altogether, it is a triumph of the Ganga sculptor's art.
THE WESTERN SURYA
The best time to see this image is in the afternoon, when the sun enlivens the otherwise dull chlorite. Wearing the traditional crown of kings and gods, this Surya is very similar to the one you just saw. The stone is so finely carved it looks as if the statue had been cast in metal.
Again, some of the attendant figures here are superb. The Sun God's halo is composed of smiling musicians whose faces glow with happiness like the blissful couple on the southern wall.
On the top left of Surya stands Brahma, the creator; on the right, Vishnu, the preserver, for the sun both quickens and sustains all life. Here the flanking deities are flexed, as to give the whole figure a serpentine motion and a touch of lightness. And again the lower part of the piece is blackened with the 'Patina' from the touch of hundreds of thousands of pious hands.
This was the holy of holies, originally approached from the east. Now it is empty except for a carved chlorite platform, on which the image of the deity was originally set. The platform is divided into three horizontal divisions. In the recessed middle division is the mustached King Narasingha Deva, kneeling with folded hands in the company of priests. His sword, the emblem of kingship, is held in his armpit.
One of the priests is garlanding the monarch, while another carries a royal charter pertaining to the founding of the temple. To the left of the king kneels his queen, surrounded by six of her female attendants. The dress of all these figures shows considerable variety, and all their little faces are lit with that sunny contentment that is a hallmark of Konark sculpture.
THE NORTHERN SURYA
Here the sun god is shown sitting on a spirited charger, while the king and priest stand as attending servants. Surya himself is wearing a high crown, and the 'Tilak' mark on his forehead. Although the body is badly damaged, the god's face is again a masterful achievement.
Surya is shown riding a horse to indicate that he is facing north, that part of the sky where the sun is principally absent. The presence of the horse also alludes to a 'Mahabharata' myth in which Surya's brightness was so great that Knowledge left, unable to bear it, leaving Shadow alone by his side. She retired into the forest to devote herself to a life of contemplation. To hide, she took the form of a horse, approached her. She bore him two sons, the 'Ashwins', who are the twin gods of agriculture.
The desire to transcend time lies at the very heart of Indian culture. It is the basis of her religions, her art, and her social system. So to the Indian psyche, the sun symbolizes not only time but also that which lies beyond time, the Eternal. These faces of the sun are not incompatible opposites. On the contrary, they are the two complementary aspects of the One life.
The didactic purpose of the best of Indian art is to bring the timeless into the transitory. It seeks to make us realize that deep within the ever-changing world lies the unchanging spirit, the self of all creation. Places like Konark attempt to bring us to the threshold of this unifying vision, so we discover our true nature.