KONARK SUN TEMPLE

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» East India
» Orissa
Location : Konark, Orissa
Also Known As : Black Pagoda & Konark
Built By : King Narsingha Deva
Presiding Deity : Surya Or The Sun God

THE KING MEETS THE GIRAFFE
To let left of the blissful couple there is a strange scene in which a group of men is paying homage to the king seated on an elephant. They are presenting him with a giraffe. An interesting historical tidbit is that Giraffes, are found only in Africa, not in India, so this is probably a record of a trading ship that landed at Konark, which was a flourishing port at the time the temple was built, and brought its strange cargo for the king to see.

THE HAPPY MONK
At the end of this wall is an example of Konark's impish satire. Here is a monk, rotund and worldly in the best 'Chaucerian' tradition, deriving very unspiritual solace from three nubile ladies, who, from the look of it, are doing all they can to please him.

His face is like an exuberant melon, split open with a toothy and triumphant laugh, as he holds a purse above his head. Keeping back his money until he is fully satisfied. Wherever they could, the masons here surreptitiously poked fun at the priesthood of their day.

The Story
Even when they were first carved, scenes like these won the admiration of all who saw them, and the fame of Konark spread far and wide. Narasingha Deva was delighted with the achievement of his craftsmen, as the following story shows.

One day, the king decided to see how the building of the Sun temple was progressing. He disguised himself and wandered about the site. Incognito, looking here and there to see that the work was to his satisfaction. In one corner of the vast camp he came across a famous craftsman, absorbed in carving out a block of stone. This artist had an attendant, a young apprentice whose sole job was to squat behind the master and supply him with refreshment whenever he needed it.

This refreshment was in the form of pan-betel leaf wrapped around a bitter and heady mixture of chopped areca nut, chewing tobacco, and lime. The king motioned to the attendant to move, and silently took his place. So absorbed was the master, that he did not notice anything had happened behind him. After a while, he stretched back his hand for more pan. The king, who had been gazing entranced at the beautiful work being done, quickly got out his own pan box of finest silver, took out a bundled leaf, and put it in the outstretched hand.

The craftsman popped the pan in his mouth and went on working. For a few moments nothing happened, but then he suddenly realized that the pan he was chewing was of a far higher quality than normal. Turning around to find out what was going on, he recognized the face of his king. Spluttering profuse apologies, the sculptor prostrated himself before the squatting monarch. But Narasingha Deva would have none of it. Rising to his feet, he lifted up the artisan and then bowed down low before him, saying: "Maharaj! You are so talented, you are indeed worthy to have the king as your attendant!"

THE DEPARTURE
The sun god presides over decay and death just as much as growth and life. This poignant panel shows an aged woman taking leave of her family who cluster around her, begging her not to go. Her destination is probably Banaras, where all pious Hindus hope to end their days on the banks of the Ganges.

Sun Temple, Konark, OrissaVAISHNAVA TEMPLE
This is the oldest temple on the site, dedicated to Vishnu showing us the simplest form of the temple: a small sanctuary that originally contained an image preceded by a porch. At the entrance to this there is a primitive door guardian who bears the stave of power to ward off the evil eye. This temple was uncovered in 1956 and was made from brick, plastered with lime and sand. Vishnu was from earliest times a solar deity, as his discus and lotus attributes remind us.

MAYADEVI TEMPLE
This was originally dedicated to Surya, the sun god, and was excavated in the first decade of the century. It used to contain an image of a form of Surya called "Ramachandi", who allegedly crept away in the middle of the night when he overheard two priests discussing the approach of the Muslims. He is now residing in a temple eight miles from here.

There is some good carving on the outside walls, especially Naga figures and little faces set in 'Chaitya' window frames. Guardians of the Eight Directions are also prominent, set in miniature temples called "Mundis". These Mundis are a common feature of Orissan architecture and are also found at Khajuraho.

Noticeable also are a fine dancing Shiva waving a serpent above his head on the western wall. On the northern wall are two fine chlorite gargoyles in the form of crocodiles. One supports a couple in its mouth, the other a fish. These were drains to carry the ritual ablutions of water, clarified butter, and milk out of the temple to where they could be touched by devotees.

THE MAIN TEMPLE-WESTERN FACE
At first glance, this wall seems too badly damaged to be worth looking at. But after a closer look, it gradually becomes apparent that the ravages of time have created a weathered effect that is haunting in its beauty. Here is an art of decay, a sculpture of dissolution that in its own way is as poignant and arresting as anything on the site.

In some cases the erosion has revealed the striations of the rock, rippling and sparkling in undulating rhythms. Then the figures seem to be composed just of vibrating waves of energy, exposed by the ceaseless caress of winds and rain, and their forms seem to swim out of the swirling waters of the surrounding chaos.

Nagas, dancing girls, loving couples-all are reduced to mere ripples of movement in the ever-changing web of life that is constantly creating and dissolving forms. Take a moment or two to study this graceful dance of death captured, for example, by the group in the center of the western façade. In their inevitable decay, these lovely figures pay an ironical, yet, supremely fitting tribute to the sun god, Surya, Lord of Time.

THE MAIN TEMPLE-NORTHERN FACE
Well preserved but deprived of sunlight, this face is difficult to approach, due to restoration work being done after falls of rock during recent monsoons. Much of the best work is high up on the wall, and its position, together with lack of direct light, makes it difficult even to photograph.

Particularly remarkable in this northern side of the complex are the remains of the colossal figures that originally crowned the roof of the main temple and the pair of royal elephants that are situated near the northern wall of the compound.

THE NINE PLANETS
In the wooded clearing outside the northeast corner of the compound stands a hut that enshrines a good carving of the nine planets. These are, from left to right: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, potbellied Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and two others. All are seated cross-legged on a lotus and carry a water pot in the left hand and a rosary in the right.

The last two deities are 'Rahu' and 'Ketu'. The fierce-looking Rahu carries a crescent in each hand, whereas Ketu has a bowl of flames in the left hand and a staff in the right. These were originally part of an architrave of the eastern door but were moved to safety when the temple was excavated.

The Astrological Significance
Astrology is vital to the Hindus. Planetary deities must be worshipped and appeased to secure success in life; the astrologer, along with the priest and the moneylender, is a figure of enduring importance in village life. No marriage takes place unless the horoscopes are well matched. No important occasion goes ahead unless the astrological signs are favorable to it, and eminent scientists, businessmen, and politicians pay careful heed to what their astrologers tell them is in store.

Each Saturday there is a fair here in the little clearing, and Saturn, the deity of Saturday, is worshipped to insure a favorable week ahead. Priests come and conduct Puja for the pilgrims, decorating the images with flowers, vermilion, and sandal paste and offering coconuts, rice, and money. Ancient fire sacrifices ('homa') are also performed in specially dug pits outside the hut. These take place at sunrise and date back four thousand years, to Vedic times.

THE MAIN TEMPLE-FIRST FLOOR
The frame of this door is the best preserved; except for a small missing piece near the base it is virtually complete. Made of chlorite, all the doorframes here are alike in composition and technique. They are composed of seven intricately carved bands, containing little figures, scrollwork, serpents, 'Mithuna', and so on. Each band is "supported" by a figure at its base, and the lintel is surmounted by protective figures also.

These doorways echo their wooden prototypes, which can still be seen, brightly painted and decorated, in the Himalayan temples, especially in Bhutan and Ladakh. Indeed, Himalayan art was much influenced by the "Pala-Sena School", which thrived in Bengal and northern Orissa in the 9th century and went up to the Himalayas with the Buddhists who fled the Muslim armies.

LARGE MAITHUNA
A fine example of a couple in close embrace. This level has some very large Mithuna figures, which would have been out of proportion had they occurred lower down the wall but blend perfectly with the less adorned upper reaches.

SOUTHERN STEPS
As one walks around the temple, one crosses the top of the southern steps. Covered in larval rock that has been weathered away by erosion, they resemble nothing so much as seaweed. After the rain the stone is slippery, and glistens with little pools trapped in its pitted depressions. In the warm sun, it seems just right for the bare feet that pad across its well-worn softness with a dry, slapping sound.

Decay works its own magic. The ravages of time can spark off associations and nuances of feeling that would have remained unprompted by a more perfectly preserved work of art. Here crumbling rocks, mossy lichen, and sudden green glimpses of sprouting plant life act as triggers to memory and fantasy.

Konark's bones are turning to coral, its eyes are becoming pearls, and the whole temple is suffering "a sea-change, into something rich and strange". MORE.........



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