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Konark Sun Temple – Damaged, yet devastatingly beautiful

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Much praise has been showered on the world-famous Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha, that it could get submerged. It would just suffice to say that ‘had the Westerners seen this Temple before Taj Mahal, the Sun Temple would have been surely declared a World Wonder! This statement explains it simply and succinctly. I had visited both the monuments and I would definitely agree with this. Sticking to religious code, Taj Mahal’s construction is almost a plain white marble structure but for some motifs of geometrical and plant designs only. But every inch … no, every millimeter of Sun Temple is embellished with chisel work. The honeycomb like pattern chiseled all over its surface gives a dramatic play of light & shadow.  Though damaged, the temple is a ravishing beauty. Standing in front of the Black Pagoda, I wondered if I would have been able to absorb its beauty in its original form. I even thought, ‘Thank God, it is damaged!” Such is its magnitude and magnificence even in its damaged condition. Indian Government has honoured this Temple by issuing stamps and depicting the famous Wheel in 20 rupee note (earlier version). Sadly, of the 12 wheels of the chariot-like Temple only one is in full shape, undamaged.

Konark was a quaint little hamlet without the trappings of a commercialised tourist spot in 1983. As I plan a revisit there after 35 years, I am scared to face the reality and changes. It was early February in 1983 when I was living in Cuttack that I visited it for the first time; there were no autorickshaws then but cycle rickshaws were aplenty. Paying Rs. 2, I reached Cuttack’s Badambari bus-stand from YMCA to board the bus for Bhubaneshwar.  After an hour’s travel (30 kms., fare Rs. 2), I took another bus for Konark (Rs. 4.40 fare). The lousy bus dropped me in Konark (65 kms.) after 2.25 hours, via Pipli (famous for appliqué work) and Nimapara. The few small private lodges were all full due to All-Orissa Political Science Conference in a nearby college. Luckily I got an accommodation in OTDC’s ‘Pantha Nivas’ just opposite to the temple’s eastern entrance.  Single occupancy rent from 12 noon to 12 noon was Rs. 30.

It was a weekend trip. Being Saturday, devotees were crowding the Navagraha panel outside temple’s compound. This panel was originally above the eastern doorway of Jagmohana Mandap (worship hall); when the temple was desecrated by foreign invaders and was abandoned, this was being taken away by some local king. He could not succeed due to its massive size and weight. So the panel was left outside temple’s northern side. The specialty of this slab is that it is of granite stone while the temple is of khondalite stone susceptible to easy damage.

I loved the fair-like atmosphere prevailing around the Navgraha panel with small traders & artisans spreading their wares. Besides household and makeup items, soapstone sculptures, glass paintings and Odisha’s unique patachitra paintings were so tempting.  I could afford only small soapstone statues of Sun God (Rs. 15, painted black to appear as if made of polished granite), and a replica of the jagmohana mandap (Rs. 10). Both are so cute and still occupy a pride of place in our showcase. Only if I could afford, I would have bought the whole lot of handicraft items. But then it was a hand-to-mouth existence for a central government staff with a shamefully low salary with which even a bachelor could not lead a decent life. So this time also I have planned my trip to Konark specifically on a Saturday and hope to find such artefacts; but they could cost a fortune now. Post-lunch, I cycled to Kuruma (8 kms.) where Buddhist ruins have been excavated. It finds a mention in Hieun T’sang’s travel diary.

In the evening there was power disruption which was restored only at 8 PM. From the little bazaar where I was loitering, I immediately rushed to the Sun Temple and clicked its floodlit version. There were hardly any tourists and it was so scary to go around the deserted temple complex. After an hour, as the flood light panels were being switched off one by one from different directions, it had a dramatic effect on the whole structure. Then it was all dark and silent. What a memorable moment! Dinner was at OTDC - 6 rotis (2.40) cheese-peas curry (4.50) + omelet (3.50).  Lunch was for Rs. 5 + curd Rs. 1.50

Fearing that I might over sleep and miss the sunrise at the beach, I had a disturbed sleep. However, when I woke up at 5.30, I cancelled my visit to Chandrabagha beach and, instead, immersed in sculpture watching. Very interesting! One can find miniatures as well as massive sculptures, all of which executed with equal precision and minute details. There are scenes equally from the royal lifestyle and ordinary citizens’ social life. For instance, there are panels depicting an old woman taking leave for a pilgrimage with her grandchildren hugging to her legs, a group of travelers cooking en route on energy-saving double burner stove, ‘keda’ operation of capturing wild elephants, etc. Surprisingly, a giraffe (found only in African continent) is also depicted, being presented by foreigners to the king. Well, what about the amorous sculptures? Are they to test the devotees’ ‘bakthi’? It could just be a way of social life then, a step prior to attaining ‘moksha’.

The sea shore that was quite adjacent to the temple had receded to a distance of 3 kms. Similarly, a river that was flowing close-by has changed its course during the centuries and now flows 3 kms. away. The stones for the temple construction were transported through this river only, because in the temple vicinity there is no khondalite stone source.

I sacrificed breakfast for want of time. After checking out, I had a simple lunch at a private hotel for Rs. 4.20 and was back at the Sun Temple. But I could not click Navagraha panel as it was crowded with visitors. At the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) museum bought books on Sanchi and Mahabalipuram (total Rs.5) and 10 picture postcards of Konark Rs. 2.25. It was 5 PM, so I half-heartedly boarded the bus for Bhubaneshwar. It rained a bit as the bus neared Bhubaneswar as if a happy ending of my trip. Later, I visited the Sun Temple twice, once with my German friends and then on a day’s trip for photo shoot. Including 1 ½ rolls of Agfa B&W film  and 2 packets of milk biscuits @ Rs. 2.20, the two-day trip cost  me Rs.154.35. A hefty amount then, but is this possible now after 35 years! -

Writers contact: 

krishnanbala2004@yahoo.co.in / 9840917608 WhatsApp

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