SURYA MANDIR ( Sun Temple ) at
About 400km southwest of Kolkata, Orissa
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1984


The Surya Temple of Konarak (Konark), dedicated to the Sun God Surya, was constructed as a colossal stone chariot, the seat of the sun god as he moves across the sky. This temple, embellished with abundant decorations and various legends, was erected in the first half of the 13th century, but it is controversial whether it was completed or not. It seems to have been the last contribution of the king Narasimhadeva, who had his figure carved in stone for future generation. The Rekha Deul (high tower) of this temple has long been lost and the temple became a quarry until it received official protection as a esacred chariot.f


One legend says that as the construction of the high tower over the sanctuary of the Surya Temple at Konarak did not progress so fast, in spite of the exertion of its famous architect Bishu Maharana, it was completed by his extraordinarily talented 14-year-old son Dharmapada. Thus the king of Orissa, Narasimhadeva I (c.1238-64), could obtain the unparalleled temple dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya, but the architect Maharana suffered a loss to his reputation due to its completion by his son. Dharmapada is said to have grieved so deeply over his fatherfs humiliation, being labeled as a failed architect, that he threw himself into a nearby river.

Another legend says that it was handsome Samba, the son of Krishna, who built the temple, which needed 12,000 workers and 12 years for its completion, in gratitude to Surya.
One day, enraged with Samba for secretly watching his stepmother bathing, Krishna struck him with leprosy, spoiling his beautiful appearance. Perplexed Samba turned to Surya for help, who was the only god capable of curing leprosy. Surya was not only the Sun God but also the god of healing diseases. Feeling pity for Samba after 12 years of entreaties, Surya granted his request and cured him. Offering thanks to the God, Samba constructed the Surya Temple at Konarak.

Plan of Surya Temple and a statue of Surya in south wall niche
(From "Monumental Legqacy, Konark" by Thomas Donaldson, 2003j


The State of Orissa facing Bengal Bay was called Kalinga in ancient times. It developed its original culture even after the conquest by the Mauriyan emperor, Ashoka. While Buddhism and Jainism flourished in ancient times, in the middle ages Hindu architecture grew remarkably, giving birth successively to numbers of masterpieces of the Northern Style together with temples at Khajuraho.
The center of its activity was Bhubaneshwar, the current state capital, which embraces so many Hindu temples that it is called the ecity of templesf.

In contrast to Khajuraho, where almost all temples were erected during a period of only 150 years, the northern style temples in Orissa started in the 7th century and continued its development till the 13th century. Many dynasties occurred in succession during this time, but they were all local dynasties without especially great power.

In Orissa in eastern India, there is left an ancient text entitled gShilpa Prakasha,hwhich uncommonly holds the authorfs name, Ramachandra Kaulachara, architect. It was written in Sanskrit on palm leaves, providing the details about the Orissan Style.

Facade of Jagamohan

For a Hindu temple in Orissa, the Garbhagriha (sanctuary) is called Deul, and the Mandapa (worship hall) is called Jagamohan; a building with a Shikara-like tower over the sanctuary is called Rekha Deul and a building with a pyramidal roof over the Mandapa is called Pidha Deul. The Surya Temple of Konarak is also formed principally of a < Jagamohan plus Rekha Deul >.

In south India, the Ganga Dynasty rose in about the 5th century and fell in the 10th century. It revived in the 11th century in southeastern India, being called the Late Ganga Dynasty. It extended its power even to the Orissa region in eastern India. Succeeding to the architectural style prospering in Bhubaneshwar, this dynasty added elements of the southern Indian style and built two gigantic temples each near the shore several dozens of km away from Bhubaneshwar.
They are the Jagannatha Temple at Puri and the Surya Temple at Konarak. Sailors, looking at their towers from the sea, made them landmarks for navigation, calling the former the eWhite Pagodaf and the latter the eBlack Pagoda.f

Conjectural Restoration of Surya Temple by James Fergusson
(From "The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture" by James Fergusson, 1876)


Although it is not clear why the king of the Late Ganga Dynasty, Narasimhadeva I (r.1238-1264), constructed the great temple at Konarak, one view is that when the king was an 18-year-old prince, he won a battle against an Islamic army and his mother recommended erecting the Surya Temple in commemoration. When the temple was completed 20 years later, he had become king.

There are also various opinions about the cause of the collapse of the Rekha Deul of the Surya Temple, which occupies the zenith of the Orissan Style architecture: it might have been a structural defect, a severe earthquake, or even that it was uncompleted. However, as the main statue of Surya in the sanctuary was worshipped for at least some period, and a part of its Shikhara remained till 1848, it is considered that the Rekha Deul was completed.

The Jagamohan also fell into danger of collapse during the age of British rule; which was prevented by filling its interior with stones. Since this Jagamohan is 38m tall, Rekha Deul seems to have soared to a height of 60 or even 75 meters tall, although this cannot be fully ascertained.

Conjectural Reconstruction and Roof of Mandapa


It is widely known that the great stone temple of Konarak was built to imitate the divine chariot of Surya riding the skies. The Sun God Surya was a principal god since the ancient times of gVedah and faith in Surya began in the Kashmir region of northern India. In the age of Hinduism, though his position was replaced by Vishnu, important Surya temples were built in Martand in Kashmir and Modhera in western India as well as in Konarak.

The Surya Temple of Konarak stands in the center of spacious precincts of 180m by 260m enclosed with walls. In front of the main temple stands an independent building called Nat Mandir. There lie scattered many other small stone shrines and freestanding sculptures. A dining hall and a kitchen for pilgrims were probably built of wood or laterite.
The main temple itself now retains only the Jagamohan and the basal part of the collapsed Rekha Deul, nevertheless it is still a masterpiece of Hindu temple architecture together with its numerous sculptures on the walls.

Wall Sculptures___ Wheel
Left: Numerous@sculptures embelishing the wall
Right: One of 24 wheels of chariot carved on the base

On its platform there are sculpted a dozen pairs of large wheels 3m in diameter, which are minutely carved even as far as its spokes. In the forefront of the temple, seven horses are sculpted as if poised to fly, pulling the temple as a chariot.
Among the great number of human statues on the walls, there are many eMithunaf sculptures of embracing couples as in the temples in Khajuraho.

Nat Mandil in front of Jagamohan


According to the manuscripts written on palm leaves, Brahmin priests took important roles at cardinal points during the temple construction, deciding the location of the building and construction dates, performing a ceremony to remove obstructions, celebrating the installation of the Kalasha (pot-like finial) on the roof top, and so on. Their opinions were also likely to have been solicited in deciding the locations of sculptures on the walls.

Though the Nat Mandir in front of the main temple has lost its upper part, the lower part of its walls and platform are numerously carved in the same density as on the main temple. As there are many statues of musicians and dancers there, this building is supposed to have been a dance pavilion to dedicate performance of music and dance to the God.

Sculpture of a Warrior and a horse

This pavilion and the main temple are set in line, making the east-west axis in the precincts. It intended that the daybreak light on the equinox penetrate the pavilion and the Mandapa, shining on the statue of Surya, which was enshrined in the dark sanctuary. At that moment, the Sun God Surya starts on one day journey in the sky, riding on a chariot pulled by seven horses and the charioteer Aruna.

Although current Konarak is no more than a small town, the Surya temple attracts tourists from all over the country. It is the custom that they go to the seashore early in the morning to greet the rising sun on the Bay of Bengal.

(In "UNESCO World Heritage" vol. 5. 1997, Kodan-sha )


© Takeo Kamiya
E-mail to: kamiya@t.email.ne.jp