SURYA PUJA in Tamil Nadu Temples-Exploring Sunlight Penetrating the Garbhagrha

  • By Dr Ketu Ramachandrasekhar
  • April 25, 2024
  • 785 views

What is Surya Puja? Is it similar to Surya Tilak? How does the phenomenon work in temples of Tamil Nadu? Which temples in TN have Surya Puja? What is basis of the Jaipur City Plan?

In a momentous occasion, during the recent Ram Navami festivities, in Ayodhya which witnessed the Janmotsava of Sri Ram Lalla Virajman in his birthplace after 500 years, the holy city was soaked in another extraordinary event - the Surya Tilak ceremony. This sacred ritual, performed on the murty of Ram Lalla at the Ayodhya temple, marked a significant highlight of the ongoing celebrations. Notably, the ceremony unfolded at noon, utilizing a system involving mirrors and lenses within the temple premises.

Surya Tilak on Ram Lalla 2024. 

Surya Puja and Surya Tilak ie sun on forehead – are they the same thing

We do not have Surya Tilak in any South Indian temple, but just the phenomenon of sun touching the main vigraha on specific days of the year periodically without any intervention of mechanical contrivance.

Throughout history, sacred monuments have served as spaces for encouraging dialogue between humanity and the divine. The inherent simplicity and functional design of these structures, coupled with intentional architectural arrangements, have facilitated the creation of a sacred ambiance through the manipulation of light.

Various techniques, such as the play of light reflected from walls to cast mysterious shadows, the gentle filtration of subdued light through openings, and the strategic use of light as a focal point, have all been employed to symbolize a fundamental connection to the divine. In this context, natural light emerges as a significant element of religious symbolism.

Upon entering a temple, one is often greeted by the glare of sunlight, initiating a journey inward through gradually darkening spaces. Eventually, the pilgrim arrives at the innermost sanctum, shrouded in total darkness. This deliberate treatment of light ensures that as the pilgrim progresses towards the garbhagriha (inner sanctum), their eyes adjust to the darkness, promoting a state of mind conducive to worship and free from worldly distractions.

Consequently, the halls preceding the sanctum are maintained in semi-darkness, while the innermost chamber remains pitch dark. Along this journey, the pilgrim traverses numerous doorways, collonaded halls, and corridors leading to sacred spaces beyond.

The sacred carvings adorning the walls, pillars, architraves, and ceilings of these interior compartments leave a profound impact on the devotee's psyche, preparing them for the encounter with the divine. As the devotee approaches the sanctum, they pause at the door, adorned with intricate carvings depicting river goddesses, symbolizing purification from earthly impurities. With mind and soul now focused on the enshrined divinity, the devotee offers worship individually to the deity housed within the sanctum sanctorum.

The phenomenon of Surya Puja in Tamil Nadu temples encapsulates a spiritual journey guided by the manipulation of light and architectural design, ultimately leading devotees to a profound encounter with the divine presence enshrined within the inner sanctum.

In accordance with the principles of Sthapatya Veda, which governs Indian architecture, the temple and the surrounding town are designed to reflect the cosmos. Thus, the architectural layout of the temple and the urban plan are interconnected.

An exemplary instance of this concept can be observed in Jaipur, where Vidyadhara, the city planner, based the city's design on the pithapada mandala. This mandala, comprising nine squares representing the universe, allocates the central square to the earth. Similarly, Jaipur's city plan consists of nine large squares, and the central square is designated for the royal palace. Likewise, in temple architecture, the central position, symbolizing the Earth, is reserved for the Garbhagrha.

With meticulous attention to cardinal orientation, symmetrical arrangements, and mathematical precision, the Hindu temple encapsulates a miniature universe within its confines, transcending space and time. The interior sanctum of the temple, dedicated to a specific deity, is shielded from the external world and mundane activities by towering walls, cardinal gateways, and stringent codes of conduct. At the heart of the temple lies the garbhagriha, the womb chamber, where the presiding deity resides.

This chamber is characterized by its simplicity, resembling a cave-like enclosure with thick walls that prevent natural light from entering, except under extraordinary circumstances. The garbhagriha holds multiple symbolic meanings, representing the primordial state of unity before creation, the darkness described in Vedic cosmogony, and the womb of the earth from which life emerged.

The construction of Hindu temples begins with the laying out and alignment of the vastupurushamandala, which serves as a blueprint mirroring the cosmos and its expansion from the point source of creation, characterized by symmetries and mathematical proportions. This precise alignment, typically towards the east, is crucial to establish a connection between the microcosm of the temple and the macrocosm of the universe.

Though there are many such constructions throughout Tamil Nadu, especially in Tanjore district, there are over 60 temples where a remarkable phenomenon occurs during a few days around the equinox: the light of the rising or setting sun penetrates the sanctuary and illuminates the presiding deity - a phenomenon known as Surya Puja. This event creates a surreal effect as sunlight enters the otherwise dim center of the temple.

Do temples in Tamil Nadu use Mirrors?

The temple architecture is so planned that using the geo-position, the rays enters the temple through the main entrance all the way inside to the garbhagrha.

Analysis of the dates of 56 Surya Puja events at 52 of these temples in Tanjore district shows a particularly noteworthy precise alignment of these events with the solar declination, which refers to the angle of the sun relative to the celestial equator. The mean solar declination of these Surya Puja events closely matches that of the equinox, which is the time when the sun is directly above the Earth's equator, resulting in nearly equal day and night lengths.

Furthermore, such precision in alignment could have been achieved through the Indian technique of shadow casting.

This technique involves the use of shadows cast by specific structures or objects to determine the position of the sun relative to the Earth. By carefully observing the length and direction of these shadows, ancient astronomers and architects could have calculated the exact position of the sun and aligned the temples accordingly.

This highlights the advanced knowledge and skill of ancient Indian civilizations in astronomy and architecture, as well as their reverence for celestial phenomena in the design and construction of sacred spaces like temples.

This convergence of celestial and terrestrial alignments underscores the profound spiritual significance and architectural precision of Hindu temple construction, where the union of cosmic principles and earthly manifestations is celebrated in a sacred space.

The Phenomenon

The following is the observation one can have in most of the traditional temples.

During the Surya Puja ritual, sunlight traverses the temple gateways, imbued with layers of symbolic significance rooted in Hindu cosmology. The three sides of the gateway symbolize the sun's path as it arcs across the sky from horizon to horizon. At the apex of the doorway, two prominent figures often adorn the arch, each holding astronomical symbolism. 

Makaras, mythological creatures embodying elements of water, earth, and sky, with bodies reminiscent of crocodiles, elephant noses, and bird wings, are symmetrically placed at the base of the arch. Additionally, river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, and intertwining water plants emerge from makara's mouth only to be absorbed by the other, representing the cyclical nature of creation and destruction in the universe.

Left and Right of entrance arch are Makaras, centre is Garuda. Belur Temple. 

However, not all Hindu temples allow the sun's rays to penetrate the sanctum. Despite being oriented along the east-west axis, certain temple features obstruct the sunlight. For instance, the vahana, the deity's vehicle, often large and enclosed in a pavilion, may block the horizon view. 

In Shaivite temples Vrsha being positioned directly on the east-west axis facing the deity, such as at the Brihadeshvara Temple in Tanjore, may hinder the sunrise view. Moreover, the flagstaff, symbolizing the wind and Shiva's boundless expansion, may be precisely aligned with the east-west axis. In some cases, purpose-built walls, like those at the Kailasanatha Temple in Ellora, obstruct the equinox sunlight from reaching the sanctum. At the Sun Temple of Konarak, the Natamandir and a column bearing Surya's charioteer likely impede the entry of light. 

In Surya Puja temples, however, these obstructions are either absent or deliberately offset from the axis to ensure the unimpeded entry of sunlight into the sanctum.

In Swarnapureeswarar Temple at Semponarkoil, near Mayaram, an elaborate twelve-day festival takes place at the temple during the Surya Puja, occurring in the Tamil month of Chittirai (April-May). The experience of standing in the darkened garbhagriha with horizontal rays of sunlight sweeping past is described as profoundly dramatic by devotees, evoking a sense of wonder that transcends the bounds of a mere natural phenomenon.

Similarly, at the temple of Vaitheeswarankoil (associated with planet Mars, it is one more of the Navagraha Temples near Kumbakonam) devotees recount a similar sense of awe-inspiring wonderment during the event. They describe how the moving light of the evening sun seemingly traces a circuit inside the temple, passing up one side of the flagstaff of Shiva and returning to the sun on the other side. To see album of Navagraha Temples (this is first temple in album)

Outside Temple sanctum. 

In the temple of Kali in Chidambaram, the Surya Puja takes place at sunset, drawing crowds of people each year. Attendees gather to witness the sunlight illuminate the image of the westward-facing pacified Kali, Brahmacamundeswari. Over the course of three days, the sun's rays progressively illuminate one-third of the image until finally touching her head and brilliant gold crown. In the midst of the smoke-filled temple, the horizontal rays of the sun become visible, captivating eager devotees who strain to catch a glimpse of the illuminated deity. To enhance the spectacle, priests may even extinguish the electric lights of the temple.

Kali Temple, Chidambaram

Meanwhile, in Innambur, a small village 4 km from Kumbakonam, a remarkable Surya Puja unfolds. During the Suryapuja, light enters the sanctuary twice each morning, with the direct rays of the rising sun first touching the lingam, followed fifteen minutes later by light reflected from the temple tank located some 75 feet to the east. At this temple, the image of Vrsha has been deliberately displaced off the east-west axis, allowing sunlight to penetrate the garbhagriha and create a unique and spiritually enriching experience for devotees. 

The Nageswarar temple in Kumbakonam hosts one of the most renowned Surya Puja ceremonies in the area. The temple, dating back to the 8th century and built during the early Chola period, holds a significant legend surrounding the Surya puja ritual. According to legends, Surya was cursed by Visvakarma and afflicted with leprosy. Only through worshipping Shiva during the Surya puja did the sun regain its original splendor.

During the three-day festival, countless spectators gather on each side of the long corridor leading to the sanctum to witness the rays of the sun touch the deity of the temple, Nageshwara, in the form of a linga protected by the hood of a cobra. Following this event, attendees often visit the shrine of Surya located in the northeast corner of the temple compound. The temple's eastern entrance features a flagpole deliberately positioned approximately 1/3 meter south of the axis, creating a pathway about 1/2 degree wide for the sun to illuminate the lingam.

Nageshwarar Temple, Kumbakonam. 

The Puranic legends of the sun afflicted by leprosy may reflect a cultural attitude toward the sun that evolved over time after the temples were originally constructed. Sunspots, natural phenomena observed on the surface of the sun, might have influenced the connection between leprosy and the sun.

There are many sthala puranas such as one in Thrunageshwaram where sun suffers from leprosy due to a curse. The cure for the disease is Shivapuja…This is demonstrated in the form of sunlight falling directly over the shivalinga.

This is the tradition, and a possible explanation is that post 1077 CE there was the cosmic phenomenon of increased sun-spots i.e. black spots on surface of sun due to burn out…hence the tradition of leprosy might have been developed to explain the natural phenomenon of sunspots

To see album Temples of Kumbakonam

In 1077 CE, the sun entered a period of unusual sunspot activity, with an unprecedented number of sunspots visible to the naked eye, potentially shaping perceptions of the sun's influence on earthly affairs. This period was the peak of temple-building in Tamil Nadu.

The Concept of Darshana

At the heart of the Surya Puja ritual lies the profound concept of darshan, often translated as 'auspicious sight'. Darshan encompasses the transformative power of vision, through which blessings and divine energy are transmitted from the gods to the observer. It is an interactive exchange, where the deity 'bestows' darshan upon the devotee, who in turn 'receives' it.

Observing the sun's rays streaming through the temple and illuminating the deity's image offers a unique and sacred opportunity. Witnessing the freshly washed lingam reflecting the dawn sunlight evokes a sense of being present at the dawn of creation itself. This event symbolizes the ritual awakening of the deity by sunlight, mirroring the cyclic emergence of the universe from primordial darkness.

During the Surya Puja, a direct line-of-sight is established between the sun and the deity, symbolizing a profound connection between Surya and Shiva. At this juncture, something powerful and mysterious unfolds at a transcendent level beyond human comprehension. A living geometry is formed, linking various realms of existence: the individual, the temple, the sun, and the divine.

The significance of the Surya puja varies across different traditions and perspectives. For some, it may be a straightforward event where the sun merely provides additional illumination for the deity. For others, it represents an opportunity to partake in worship alongside Surya, offering homage to Lord Shiva in a deeply spiritual communion.

Are Surya Puja and Reflection of Sun Rays on Deity the same ? Yes

Some of the temples in Tamil Nadu where Suryapuja occurs are –

Place

Deity

Ethappor

Sambamoorthy

Mayavaram

Vallalar koil

Aduthurai

Suryanarkoil

Thirukkandiyoor

Kandeeshvarar

Thirukkadaiyur

Amrtaghateshvarar

Chidambaram

Tillai Kali

Tillai Kali

Svetaranyeshvarar

Thirunellikkaval

Nellivananathar

Vaitheeswaran koil

Vaidyanathasvami

Thirunageswaram

Naganatha svami

Thiruppaijili

Nilivaneshvarar

Thiruvaimoor

Vaimoornathar

Thiruvedikkudi

Vedapurishvarar

Innambur

Ezhutharinathar

Thirucchotrutturai

Odhanavaneshvarar

Semponnar koil

Swarnapureeshvarar

Patteshwaram

Dhenupurishvarar

Receive Site Updates