Surya, the 'destroyer of darkness'

For  centuries, many civilizations in the world have worshipped the sun, an  effulgent star that lights up the whole world every day. Many religious  cultures hold the sun as the life-giver of the earth and the illuminator of  human intellect. Prominent among these nations is India, which  hosts the best sun temples of the world….

Japa Kusuma Sankasham, Kashyapeyam  Mahadyutim
Tamorim Sarva Papaghnam  Pranotosmi Divakaram…

This is the famous  hymn to the sun that is sung in millions of Indian homes every day. In  translation, it means: ‘Oh Sun, red-blooming and glorious like the Hibiscus  flower, son of the Sage Kashyap, lord of magnificent lustre, destroyer of  darkness and sin, I salute you, the lord who brings us a new dawn every day!’  The powerful Gayatri Mantra too is a prayer to the sun’s power and luminescence  which guides us to seek knowledge and illuminate our inner selves. Learned  sages of the Vedic age regarded the sun as the deity with inexhaustible power  and radiance. Surya or Aditya was the celestial power that sustained all life  on earth. The origin of Sun worship in India  – and other countries like Iran  – thus goes back to several millennia.

Today, according to  archeologists, there are seven major temples of the sun spread across the  various regions of India.  Of these, three are famous and visited by millions: Konark in Orissa, Modhera  in Gujarat and Martand in Kashmir. These three  are vibrantly resurrected and give visitors a fabulous glimpse of India’s  architectural and spiritual glory. Of these, Martand alone has daily rituals of  worship. The names of the other five lesser-known ones are: Dakshinaarka temple  in Gaya, Bihar; Suryanaar Koyil in Tamil Nadu; Suryanarayana  in Arasavilli, Andhra Pradesh; Surya Pahar in Assam  and Bhramanya Dev  Temple in Unao in Central   India.   Apart from these, innumerable smaller shrines  dedicated to the sun god stand all over India and are also featured in  temples dedicated to other deities.

Clearly, from early  ages, Indians worshipped the sun to seek spiritual enlightenment and knowledge.  Over the centuries, sun worship became a dynamic cult that led to the creation  of some of world’s most beautiful temples and shrines with such architectural  excellence that they are now counted among the world’s greatest heritage sites.  Among the famous sun temples of the world, the majority – and probably the best  conserved – are in India  where sun worship has continued over the millenniums. Not only do India’s  sun temples and sculptures attract millions of tourists and pilgrims, great  artists like S H Raza are inspired by the sun’s power to create the most  beautiful paintings. Artists like Shrikant Kashelkar have dedicated their  entire shows to portray their vision of the sun god and his famous temples to  bring back the age of their glory.

Among all sun temples  in India, Konark in Orissa,  Modhera in Gujarat and Martand in Kashmir are  considered the acme of architecture and proportions of beauty. Standing near  the blue expanse of the Bay of Bengal, the  Konark sun temple was built in the 13th century in the shape of a  giant chariot with carved wheels drawing the sun’s spired ratha or car. Each  wall and the spire have some of the most admired sculptures, proving the mastery  of the architects and artists who worked to create this masterpiece. History  says that this gigantic temple was built by the Ganga Dynasty King  Narasimhadeva of Kalinga (1234-1268 AD) in 1250 AD to commemorate his triumphs  against invaders. Legend says that the temple was built to be a centre of power  with two gigantic magnets built into the spire of the temple. These magnets  helped European sailors to navigate their ships but also caused disasters,  giving the spire the name of ‘black pagoda’.

Like many other  temples, Konark was sacked by Islamic invaders in the 15th century.  Legend further says that the main statue of the sun was taken away secretly to  nearby Jagannathpuri, while the temple itself was desecrated. With no daily  worship, the temple fell into disuse and the sea and changing climate continued  its destruction until a project to resurrect the temple was made by British  archeologists. They cleared the mound of sand that covered the monument and  cleaned the temple to bring back much of its lost glory. The only mistake they  made was that they placed the four sculptures of the sun (sunrise, mid-day,  evening and night) in wrong places because of their ignorance of the concept.  Some of the major sculptures of the sun god were moved to museums in Delhi, Kolkata and London.

The renovation of the  temple brought back its glory so well that the British called it an ‘a temple  of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay!” Today, it is a world heritage  shrine and attracts millions of visitors to see its unique construction  concept. The temple is built in the form of a huge chariot for the sun god – with  twelve stone-carved wheels – which is pulled by seven horses. Only one of these  survives the ravages of time. The temple itself symbolizes the unrelenting  passing of time of which the sun is the master.

The seven horses  represent the seven days of the week and the twelve pairs of wheels are the  months of the year. Each has eight spokes to show the qualities one needs to  attain salvation. The temple faces the east and has a dance hall, a hall for  devotees and pillars and walls which carry magnificent sculptures of the  dancing Nataraj and other deities. The roof, which collapsed centuries ago,  lies in a pile of nostalgic rubble in the courtyard, still giving a clear idea  of the grandeur and size of the temple.

One of the sanctums  holds a statue of the sun god carved out of beautiful green chlorite stone and  is considered a priceless masterpiece. However, the main sanctum is empty with  the idol of the sun either destroyed or taken away. The walls, niches, porches  and door frames are embellished with sculptures based on the Kamasutra.  Diametrically opposite to these are the war scenes and celebrations of  conquests which are carved on the gigantic wheels.

To see pictures of Sun  Temple Konarak

The second beautiful  sun temple that is a proud heritage of India  stands in Modhera in Gujarat. Built in 1026 AD  on the banks of the River Pushpavati by King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty  (1022-1063 AD), the temple is so built that the sun’s ray’s fall exactly on the  deity’s face on every equinox day. History says that the Solankis were  Suryavanshis – originating from the lineage of the sun god – and therefore  raised many shrines to him all over Gujarat. It  is said that the famous temple   of Somnath, which was  rebuilt by King Bhimdev after its desecration by Allauddin Khilji, had twelve  sun temples in its environs. But these too, fell to the ravages of invaders.

However, the Solankis  rose to great power and built the sun temple as their homage to their family  deity. Modhera is partially in ruins today due to the invasion of Allauddin Khilji  but still stands in grandeur as a great monument of unique architecture. The temple has three prominent features.  The Surya Kund is a  magnificent carved, stepped tank named after sun god and has 108 auspicious  shrines built into it. The Sabha Mandap is a hall for religious events and the Guda  Mandap is the sanctum where the idol of the sun once stood. Both these spaces  have niches where the twelve different aspects of the sun are consecrated. The  intricate carvings – including outstanding toranas – show what an architectural  marvel this temple once was!

To see pictures of Sun Temple Modhera

The last of the three great sun temples of India stands – surprisingly – in Martand, Kashmir. This temple, unique in architecture and standing  against Himalayan snow-clad peaks, is considered the most beautiful temple  built by King Lalitaditya of Kashmir, (724-760  AD) belonging to the solar Karakota  dynasty. Experts say this temple is unique in world architecture and a tribute  to the Kashmiri genius of the king who built many cities which now are in  ruins.  Martand – or Matan as it is colloquially called – is celebrated as one  of the world's great architectural marvels of Kashmiri architectural art as  well as for its magnificent location. Built of limestone and with Greek-pattern  pillars, the temple reminds one of the powerful reign of King Lalitaditya, who  was not only the builder of a vast empire – reaching Afghanistan  and even Turkey  – but also a patron of art and architecture of Kashmiris which he influenced  for six centuries.

The sun temples of India,  though partly in ruins, are unique and magnificent. The nostalgia they generate  is so deep that standing in front of each of them, one is taken back in time to  an age when temple building was an unmatched skill of Indian builders and  architects. The grandeur of the edifices proves that even today, Indians have  the ability to live in several ages – from the Vedic era to today tech-savvy  age – with an inborn ease. They also prove that India has the world’s most valuable  and unmatched treasure of heritage sites!

Also read:
1. Suryopanishad
2. Meaning of Gayatri Mantra

Sun Temple Konark

Sun Temple Konark Interior

Sun Temple Martand

Sun Temple Modhera

Sun Temple Modhera Sabha Mandap

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