A wintry January dawn sun streaks the sky in pastel shades as we embark on our drive out of Ahmadabad. We are on our way to Modhera, 102 kms north of Ahmadabad, towards Mehsana on the road leading to Becharaji. The Modhera Sun Temple, a historical marvel dating back over 1000 years, is the object of our visit.
It had been love at first sight when we had earlier visited Odisha’s famed Black Pagoda, more popularly known as the Konark Sun Temple. The sheer magnificence of the structure with its scintillating architecture, kindled our interest to visit similar edifices dedicated to Surya, the source of light and life! Thus began our tryst with monuments honouring the rotund guy in the skies, across India.
History and mythology abound on the origins of Modhera, which, literally translated, means “mound of the dead”. It is sometimes also referred to as Mundera, the original settlement of the Modha Brahmins. It is further believed that on the occasion of the wedding of Rama and Sita, the Modha Brahmans received Modhera as a krsnarpana or gift. According to the Skanda and Brahma Puranas, the neighbourhood of Modhera was known as Dharmaranya in ancient days. These scriptures mention that Rama desired to purge himself of the sin of killing in battle the ten-headed demon Ravana, a Brahmin by birth. Upon the advice of Sage Vasishta, Rama came to Modherak, a village in Dharmaranya to perform a yagna to purify himself of the transgression. He then established Sitapur village, 8 km from Modherak, which later came to be known as Modhera. According to Saura Purana, one of the Shaiva Upapuranas, the ode to the Sun god on the left bank of the Pushpavati River, a tributary of Rupan River, was originally built by Samba, son of Lord Krishna. The temple, believed to symbolise sunset, was later re-built in 1026 by the Suryavanshi king, Bhimdeva of the Solanki Dynasty. The worship of the Sun was at its zenith in Gujarat during the Solanki era and several shrines were built to glorify the deity. However, with time and the end of their reign, the practice waned and Sun temples in the region fell into decay and even disappeared completely.
The moment we enter the gates, we are struck by the immense hugeness of the complex. Vast stretches of green flank a cobbled pathway leading to the ASI museum on the left and the temple on the right. Unlike the Konark Sun Temple, Modhera’s pride is not mounted on a mammoth chariot, but rests on an inverted lotus. The east-facing temple, an edifice of incomparable beauty, has been built in accordance with the shilpasastra. It is believed that the construction of the temple was commissioned to the Silavat stone masons who were known for their skill in making the hardest stone take on the quality of delicate wood carvings.
The unique engineering feat involved in building the temple, did not use cement, lime or metal to join the stones. Each stone slab has been interlocked with the adjoining ones in appropriate grooves and sealed with seasoned wood. The shrine stands on a kharasila or basement and comprises three different yet axially-aligned and integrated constituents – a tank or sacred pond, the Surya Kund, now called the Ram Kund, the Sabha or Rang Mandap or dance-cum-assembly hall, locally known as Sita Chavdi, and the Guda Mandap or sanctum sanctorum. We first step into Surya Kund, a rectangular structure that measures 176 feet by 120 feet. It reveals an interesting interplay of geometric patterns occasioned by the pyramidal stairs leading to the mossy green waters. As many as 108 shrines, a number considered auspicious among Hindus, dot the periphery of the tank. These miniature temples dedicated to the pantheon of gods, measure between three to five feet in height and are covered with intricate carvings.
Four of them, however, are bigger, and dedicated to Vishnu in reclining posture, Ganesha, Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, and Sitala Mata, the goddess of smallpox, once a dreaded disease. As
we hop from step to step, or rather from terrace to terrace, we are mesmerised by the shrines mirrored in the still waters. We wonder at the aesthetics and skills of the artists of the time, who we salute as weavers of dreams!
A flight of steps from the Surya Kund leads up to the Sabha Mandap, at the landing of which we see remnants of the Kirti Toran. The pillars of the toran, bereft of its arch, suggest that the temple complex was built to commemorate the Solanki king’s victory over some chieftain. The octagonal hall which is open on all four sides and boasts a walnut-shaped ceiling, is held aloft by 52 exquisitely embellished pillars, symbolic of the 52 weeks that the earth takes to go round the sun. Stree Shringar is the theme of this hall which once served as the venue for discourses, dance and music concerts and any other meetings. A wealth of sculptures spring to life from each of the pillars which are characterised by an octagonal base portraying a deity set in an arch on each face. The carvings on the rest of the pillars seem to be a social documentary on the life and times of the people of the era. They portray musicians, dancing nymphs and scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is palpable that the platform that runs around the sides of this hall is where musicians sat to render their performances.
Bang behind this hall, but separated from it, is the main temple or Guda Mandap. We descend a flight of steps on the western side of the Sabha Mandap, to come upon the walled structure housing the sanctum sanctorum. It is dark and smells strongly of bats. Though the tower or shikhar on its exterior is truncated, having been destroyed, its central dome is clearly visible on the inside. The temple is an astronomical marvel in that it is built on the Tropic of Cancer. It is so designed that the rays of the rising sun lights up the idol of Surya in the sanctum sanctorum at the time of the equinoxes on March 21 and September 22, without being obstructed by the pillars of the Sabha Mandap. The sanctum sanctorum, empty today, once housed a majestic gold idol of Surya in a chariot drawn by his seven horses and steered by his charioteer, Arun. The Sun god was believed to have been sunk in a pit of gold coins, thus inviting trouble in the form of the marauding invaders, Mahmud Ghazni and Allauddin Khilji who plundered the temple’s wealth. Controversy still surrounds the missing Surya idol: while some attribute its loss to invaders who looted the idol and melted it to gold, others claim that temple priests flung the idol in a nearby water body to save it from the advancing Turks.
The sanctum has friezes of the Sun God and of other gods on its walls, besides carvings depicting various aspects of human life. The Guda Mandap is believed to have had a tunnel, leading all the way up to Patan, the capital of the Solanki rulers, 25 km away, so that in the event of an attack, the royal family could flee.
Once we are through with admiring the interiors of the three components of Modhera, we make a leisurely circumambulation of the Sabha and Guda Mandaps. The mellow rays of an early morning sun, bring to life the cascading tiers of ornamental friezes on the external walls of these structures. Especially noticeable are the twelve sculptures of Surya riding his chariot, placed at regular intervals, no two of them being identical. Placed in niches in the exterior walls, these twelve Adityas are meant to portray the transformations of the sun in each month of the year. The main temple is no longer active. However, in the huge precincts is a small shrine dedicated to Shiva, where daily puja is performed with offering of flowers and incense. An unusual stone Ganesha with his trunk curled to the right, welcomes us at the entrance to this temple.
Against the backdrop of this poem in stone sans words, a dance festival takes place at Modhera each year, in the third week of January, drawing art connoisseurs and audiences of thousands. Organised by the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat, it draws globally and domestically acclaimed dancers from across the country.
As the blazing disc above us assumes full form, we head to the cafeteria outside the temple complex for some snacks, washed down by a refreshing cuppa. Though still in a state of trance from having seen a monument as splendorous as the brilliant life-mover for whom it was built, we decide to move on to a couple more temples in our itinerary for the day.