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The Chariot of the Sun

The Chariot  of the Sun
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Orissa has a special place in my life. I have spent the best part of my life in Bhubaneswar – the initial years of my married life. I stayed there for almost six years. I have seen Orissa in its length and breadth, made many friends, felt the warmth of the Oriya people and enjoyed life to its fullest extent.

After a long gap, recently when I had an opportunity to visit Bhubaneswar, it was like a chance to relive the nostalgia. A lazy stroll around the city was the first thing on my agenda. I was surprised to see the changes all around. The broad roads, flyovers, new buildings – the city has changed a lot. The first time I got a similar surprise was on the morning after that Super cyclone in 1999, when all those beautiful trees were uprooted and shaved the city of its green blanket.

The first evening, I contacted my old friends and planned a late night drive around the city when the crowd would be less. I went to the house where I spent those magical six years, to the fish market which was my favourite haunt every Sunday. I made rounds of all those places where I had spent great times with my family and friends.

The next day I planned a trip to Konark Sun Temple, approximately one and half hours drive from Bhubaneswar. I had gone there many times, but this time I had plans to capture the ancient temple through my lens. The morning drive to Konark through the newly laid highway was a beautifully refreshing experience. It was lush green ature all around in all its finery. The hanging rain clouds made it even more beautiful.  I still remember the first time when I came here with my parents during my primary school days. I was mesmerized by the idea of the temple and its architecture.

The intricate carvings on the walls and the narration by the local guide put me back some hundreds of years into a child-like fantasy.

The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and follows the traditional style of Kalinga architecture. It is carefully oriented towards the east so that the first rays of sunrise strikes the principal entrance.  I reached the temple at 7 o’clock in the morning. I stayed there a couple of hours or say, till the Sun God permitted my Photography. Visitors here are mostly Bengalis.

Most visitors are day-trippers from Bhubaneswar or Puri, but fine accomodation options along the beaches of the Ramchandi River should tempt more travellers to sleep over. After all, the temple is most majestic at dawn. About 7 km from the Sun Temple on pretty Ramchandi Beach, Lotus Eco Village, a collection of rustic and weathered Canadian pine cottages are a beautiful getaway across a calm and swimmable islet catering to a few local fisherman and not much else; villas are surprisingly stylish inside and amenities include a small ayurvedic spa and a nice sandside restaurant. Also plopped down on the banks of the Ramchandi River 10 km south of Konark, Nature Camp, Konark Retreat is a luxury tented camp – with stylish Swiss Cottages and pleasant terraces, run by the same folks as Bhitarkanika, right across the river from a sandy Bay of Bengal beach.

Originally nearer the coast and built near the river Chandrabhaga (the sea has receded 3km), Konark was visible from far out at sea and known as the ‘Black Pagoda’ by sailors, in contrast to Puri’s whitewashed Jagannath. The lighthouse near Chandrabhaga Beach, now inland, is odd testament to that fact. Every ancient temple or building tells the saga of India’s rich heritage, its scientific and architectural achievements and spiritual devotion. Konark Sun Temple is an outstanding example. The massive Sun Temple was constructed in the mid-13th century, probably by Orissan king Narasimha Dev I to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims, and was in use for maybe only three centuries. In the late 16th century marauding Mughals removed the copper over the cupola; this may have led to the partial collapse of the 40m-high sikhara (spire), and subsequent cyclones probably compounded the damage.

The name Konark derives from the combination of the Sanskrit words, Kona (corner) and Arka (sun). The temple was designed in the shape of a colossal chariot with seven horses and twenty four wheels, carrying the sun god, Surya (a popular deity in India in the Vedic period), across the heavens. In ancient times people were accustomed to the worship of two Supreme deities - one was mother Earth as Dharitri Maata and the other was the Sun, the Dharam devata. The main attraction of the temple is its wheels located at the base of the temple. These wheels are not ordinary wheels but tell time as well – the spokes of the wheels create a sundial. One can calculate the precise time of the day by just looking at the shadow cast by these spokes. The wheels are also elegantly adorned with fine carvings.

Another unique feature of this temple is the presence of an iron plate in between every two stones. Massive iron beams have also been used to construct the higher floors of the temple. A 52-ton magnet was used to create the peak of the main temple. The entire structure has tolerated the harsh conditions, the sun and sea, because of this magnet.

The temple is so oriented to the shore that the first rays of the rising sun directly fall on the main entry gate. These sunrays would cross the Nata Mandir and get reflected from the diamond just at the center of the idol. The diamond was positioned in the middle of this idol in the main sanctum. During the colonial period, these magnets were removed by the Britishers to get the magnetic stone.
The temple is built from Khondalite rocks and covered with sculptures consisting of deities, dancers, scenes of life at court, etc.

To separate these figures are the beautiful carvings of birds and animals along with mythological creatures. These carvings give the Konark temple a distinctive appeal. The temple also teaches us about hubris. It has two huge lions on either side of the entrance. Each lion is shown crushing an elephant. Beneath each elephant lies the human body. The lion represents pride and the elephant represents money. It is clear that both these flaws can crush a human being. The Konark temple is also known for its erotic sculptures of maithunas.

Two smaller ruined temples have been discovered nearby. One of them, Mayadevi Temple, is presumed to have been dedicated to Mayadevi, one of the Sun god's wives. It has been dated to late 11th century, earlier than the main temple. The other one belongs to some unknown Vaishnava deity. Sculptures of Balarama, Varaha and Trivikrama have also been found at the site, indicating it to be a Vaishnavite temple.  A major part of the Sun Temple is now in ruins. A collection of fallen sculptures can be viewed at the Konark Archaeological Museum. This interesting (and refreshingly cool and quiet) museum contains many impressive sculptures and carvings found during excavations of the Sun Temple. It is just west of Yatrinivas, one of the more pleasant OTDC hotels, which is set in a large, well-manicured garden next to the museum. It’s especially atmopsheric during the Konark Festival.

One of the most popular theories for the temple’s collapse is a lodestone (piece of the mineral magnetite that is naturally magnetized) located at the top of the temple. The lodestone’s placement caused huge damage to the temple as many vessels passing through the Konark Sea were attracted towards it. Also, this magnet used to disturb the compass of the ships. So, to remove the cause of the trouble, Portuguese voyagers stole the lodestone. The displacement of the lodestone led to total imbalance and so the Konark temple fell down. But there is no historical record either of this event or presence of such a great lodestone at Konark. Some also say the temple was destroyed by Kalapahad (Kalapahad was the title given to a Muslim governor Sultan Sulaiman Karrani of Bengal) who invaded Orissa in 1508.

In 1627, the then Raja of Khurda had removed the sun idol from Konark as well as some stones and sculptures and moved it to the Jagannath temple in Puri. The Asiatic Society of Bengal requested conservation of the temple many times but it was only in 1894 that thirteen sculptures were moved to the Indian Museum. In 1903, when a major excavation was attempted nearby, the then Lieutenant governor of Bengal, J. A. Baurdilon, ordered the temple to be sealed and filled with sand to prevent the collapse of the Jagamohana. In 1906, casuarina and punnang trees were planted facing the sea to buffer the site against sand-laden winds. In 1909, the Mayadevi temple was discovered while removing sand and debris. 
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