“Language of Man here is defeated by the language of stone.” – Rabindranath Tagore
A visit to Puri in Odisha can never be complete without a trip to the Konark Sun temple. Having paid our homage to Lord Jagannath in that iconic Puri temple in the morning hours, we had the afternoon available for going to Konark.
A surprisingly good infrastructure exists in terms of road access from Puri as well as the upkeep of the Konark Sun temple complex. Getting down from the car in front of the long walkway, I had my first glimpse of the famous temple in the distance. The tiled pathway, overlooking gardens and the Konark temple information Centre (which incidentally has a wonderful audio-visual show about the temple and its origins) lead to the temple.
Standing there, as I looked at the ruined structure, my mind’s eye brought in the vision of an enormous chariot with its giant wheels and horses, a resplendent Sun seated as the charioteer, taking flight across the sky. The word Konark in Sanskrit is a sandhi, a combination of two words: Koṇa, which signifies a corner and Arka which refers to the Hindu Sun God, Surya. Built out of stone seven and a half centuries back, the temple is an intricately carved, giant chariot of Surya, replete with ornaments, twenty-four giant wheels and pulled by seven horses. Throughout history, different cultures and lands have referred to ‘crossing the seven seas’ for a travel around the world. In India, it is called, ‘Saat Samundar Paar’. Did the seven-horse drawn chariot of the Sun God signify that it had the motive power to circumvent the world?
The temple external walls are sculpted with intricate and jewelry like miniature details. The carvings range from Hindu Gods and Goddesses, nymphlike apsaras, nature inspired motifs, day to day living and cultural activities of people ( Artha and Dharma) , animals, birds and sea creatures along with some depictions of the life and times of the king. Ernst Binfirld Havell, the English art historian and author, writes that the Konark temple is “one of the grandest examples of Indian sculpture extant“, adding that they express “as much fire and passion as the greatest European art” such as that found in Venice.
As I looked at the lengthening shadows of an evening sun, I envisioned the year 1756 AD when Vice Admiral Charles Watson of the East India Company navy accompanied by Robert Clive, was rushing to Calcutta to take back Fort William recently captured by the Bengal Nawab, Siraj Ud Daulah. Spotting the Black Pagoda, as the Konark Sun Temple was known then, along with the White Pagoda, the Jagannath temple near the then coastline ( which has since receded), Watson would surely have been relieved that their destination at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal was near.
History indicates that the Konark Sun temple was destroyed by invasions and natural calamities. Over time it ceased to attract the pious and the faithful. And like the other famous Hindu temple at Angkor Wat in present day Cambodia, the Sun temple too disappeared under dense forests for a long time prior to being rediscovered.
What remains most intriguing however is the highly erotic sculptures interspersed amongst the aforementioned carvings. As I stood there looking at the sculptures, it seemed that eroticism held sway over all else. The carved in stone figurines displayed sexual engagements and coitus in varying positions. I saw several of the chariot wheels depicting different sexual postures. What I found astonishing was the uninhibited depictions of polyandry, polygamy and lesbianism.
As I walked way, I was beset with several thought trains, trying to make sense of such brazen display of sexuality in a temple made to worship the Sun.
Was the displayed eroticism a deliberate attempt to increase sexual activity amongst the population in the 13th century? I had read somewhere that Buddhism, the prevailing religion in the land of Kalinga, preached abstinence which over the centuries, had led to a declining population. Had the King thus ordered the seductive carvings to stimulate carnal desires in his subjects?
Could it be that the depictions were a result of the sexual longings of the thousands of artisans tasked to work on the temple carvings for twelve long years, away from home and family?
Or were the erotic creations deliberate to strengthen the spiritual and divine belief of the devotees coming to the temple? Was the seemingly random display of eroticism, scattered amongst other displays of Gods, nature and public life motifs, a trigger for the observer to choose his/ her path between ‘dark’ attractions of sensuality and depravity vis a vis the brightness of spirituality?
Finally, could the differing displays be based on the age-old belief that each one of us would attain Moksha (release from the cycle of rebirth), that final desired state, only once we have fulfilled all our earthly duties and participated in the cycles of Dharma viz. spirituality, Artha viz. wealth and Kama viz. sexual pleasures?
Does the Konark Sun temple offer a perspective of our life as ‘lived in the moment’, cycling as we do through Dharma, Artha and Kama without the attachments of what is right or wrong, good or bad?
Back in Puri, I was watching the Sunrise next morning from the balcony of my hotel room.
Sitting there, as I soaked in the solitude, the morphing hues of the sunlight, the occasional bird chirps and their flights, I seemed to sense that all was well with my world.
As the sun rose in the sky, that solitary boat on the calm waters, seemed to be following the light. The sight brought to mind those immortal words of the Beatles:
‘One day you ‘ll find
that I have gone
Tomorrow may rain
So, I’ll follow the Sun….’
In learning……… Shakti Ghosal