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Konark and around

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The Artharva Veda

Time runs like a horse with seven reins, Thousand-eyed, unageing, possessing much seed. Him the poets mount; His wheels are all beings.

If you see only one temple in Orissa, it should be KONARK, one of India’s most visited ancient monuments. Standing imperiously in its compound of lawns and casuarina trees, 35km north of Puri, this majestic pile of oxidizing sandstone is considered to be the apogee of Orissan architecture and one of the finest religious buildings anywhere in the world.

The temple is all the more remarkable for having languished under a huge mound of sand since it fell into neglect around three hundred years ago. Not until the dune and heaps of collapsed masonry were cleared away from the sides, early in the twentieth century, did the full extent of its ambitious design become apparent. In 1924, the Earl of Ronaldshay described the newly revealed temple as “one of the most stupendous buildings in India which rears itself aloft, a pile of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay”. A team of seven galloping horses and 24 exquisitely carved wheels found lining the flanks of a raised platform showed that the temple had been conceived in the form of a colossal chariot for the sun god Surya, its presiding deity. Equally sensational was the rediscovery among the ruins of some extraordinary erotic sculpture. Konark, like Khajuraho, is plastered with loving couples locked in ingenious amatory postures drawn from the Kama Sutra – a feature that may well explain the comment made by one of Akbar’s emissaries, Abul Fazl, in the sixteenth century: “Even those who are difficult to please,” he enthused, “stand astonished at its sight.”

Apart from the temple, a small museum and a fishing beach, Konark village has little going for it. Sundays and public holidays are particularly busy here: aim to stay until sunset after most of the tour groups have left, when the rich evening light works wonders on the natural colours in the khondalite sandstone.

Brief history

Inscription plates attribute the founding of the temple to the thirteenth-century Ganga monarch Narasimhadeva, who may have built it to commemorate his military successes against the Muslim invaders. Local legend attributes its aura of power to the two very powerful magnets said to have been built into the tower, with the poles placed in such a way that the idol was suspended in mid-air.

The temple’s 70m tower became a landmark for European mariners sailing off the shallow Orissan coast, who knew it as the “Black Pagoda”, and the frequent incidence of shipping disasters along the coast was blamed on the effect of the aforesaid magnets on the tidal pattern. The tower also proved to be an obvious target for raids on the region. In the fifteenth century, Konark was sacked by the Yavana army, causing sufficient damage to allow the elements to get a foothold. As the sea receded, sand slowly engulfed the building and salty breezes set to work on the spongy khondalite, eroding the exposed surfaces and weakening the superstructure. By the end of the nineteenth century, the tower had disintegrated completely, and the porch lay buried up to its waist, prompting one art historian of the day to describe it as “an enormous mass of stones studded with a few peepal trees here and there”.

Restoration only really began in earnest in 1901, when British archeologists set about unearthing the immaculately preserved hidden sections of the building and salvaging what they could from the rest of the rubble. Finally, trees were planted to shelter the compound from the corrosive winds, and a museum opened to house what sculpture was not shipped off to Delhi, Calcutta and London.

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