Enlisted by UNESCO as world heritage site, the 13th century Sun Temple is in dire need of conservation after battling the ravages of nature, intruders and neglect by several agencies, including the ASI and the state government
Massive. Breathtaking. Magnificent. Awesome. Ancient disrepair India’s gift to world heritage. The Sun Temple of Konark has about 750 years of history and been under conservation plan for 100 years now. It represents the culmination of Odishan temple architecture. Even in its present state of neglect, it is one of the world’s most stunning examples of religious art. Speaking of Konark, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had once remarked, “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.”
Built by King Narasimhadeva I in the thirteenth century, the entire Konark temple was carved as a colossal chariot for Surya, the Sun God. Surya was a popular deity in India during the Vedic period and was depicted in art and sculpture as a dynamically handsome, superhuman entity traversing the heavens in a resplendent chariot drawn by seven horses. Even with the popularity of this particular image in painted art, the concept of building an entire temple in the shape and form of such an unsymmetrical scene was breathtakingly original, especially during the 13th century when temple building protocol was very strict. To this day it is not clearly understood why King Narasimhadeva I was so inspired to build such an untraditional structure with such extravagance.
Construction of the huge edifice is said to have taken twelve years. Its main temple was 227 feet high before it crumbled, it was much taller than the Lingaraj and the Jagannath temples, two other famous temples built around the same time. It is believed that 1200 skilled artisans and ten thousand workers took 12 years to build it.
Accentuating its massive size and height, the temple structure was built on top of high platforms meant to represent the base of the huge chariot. Twenty-four gigantic stone wheels were built along the sides of these platforms, but today only one remains fully intact.
The rising tiers of the roof, many still existing today, were embellished with larger-than-life musicians and dancers celebrating the rising of the Sun God, and with sensuous, and famous, erotic sculpting. On either side of the main entrance, mammoth sculptures of elephants and horses were constructed as symbols of distinguished royalty and honour. Of the 22 subsidiary temples that once stood within the compound, only the Vaishnava and the Mayadevi shrines remain. An important part of the temple is the Natya Mandapa or the dance stage, which still exists today.
No one knows for sure why the Konark temple disintegrated so rapidly in such a relatively short period of time. There are various theories abounding on the collapse of the main temple. Some scholars are of the opinion that the main temple was never completed. Percy Brown asserted that the temple collapsed even before its completion. This theory, is however hard to believe. Various speculations have been made and various causes have been attributed to its collapse, it may have been due to loose foundation and settlement or natural catastrophes like cyclones, lightning or an earthquake. It is generally agreed that after the temple fell into disuse, the damage was caused gradually and slowly.
The fact that the decay and collapse was gradual is substantiated by A Stirling, who visited the site in 1825 AD and later in 1848 AD and wrote vivid accounts of the state of the temple. The standing corner of the tower was further recorded by James Fergusson in 1837 AD who estimated its height as 140 to 150 feet and Kittoe in 1838 AD who estimated its height as 80 or 100 feet. This solitary remnant of the main temple fell in October 1848 due to a strong gale. However, in course of time the main temple had collapsed. Rajendra Lal Mitra while visiting the temple in 1868 mentioned it as only an “enormous mass of stones studded with a few peepal trees here and there”.
The theory that Kalapahar, a Muslim invader who desecrated the Jagannath temple at Puri in 1568 had also attacked the Konark temple has historical backing and this too must have hastened the ruin of the temple.
The temple was originally quite close to the seashore and its black pagoda was visible from miles ahead by the incoming ships. In fact the ancient mariners’ maps used it as a navigation point. Over the years, the sea has receded and is about two-km away today. In 1985, the UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Monument.
The erotic sculptures on its walls intrigue every visitor. Wealth is not enough; you must also have power. This is the message of a lion overpowering an elephant on both sides of the entrance. The main entrance is flanked by seven powerful horses pulling the chariot. At the entrance of the main temple, now filled up, is the huge black image of the Sun God, positioned precisely to bathe in the first rays of the rising sun every morning.
The Konark wheels are a famous symbol not only for Odisha, but also for India. Each of these intricately sculpted wheels was twelve feet in diameter. Their spokes and hub have elaborate and different carvings as have the walls. The architecture of Konark displays a great understanding of astronomy. Drawn by seven horses for each day of the week, the mammoth chariot of the Sun God has 24 wheels for the hours in a day and eight spokes in a wheel for each ‘pahar’ of three hours each in a day.
The legend has it that the temple was constructed by Samba, the son of Lord Krishna. Samba was afflicted by leprosy and after twelve years of penance he was cured by Surya, the Sun God, in whose honour he built this temple. However historically, King Narasinghadeva I built it to commemorate his victory over the Muslim invaders.
In was in December 1900, after Lt Governor Sir John Woodburn visited the place, that efforts were taken to restore it to its original grandeur. By April 1901, the archaeological Surveyor T Bloch unearthed the mammoth structure and the sheer size and splendour of its structure and intricate carvings were once again seen. The immense structure of a huge tower, a prayer hall, a dancing hall and an offering hall awed the British, and steps were taken for preserving it. The main temple was filled in to prevent it from collapsing.
Among the priceless treasures unearthed was a black granite slab about 30 feet long, six feet high and weighing 27.5 tonnes carved with exquisite sculptures of the nava grahas. The imperial rulers thought that this should be best displayed in the British Museum in London, and plans were made to transport it by sea. They even laid down a short railway line to transport it to the seashore to ship it away. It was only due to the protests of the locals that the plan was abandoned.
In 1924, the Earl of Ronaldshay proclaimed the newly-revealed temple to be “one of the most stupendous buildings in India which rears itself aloft, a pile of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay.”
The Black Pagoda, created in the ancient Kalingan style of architecture, was divided into three major sections, the natya mandap (dance hall), jagmohan (porch), and garba griha (sanctum sanctorum). A luxuriance of sculptured figures of animals, gods, goddesses and erotica cover the outer walls. And the temple’s 210-ft-tall shikhara (spire) is believed to have been one of the tallest in India. While the natya mandap and jagmohan remain standing today, the principal temple crumpled and only the base which is in ruins is visible.
A marvelous metaphor of time and space, the ancient temple is decaying, victim to advancing stone erosion and weathering which have already blunted the fineness of the carved figurines and taken their toll on the soft stone. Salt action, wind, humidity, algae and fungal growth have all contributed to the damage. Fissures have appeared in the walls, stone slabs are breaking off and the stone figures, as they erode, have lost much of their pristine beauty.
KONARK MESMERISED NEHRU
After his visit to the Sun Temple, Jawaharlal Nehru had sent personal notes to both Chief Minister Harekrushna Mahtab and the Governor YN Suthankar about his observations on the ‘magnificent’ and ‘unique structure’ which ‘deserves preservation’. Against the current backdrop, it is instructive to read Nehru’s note on the matter.
“I found many pieces of stones and rock lying about all round the temple. Many of these pieces were of value and should have been separated and kept apart in some kind of museum or at least a shed. There was a small museum where some important pieces of sculpture had been arranged. But much more could have been done and should be done. As it is, there is a grave danger of our losing some valuable specimens. Indeed I was told that people took away many of these pieces, either as souvenirs or for some other purpose.”
The locals say that it was at Panditiji’s insistence that the Navagraha block was carried outside and put up in the shed, where it is still in place today. As for the sculpted rocks and stones, they can be found in abundance within and outside the temple complex even today. On a rough count I had counted nearly 3,000 pieces lying scattered.
With every stone falling apart, with every piece of evidence hitting the dust, the secret mystical world of Konark is fast disappearing. The exquisite statues have eroded, chunks of masonry are falling from the 750-year-old stone chariot and its intricately-carved wheels are crumbling.
In 1906, the large scale plantation of casuarina and poonang trees was taken up in the direction of the sea in order to check the movement of sand-laden winds and thereby minimise the abrasive action of sand-blasting on the monument. These tall trees were a good filter for the sand bearing breeze that swung in from the sea, but these were all destroyed in the super cyclone of 1999. The authorities then planted cashew nut trees, which do not grow high and offer little protection from sand particles carried by wind. This has accelerated the erosion in the temple.
No measures for any permanent restoration have yet been initiated. The rot is not restricted to the walls of the ancient monument. The interior of the jagmohan has been sealed off ever since 1901, when conservation work on the monument was seriously taken up for the first time. The walls were shored up from the inside and the interior was filled with sand to prevent imminent collapse—such was its tenuous state.
REPORTS GATHER DUST
The Archaeological Survey of India insists that Konark has one of the longest conservation history in India and is among the best looked after monuments in the world. However, its conservation history is uneven to say the least. The history of conservation of the Sun Temple spans more then one century. There were more then 11 reports prepared by different authorities in different times. Most of them are just gathering dust. Absolutely no action has been taken on the last six reports.
The first report was prepared by engineer Bishan Swarup who worked at the site from 1901-04. It was he who realised that the edifice faced an imminent collapse and had it filled up with sand. The initial masonry work done under his supervision saved the temple from being completely destroyed. Swarup had given detailed suggestions for the further upkeep of the temple, but they were just forgotten.
The next committee was formed in 1950 and the meeting was held at the Circuit House in Bhubaneswar. It was chaired by Bishwanath Dash and had on its panel CM Master, an eminent architect from Bombay. None of the recommendations were put in place. The third Committee was formed in 1953, this, too, under the chairmanship of Biswanath Das and the recommendation for erection of scaffolding was implemented.
In 1978, the ASI constituted the Konark Expert Committee which held its first meeting on November 7. For the first time, a serious view of the problem was looked into and the committee was chaired by Archaeological Survey of India director general MN Deshpande. For the first time, the horticultural development of the precincts was mooted.
After the collapse of five stone blocks from the main temple, structural conservation was undertaken between 1985-90. Based on this, scaffolding to some vulnerable sections was done. Another report of the science branch of the ASI made recommendation on chemical preservation, but nothing was done.
In 1979, the UNESCO experts recommendation on conservation of Konark was given to the government of India. After declaring it a world heritage site, the UNESCO once again appointed a committee headed by two experts of international repute, Sir B M Fielden and P Beckman, in 1987. They described the state of the temple as alarming and advised immediate preventive measures. After the hue and cry died down, this report too was confined to the dark room of the ASI.
The Italian expert Prof Ing Giorgio Croci made a structural analysis of the Jagamohan in 1997. In 2010, the ASI called world experts and erected temporary scaffolding so that they could inspect the top of the temple. The committee made several recommendations, including that of removing the sand. One of the suggestions was to drill a hole and send endoscopic video-graphic cameras to assess the state of the interior of the temple.
At one early stage of restoration, a British commissioner is said to have remarked that not one rupee should be spent on the monument—the sooner it falls, the better. The way the ASI is working, this may well happen and very soon.
Controversy has dogged attempts to restore the jagmohan. At a meeting of experts, convened by the ASI and attended by UNESCO representatives also, Konark was declared a ‘project monument’ and 23 recommendations were made for its conservation. Foreign experts were of the view that a hole should be drilled on the top of the jagmohan so that someone could be lowered into it with videography equipment to record the state of the interior. Further, they said, the sand filling should also be scooped out immediately.
Dr Kabir Sethy, the professor and head of geography department at Utkal University, is of the opinion that the Sun temple is located over a major fault line which is earthquake prone. Even a minor quake may cause the total destruction of the existing temple.
There is, however, no consensus on how exactly to proceed. Though the committee finally decided that video cameras and temperature recording devices would be inserted through vents in the walls to study the interior, more than a year has passed without any action being taken. The ASI claims it cannot go ahead with ‘dubious’ repair techniques on the fast-decaying temple unless a UNESCO report is submitted.
KONARK SURAKSHA SAMITI
The Konark Suraksha Samiti is a frontline organisation which is spearheading the movement for saving the Sun Temple. Its members comprise of local stake holders, historians, artisans, litterateurs, activists and culturists, who have been highlighting the deteriorating plight of Konark since the last seventeen years. The Samiti was formed on July 25, 1996, after the imposition of the entry tax to the temple by the Archeological Survey of India. There was wide protest in the area, and many of the activists were arrested and underwent jail custody. The people of the area felt cheated as they were denied entry into the complex. The religiosity of the sacred temple was not accepted by the ASI, and this created a lot of resentment among the locals.
Over the last seventeen years, the Samiti has been highlighting the state of dismal affairs of the Temple. Konark has seen more damage in the last twenty five years than in the centuries of its existence. There has been rampant waterlogging during the monsoons. The ASI is not giving the temple the importance it deserves. The Samiti had drawn the attention of the Odisha High Court towards waterlogging on the temple premises through a PIL and had informed about the plight of visitors who had to wade through knee-deep water to visit the heritage site. Following the Court’s intervention, the state government and the ASI took measures to prevent waterlogging.
The devotees of the Sun God have been demanding for the waiver of the temple entry fee on Saturdays to facilitate the worship of the Nava Grahas and for doing the Parikrama. This demand of the people has not been accepted till date, even though between 1996 to 2000, free entry was allowed on Fridays. The Samiti has a grouse against the ASI for temple’s continuous neglect. The haphazard method in which the conservation work is being done has brought the temple to the brink of its collapse. The work is being undertaken without technical expertise, using unskilled craftsmen. This has already caused a lot of damage to the intricate and fine carved sculptures. In most of the portions of temple, the ASI has erected iron scaffoldings which have been in place for years. The bars are all rusted and offer little support to the structure. There have been many cases of large stones falling off the temple. It was also alleged that antique pieces were being regularly smuggled out from the area.
The locals, whose life depend upon this temple, are kept in the dark about all the conservation efforts or beautification projects undertaken by the ASI. The demands of the Samiti include honoring the tradition, religious heritage and sentiments of the people and there should be a provision of free entry to the Sun Temple on each Saturday as the devotees from all over India come to offer prayers to the Nava Graha and to make the Parikrama of the Temple. Sarat Jayasingh, the president of the Samiti, points out that free entry is allowed into the Taj Mahal every Friday, and hence it should be allowed in Konark too. Jayasingh has been at the forefront and has been spearheading the movement. He has brought together holy men of the Sadhu Samaj, the Sankaracharyas and the Maha Mandeleshwars across the country for the cause of Konark. He camped at the recent Mahakumbh at Prayag and met the holy men for initiating a movement for recreation of another temple at Konark. He faced persecution and was attacked by the local mafias who want things to remain as they are.
One reason why no major steps are being taken by the ASI officials is the fear that it might lead to the total collapse of the crumbling temple. Testing of the soil and load-bearing capacity of the stone have recently been undertaken by the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee, and the Geological Survey of India. Little coordination exists between the ASI, the state archaeology department, and the Central agencies. The former charges the latter with non-cooperation while the state officials counter with complaints of high-handedness against the central unit.
WORSHIPPERS OF THE SUN GOD
The dismal state of affairs of the Sun Temple has moved many people across the state. These motley groups are fighting a losing battle against the apathy of the ASI, the state government and the Centre for the preservation and conservation of the Temple. State convener of INTACH Amiya Bhusan Tripathy has been a tireless crusader for the Sun Temple. The former Director General of Police is constantly apprising the state government to the precarious state of the Temple. Tripathy is of the view that a holistic all round approach should be taken, with active participation of local stakeholders. The ASI just takes the excuse of UNESCO guidelines and the state’s participation, the ball is kicked from one court to the other.
Prof Surendra Mishra, convener of the Konark Suraksha Samiti, is of the opinion that a proper study should be made on the origins of the temple. There are several things which are still unexplained, and the indigenous temple architects and sculptors should be consulted for the restoration.
Anil Dey, a retired senior bureaucrat, has been championing the cause of Konark since the last forty years. He has carried extensive works and written an empirical book on the subject. He has formed the Kalinga Heritage Preservation Trust whose objective is to recreate a replica of Konark. This idea was given a shot in the arm by an eminent sculpture Raghunath Mohapatro, who was recently conferred the Padma Vibhushan award. Mohapatro has approached the state government to allot land in the vicinity of the Sun temple where he and other Odia sculptors would make a replica of the temple as it was in its original resplendent glory.
Another maverick for the Sun Temple is Upendra Nath Bhol, a retired school teacher, who has spent all his life in a village near Konark. This eccentric genius is probably the only scholar who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of demystifying the enigma that Konark is. He knows every nook and cranny of the temple, and in his youthful days used to climb atop the structure. The locals think he is mad. He has discovered many unique aspects of the temple and has explained the astrological and astronomical relevance. He can speak for an hour on each single figure carved on the temple.
A senior member of INTACH Ananta Mohapatra is of the opinion that creation of a replica is definitely not the same as restoration. Just as the monuments on the Nile were shifted by UNESCO, Konark too can be restored in a similar way. The massive amount of broken sculpted blocks lying in the vicinity and the nearby villages could be reassembled to the best extent possible.
It is ironic that Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who was one of the founding members of INTACH and is known for his love for heritage and culture, is silent on this matter. No concrete measures have been taken by the state government till date to save and preserve the Sun Temple.
Between accusations and counter-accusations, the condition of the structure continues to weaken. The situation has come round to being much the same. The ASI continues to suffer from an acute shortage of staff and experts and faces apathy and sloth in official policy making. Acquiring a heritage tag is not sufficient in itself, it entails and imposes greater responsibility and cultural accountability but our system in place is hardly responsive to the needs of culture.
By Anil Dhir from Konark