This piece first appeared in The Hindu.
Sixty-five kilometres from the capital city of Bhubaneshwar, and thirty-five kilometres from Jagannath Puri, with even the last hamlet a few miles away, the Sun Temple in Konark gives ‘in the middle of nowhere’ an all-new meaning. Built in the 13th Century by King Narasimhadeva of the Ganga dynasty, by the now-vanished Chandrabhaga River, this UNESCO World Heritage site is often compared with Khajuraho for its form and feature, especially erotica.
Having been to Khajuraho recently, I had a similar picture of Konark in mind. I expected clean wide roads, quaint cafés, foreign tourists, and fluent English-speaking guides, but what I find here is the opposite: the road is wide but dusty, and instead of quaint cafés, it is dotted with small tea stalls and pushcarts. The tea stalls are selling tepid tea and the pushcarts are stocked with limp vadas — made of semolina, not lentils — and a watery curry of dried peas. There are some shops too, trading in coconut water, fresh cucumber, and sugarcane juice. The only remotely foreign-looking tourist in the crowd of locals and villagers happens to be me; and my guide can barely string together a sentence in English.
A long walk along the dusty road leads me to a large iron gate. I am allowed to pass through it without any checks onto a long, sandy walkway lined with stalls selling cheap handicrafts. On either side are large lawns, a standard feature of all World Heritage Sites; only here, they are unkempt and littered all over. As I reluctantly walk towards the complex, wondering if I have wasted my time, energy, and money in coming to Konark, I begin to realise how enormous the scale of the temple is.
Also known as the Black Pagoda, the temple in its original form is supposed to have contained a 52-tonne magnet in its main spire. So strong was the force of the magnet that ships often lost their way along this part of the Bay of Bengal, and therefore, the spire was brought down by merchants. This, however, is only one of the many theories related to the damage of the mammoth 229-feet-high main tower of the temple. The other stories consist of curses, lack of proper support, Muslim invasions, and natural calamities.
What I see currently is the second-largest tower of the temple, soaring a grand 128 feet against a perfectly blue sky, and a large platform with pillars but no roof. Even from a distance, the structure looks colossal, and the people around it look like colourful confetti strewn all over. Built in the form of a chariot driven by seven horses and supported by twelve pairs of wheels, the temple depicts the journey of the Sun on his chariot across the sky. The horses signify the seven days of the week, while the elaborately-carved wheels denote the 12 months of the year. Just like the Khajuraho temples, the walls here are richly adorned with gods and goddesses, nymphs and humans, animals and plants. There is erotica too, but much more subtle than what I have seen elsewhere.
What stand out most, however, are the lessons these sculptures teach, like the imposing sculpture at the stairway that has a lion crushing an elephant and the elephant a man. The elephant here depicts strength; the lion, pride. True, a man who cannot keep his ego and power under control is bound to be crushed by them.
“How do you think the kings checked time, madam,” my elderly guide suddenly asks, breaking my chain of thought. His Oriya-infested English and witty remarks have kept me entertained for over an hour now, and he has gone to the extent of declaring me a form of goddess Lakshmi since I, like her, apparently have a slightly misaligned eye.
“Do you see the wheels, madam?” the guide goes on to ask. “These are not wheels but timepieces, which were used by the kings to know the time even before watches were invented,” he adds in his lilting tone. Divided by spokes into sixteen equal parts, and further by smaller bead-like carvings into units that equal three minutes each, the wheels, with the help of the shadow of your finger, can tell you the accurate time, down to the last minute. Not only that, the ornate sections of the dials also depict the season and the time of the day: flowers for spring, mating macaques for winter; a lady dressing up in front of the mirror in the morning, stretching in the evening, and indulging in procreational activities at night. It is evident that the art here also has logic behind it.
The sprawling complex is now inundated with people out to make the most of their weekend. There are groups in every corner of the temple, some taking selfies, some hastily capturing the erotica, some gazing at the sundial in amazement. The largest congregation, however, can be seen in and around the Natya Mandap. From where I am, the high platform of the dance hall looks like a large chessboard with richly-carved columns of various kinds precariously placed like pawns. Just like the main temple tower, the rooftop of the Natya Mandap is also believed to have been damaged, but the lack of a roof-top has only enhanced its appeal.
Konark, after all, is all about imperfection.