• Prathik Murali

Invoking the Sun in Stone

Invoking the sun in stone - The sun temple at konārk and the sūriyanār temple in kumbhakoṇam- structure, significance and symbolism



Literary evidences of Sun worship:


“When sūrya, we address our prayers to thee to-day, may the gods favour this purpose and desire” It is through this verse that the Rg Veda addresses the Sun. The Vedic seers request their prayers to be answered by the various gods through their appeal to sun. Surya, the sun god to the Vedic seers was Helios to the Greeks while the Egyptians revered him as Aton and the Mesopotamians as the Shamash.

The Vedic pantheon ascribes 12 names for the sun. These are dhātṛ, mitra, aryamān, rudra, varuṇa, surya, bhaga, vivaśvat, pūṣan, savitṛ, tvaśtṛ and viśṇu.

References to Sun worship are also found in Buddhist texts such as Anguttara Nikaya, Digha Nikaya and some of the jātakā tales such as the mayūra jātakā . Therefore, by a few centuries before the Common era, Sun worship was common among different Indian faiths.

The Greek account ‘Indica’ of Megasthenes refers to sun-worshippers as ‘Surae’, which is a Greek variant of the word ‘śaurā’ meaning ‘followers of the sun’.

The great twin epics of India- mahābhāratā and rāmāyaṇā provide ample references to Sun worship. While the former details a prayer with 108 names of sūrya, the latter contains the famous ‘āditya hṛdayam’ hymn, in which Sun is described as the trinity – brahmā, viśṇu and śivā

Anthropomorphic development:

Sun worship acquired its distinct iconography in combination with indigenous literature and with the influence of Iranian tradition of sun worship. Iranian sun worshippers were called magās and are believed to have made India their home by around 5th century BCE. However, the influence of Iranian sun worship did not have its effect in the southern regions of India. The pantheon of Sun worship grew to include his wives – uṣā and pratyuṣā (metaphorically dawn and dusk respectively). Other names attributed to his wives are tvastṛi, śaraṇyu, suvarchalā, chāyā etc. His charioteer is aruṇā and attendants are matharā and daṇdā respectively. The earliest image of Sun is datable to circa 2nd Century BCE, hence it can be said that Sun was anthropomorphized around the early Puranic period.

Sun temples of India:

The vast Vedic literature is silent on temple / idol worship apart from very rare, stray, interpretative instances. Though the Smriti Age – The period of the gṛhya sūtrās (circa 3rd to 1st Century BCE) give ample references to temples, we do not find evidences to Sun temples up to around 5th Century CE.

There are ample mentions of sun temples in the epigraphs of many early rulers. However these temples have not survived the test of time and hence we can only infer their existence from the inscriptional evidences. For example, The maṇdasore inscription of kumāraguptā-1 (6th Century CE) mentions the construction of a Sun temple at dasapur in Madhya Pradesh and Gwalior inscription of mihirākulā (6th Century CE) refers to the erection of a sun temple at gopādri near Gwalior.

The above mentioned Gwalior inscription begins with a Sanskrit verse praising the Sun. It is starts as a prayer towards the sun to protect the people and goes onto describe sūryā's icon. Sun is praised as the ever victorious god who dispels darkness of the clouds with the masses and multitude of his rays that light up the sky. He decorates the top of the mountain of dawn with his horses. The horse’s gait and the effect of their movement on their manes are very poetically described.

In the medieval times (7th – 12th Century CE) numerous sun temples were built across the landscape of India. Some prominent temples were those of osiān, ḍholpur, modherā, sirohi in western India, mārtāṇḍ in North India, khiching and konārk in East India respectively.

South India has a lone temple exclusively dedicated to Sun worship, called the ‘kulottunga chola mātrāṇḍālayā'’, built in the 12th Century CE. This temple is today known as the ‘sūriyanār temple’ and is situated in Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu.


sūryā in Odisha:

Various purāṇās and local legends identify Odisha as a seat of Sun worship. Many sculptures of Sun god can be seen in temples dedicated to other gods and goddesses in Odisha. sūryā is represented as a guardian deity or an ornamental depiction on the East direction or as one among the nine planets adorning the lintel of a temple or otherwise as a mere decorative art work adorning a side wall of the temple.

The temple of lakshmaṇeśvara in Bhubhaneshwar has an image of Surya seated while holding two lotuses in his hands. The temple is dated to 6-7th Century CE. The paraśurāmeśvarā temple’s (7th Century CE) jagamohanā (Hall in-front of the sanctum) houses an image of the sun in all opulence.




The 8th Century image of sūryā from the vaitāl deūl at Bhubhaneshwar is striking. He stands on his chariot which hides his lower torso. His eye is down cast and his curly hair hangs down on his shoulders. He is flanked by uṣā and pratyuṣā, his consorts. Being symbolic representations of dawn and dusk respectively, they are seen dispensing arrows from a bow in opposite directions, dispelling darkness.

Many such icons of sūryā are available from all over Odisha. Apart from such stand alone icons, several Sun temples also exist in the state. However, nothing stands close to the grandeur and artistic merit of the koṇārk Sun temple.

koṇārk – Legends and etymology:

arkā’ in Sanskrit means the sun, while ‘koṇā’ means corner. Therefore, the word ‘koṇārkā’ means – ‘The corner of Sun’.

Some other names are attributed to the village of Konark by various local legends. For example, the mythology of brahma purāṇā mentions ‘koṇādityā’ as the most sacred place for the worship of sun in the country of utkala (Orissa).

There are interesting narratives in these mythologies that form the basis of worship and the reason for the building of a grand temple for the sun god at koṇārkā. The bhaviśya purāṇā and sāmba purāṇā connect the village to the life of Lord kṛṣṇā.

sāmbā was the son of Lord kṛṣṇā and jāmbavatī. He misguided sage nāradā and brought him to the inner rooms of Krishna’s palace, which were the reserved quarters of the many wives of kṛṣṇā .

kṛṣṇā , angered by his son’s improper actions, cursed him to be diseased with leprosy. If sāmbā had to mitigate the effects of the curse of his father, he was directed to worship sūryā. sūryā is considered in the Indian medical system as the healer of skin diseases. A sacred place was chosen for sāmbā to conduct worship, which was at the forest of mitravanā near chandrabhāgā (today's koṇārk)

sāmbā performed an austere penance for 12 years, after which sūryā was pleased and cured his disease. As a testimonial to this feat, sāmbā is said to have consecrated an icon of sūryā and constructed a temple for him. The story according to bhaviśya purāṇā continues further to say that the local brahmins did not consent to perform the rituals at the temple as it was built by a leper. Hence, sāmbā had brought in families of sun worshippers called the ‘magās’ from a different continent called the ‘śakadvīpā’ to perform the rituals. Some features in the iconography of koṇārk temple, such as the adorning of boots by the deities might be a reminiscent feature of some central Asian art, influencing the regional style. Such alien features give some authenticity to these claims made by mythologies.

A sacred tank in the name of chandrabhāgā exists near the sea at Konark, where pilgrims take a holy dip. These are continuing traditions of the mythologies relating to Sun and Konark temple.


History of the Sun temple:

The chronicles of the jagannāthā temple of Puri are called ‘maddalapānjī’. These are records on palm leaf manuscripts and contain references to the koṇārk temple. It claims that the King purandarakesarī of the kesarī dynasty built the temple. The kesarīs were ousted by the gangā dynasty. The King narasimhadevā of the gangā dynasty, whose rule of the region was between 1238-1264 CE built another shrine at the same place where the earlier structure of the kesarīs stood and consecrated the old image of Sun in the new temple.

After the rule of mukundarājā in the late 16th Century the temple was under the attack of invaders. It is said that they failed in their mission to desecrate the grand temple in its entirety. The copper kalaśā (pot) which was placed on top of the tower of the temple was stolen during this period.

The copper plates of gangā dynasty mention that one of the greatest achievements of King narasimhadevā was the building of a ‘mahatkutīrā’ (the grand cottage) for sūryā at the site of koṇārk. The place must have enjoyed a steady inflow of royal patronage, funds and pilgrim influx during the gangā era.

It is also speculated by some that the King or his son might have suffered from a disease and a sense of gratitude for having recovered, had built the shrine.

The king was a devout sun devotee. This is evident from the fact that his son was named ‘bhānudevā’. ‘bhānu’ in Sanskrit is another name ascribed to the Sun god.

The temple of koṇārk:

It is not an exaggeration to remark that the temple of koṇārk is the pinnacle of Kalingan art and architecture. Its remarkable proportion, execution both in terms of architectural planning and scale and its quality of sculptures, of both miniature and colossal proportions make it a regal splendor from the past. The growth of temple building activity with a distinct identity of Odisha which started around 7th Century CE reached its zenith with the temple of Konark in the 13th Century CE.


The temple’s main shrine is conceived as a huge chariot, driven by 7 bejeweled horses and 12 colossal wheels. The temple is built on a high raised platform, whose outer surface is intricately carved with many motifs, both religious and secular in nature. This high wall / platform contains 12 pairs of ornate wheels sculpted against it. The intricately jeweled horses are seen sculpted near the stairways leading to the main shrine.

The main shrine above the platform is a traditional Odisha style temple, which once would have consisted of an elongated main tower called the ‘rekhā deulā’ and a pyramidal sub-tower called the ‘piḍhā deulā’. While the rekhā deulā is lost today, whose loss may be attributed to many factors, the piḍhā deulā is still intact narrating its past glories.

It is unique to Odisha style of architecture that the elongated, straight ‘rekhā deulā’ is considered as the symbolisation of the ‘masculine’ and the sub-tower called the ‘piḍhā deulā’ is considered a representation of the feminine, thus making a temple a symbol of procreation and functioning of the world. The inner room under the piḍhā deul's is known as the jagamohanā .


The jagamohanā of koṇārk stands as an example to the mastery of craftsmanship of Indian artists. The upper portions of the jagamohanā once contained niches which housed the sculptures of the 8 guardian deities appropriately in their directions. indrā to the east, agni to the south-east, yamā to the south, niṛti to the south-west, varuṇā to the west, vāyū to the north-west, kuberā to the ṇorth and īśānā to the north-west respectively.

The eastern door jamb of the jagamohanā is the an elaborately decorated piece. It is divided into 8 parts of decreasing sizes. Each of them bears reliefs of scrolls of leaves, flowers, snakes, amorous couples, women and many other secular sculptures. The central figure on the door jamb is that of Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance being bathed by elephants.

The plan of the temple is that of ‘pancha rathā’ variety.

Once a visitor enters the temple, he is welcomed by two colossal lions, which stand stout on elephants. These colossal lions guard the staircase to the bhoga mantapā. Alternatively called the nata-mantapā or the dance hall because of its usage to hold music and dance performances in the yester-years. It is one of the most imposing and intricate structures of the Konark temple. It is contains various sculptures portraying dance, music, women, animals etc.

Damsels with their raised arms, ladies holding a branch of a tree (śālabhanjikā), petting animals, drying their hair while a goose waits to drink the water droplets from it etc. are some of the finest of the sculptures available in the nata-mantapā. It also contains a row of geese and another row portraying war scenes with infantry, cavalry and palanquins.

There are other structures surrounding the main temple. To the west of the main shrine lies the remains of a temple that is today called as the māyādevī temple. māyādevī is believed to be one of the consorts of sūryā.

However, it is highly probable that this temple is also that of Sun god’s. This is evident from the deities placed in the niches of the shrine. Some historians claim that this shrine was built earlier than the larger one, considered as the main temple in the complex today.

Many erotic images, amorous women, animals are depicted in the walls of the temple. The ‘praṇālā’ or the spout through which water receded from the inner chamber is very interesting as it contains a gargoyle motif, from whose mouth the water would recede.

There are many other small structures, pillars and sculptures that have been discovered in the premises.


Art and significance:

A broad categorization of the sculptures at Konark temple can be made as follows:

1) devatā mūrti – Deities

2) gandharvā / yakśās– Celestial Dancers, Musicians

3) Secular sculptures – erotic sculptures, dancing humans etc.

4) Animals – actual and mythical

5) Architectural elements – niches, pilasters, lintels etc.

6) Decorative elements – scrolls, flowers etc.

Many deities, especially sculptures of the Sun are uniquely crafted. The larger than life size image of sūryā in the southern side is of high artistic merit. He is seen standing on a chariot drawn by 7 horses tied together with a rope. The portion between the horses and his feet are ornately decorated with many dancing women motifs. He wears long boots up to his knees and a short drape of dhoti. He sports a girdle and is ornately decorated with many jewels. He wears a bejeweled crown and ornaments.

Above his head is carved a ‘krtimukhā’- an ornate face, beside which are two figures playing the conch. Four ladies are depicted with flowers in their hands. Near the right foot of the god is a person in prayer, probably the patron king and to his left is probably the priest and his family.


Secular sculptures include various erotic images and royal conquests. There is a heavy element of eroticism and sensuousness to the sculptures of Konark temple.

Many royal hunts, wars and court scenes are seen depicted in the motifs of the temple. Some rare portrayals of animals like giraffe in an Indian temple are very interesting. Rare icons such as mārtāṇda bhairavā – the form of Shiva as the sun god are also found in the roof portion of the jagamohanā.


The conceptualization of the temple as a chariot has deep significance. It keeps in account the belief of the Sun’s chariot and his 7 horses, which are iconographic prescriptions for a standalone image. This has been developed symbolically into a structure of huge proportions. Thus, it can be said that the temple itself is a representation of the image of sūryā . Some modern interpretations also suggest that the seven horses represent the seven color components of sunlight.

The 12 pairs of intricate wheels of the chariot stand for the 12 months of the year, which is inturn represented by the 12 forms of Surya.



Sun worship in Tamilnadu:

The early epic of the Tamil language, the grand poetry of silappadhikāram, starts with a salutation to natural forces. The introductory verse salutes the Sun god with the phrase “gyāyiru potrudhum” – meaning, ‘May you worship the sun’. It further says that the Sun deserves to be worshipped as it resembles the imperial orders of the Chola king. Just like the orders of the Cholan monarch travels around the world within a day’s time, the sun also travels around the globe within the exact time frame.

Though the reverence to sun in the Tamil country can be discerned from literary evidences , only one, lone temple is available as a reminiscence of Sun worship today. It is that of the temple in Tanjore district.

We learn from early inscriptions of parāntakā-1st (10th Century) that there existed a temple for sūryā in Tamilnadu, however there are no other details available on the same.

Many images of sūryā from the earlier Pallava period and the Chola era have been found in Tamilnadu. Right from the early Cholas, the dynasty had produced icons of the sun god in various sizes. Some beautiful Sun icons in larger sizes are found in early Chola temples in nāgeśvaran temple in kumbhakoṇam, while miniature images of the Sun god in his chariot along with his two consorts are found in temples like Ponsei in Mayiladuthurai district of the state.

Many inscriptions of the Cholas help us understand that the consecration of an image of Sun in the premises of other temples was a common affair. For example, during the time of rājarāja-I (10th Century), an inscription from the temple of tirukkodikkā narrates that a person by name layan āditta pidāran set up an image of sūryā in the temple.

kulottungā-1st, patron of the sun temple which is the subject matter of the this portion of the article, has presented various grants to other sūryā sub-shrines in Tamilnadu, for example at the tirumaṇikkuli temple of Arcot District.

However, the only available temple solely dedicated to Surya as its presiding deity is that of sūriyanār temple .

The sūriyanār Koyil:


This temple belongs to the period of the Chola monarch kulottungā-I who ruled from 1070 CE. In the Cholan times, the temple was known as the ‘kulottunga chola mātrāṇḍālayām’, which translates to the Sun temple of kulottunga Chola.

There are inscriptions in the premises of the temple that were set in stone during his rule itself. An inscription belonging to the 44th ruling year is a royal decree to grant the accountant position of some of the villages that are the property of the Sun temple to the highest bidder in the tender for accountant position.

Another inscription belonging to his 48th ruling year also pertains to the villages that were tax exempt and were the property of the Sun temple.

Another important inscription is from the reign of the vijayanagarā emperor krṣnadevarāyā. The inscription from 16th century records the gift on behalf of the king to the temple. Therefore, it is clear that the temple has been important enough to receive direct donations from the royalties of various dynasties for many centuries continuously.

kulottungā's reign was charecterised by his friendship with the gāhadavālā rulers of Kannauj in the North of India. Their inscriptions are also found in Chola temples like Gangai koṇda Cholapuram. Some historians speculate that the inspiration to build a separate shrine for Surya could be an influence of the gāhadavālās.

Invoking the ever opulent:

sūryā , the god of light and health has maintained socio-cultural relevance in the sub-continent for millennia. Literary references in their chronological order reveal a gradual progress and addition to the pantheon of Sun and his worship. In the Vedic tradition he was represented as the remover of evil and as a moral force in addition to being the curer of diseases. The later sources attributed various aspects to his worship and developed the iconography.

With such foundations, elaborate temples dedicated to his cult developed, whose grandeur and widespread nature cannot be understated.

“raśmimaṃtaṃ samudyantaṃ devāsuranamaskṛtam pūjayasva vivasvantaṃ bhāskaraṃ bhuvaneśvaram”

“Salutations to him, filled with rays and rises equally for all by spreading his illumination. He is revered by the gods and demons alike! He creates his own light and is the lord of the universe”

- āditya hrdayam (Ramayana)


(The author can be reached at prathik@sahagamana.com)

160 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All