Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Sun Temple at Modhera

Imagine a prosperous 11th century state ruled by a powerful dynasty who were considered descendants of Surya, the sun god. A forest called Dharmaranya (the forest of righteousness) stood not far from the capital. It was in this forest that Lord Rama prayed and cleansed himself of the sin of killing Ravana (a Brahmin king). The river, Pushpavati flows in this forest, bestowing water, fertility and beauty. Would this not be the ideal location for a temple dedicated to the sun god, a temple of exquisite design and form that symbolized the grandeur and power of the sun and celebrated life itself?

Perhaps this is what the king Bhimdev I (of the Solanki dynasty) and the temple carvers had in mind. One does not know. But this is what the temple (partly in ruins due to successive plundering) seems to convey. At the entrance is an intricately carved step well with 108 shrines (108 being a sacred number, the number of beads in a Hindu rosary). Beyond this lies a large pillared temple hall that is open on all sides. It has 52 pillars, (one for each week of the year)- each uniquely covered with carvings representing scenes from the epics (Ramayana, Mahabharata and Krishna Lila) and some others of imaginatively positioned figures. Some part of the exterior is carved with erotic figures, perhaps representing the sensuously creative ability of the body or just celebrating fertility.

The temple halls leads to a second pillared hall with columns and arches within and 12 niches on the exterior, each niche portraying a different form of the sun god (one for every month). The sun god is the only god to don shoes (akin to riding boots) which indicates a connection with central Asia, so say historians. The exterior walls of this structure also depict smaller forms of the eight dikpalas (gods of specific activities and attributes) and twelve prominent forms of Parvati (the consort of Lord Shiva). Thus it symbolizes an interesting blend of the worship of Surya and the worship of an aspect of Shiva.

The sanctum sanctorum (which is now locked) is designed on an inverted lotus plinth (the opening and closing of the lotus flower follows the diurnal pattern of the sun). In this sacred location was placed a golden, bejewelled statue of Surya seated on his chariot; the chariot was drawn by 7 horses and on the 4th horse sat the charioteer Arun. During each equinox, the rays of the rising and setting sun would fall on the sun god. One can now only imagine the beauty and power that the temple as a whole must have radiated.

The stepwell
The outer hall
Scene from the Ramayana - Hanuman is shot as he carries the mountain with the magical herb
The inner hall
Scene fromthe Ramayana- the killing of the monkey king Vali
Scene from the Mahabharata- Bhima throws an elephant up and it doesn't return to earth
Carved niches

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