On every equinox for the last 1000 years, the Sun’s rays enter the Garbhagriha or sanctum of the Sun temple at Modhera where a golden idol of the Sun god once presided. It is said the Sun’s rays would strike a diamond fixed on the idol’s head, casting a golden hue on the entire sacred space.
The idol is long gone and so are the worshippers. Today the exquisitely carved 11th-century temple, located in the Mehsana district of Gujarat, stands a silent witness to the glory of a bygone era.
Apart from the equinoxes, on the day of the summer solstice in June, the Sun is directly overhead the temple and does not cast a shadow.
Worshipping the Sun – the giver of life
From ancient times, the worship of natural elements such as air, fire, earth, water and sky which closely impacted people have been an integral part of Vedic culture.
The worship of Surya or Sun finds mention in the Vedas and Puranas. The 12 Adityas, a group of solar deities corresponding to the 12 months, were among the principal deities in the Vedic texts. The Gayatri mantra, considered a powerful Vedic hymn, is dedicated to Savitr, one of the Adityas.
Intricate carvings on the dome of Sabha Mandapa at the Sun Temple in Modhera, Gujarat. Pic: Flickr
Surya Namaskar, a series of 12 asanas or body postures practised in yoga, is dedicated to the Sun god. Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Chhath, Maghi, are festivals dedicated to the Sun god and celebrated across India. So, it is not surprising that Sun temples are found across the length and breadth of India.
The Sun temple at Modhera, at Konark in Odisha and the Martand temple in Kashmir, are among the most prominent ones.
All are now in ruins due to repeated foreign invasions and, in recent years, due to neglect by local authorities.
Modhera is an ancient town that finds mention in historical texts where it is referred to as Dharmaranya or the forest of righteousness.
The Sun temple at Modhera is ascribed to King Bhima I of the Solanki or Chalukya dynasty. Built with yellow sandstone, the temple stands on the banks of the Pushpavati River.
The temple complex consists of Garbhagriha, the Sabha Mandapa and the Kund or step-well. Pic: Wikipedia/Musafir Kanya
It is believed that no plaster or limestone was used for the joints of the temple. The stones were interlocked and balanced on top of each other.
There is an upside-down inscription on the back wall of the shrine that reads “Vikram Samvat 1083”. This corresponds to the period 1026-27 CE. Some historians, however, believe that the temple was built in the early 11th century and 1083 is the date when it was destroyed. Historians feel that since the inscription is inverted, it points to stones being reused to rebuild the temple after it was razed.
The temple complex consists of Garbhagriha, the Sabha Mandapa and the Kund or step-well.
The temple complex is designed in the Maru-Gurjara style of temple architecture that was prevalent in Gujarat and Rajasthan during the 11th to 13th centuries under the Chalukya or Solanki dynasty.
Steps leading to the Kunda. Pic: Flickr
The style is marked by ornate carvings both on the outside and inside of the temple. The external walls have projections and recesses which have sculpted statues in the niches. The lower surface of the walls has bands of mouldings with lines of horse riders, elephants, and kirtimukhas.
The interior walls are also richly decorated with elaborate carvings. Another distinct feature of this style is the large pillared halls, many open at the sides.
The main temple structure stands on a plinth that resembles an inverted lotus. On top of the lotus, there is a panel carved with elephants.
The main entrance is sculpted with images of Surya, surrounded by dancers and amorous couples. Interestingly, some images of Surya depict him wearing boots and belts which is regarded as a possible Central Asian influence.
The main structure originally was crowned by a shikhara or tower but that has collapsed over time.
Reliefs on Guda Mandapa at Modhera Sun Temple. Pic: Wikipedia/Bernand Gagnon
The Garbhagriha or sanctum has a vacant space where the idol of Surya was once placed.
According to legend, the idol was made of gold and Surya was shown driving a chariot pulled by seven horses.
The opulent Sabha Mandapa stands on 52 pillars, corresponding to the weeks in a year. There are intricate carvings of the Sun on the walls to show its unity with air, water, earth and space. The pillars also have rich carvings on them with scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as other mythological stories.
A Kirti Toran or victory tower once stood in front of the Sabha Mandapa. But now only its pillars remain.
Through these pillars, steps lead to the magnificently sculpted Surya kund or tank. This rectangular kund is in the form of a step-well with 108 small shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses. The steps form geometric patterns leading down to the tank.
Pillars of Kirti Toran & steps leading to the Kund. Pic: Wikipedia/Uday Parmar
The steps have small shrines built in them. The three main shrines positioned on the three sides of the kund are dedicated to Lord Ganesha and Lord Vishnu. On the fourth side, facing the Sun temple is an image of Lord Shiva performing the ‘tandav’.
The sprawling, lush green environs of the temple are host to a three-day dance festival organised by the state government tourism department in January after the Makar Sankranti festival. That is one way of keeping alive an 11th century marvel in the 21st century. More pictures here:
Carved ceiling of the Sabha Mandapa, the central element of the Modhera Sun Temple. Pic: Wikipedia/Hiren Patel
It is said that plaster or limestone was not used in the temple. The stones were interlocked and balanced on top of each other. Pic: Flickr Pillars and columns at the Modhera Sun Temple. Pic: Flickr
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)