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Posted on : April 11th, by

Sun Temple – Modhera

A view of the Sun Temple, Modhera, Gujarat A view of the Sun Temple, Modhera, Gujarat

I sit at my kitchen table with my laptop in front of me. I have sprawled in front of me books by John Keay (Indian History) and Tadgell (History of Architecture in India) amongst others. A quiet, reflective Sunday morning. For the last few days I have been thinking of this sketch. Vandana made it a couple of years ago. It is a scene from the Sun temple at Modhera in Gujarat. Two days ago it was Vandana’s birthday and I had scanned and sent it to her as a memory of that holiday we had two years ago.

The Surya (Surya means Sun) temple at Modhera can be dated from an inscription on it to 1026 AD. That is almost 1000 years ago! It antedates that other famous Sun Temple – the one at Konark which I love too. But this one at Modhera is largely forgotten. Perhaps its geography meant that being on the Western shores of India (while the Konark temple is on the East Coast), it caught the attention and the full force of the invading armies of Mahmud of Ghazni who came and raided it. Perhaps the Ghaznavid Sultan made it a stop over on one of his seventeen raids into India – one every year of his reign. Each raid was tinged with a zeal and belief in his role in spread of Islam but, of course, it was monetarily profitable as was the raid in Somnath whence he carried away a huge lingam ornate with gold lying on a foundation of gold pieces. Rich pickings indeed! One that transformed his kingdom from a newly established entity to a rich empire (perhaps at the time of his death the richest empire of the land). And it explains that conquests of lands were about economical advantages…. Just as centuries later colonialism was established in the name of Gold, Glory and God.

So that explains why the Sun temple at Modhera is not as well known today as the Konark temple. But it is a magnificent sight. Even today.

Modhera Sun temple Modhera Sun temple

We had landed in Gujarat in the April of 2013 – in Ahmedabad to be precise and had rented a vehicle. That morning there were very few people around when we arrived. As we turned the corner amidst the branches and flowers in the foreground, the temple took my breath away. A beautiful ornate temple towering into the skies with green lawns in front of it. I was so glad we had made the effort in seeking it out …..

Visiting Sun Temple in April 2013 Visiting Sun Temple in April 2013

I remember that moment of first impressions so vividly. There was an abundance of trees and flowers

Trees at Sun Temple Trees at Sun Temple

and even the temple grounds setting

Temple grounds Temple grounds

with a Sadhu resting in the midday heat added to the atmosphere.

Sadhu resting in mid day heat Sadhu resting
in mid day heat

It was a hot day but not the kind of heat that singes your skin – just a hot sun which was dry. My dad had a cap on, I did not.

There were so many birds, parrots,

Parrots Parrots

doves,

Doves inside the temple Doves inside the temple

even little dragon flies

Dragon Fly Dragon Fly

and squirrels

A squirrel at the Sun temple A squirrel at the Sun temple

which caught my attention as they filled the area with so much life….

And there, looming out of all this life, was a still building from a 1000 years ago!

1000 year old temple 1000 year old temple

The history of it just blew me away. I remembering thinking this Bhimsen-I of the Solanki dynasty a millennium away deserved respect. As I walked around, I felt so much awe at what had been achieved in that epoch. The organisation needed to bring people, builders, labourers, stone into somewhere out and beyond. But of course it would not have been in a remote place at all. This was the centre of Solanki kingdom who became rich by trade passing through the rich ports of Kathiawar and Gujarat. Even now the Kathiawars see themselves as different from the Gujaratis. Their food is different and there is a proud identity that covers Dwaraka, Somnath – religious institutions par excellence – the Shankaracharya seat at Dwaraka is one of the four seats of Hinduism even now in the country. Dwaraka inspired Vandana on another day to paint as well. The ports of Kathiawar and Saurashtra were already there for a thousand years before the Sun temple was built. They were mentioned in the 1st century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – which was a document in Greek describing navigation and trading opportunities from Roman and Egyptian ports about the Red Sea and North Africa to India. From such trading history the economy was built that led to the foundation of the Sun Temple of Modhera………..

Historical Sun temple of Modhera Historical Sun temple of Modhera

But I digress. For what one sees as one walk in the shade of trees is this extraordinary complex of three temple structures arranged in a linear fashion.

The Three temple structures The Three temple structures

First comes the magnificent tank. A large rectangular tank which is beautiful in its geometrical symmetry and very pleasing to the eye. On the day we visited there was a green sheen of water which added to the colour display. There are four tiers of steps with many little shrines in between

 

4 Tiers of Steps Four Tiers of Steps

Long ago I had seen a stepped tank akin to this in Karnataka at the ruins of Hampi http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g319725-d4960127-Reviews-Stepped_Tank-Hampi_Karnataka.html

I had marvelled at the structure at Hampi then but this is so much more. There is a sanctity in these steps – with water at its centre. The role of water as a purifier in seen again and again in many temples of South India. Here though this was evidence of religion being constantly practiced. There are numerous shrines splattered in organised fashion all around it.

Shrines at Temple Tank Shrines at Temple Tank

I was told there were 108 miniature shrines – but of course the number 108 is an auspicious number also seen in the Hindu rosary of beads. This number seems to come up in various mythological stories whether of the followers of Shiva or Vishnu. It comes up in the number of beads a Rudraksha mala has or in the number of Gopis Krishna danced with or in the number of Asuras and Daivas in the cosmic churning of the ocean of milk. That cosmic churning of the ocean of milk, using the serpent Vasuki, the King of serpents who resides in Shiva neck as rope, the mountain Mandhara as the churning rod in the quest to obtain Amrit, the nectar of immortality, is a story on its own….. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samudra_manthan

This tank seems to still have ceremonial significance. Later in the day, I saw a group of locals coming to visit the temple and the colours of the sarees, the women wore, made the scene come alive.

Devotees at Temple Tank Devotees at Temple Tank Locals adding colour Locals adding colour

I thought of how the tank “Surya Kund” – the Sun Tank – would have been visited by countless devotees ceremonially purifying themselves before entering the temple. These days, no central figure of God exists in this temple and in Hindu temples, once a figure is damaged the temple is not used for religious purposes. Yet there was this trail of women entering the tank area to pay obeisance to a God in their minds.

One of the shrines caught my attention. It is the one which is the most prominent shrine in the tank area. It was to a goddess that people prayed to in past years. She was the Goddess of Smallpox and, when unhappy with her devotees, she would wreck vengeance on them by making them come out in horrible pustules.

Temple for Small Pox Temple for Small Pox

Being a medic, this seems so farfetched, especially in an era post-1979, when smallpox is thought to have been conquered by mankind and relegated to a few labs in the world, yet who knows, may resurface in some futuristic novellas on bioterrorism. Remember “the Stolen Bacillus” by HG Wells… published first in 1894 – a story I had read when I was only 13 years – it formed part of the English syllabus at St Xavier’s School Durgapur. But Smallpox was a rampant disease till recent times. I was born in the early sixties and I have a small pox vaccination scar, I have an uncle who has the lifelong scars of small pox on his face – unlike chicken pox small pox affects the face predominantly and causes deep scars. I learnt about it in medical school and answered questions about it in Microbiology exams. So it is not that long ago that this disease was prevalent.

Just because it is a medical success story does not mean we can underestimate the fear it caused. We still view diseases we do not understand fully with an absence of dispassionate clarity and turn to the Gods to keep us safe. We have so much faith in a divinity who will solve all sorts of problems – medical, financial, choleric, amorous even… I remember some decades ago standing next to a beautiful girl in front of the God at Palani temple and silently mouthing a quick prayer … just in case his power was strong and mine wasn’t! This painting reminds me of so much – including simple beliefs surrounding this tank. You can see Vandana has drawn the steps of the tank, the special shrine etc…

You can see she has drawn trees in the background. The trees were an important part of the ambience but in the sketch she has moved them from where they were to the front of the temple.

Trees behind the temple Trees behind the temple

I did not understand that then but now when I think of the temple, I remember the many trees in its surroundings. It took me some time to realise that a sketch or painting is an artist’s memory – it is a composite of all the minute yet significant details that make a place special.

This ornate temple is so much more than the tank – spectacular though that is. The whole complex is breathtaking. Even before you reach the temple there is a magnificent hall with many pillars full of intricate carvings.

 

Sabha interior pillars Sabha interior pillars

This is where Vandana has placed herself and is drawing one of the views. It is an open aired building called “Sabha mandap” , a hall for a Sabha – a group of people.

Sabha Mandap Sabha Mandap

It is a gorgeous building. It is open on all sides. That midday sun lit it up everywhere, the carvings were intricate and there were a lot of them – all bathed in natural light.

 

Sabha Mandap pillars Sabha Mandap pillars

I am told there are 52 pillars. I did not count them. But what I did do was to sit there on my own, looking, taking it all in. Occasionally, I would stand up and walk closer and look at the artists’ dreams in more detail. There were scenes from Ramayana; like the story of the archery prowess of Lord Rama when he shoots arrows through seven trees to kill the king Bali. So many more stories. I wonder what this scene of an archer is depicting. I saw various avatars of Vishnu. Here He lies in His cosmic form on the huge serpent Sheshanaga floating on the ocean of milk – the same ocean that is churned by a serpent – the story I talked about before in this blog.

And the roof was so intricate.

Roof detail Roof detail Roof with arch Roof with arch

Look at how profuse the sculpturing of the arch is. And right at the very end is the classical form of the fruit of a banana plant hanging from the ceiling. And to think that to look at it you have to crane your neck and being in a temple people do not tend to raise their heads but keep them in submission to the deity and yet so much care is taken over the details.

There were scenes of Mahabharata too. In one story, the five Pandavas go into hiding to fulfil their “Agyatavasa” and their wife Draupadi is in service as a female servant a “Sairandhari” to queen Sudeshana. Sudeshana’s brother Keechaka is a powerful man and makes a play for Draupadi in a temple and Bhima then kills him in that temple hall. But here the artist punishes Keechaka’s transgression ‘in a temple’ by carving him in eternity lifting the mighty pillars bearing that weight forever.

Keechaka

And in front of the Sabha Mandap there stand two pillars with a linking arch:a Torana. When you see them in front of the Mandap you do not notice it at all Just next to this Sabha Mandap you can see two further columns from another view and a podium where even now dance festivals are held to this day in a glorious setting. I particularly noticed the corners of the base of the podium and how multifaceted they are.

Dance podium Dance podium

Inside the temple, the ornate theme continues. The whole temple is a Sun temple and lotus flowers are said to open in sunrise and close at sunset. This temple sits on an inverted lotus flower base plinth. There is an octagonal hall but as the dome of the hall rises the octagon is replaced with sixteen sides and so this progression goes on in a multifaceted, multilayered way. If you count the number of niches in this photograph, you will see there are sixteen of them. There are many symbolic motifs throughout the interior but it is on the exterior that there is a true profusion of images. Here is an image of Vishnu as the God who preserves the status quo ante – he has a multi-headed serpent – the Seshanaga– giving shade with her hoods while on his coils the incarnate Vishnu lies.

Sleeping Vishnu on Sheshanaga Sleeping Vishnu on Sheshanaga

He has four arms and you can see a Sudarshan Chakra – a discus with sharp edges which is his weapon in one of them, in the other hand is a mace . Below him the Samudramanatham – the whipping of the ocean of milk is happening. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samudra_manthan

Here is another sculpture of Surya the Sun God. He is being pulled by seven horses with a beautiful filigree work in stone.

Surya - the sun god on a chariot with 7 horses Surya – the sun god
on a chariot with 7 horses

The carvings are interspersed with ordinary life too – here is a scene of a person being carried on a palanquin.

 

Palanquin Palanquin

In the midst of all this, Vandana sat in a contemplative mood. We had returned in the early morning at about 7 am the next day – just the two of us.

Next day - early hours Next day – early hours

She chose a spot. It is the hall in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum – the GarbaGriha.

 

Choosing a spot Choosing a spot

I walked around breathing in the fresh morning air. I can honestly say I loved it. I felt privileged that my life had allowed me to come to these cross roads.

I think Vandana felt the same. She was in intense concentration, the lines flew out form her pen on to her sketch pad….

Vandana concentrating amidst her stillness Vandana concentrating amidst her stillness

She seemed to find a “stillness within” on that day in the calm hours of an early morning April sun in that Sun Temple at Modhera…..

A view of the Sun Temple, Modhera, Gujarat A view of the Sun Temple, Modhera, Gujarat