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The dazzling Sun temple at Modhera

I couldn’t have chosen a more significant day to visit the Sun temple in Modhera. I was there on the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti. The temple’s intricate architecture dazzled my eyes, as much as the sun itself did. The temple is dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. The temple is built on 23.6° latitude which is approximately near the Tropic of Cancer.

A few years ago, I had visited the other more famous Sun temple at Konark in Odisha. But this one in Gujarat’s Mehsana district is architecturally completely distinct from the Konark temple. The Modhera temple complex is built in Maru-Gurjara style (Chaulukya style) unlike the Kalinga style of architecture seen in Konark.

The Sun Temple at Modhera is located around 30 km away from Patan on the banks of the river Pushpavati. The monument is maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. The temple was built in the 11th century AD in the reign of the Solanki ruler Bhimadeva I. The Solankis are also called the Chaulukyas of Gujarat (not to be confused with the Chalukyas). They were Suryavanshi Gurjars who worshipped the Sun.

There are three main parts of the temple complex which are all built on a paved platform— the gudha-mandapa (the shrine hall), the sabha-mandapa (the assembly hall) and the kund (the reservoir).

The first structure is the gudha-mandapa. It houses the garbha-griha or the sanctum sanctorum. At the moment, there is no deity in the sanctum and no prayers are conducted. It is an engineering marvel and is designed in such a way that the first rays of rising sun lit up the image of Surya during days of the solar equinox (21 March). On summer solstice day, the sun shines directly above the temple at noon casting no shadow. Surrounding the garba-griha is a pradakshina-path or a passage to circumambulate around the deity. Tall pillars with ornamental toran arches decorate the gudha-mandap.

Several niches house carved sculptures of the twelve Adityas. Aditya literally means sun, and these are the twelve forms of the sun gods. Adityas are the offspring of Aditi, the Mother Goddess. Each month of the year is governed by a different sun God. These are Vishnu, Aryama, Indra, Tvashtha, Varuna, Dhata, Bhaga, Parjanya, Vivasvan, Amshuman, Mitra and Pushya. Vishnu is the head of all the Adityas. Indra, destroys the enemies of the gods. As a sun god, Dhata creates living beings; Parjanya showers down rain; Tvashta lives in the trees and herbs; Pusha makes foodgrains grow; Aryama and Amshumana is in the wind; Bhaga is in the body of all living beings. As Vivasvana, he is in fire and helps in cooking food; as Varuna, he is in the waters and as Mitra, he is in the moon and in the oceans.

Sculptures of the ashta dikpalas, who are the guardians of the eight cardinal directions also adorn the exterior of the structure. These are Kuber, Yama, Indra, Varuna, Ishana, Agni, Vayu and Nirrti. You can also see carvings of dancing apsaras and musicians.

The exterior of the gudha-mandapa is stunning. The carvings base upwards include padma or inverted lotus shaped carvings, gajathara or elephant carvings and narathara which has figures of men at different phases of the life cycle from birth to death.

Mandovara or the wall mouldings include carvings shaped like kumbha and kalasha (types of pitchers), chaitya-windows called kevala and manchi. These panels are decorated with figures of Surya, twelve forms of Parvati (called dwadash Gauri), other Gods, dancers and other figures.

This particular image is taken from Wiki Commons

Surya is usually accompanied by seven horses. Some of the Surya sculptures depict him wearing tall Persian style tiaras and long boots. Was this because sun worship originated in Iran? We don’t quite know.

The Sabha-mandapa

In front of the gudha-mandapa is the second structure which is the octagonal assembly hall called the sabha-mandapa or the nritya-mandap. This has a decorated gateway or toran. It has 52 exquisitely carved pillars representing the 52 weeks of the year. The tall pillars are carved on all four sides. The inside shows scenes carved from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Krishna Leela.

There used to be a kirti-toran, or an arch of triumph in front of the sabha-mandapa. The toran no longer exists but two pillars remain. Two more kirti-torans were constructed on each side of the kunda, of which only one exists.

The large rectangular kund or reservoir on the eastern part of the sabha-mandap is locally called the Ramakund or Suryakund. Legend has it that Lord Ram came here to take a dip to absolve himself of the sin of killing a Brahmin (Ravan). The 175 x 120 feet water tank can be approached by a grand flight of steps from all four sides. Essentially it is designed like a stepwell with pyramidal steps which form intriguing geometrical patterns. It makes quite an alluring sight and houses 108 shrines for other deities such as Seshashayi Vishnu, Ganesha, Nataraja and Shitala Mata (the goddess of chickenpox portrayed as riding a donkey and holding antiseptic neem leaves).

My trip left me feeling both proud and dismayed. These sturdy structures have survived earthquakes and are such architectural astonishments. And our understanding of what our ancestors left us is so little. There is so much that we lost through the centuries in blindly aping the West. We urgently need to cultivate a culture of respect for our arts in the generations that will follow.

To plan tours to the Modhera Sun Temple and other sights in Gujarat, you may contact my friend Deepa Subramanian at Shakti Holidays. Email: deepa@shaktiholidaysindia.in. Phone: +919840236872

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