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The Sun Temples of India

Tracing the origin and history of the Sun God

The sun is omnipresent throughout the world. It gives us the day and night. Even plants and animals sustain by the rise and fall of the sun. The heat from this big ball of light absorbs the sea water and gives us the precious rain. It is due to these unique qualities of the sun; it is worshipped by mankind since time immemorial.

In India, our ancestors have been worshipping the Sun God for over 2000 years. The vedas refer to the sun as ‘Asav Aditya Brahmam.’ The sun is also known as ‘Savitha,’ meaning light. Indians worship the sun by chanting the ‘Gayathri Mantra,’ to give them clarity in thought.

It is our tradition to worship the Sun God before the commencing of any auspicious event. Even Tamil poet Bharathi, in his literary work ‘Panchaliyin Sabatham,’ an adaptation from the Indian epic Mahabharata, he begins the poem by worshipping the Sun God – “செங்கதிர்த்தேவன் சிறந்த ஒளியினைத் தேர்கின்றோம். அவன் எங்கள் அறிவினைத் தூண்டி நடத்துக,” meaning, we desire the Sun God to provoke our knowledge with his rays.

Sun God is also worshipped as ‘Mitra’ in India. Since the Vedic Age (circa 1300 BCE to 900 BCE,) one can find references to the worship of Mitra or Sun God in India.

Mitra’ worship in early civilizations

Historical evidence of ‘Mitra’ worship can be found in Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and the ancient civilizations in Greece, Assyria, Sumer, Babylon, Alexandria, and the early Roman empire, including parts of present-day European countries France, Germany, Italy, and England. The Sun God ‘Mitra’ along with the Rain God ‘Varuna’ was worshipped across Eurasia before the advent of the Christian Era.

Sun God worship in Tamil Nadu

The worship of sun and nature was in practice by the people living in the present-day Tamil region since the Sangam Era (3rd century BCE.) The harvest festival of Tamil Nadu, Pongal is traditionally celebrated during the Tamil month ‘Thai’ (Mid-January.) The harvest festival is more of a thanksgiving to the Sun God for giving a good harvest.

Literary evidence found in the 1st century Tamil epic ‘Silappadikaaram,’ by ‘Ilangovadigal’ mentions a temple dedicated to the Sun God in the Chola city ‘Poompuhar,’ called the ‘பகல்வாயில் உச்சிக்கிழான் கோட்டம்,’ (Pagalvaayil Uchikilaan Kottam.) Reference to the worship of Sun God can be found in his verse ‘ஞாயிறு போற்றுதும்’ (hail the sun.)

Sun Temple at Martand, Kashmir

Ruins of Martand Temple
Ruins of Martand Sun temple

The earliest known structural Sun Temple still in existence in India is the Martand Sun Temple built by Lalitaditya Muktapida of the Karkota Dynasty in 750 CE. Martand is the name of the place where the temple was built. The temple was a very prominent structure in Kashmir in its glorious days and stood as a centre for cultural and economic development till the 15th century when it was demolished by the king ‘Sikandar Shah’. It is believed that the temple’s beauty would have surpassed that of the Tanjore Big Temple had it not been destroyed.

Since the temple was built in the 8th century CE, the architectural style of the temple is different from that of many temples found in India. Huge slabs of stones were placed one over another and later embellished with sculptures. The sculptures seen are not separate like the ones we find in regular temples, it was carved on the slabs themselves, hence complete destruction of the temple was not possible.

Historical records suggesting pooja and worship to the temple by the locals even after being ransacked speak about the popularity of the temple and the tradition of Sun Worship. Even emperor Akbar had made donations to the maintenance of the temple in the 16th century. The idol in the Sanctum Santorum of the temple was that of the Sun God majestically riding a chariot drawn by seven horses. The stone used for building the temple is not as dense as the granite temples we find in South India, the existing sculptures on the temple ruins, though porous and caked give us a glimpse of this once majestic beauty.

Even today people in Kashmir sing songs and chant slokas praising the deity of the Martand temple.

Sun Temple at Modhera, Gujarat

Temple tank of Sun temple at Modhera
Temple tank of Sun temple at Modhera

Situated on the bank of the river Pushpavati, this temple was built between 1020 and 1025CE by Bhimadev Solnki I of the Chalukya dynasty. The temple structure beautifies as it ages and is an architectural masterpiece. The unique design of the temple and its tank draws the attention of tourists all over the world. The steps leading to the temple tank and the various sub-shrines surrounding the tank are a visual delight.

Although the temple was raided by the infamous Muhammad Ghazni, who looted and plundered Indian temples and treasures in the 11th century, the temple stood through the attacks with a little damage to its structure.

Sun Temple at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

The temple complex at Khajuraho
The temple complex at Khajuraho

The world-famous Sun Temple in the Khajuraho temple complex, Madhya Pradesh was built around 1025 CE by the kings of the Chandela Dynasty. The striking feature of this temple is that it is not just a single temple. It is a temple complex with four individual temples built on the same platform, each for a different deity.

The first one is the ‘Lakshmana’ temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the second is the ‘Kandariya Mahadeva’ temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the third is the ‘Mata Jagadamba’ temple, and the fourth is for the Sun God, also known as the ‘Chitragupta’ temple.

The Sun God here is set on a chariot drawn by seven horses. According to Hindu mythology, it is believed that the Sun God rides on a chariot drawn by seven horses, seven is for the representation of seven days in a week.

Varaha Mandapa

The Varaha statue in Khajuraho
The Varaha statue in Khajuraho

A gigantic statue of a ‘Varaha’ or a wild boar adds beauty to this temple complex. Varaha is one of the ‘Dasavatars’ (10 avatars) of Lord Vishnu. This colossal Varaha placed in a separate mandapa is embellished with various Hindu deities.

Sun Temple at Konark, Orissa

Chariot shaped Sun temple with 24 wheels and drawn by horses
Chariot shaped Sun temple with 24 wheels and drawn by horses

Some of you might be familiar with the Sun temple in Konark, Orissa. ‘Ark’ means a ray of light, and ‘Arkkan’ is another name for the sun. This beautiful temple with its intricately carved sculptures is a structural work of genius and a precious jewel of India. It was built in 1220 CE by Narasimha Devan I of the ‘Ganga’ dynasty. The temple is built in the form of a chariot with 24 wheels drawn by horses.

The vimana of the temple is 223 feet tall, which is 7 feet taller than the vimana of the Tanjore Big Temple (216 feet). A part of the vimana had crumbled due to time, however the remaining vimana is as resplendent as ever. In front of the vimana, there are two grand mandapas bedecked with intricate sculptures of ‘apsaras’ (angel-like women) and musicians playing various instruments. There existed a gigantic statue of the Sun God in the temple which can now be seen in the National Museum in New Delhi.

Since the temple is located on the eastern coast of India, traders and sailors often looked at this temple as a landmark and were awed by its beauty. The temple itself is built in such a way that the sun rays fall inside the temple directly giving it a golden glow especially during the sunrise.

Sun Temple at Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu

Suriyanar Temple, Kumabakonam
Sun Temple at Kumbakonam

Having covered the main sun temples of India in Kashmir (north), Gujarat (west), Madhya Pradesh (centre), and Orissa (east) let us visit the Sun temple of the south in my State, Tamil Nadu. The ‘Suriyanar’ temple (‘Suriya’ meaning the sun) is situated in the district of Kumbakonam. The temple is not very big when compared to the above-mentioned sun temples of India, yet, it is one of the ‘Navagraha’ temples and is very popular.

One could find the Sun God along with his two wives ‘Usha’ and ‘Pratyusha’ in the Sanctum Sanctorum. His wives are also known as ‘Chayya’ and ‘Chamya’. This Sun God is similar to the deities found in the Dravidian temples. Available Historical records suggest that Chola king Kulottunga I had made several donations and arranged Utsavas for the temple in the 11th century CE, however, the actual builder of the temple remains unknown.

Apart from these Sun Temples, there are other temples with shrines for Sun God inside the temple complex across India. There are also temple tanks known as ‘Suriya Kunt’ in temples, where people take sacred baths. It is believed that one would be relieved of all health ailments after bathing in these ‘Kunts’

Image of Sun God

The Sun God idols found in North India are an adaptation of the ancient God ‘Mitra’ worshipped in Central Asia and parts of Europe. Hence the Sun God idol we see in the North wear knee-length leather boots and armour similar to the Eurasian Gods.

Before the dawn of Christ and Christianity, kingdoms around the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea worshipped ‘Mitra’. Even some of the ancient coins excavated in Baluchistan and Afghanistan have images of ‘Mitra’ and ‘Varuna’.

The story of Sun God worship and that of Nature worship signifies the respect humans had for nature and natural resources. Religion was more of a later development. We need not worship nature, but can definitely restrain ourselves from depleting our natural resources for a better tomorrow.

This article is an adaptation of the Tamil article written by eminent Historian, Padma Bhushan, Dr. R. Nagaswamy, which was published in Dinamalar Tamil Daily on July 15, 2021.

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