Antiquity of Arkakshetra Konark


By Dr. Benudhar Patra - 14.2 2022

Konark, popularly known as Arkakshetra, is one of the important urban centers of ancient Orissa. It is otherwise known as Padmakshetra. It is one of the five great religious kshetras (pilgrimage centers) located in Orissa, the other four being Puri, Bhubaneswar, Mahavinayak and Jajpur.

Besides its religious importance, Konark being situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal also gave it commercial importance as well. The place, however, is very famous for the stupendous Sun Temple which has attracted thousands of visitors from different parts of the world. The temple is also known as Black Pagoda in contradistinction to the White Pagoda - the Jagannath Temple of Puri (white washed Temple), a name given to it by the early European mariners [1] for whom it formed a prominent landmark on their coastal voyage. It was included in UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1984, and is 'considered to be of outstanding value to humanity', belonging to all mankind.

Konark (lat. 190 53' N; long. 860 06' E.) is situated within 3 km of the Bay of Bengal in the Puri district of Orissa. The place is well connected by good all-weather motorable roads from Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa and Puri, the district headquarters. The road distance is 66 km from Bhubaneswar and 85 km from Puri via Pipli. It is 35 km from Puri on Marine drive. The nearest railheads are Bhubaneswar and Puri on the South Eastern Railway and the nearest airport is Bhubaneswar. Regular public and tourist bus services and taxis are available to reach the spot. Konark, Puri and Bhubaneswar traditionally formed the 'Golden Triangle' on the tourist map of Orissa. The sight of early morning sunrise at the sea beach near Konark is unparalleled.

The name Konark, like Bhubaneswar, is in most likelihood derived from the name of the presiding deity, Konark, which means the Arka (sun) of Kona (corner). The kona or corner is presumably so being in relation to trikona, in the corner direction of which the temple was erected. The determination of the antiquity of the site, however, is a baffling task. Scholars have divergent opinions in this regard. In the opinion of W.W. Hunter [2], Konark signifies Kona+Arka, the corner of the sun, or the corner of Arka Kshetra, i.e., the corner of the region of Orissa, dedicated to the Sun. From an analysis it is evident that the area in and around Konark is full of antiquities, and systematic survey is likely to result in the discovery of the remains of ancient temples and sculptures.

The antiquity of Konark as a famous kshetra (pilgrimage center) for sun worship, however, is substantiated in numerous texts such as the Brahma Purana, the Tirtha Chintamani and the Kapila Samhita. Legends as embodied in the Kapila Samhita (a work of the 14th Century A.D.), the Madala Panji (Chronicle of the Jagannath temple at Puri) and the Prachi Mahatmya (all three are the later Orissan Texts), take the sanctity of Konark back to early times. Debala Mitra [3] is of the opinion that legends of these late texts are an obvious adaptation of a much earlier tradition as recorded in the Bhavishya Purana and Samba Purana.

According to these Puranas [4], Samba, son of Sri Krishna and Jambavati, was overly proud of his handsome appearance and once ridiculed the divine sage Narada. Narada, who even ordinarily was known as a mischief maker, took recourse in an unsaintly scheme to avenge himself. By a cunning device he led Samba to the secret bathing place of his stepmothers, who were struck with his personal charm and wanted to enjoy his company. Slipping quietly, Narada led Krishna to this spot. Incensed at his son's apparent lack of propriety, Krishna cursed him to be smitten with leprosy, which would obviously affect his beauty. Panic-striken Samba pleaded his innocence, but as the curse could not be withdrawn he was advised to practise penance in the Maitreyavana (Mitravana), near the Chandrabhaga river for 12 years to propitiate Surya, the Sun God and healer of all skin diseases, to cure him of his disease.

Samba acted upon the advice. After 12 years of severe penance Samba succeeded in pleasing the Sun God and was cured of his illness. In gratitude, he decided then and there to erect a temple in honour of the God. Next morning, while Samba was taking bath in the Chandrabhaga he discovered an image of Surya standing on a lotus pedestal holding two lotuses in his both hands. He carried the image to his ashrama (hermitage in the Mitravana) and installed it in a temple built by him. According to the Bhavishya Purana [5], as the local Brahmins did not agree to worship the image, Samba brought eighteen Magha families (the sun worshippers) from Shakadvipa (Iran) who not only performed the rituals, but also popularized the cult of sun worship in this part of the country.

Scholars have tried to identify Chandrabhaga with the Chenab river in Punjab, a tributary of the Indus and thus locate the site in the Punjab (modern Multan). They even says that the shifting of the legend to Konark was done obviously at a period when the locality became a center of Sun worship, the motive behind it being no doubt, to augment the sanctity and fame of the new center by making it the site of Samba's original temple". [6] This argument of the scholars on the following grounds, however, is far from satisfactory.

Firstly, when a river originally is known as Chandrabhaga in Orissa, there is no need to identify it with the Chenab of Punjab. Secondly, the Mitravana, has been identified with the Konark area, and thirdly, sun worship appears to have been very popular as early as 6th-7th century AD in Orissa. The Brihat Samhita, a work of the 5th century A.D., mentioned that the countries of Odra, Kalinga (ancient names of Orissa) and their people are under the direct influence of the sun. Both the Prachi Mahatmya and the Kapila Samhita (chapter III) have identified Tapovana, another name of Maitreyavana, with the present site of Konark or Arka Kshetra [7]. The Kapila Samhita further refers to it as Ravi Kshetra. The Brahmanda Purana and the Oriya Mahabharata of Sarala Das have related that Samba propitiated the Sun God at Konark [8].

From a general viewpoint, if one analyses the location of Konark which is at present even in an isolated location, one can arrive at the conclusion that Samba's Maitreyavana could be no other than the modern Konark in Orissa. A. Chatterjee [9], an officer of the Dept. of Archaeology, Govt. of India who had been at Konark for several years (in the 1950's), on the basis of unearthing a small brick temple at the South-western corner of the present temple compound, is of the assumption that it is the one which possibly was built by Samba. From the above analysis it seems to be more appropriate and convincing that the place of Samba's penance could be none other than the present Konark in Orissa.

Further, although Samba is a Puranic figure on the basis of surviving architectural, iconographic and stylistic evidences of the Mahagayatri or Mayadevi temple which, according to T.Donaldson, [10] was 'originally dedicated to Surya and not to his consort', it is evident that the temple (Mayadevi) was erected prior to the Surya Deul of Narasimha I. Thomas Donaldson [11] further states that it is quite possible that the temple (late 11th or early 12th century) was converted to the worship of Devi after the construction of the Surya Deul, with its Puja-image being replaced by an image of the goddess or consort of Surya.

The Greek sailor, Ptolemy [12] (c.2nd CAD)in his Geography has referred to it as Kannagara. From his geography it appears that like Palur, being situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, Konark prospered as a great center of maritime trade and had contact with far off countries of South East Asia. Recent archaeological excavations at Kuruma, a ruined Buddhist monastery, northeast of Konark (8 km) and at Khalkatapatna, an ancient seaport 11 km south-east of Konark on the left bank of the river Kushabhadra, substantially attested to the maritime importance of Konark. [13] It is apparent that in ancient times both the rivers Chandrabhaga and Kushabhadra were quite navigable and might have served as the link channel with the sea for navigation and transport of huge blocks of stone for the construction of the Sun temple.

It is also evident that at the time of construction of the temple the sea was quite nearer, and might have receded only in the recent past owing to the tectonic movement. The depiction of a giraffe, purely an African animal in the sculptures of the Sun temple at Konark evidently proves that the area had overseas commercial link, even with far off Africa. Its depiction in the temple suggests that in those days either people of Kalinga might have gone to Africa and saw the giraffe or one giraffe may have been brought to Orissa by some merchants, enabling many to see it. On the Beki (parapet) of the Jagamohana of the Sun temple, the Martanda Bhairavas are also shown as dancing on boats. Alberuni, [14] in the 11th century A.D. refers to a place named 'Arku-tirtha' southward of Prayag towards the coast. Arkutirtha of Alberuni has been identified with Arka Kshetra or Konark, the site of the magnificent sun temple. Konark is also known as ' Bhaskara Tirtha', so Arku-tirtha of Alberuni is no doubt the Arkakshetra or Konark.

Various theories have been propounded regarding the purpose of selecting the site and erection of such a mammoth monument at Konark. There is no doubt about the fact that the place enjoyed religious sanctity from the earliest times. According to one observation it was the mother of Narasimha Deva who suggested him "for building a very large temple for Sun God at Konark, the only among the important four Kshetras that was still without a big shrine." ]15] Surya (Sun God) is believed to be the healer of diseases, especially leprosy, and the bestower of wishes from very early times; and it is not unlikely that the temple is a worthy thanks, given by the powerful ruler Narasimha Deva following either his recovery or the fulfillment of his prayer, perhaps for a healthy son. On the basis of this it can be supposed that Narasimha himself was suffering from leprosy and upon being cured of this affliction by the grace of the Sun God he built a temple in gratitude. From another angle it is said that Narasimha built the temple out of gratitude upon being blessed with a son by the boon of the Sun God. From an analysis of the first theory, i.e. Narasimha suffering from leprosy seems to be untenable while the second theory receives some support from the fact that he named his son Bhanudeva (Bhanudeva means Sun God), the first solar name in the royal line.

Speculation aside, Konark is renowned throughout the world for its imposing temple of the Sun-God, aptly extolled as the most exquisite memorial of Sun Worship in India. Narasimha Deva I, popularly known as Langula Narasimha (AD 1238-1264), the great Ganga monarch whose kingdom was extended from the Ganga in the north to the Godavari in the south and under whom Orissa witnessed the zenith of prosperity is credited to have constructed the colossal Surya Deul (Sun temple) at Konark. The temple was dedicated to the Sun God (Arka), popularly called Biranchi-Narayana. [16] Although there is no mention of it in records of Narasimha himself, a copper plate inscription (verse 86) of Narasimha II, dating to Saka year 1217 (1295 AD) records that "king Narasimha built at Kona-kona, a place of great renown, a temple for the Sun to live in with the other gods" [17] which is also repeated in the laudatory verses of succeeding Ganga rulers. King Narasimha of the verse has been taken to be Narasimha I of the Ganga dynasty, who, according to chronology ruled in Orissa from 1238 AD to 1264 AD.

In the Madala Panji [18] it is recorded that Langula Narasimha Deva laid the foundation of the temple in the third anka. It is also mentioned that he appointed Shivai Samantara Mahapatra as superintendent for building the temple. According to the Baya Chakada (a palm-leaf manuscript which described the building operation of the temple), work commenced on the temple towards the end of the fifth anka of Narasimha's reign and ended some twelve years, ten months, and fourteen days later during his eighteenth anka. [19]

The image of Surya accordingly was installed on Sunday, the seventh day of Magha Sukla Paksha (Magha Shukla Saptami), 1258 AD. On the basis of some sources, traditionally, however, it is believed that 1200 shilpins (artisans/craftsmen) completed the grand monument after 12 long years and the consecration of the temple was held on Sunday, which fall on Magha Shukla Saptami. The name of the chief architect (Sutradhara) was Bishu Maharana.

In literature and tradition, Narasimha-I is referred to as Langula Narasimha or Langulia (one having a tail). The exact significance of the epithet Langulia is not known though it has been speculated that perhaps he had a protuberance of the spinal cord, or a physical deformity of some kind, which he wanted to get removed by building a temple dedicated to the Sun God. But it is a well known fact that Narasimha was a healthy person and an energetic ruler, and was renowned for his strength and skill in all athletic exercises. It is then presumed that "the epithet became popular as the king was compared to an angry lion which usually shows a raised tail". [20]

In the Ekavali of Vidyadhara, [21] a court poet of Narasimha, the king is compared to the lion avatara ( incarnation) of Lord Vishnu. Some scholars, however, surmised that the temple was erected as a memorial by the ambitious monarch to commemorate his successful military campaigns against the Muslims. This speculation is plausible on the basis that the construction of the temple apparently began soon after Narasimha-I's military success against the Muslims and that there is a preponderance of military activities appearing in the decorative programme of the temple.

K.C. Panigrahi [22] observes, "His (Narasimha's) victory over the Muslims of Bengal and his acquisition of the southern districts of western Bengal must have enormously raised his prestige in the eyes of the contemporary Hindu rulers and augmented his resources, which in all likelihood enable him to undertake the construction of a stupendous structure like the temple of Konark, designed to exhibit his power, prestige, opulence, devotion and perhaps to commemorate his victory also". Abul Fazal [23] in corroboration to this, even states that it is a 'mighty memorial to posterity".

Further, the Gangavamshanucharita of Vasudeva Somayaji (18th Century AD) states that Narasimha, to surpass Anangabhima III who had built the Jagannath temple at Puri as well as to earn undying fame, built the sun-temple in an over-ambitious scale. [24] It may be also mentioned that Narasimha I, in order to obtain the support and loyalty of his subjects among whom Sun Worship was popular, constructed this gigantic monument at Konark which was famous for sun worship.

Prior to him, the Kesharis and his Ganga predecessor constructed the Lingaraj temple and the Jagannath temple respectively for the same purpose. From the above analysis it is gleaned that the principal motives for erecting such a colossal structure were both devotional and to acquire fame and glory (kirti rupena). The temple played a significant role in the socio-cultural life of the Orissan people through out the medieval period.

The sanctity and glory of this temple as a wonderful monument has spread far beyond the limits of Orissa. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 to 1533 AD) in course of His sojourn visited this place. In admiration of the monument, Abul Fazal [25] in his Ain-I-Akbari (Sixteenth century AD) mentions, "Near Jagannath is a temple dedicated to the Sun. Its cost was defrayed by twelve years revenue of the province. Even those whose judgment is critical and who are difficult to please stand astonished at its sight".

This wonderful monument unfortunately at present is in a state of ruin. It is said that the Kalasa, which was of copper and the Padmadhavaja (the lotus finial) have been carried away by the Muslims in course of their attack on the temple after the death of Raja Mukundadev in 1568 AD. In the 18th century the chlorite pillar, called Aruna stambha was shifted to Puri by the Marathas, who planted it in its present site in front of the Jagannath temple. About the collapse of the main tower, scholars have various speculations. Some ascribe it to the subsidence of the foundation and others to a shock of earthquake or lightening, while some others doubted if the construction of the temple was ever completed. But the theory of non-completion is quite untenable and it is sure that the temple was completed and was under worship for many years.

Vachaspati Mishra says in his Tirthachintamani (a work of 13th AD) that one should make three circumambulations round the temple of the Sun and then, with flowers in hands and speech restrained, enter into the temple and worship the sun. [26] Adikabi Sarala Das (15th CAD) in his Mahabharata has clearly mentioned that the sun was worshipped at Konark during his time. [27] Similarly, at no part of the plinth of the temple is there any sign of sinking or unequal settlement because of the weak foundation. Lightening can also hardly affect such a mammoth edifice. We have also no concrete evidence to corroborate such views. It however, appears that the structure crumbled down gradually, followed by the desecration of the temple.

Though the temple is now in a dilapidated condition, its beauty and charm attract tourists and visitors from far and wide throughout the year. It is indeed a splendoured gem of Orissan art. Its beauty cannot be described in a few words. It is to be seen, enjoyed and savoured, not once but again and again, for it is truly a thing of beauty, a joy forever.

The place is so sacred that every year on the occasion of the Magha Sukla Saptami (the seventh day of the bright half of the month of Magha in January-February), the great festival of the Sun God or the Chandrabhaga Yatra, thousands of pilgrims flock to Konark from far off places to take bath in the Chandrabhaga, view the rising sun from the beach, and worship the Navagrahas (nine planets) inside the temple complex.

The remaining structure of the sun temple and the ruins around profoundly testify till today to the boundless creativity of the Orissan artists and their impressive, invaluable contributions to the treasury of Indian art and building techniques.


Notes and References:

1. Sir Richard Carnac Temple (ed.), The Diaries (1675-1680) of Sir Streynsham Master, (Published in 1911 under Indian Record Series), I, p.56 and II, p.93; Debala Mitra, Konark, New Delhi, 1992, p.3.
2. N.K. Sahu (ed.), History of Orissa, Vol.I, Calcutta, 1956, p.283 ff; D.K. Ganguly, Historical Geography and Dynastic History of Orissa, Calcutta, 1975, p.24.
3. Debala Mitra, op.cit, p.3
4. Ibid, pp.3 & 4; N. Senapati (ed.), Orissa District Gazetteers, Puri, Cuttack, 1977, p.752; T. Donaldson, Konark, New Delhi, 2005, p.21.
5. Debala Mitra, op.cit, p.4.
6. Ibid.
7. T. Donaldson, op.cit, p.7
8. Ibid.
9. A. Chatterjee, Konarka at a Glance, Calcutta, 1990, p.9.
10. T. Donaldson, op.cit, p.9
11. Ibid.
12. R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India, Calcutta, 1981, pp.366-367,375; A.K. Pattanayak and B. Patra, 'Maritime Trade of Kalinga - A study based on the foreign Accounts' in Proceedings volume (XIX) of South Indian History Congress, 1999, p.369.
13. B. Patra, 'Khalkattapatna: An Early Medieval port of Orissa,' in: Orissa Review, February, 1999, pp. 19-21.
14. E.C. Sachau (ed.), Alberuni's India, Vol.I, New Delhi, 1993, p.200.
15. T. Donaldson, op.cit, p.19.
16. N. Senapati, op.cit, p.752.
17. Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. LXV, 1896, pp.229-271; Quoted in: K.S. Behera, Temples of Orissa, Bhubaneswar, 1993, p.72.
18. A.B. Mohanty (ed.), Madalapanji (Oriya), Bhubaneswar, 2001, p.23.
19. T. Donaldson, op.cit, p.19.
20. Ibid, p.23
21. Ibid.
22. K.C. Panigrahi, 'New Light on the History of Konark', in: Journal of Bihar Research Society, vol. XL III, parts III-IV, 1957, p.3; also in: History of Orissa (Hindu period), Cuttack, 1995, pp.413 & 414.
23. H.S. Jarrett (trans.), The Ain-I-Akbari by Abul Fazal Allami, vol. III, Delhi (first Reprint), 1989, p.141.
24. T. Donaldson, op.cit, p.23; K.S.Behera, op.cit, p.73.
25. H.S. Jarrett, op.cit, p.140
26. N. Senapati, op.cit, p.754.
27. Ibid. Dr. Benudhar Patra is a Lecturer in the Dept. of History, Govt. College (GCM), Sector-11, Chandigarh (U.T.), Pin-160011.