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Modhera – Worshipping The Sun

The Sun temple at Konark, the Suraj Kund in Delhi and the temple at Modhera are all part of a glorious tradition- the cult of sun worship. The sun temple of Modhera, built by the Solankis, is testimony to the architectural virtuosity and devotional fervour of the times.

It’s a temple without an idol or a priest” remarked our host as we sped past the dusty, yet picturesque, countryside of Gujarat towards Modhera. In fact, right form the time one boarded the bus, our destination seemed obvious to our fellow-passengers eliciting varied responses. While one, a school teacher, went into ecstasies describing its beauty “It’s a poem in stone” he said with great profundity; another, an elderly village-lady, wondered why at all were we going that far, since the deity the temple once housed is no longer there! But the warmth and welcome that visitors to a new place need was all there, and even as we got off at Mehsama, we were cordially directed towards the spot from where regular bus-connections to Modhera were available.

A half-hour ride, a short walk through the quiet, sleepy, unassuming town of Modhera takes you towards the imposing Sun Temple that stands in the middle of a large compound. The immediate reaction is that of awe and surprise as the silent ruins beckon- opening up a spectacular world of majesty and grandeur.

Although, we are informed, the cult of sun-worship now no longer really exists, it was once, especially in the olden days, part of a glorious tradition. Kings in their acts of obeisance, erected magnificent structures like the behemoth Sun Temple at Konark in Orissa, the Suraj Kund in Delhi and of course this one here at Modhera.

Built by the Solankis – Raja Bhimdev I in 1026 AD – who were believed to be Suryavanshis, the structural plan of the temple is such that propitiates the Sun-God- Surya. And despite the passage of time, the Sun Temple till date continues to reveal the architectural genius, the sculptor’s virtuosity and of course the devotional fervour of the times.

From a distance itself it is obvious that the entire temple structure at Modhera has been divided into three main compartments. The first that all visitors encounter is the Surya Kund – a fascinating massive rectangular stepped tank. Although, because of the restoration work that is being carried out here by the Archaeological Survey of India, the kund now stands dry, but in the days of yore it was believed to be full of nirmal jal (holy water). Devotees on their way to offer prayers to the Sun-God would be required to first stop here for ceremonial ablutions, bathe and cleanse themselves and only then proceed for worship towards the temple. Small, miniature shrines dot the steps around the kund. There are 108 of them to coincide with the number considered auspicious by the Hindus. Besides these, are four larger shrines dedicated to the gods Vishnu, Ganesha, Natraja Shiva and Sitala Mata, the last-mentioned being the goddess of the dreaded disease, small-pox. And upon letting the imagination wander, one can almost imagine the intense religious activity that once would have been the hallmark of the place – air thick with a soothing incense smell, flowers floating on the water-surface, devotees chanting aloud and offering prayers hoping to be blessed by the Surya Bhagwan, all against the backdrop of the benign twin structures.

Several small steps form the kund lead up to the enchanting Sabha Mandap rightly described as “a magnificent style of pillared splendour” by an awestruck visitor. This is the place, the guide tells us, that was meant for religious gatherings and conferences. Open on all sides with four doorways, the piece de resistance is its unique walnut-shaped ceiling supported by 52 spectacular pillars. Each of these is intricately carved with every inch of available space recounting scenes form Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Krishna Leela. One cannot but be charmed by the artistry and skill of the artisans of the time and of course the Solankis to have recognized it and given them due patronage and further encouragement to produce such structures.

As the architectural plan of the temple follows the tradition of the time- to have twin- compartments- there’s still more to follow. So, while the Sabha Mandap was meant for religious congregations, the main temple or the Guda Mandap was built to house the sanctum sanctorum.

Based on a lotus-base plinth, the façade of this structure is also stunning and warrants close attention. Friezes of gods and goddesses cover the walls, besides which one can also see various aspects of human life- the cycle of birth and death and some erotic scenes from the Kama Sutra.

Once inside, the guide points to the niche that once housed the magnificent idol of the Sun God. The Guda Mandap has been so designed that on solar equinoxes i.e. on 21st March and 23rd September, the first rays of the rising sun fall directly on and light up the niche where the Surya Bhagwan once sat.

The Guda Mandap contains yet another ‘incredible’ – a surang (tunnel), the other end of which is believed to emerge at Patan, the headquarter of the Solankis. In case of attacks, and they were rather frequent in those times, these tunnels provided the quiet, ideal escape routes for the kings and members of the royal family to flee to safety.

Time, to some extent, may have taken its toll, but the Sun Temple at Modhera, braving plunderous attacks by Mahmood Ghazni and even an earthquake that wrought quite some damage, continues to stun and charm visitors with its unmistakable grandeur and craftsmanship. And although it may now no longer house the idol of the Sun-God, the Temple of Modhera continues to provide its visitors a ‘religious’ experience of a different kind.

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