Chariot of the gods: Inside the plan to revive the iconic Sun Temple
Built during the reign of king Narasimha Dev I of the Ganga dynasty, the 13th century world heritage site was designed as a colossal chariot with seven horses and 24 wheels carrying Surya, the Sun God.
The most vibrant example of Kalinga style of art and architecture, the Sun Temple of Konark was once described in 1939 by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as a place “where the language of man is defeated by the language of stone”. Three hundred years earlier, Abu’l Fazl, the chronicler at Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, wrote in Ain-i-Akbari, “Even those whose judgement is critical and who are difficult to please stand astonished at its site.”
Built during the reign of king Narasimha Dev I of the Ganga dynasty, the 13th century world heritage site was designed as a colossal chariot with seven horses and 24 wheels carrying Surya, the Sun God. But the Sun Temple is no longer a living temple where there is prayer, and its sanctum sanctorum has been reduced to rubble. What remains is the outward structure of the Jagamohan — a square building in the Panch-rathi style, essentially an assembly hall typical to Kalinga architecture, built on a three metre-tall stone platform.
Experts say there is little historical telling of when and how the Konark temple was damaged — some argue that it may have been an earthquake; others say that it may be the effect of saline wind beating down on its porous khandolite (a foliated metamorphic rock), or locals cannibalising the structures of the temple.
Archaeologists say that the temple was likely used for prayers only for a short interim in the 16th century. Yet even today, believers from both within and outside Odisha celebrate a Ratha Saptami festival at the location.
Francois Martin, an officer of the French East-India Company, who was in India between 1673 and 1706, mentions the temple as the “Black Pagoda” in his memoirs. However, Rajendra Lala Mitra, among India’s first cultural researchers who visited the temple in 1868, wrote that the “temple proper is also now totally dismantled, and forming an enormous mass of stones, studded with a few ‘peepul’ trees here and there, and harbouring snakes, from the dread of which few care to approach it”.
Now, in 2022, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is attempting to restore the Konark temple to a semblance of its original, grandiose state. And the first step is to remove mounds and mounds of sand poured into the temple over a century ago to prevent it from collapsing entirely.
Why was it filled with sand?
The temple may have been lost had James Fergusson, a Scottish historian, not visited Konark in 1837. Struck by the state of the temple, he prepared a drawing of the structure that brought its state to public notice. Conservation activities picked up pace from 1900, when the lieutenant governor of Bengal, Sir John Woodburn, on the advice of engineer Bishan Swarup, ordered that the Jagamohan, the only standing edifice, be filled with sand to keep it from collapsing. It took three years to fill the Jagmohan, a 39 metre-tall structure, with sand, after sealing the four entrance gates.
Officials from ASI said that sand was poured from the top and one side. After the gates were sealed off, some of the sand and stone was cleared around the edifice to reveal the silhouette of chariot wheels and horses. The sculptures on its outer walls were revealed through excavations.
Though sand may have prevented the collapse of the monument, archaeologists and experts who studied the structure for decades found that it may have ended up putting extra pressure on its walls.
“While in 1900 filling the interiors of the Jagamohan with sand may have saved it, the sand started settling down over last few decades. Now the top seven metres of the structure is empty, showing what happened. The sand is also putting lateral pressure on the four walls, so the purpose for which it was poured is getting defeated. Besides, the beams and some stone blocks of the structure are now in a suspended state, and if an earthquake of 6 or 6.5 magnitude on the Richter Scale occurs, it may damage the structure. The best way to prolong the temple’s life was to remove the sand, treat the interiors, and reinforce them with a steel structure. The Sun temple at Konark is perhaps the only monument in the world where sand was filled to stabilise it,” said NC Pal, a renowned civil engineer and member of the temple’s technical advisory committee.
That the sand was settling and leaving space at the top of the structure was first reported by the Central Building Research Institute of Roorkee, which did an architectural endoscopy in 2015 and 2019. Experts from the institution drilled a small hole on the west of the 13th century temple and examined the condition of the sand-filled interiors through a camera. “The photographs showed that there were big stones on the floor of the Jagamohan apart from the sand,” said an official.
“CBRI then came up with two suggestions — either fill up the empty part with sand or completely remove it. We then consulted several other experts, including those from IIT Chennai as well as archaeologists, civil engineers, and others. Consultations revealed that the best course of action was that sand has to be removed to prolong the life of the monument,” said Arun Malik, the superintending archaeologist at ASI’s Odisha circle.
The political green light for the project came in February 2020 when Union culture minister Parhlad Patel announced at a national seminar in Konark that the sand would be removed from the interiors of the Jagamohan. The process finally began this September, with ASI even conducting a “bhoomi pujan” at the temple.
The rescue op
Though officials in charge of the process initially estimated that the process of removing sand would take about three years, conservationists and experts who are now conducting the operation say it is difficult to commit to a time frame, given how delicately they must move.
“On the western side of the structure, we will drill a window 5-7 feet below the point where the sand from the top has settled. There will be a tunnel at a height of 14 metres from the ground. This will allow workers’ entry into the temple. We will not remove all the sand in one go; just enough so they can get in. An internal concrete platform supported by props will be made, which will help us make a stainless steel support for the top of the Jagamohan,” said Malik.
Officials say that the current plan is to not shut the world heritage site for visitors, and ASI and experts working on the project will erect a motorised trolley that ensures that the sand and debris from inside the sanctorum is removed with minimal spillage.
Though the Jagamohan is the only structure that still stands, the Konark temple is a beehive of activity the year round, with visitors flocking to see the 12 pairs of ornamented wheels sculpted on the base of the structure from the outside. There is also an archaeological museum near the premises that has 270 antiques, retrieved during conservation efforts.
Conservationists say that as sand is gradually removed, the platform for workers will gradually be lowered till they reach the bottom.
“We can’t say for how long this entire process of removing the sand, and opening the four walls will take. Once this happens, people will be able to enter the structure and pass through it. It all depends on the structural safety and the studies that we will be conducting as we go along. We will put up a structural health monitoring system in the monument to check the vibrations and tilt,” said Malik.
Experts said that many precautions have to be taken and detailed calculations have to take place before drilling starts.
“The technical advisory committee is yet to finalise the details of how exactly we will complete the process. Since the stone strength of Konark temple is variable at different sections of the monument, the exercise needs to be carried out with extreme care. But whatever we do will also be guided by a manual written by Sir Bernard Melchior Feilden, a British conservation architect who prepared a framework of how to restore the Sun temple. We will also take the aid of reports prepared by Italian expert Professor Ing Giorgio Croci, who did a structural analysis of the Jagamohan in 1997, which found that the roof was built without being centered,” said Pal.Feilden and Croci have both since passed away.
The Konark temple may have survived for several centuries, but experts now hope that this renewed attempt at conservation will restore the iconic monument to its original pomp that Abu’l Fazl once marvelled at.