India // Odisha //

Konark and around

Time runs like a horse with seven reins,
Thousand-eyed, unageing, possessing much seed. Him the poets mount; His wheels are all beings.

The Artharva Veda

If you see only one temple in Odisha, it should be KONARK, 35km north of Puri and one of India’s most visited ancient monuments. Standing imperiously in its compound of lawns and casuarina trees, this majestic pile of oxidizing sandstone is considered to be the apogee of Odishan architecture and one of the finest religious buildings anywhere in the world.

The temple is all the more remarkable for having languished under a huge mound of sand since it fell into neglect around three hundred years ago. Not until the dune and heaps of collapsed masonry were cleared away from the sides, early in the twentieth century, did the full extent of its ambitious design become apparent. In 1924, the Earl of Ronaldshay described the newly revealed temple as “one of the most stupendous buildings in India which rears itself aloft, a pile of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay”. A team of seven galloping horses and 24 exquisitely carved wheels found lining the flanks of a raised platform showed that the temple had been conceived in the form of a colossal chariot for the sun god Surya, its presiding deity.

Equally sensational was the rediscovery among the ruins of some extraordinary erotic sculpture. Konark, like Khajuraho, is plastered with loving couples locked in ingenious amatory postures drawn from the Kama Sutra – a feature that may well explain the comment made by one of Akbar’s emissaries, Abul Fazl, in the sixteenth century: “Even those who are difficult to please,” he enthused, “stand astonished at its sight.”

Apart from the temple, a small museum and a fishing beach, Konark village has little going for it. Sundays and public holidays are particularly busy here: aim to stay until sunset after most of the tour groups have left, when the rich evening light works wonders on the natural colours in the khondalite sandstone.