Konark Sun Temple in Odisha: Essential Visitor's Guide

India's Grandest and Best-Known Sun Temple

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••• Konark Sun Temple. Partha Pal/Getty Images

The Konark Sun Temple is a wondrous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Constructed towards the end of Odisha's temple building phase, it's undoubtedly the grandest and best known sun temple in India.  The temple's design follows the popular Kalinga school of temple architecture. However, unlike other temples in Odisha, it has a distinctive chariot shape. Its stone walls are engraved with thousands of images of deities, people, birds, animals, and mythological creatures.

Location

Konark, approximately 35 kilometers from Puri in Odisha. Puri is located around an hour and a half from the capital city, Bhubaneshar. Konark is popularly visited as part of the Bhubaneshwar-Konark-Puri triangle.

How to Get There

Regular shuttle buses run between Puri and Konark. Travel time is about one hour and the cost is 30 rupees. Otherwise, you can take a taxi. It will cost about 1,500 rupees. The rate includes up to five hours waiting time. A slightly cheaper option is to take an auto rickshaw for about 800 rupees round trip.

Odisha Tourism also conducts inexpensive bus tours that include Konark.

Staying Nearby

There are a couple of decent options for accommodations in the area. The best one is picturesque Lotus Eco Resort on Ramchandi Beach, around 10 minutes away from Konark. From there, an auto rickshaw will take you to the temple for 200 rupees. If you'd prefer eco-friendly glamping, check out Nature Camp Konark Retreat,

When to Visit

The cooler dry months, from November until February, are best. Odisha gets extremely hot during the summer months, from March until June. The monsoon season follows, and it's also humid and uncomfortable then.

If you're interested in classical Odissi dance, don't miss the Konark Festival, which is held at the Sun Temple's open-air nata mandir auditorium during the first week of December each year.

The International Sand Art Festival takes place at Chandrabhaga Beach, near the temple, at the same time as this festival. There's another classical music and dance festival at Natya Mandap in Konark in late February. The India Surf Festival takes place nearby too, although its schedule has become irregular in recent years.

Entry Fees and Open Hours

Tickets cost 30 rupees for Indians and 500 rupees for foreigners. Children under 15 years of age are free. The temple is open from sunrise until sunset. It's worth getting up early to see the first rays of dawn evocatively illuminate its main entrance.

New Sound and Light Show

A sound and light show, which narrates the historical and religious significance of the Sun Temple, was inaugurated on September 9, 2017. It's held at 7 p.m. every day, except for when it's raining, at the front of the temple and dance pavilion. The show lasts for 35 minutes and costs 50 rupees per person.

For the first time in India, visitors are provided with wireless headphones and can choose whether they want to hear the narration in English, Hindi, or Odia. The voice of Bollywood actor Kabir Bedi is used in the English version, while actor Shekhar Suman talks in Hindi, and the Odia version features Odia actor Bijay Mohanty.

The sound and light show uses eight high-definition projectors with state-of-the-art 3D projection mapping technology. This enables to images be projected onto the monument.

History and Architecture

It's believed that the Sun Temple was built in the 13th century by King Narasimhadeva I of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. Dedicated to Surya the Sun God, it was constructed as his colossal cosmic chariot with 12 pairs of wheels pulled by seven horses (sadly, only one of the horses remains). Notably, the temple's wheels are sundials that can calculate the time accurately to a minute.

The temple previously also featured a towering pillar with Aruna, the charioteer, seated atop it. However, the pillar now stands at the main entrance to the Jagannath Temple in Puri. It was relocated there in the 18th century after the temple was abandoned, in order to save it from invaders.

A further collection of the temple's sculptures is housed in the Konark Sun Temple Museum, run by the Archaeological Survey of India. It's situated to the north of the temple complex.

The Sun Temple has four distinct parts -- a dance pavilion (nata mandir) with 16 intricately carved pillars showing dance poses, a dining hall (bhoga mandapa), a pyramid shaped audience hall (jagamohana), and a shine (vimana).

The main entrance, which leads to the dance hall, is guarded by two imposing stone lions crushing war elephants. Unfortunately, the temple's shrine was in ruins by the early 17th century although the exact time and cause remains unknown (there are plenty of theories about it, such as invasion and natural disaster). The audience hall in front of the shrine is the most well preserved structure, and it dominates the temple complex. Its entrance has been sealed and the interior filled with sand to prevent it from collapsing.

To the rear left of the temple complex are two other structures -- the Mayadevi temple (believed to have been a wife of Lord Surya) and the smaller Vaishnava Temple.

Legends and Eroticism

If there's anywhere that you should hire a guide in India, it's at the Sun Temple. The temple is steeped in mysterious myths, which are worth unraveling. Government licensed guides cost 100 rupees per hour, and you'll find a list of them near the ticket booth at the temple entrance. The guides will approach you there, as well as inside the temple complex.

The Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh are well known for their erotic sculptures. Yet, the Sun Temple has an abundance of them too (much to the overt interest of some visitors).   If you do want to see them in detail, it's best you carry binoculars as many are found high up on the walls of the audience hall and are weathered. Some of them are blatantly obscene, including depictions of sexual diseases.

But why all the rampant eroticism?

The most favored explanation is that the erotic art symbolizes the merging of the human soul with the divine, achieved through sexual ecstasy and bliss. It also highlights the illusory and temporarily world of pleasure. Other explanations include that the erotic figures were meant to test the self-restraint of visitors before god, or that the figures were inspired by Tantric rituals.

An alternative explanation is that the temple was constructed following the rise of Buddhism in Odisha, when people were becoming monks and practicing abstinence, and the Hindu population was declining.  The erotic sculptures were used by rulers to rejuvenate interest in sex and procreation.

What is obvious is that the sculptures reflect people who took delight in the pursuit of all kinds of pleasure.

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