The Konark Sun Temple is not only a wondrous UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's undoubtedly the grandest and best-known sun temple in India, and also one of the country's most popular monuments. Nearly 2.5 million people visit it per year. This is the highest footfall of any non-Mughal monument. 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.
The Sun Temple was constructed towards the end of Odisha's temple-building phase in the 13th century by King Narasimha Deva I of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty (whose great grandfather renovated the Jagannath Temple in Puri). Dedicated to Surya the Sun God, it was made as his colossal cosmic chariot with 12 pairs of wheels pulled by seven horses (sadly, only one of the horses remains).
The temple is believed to celebrate glory of the Ganga Dynasty and the king's triumph over Muslim rulers of Bengal. Its many sculptures depicting war scenes and the king's activities support this.
However, it remained a mystery as to how the temple was built until the 1960s, when an old palm leaf manuscript was discovered. Its full set of 73 leaves comprehensively chronicled the temple's planning and 12 years of construction (from 1246 to 1258). The information is documented in a book, published in 1972, called New Light on Sun Temple of Konarka by Alice Boner, S. R. Sarma and R. P. Das.
Unfortunately, the Sun Temple's grandeur didn't last. It fell into ruin and the massive rekha deula tower that covered the shrine's inner sanctum eventually collapsed. Although the exact time and cause of the destruction remains unknown, there are plenty of theories about it such as invasion and natural disaster.
The temple was last documented as being intact in the 16th century by Abul Fazal in his account of Emperor Akbar's administration, Ain-i-Akbari. 200 years later, during the reign of the Marathas in Odisha in the 18th century, a Maratha holy man found the temple abandoned and covered in overgrowth. The Marathas relocated the temple's Aruna stambha (pillar with Aruna the charioteer seated atop it) to the Lion's Gate entrance of the Jagannath Temple in Puri.
British archeologists became interested in the temple in the 19th century, and they excavated and restored sections of it in the 20th century. The Archeological Survey of India continued the works after it took over responsibility for the temple in 1932. The temple was subsequently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Another round of extensive restoration works commenced in 2012 and are ongoing.
Konark is part of the Bhubaneshwar-Konark-Puri triangle. It's located on the coast of Odisha, about 50 minutes east of Puri and 1.5 hours southeast of capital city Bhubaneshwar.
Regular shuttle buses run between Puri and Konark along picturesque Marine Drive. 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, and stops at Chandrabhaga and Ramchandi beaches on the way. A slightly cheaper option is an auto rickshaw for about 800 rupees round trip.
Odisha Tourism also conducts inexpensive bus tours that include Konark.
How to Visit Konark Sun Temple
The temple is open daily from sunrise until sunset. It's worth getting up early to see the first rays of dawn evocatively illuminate its main entrance and to avoid the crowds.
Tickets cost 40 rupees for Indians and 600 rupees for foreigners. There's no charge for children under 15 years of age. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket counter at the entrance to the monument or online here (select Bhubaneshwar as the city).
The cooler dry months, from November until February, are the best time to go. 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 there's anywhere you should hire a guide in India, it's at the Sun Temple. The temple is steeped in mysterious myths, which a guide will help unravel. Government-licensed guides cost 250 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.
Before visiting the temple, it's worth stopping by the new state-of-the-art Konark Interpretation Center, which opened in early 2018. It provides a great deal of information about the temple and Odisha, plus clean public toilets (the ones at the temple complex are avoidable) and a cafeteria. There's an entry fee of 30 rupees.
What to See
The Sun Temple complex consist of two main parts -- a dance pavilion (natya mandapa), and assembly hall (jagamohana) with pidha deula roof on the same platform as the remains of the shrine's rekha deula tower. There's also a separate dining hall (bhoga mandapa) to the left side of the complex and two smaller temples to the rear.
The main entrance leads to the dance pavilion, guarded by two imposing stone lions crushing war elephants. The roof of the pavilion no longer remains. However, its 16 intricately carved pillars showing dance poses are a highlight.
The audience hall 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.
The audience hall and shrine form the chariot, with the wheels and horses carved on either side of its platform. The wheels are all the same size but each has different motifs on it. The rims are adorned with nature scenes, while the medallions in the spokes have women in mostly erotic poses. Notably, the wheels function as sundials that can accurately calculate the time.
A collection of sculptures from the temple is displayed at the Konark Sun Temple Museum, operated by the Archaeological Survey of India. It's situated to the north of the temple complex and is closed on Fridays. The entry fee is 10 rupees.
The sprawling, world-class Konark Interpretation Center also has five galleries with interactive exhibits and multimedia displays. The galleries are devoted to the history, culture and architecture of Odisha, as well as sun temples across the world. An interesting film about the Konark Sun Temple is screened in the auditorium.
Every evening at the front of the temple complex, except when it's raining, a sound and light show narrates the historical and religious significance of the Sun Temple. The first show starts at 6.30 p.m. from November to February, and 7.30 p.m. from March to October. The show is screened again at 7.30 p.m. from November to February, and 8.20 p.m. from March to October. It runs for 40 minutes and costs 50 rupees per person.
You'll be provided with wireless headphones and can choose whether you 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. The Odia version features Odia actor Bijay Mohanty. High-definition projectors, with state-of-the-art 3D projection mapping technology, are used to project images onto the monument.
If you're interested in classical Odissi dance, don't miss the Konark Festival, which is held at the temple 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 in Konark in late February.
Legends and Eroticism
The Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh are well known for their erotic sculptures, but 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.
Where to Stay
If you're not staying in Puri, there are a couple of decent options in the area. The best one is Lotus Eco Resort on Ramchandi Beach, about 10 minutes away from Konark. An auto rickshaw will take you from the resort to the temple for about 250 rupees. If you'd prefer eco-friendly glamping, check out the cheaper Nature Camp Konark Retreat.
What to Do Nearby
The picturesque road from Puri to Konark crosses Balukhand Konark Wildlife Sanctuary, and passes by Ramchandi and Chandrabhaga beaches. Ramchandi, where the Kusabhadra River enters the Bay of Bengal, is the more serene of the two. Water sports are available there, and you can also visit the temple of the local deity. Those who are interested in surfing can get in touch with Surfing Yogis for lessons. Closer to Konark, Chandrabhaga is an auspicious Hindu pilgrimage site, where Lord Krishna’s son Shambo is said to have prayed to the Sun God and been cured of leprosy.
Do spend a couple of days in Puri, where you can visit the Jagannath Temple and Raghurajpur handicraft village. Grass Routes offers this fascinating and insightful Puri Old City walking tour, which is highly recommended for learning more about the temple and city's heritage.
A side trip an hour northeast to Astaranga beach (meaning "colorful sunset") is worthwhile as well. Locals are involved in fishing and salt collection there. The shrine of revered Muslim saint Pir Jahania is another attraction the area.