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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Sunday, 17 April 2011

April 17th: Konarak in Eastern India

Konarak:  My picture
On April 17th 1982 I was in Konarak in Eastern India.  I was making a short tour of temple towns in Orissa and had planned to see Konarak in a couple of hours and then take the bus onwards.  But a visit to the ruined, thirteenth century temple to Surya, the sun god, made me realise that I needed more than a quick look.  Two things were especially striking at first sight: firstly the huge size and that is without the missing  gigantic tower, part of which was still standing in the early nineteenth century; and secondly the concept, as the whole thing is designed to be a huge chariot in stone - the wheels alone are the best part of four metres high.  Every face is covered with sculpture, some of it "erotic". 

Wanting exercise, I walked the couple of miles to the completely deserted beach and cooled off in the water and after a siesta returned to the temple.  On the second view I realised that more of the sculpture is erotic than I'd noticed in the morning: there were the huge high ones which were inaccessible, there were the upper row ones which were mainly standing, there were the little ones tucked away in every nook and cranny, such as the scenes in the wheels.

Next morning, refreshed I went again and wrote this:
Konarak:  My picture
Once again struck by the wealth of the sculpture.  It was built at a similar time to some of the great cathedrals of Europe, although it lacks their airy loftiness and precision of symmetry.  But the sculpture makes up for any shortcomings.  Almost every inch of the exterior is carved, the closer you look the finer you realise it is; in that way it doesn't throw itself at you, it is more subtle.  But what looks like bare stonework turns out to have exquisite geometric design, and what looks like geometric design at a distance turns out to be an intricate frieze.  Fully half the figures on the main building are erotic in posture and a few on the two smaller buildings.  The two ends of the main temple seem less erotic and I noticed some stones that hadn't been carved.  The harder greenish blue stone, which is used for entrances, images, altars, is more static, better preserved.  Time has worn the carvings, especially the coarse details of the smallest efforts, but even then I was taken with an expression or with the realism of the bodies, especially the larger than life higher ones, where the lovers' bodies have the texture of a Rodin, which emphasises the torrid nature of the acts portrayed.  Obviously some of the craftsmen were consummate artists.  I fell to wondering about their plan of it all.  Did they have a master plan?  Who dreamt up the positions, some of which seem unusual?  Was there a plan for them?  Taken from a sutra?  Did the sculptor practise with his wife?  Surely experience was needed, or was it inspired by a rajah's harem?  Did the sculptor have freedom to portray what he thought up himself?  Otherwise I liked some of the courtly scenes, and the intertwining of the mermaids and mermen which for practical reasons portray caressings rather than congress.
At the bus-stand I was recommended to get a "tourist bus", and jumped on just as the rumbling thunder turned to rain with giant hailstones.  The countryside I found beautiful, houses mud-walled, unpainted except for large intricate whitewash patterns.  We stopped at a spot in the Dhauli Hills, where there were Ashokan rock-edicts.  The Indian tourists were more interested in the Nichiren Shanti Stupa which did not seem as good as the one at Rajgir, with an Indian beating the drum, and an offering box inscribed "Charity for the Japanese Sangha"; I also had to avoid an Indian pujari.  

Patrimonium Mundi:  Panoramas of the temple at Konarak.

View Konarak in a larger map

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