The Sun Temple of Modhera, a sandstone temple dating back to the 11th century, located on the Tropic of Cancer, is a spectacle of architecture in Gujarat, India.
Replete with sculptures of Hindu deities and squirrels scurrying across the temple complex, Modhera’s Sun Temple is situated in a tranquil setting in the Mehsana district of the western Indian state of Gujarat and dates back to the 11th century when Modhera was under the Solanki kings. Primarily made in honour of the Hindu sun god, Surya, the temple provides an insight to major unifying concepts of what we today understand as Hinduism. For lovers of architecture and aesthetics, this temple offers a display of sculptures, pillars and shrines that are bound to inspire awe.
The Tropic of Cancer passes through this temple, which the locals believe only adds to the wonder and mystery of the temple that houses a stepwell which was once used as a large bath, a kitchen, a sabhamandap or resting and gathering place as well as a stage for dance and cultural performances. To this day, locals, pilgrims and travellers explore and study the symbolism inherent in the numerous intricate sculptures of gods, goddesses, mere humans as well as depictions of scenes from the mythological texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Located at around 100 km from Ahmedabad, the former capital of the state, the Modhera Sun Temple can be a great option for a relaxed day trip from the city. The temple remains relatively unexplored, and one can expect to have a rather calm experience in the temple compounds where parrots, egrets and squirrels give company to those resting on the fields nearby or in parts of the stepwell.
The legend of the temple holds that the principal deity of the temple once had a big piece of diamond that reflected the sun inside the complex. The local guide informs that the principle temple itself is subject to direct sunlight passing through the inside on two days of the year, on vernal and autumnal equinox. Adding to the mystique, the Sun Temple, which is the second to be built in India after the Konark Temple in Odisha, supposedly has deposits of gold and silver under the principle shrine.
The most visible aspect of the temple and the complex around it is the breath-taking architecture displayed through the numerous sculptures adorned on the sandstone walls of the temple. 108 mini-temples, with shrines dedicated to gods in different forms such as the trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva together, the sleeping Vishnu in one and Ganesha in another, are found within and around the stepwell, which is popularly known as the suryakund. A fascinating goddess, Shitala Mata, lovingly called the goddess of chicken pox, also has a shrine dedicated to her here. Earlier, when the temple was in use, it is said that this doubled as a bath where devotees would cleanse themselves before entering the temple.
The temple itself has a wide range of sculptures, some tracing the life of a woman, some depicting scenes from the kama sutra and, most notably, sculptures of the divine deities as they appear in the important scripts like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Parts of the sculptures destroyed by successive rulers make for an unfortunate story, such as a three-faced Brahma. However, most of the temple is in good condition and the concept of vastu shastra (principles of architectural designs derived from astrological and numerological doctrines) can be seen on display.
One of the best ways to identify the characters and gods is to look out for the accompanying animals and items along with the figure. The sun god, displayed in all his glory, is seen accompanied by seven horses and a lotus flower alongside. The location of the pavan dev or god of the air, in this temple, signals the direction from where the Himalayan winds blow. Vishwakarma, known as the god of architecture and craftsmanship, can be found with a scale in his hand. A significant Hindu goddess, Saraswati, who is the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, can be found atop the temple’s entrance. As legend would have it, knowledge was recognised as the most important virtue even by those who designed this temple back in the 11th century.
The heritage lives on
Although the temple hasn’t been in use for a significant amount of time now, as there is no idol placed on the main altar anymore, the complex itself celebrates heritage and culture by lending its performance stage to cultural and dance programmes. Restoration work, undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, has led to maintenance and preservation of this magnificent temple.
The Modhera Sun Temple is a must visit for those in Gujarat who are seeking tranquillity and an escape into the majestic architecture of an era gone by.