During our second visit to India, Ansley and I sought to stray off the beaten path and dig deeper into the roots of Hindu architecture. We flew eastwards to the state of Orissa, home to the crown and pride of all Hindu temples, the largest and most sophisticatedly carved shrine in the Hindu world: the Temple of Surya in Konark
Horses in the Temple of Surya in Konark
Hindus chose this eastern extreme of their land to erect a shrine for Surya, the sun god, because he daily arose in the east. Surya performed his solar sojourn riding a chariot, much like the Egyptian Ra or the Greek Helios. The temple itself was therefore fashioned in the form of a chariot, hauled on twelve colossal wheels by seven mighty horses.
Overwhelmed by this grand edifice, you lost the personal charm so characteristic of Hindu shrines. After all, Hinduism, unlike Christianity or Islam, encourages personal worship. Temples were therefore designed to accommodate few pilgrims at a time, leading the visitor to meet his Lord in private intimacy.
Chariot Wheel in the Temple of Surya in Konark
But not the grand temple of Surya. Swarming with tourists that day, you sensed it must have been likewise crowded in its heyday, with pilgrims, workers and priests all bustling about at the expense of that sacred intimacy. Reflection and meditation disappeared, overcrowded by a mob of visitors and annihilated by the grandness of carved stone.
We found our intimacy elsewhere and by chance, when we set out to visit the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves nearby. These were no match to the grandiose sun temple and were proportionately less popular to tourism. A humble cluster of caves hewn into a ‘U’ shaped mountain-cliff greeted us. Inhabitants settled here fifteen centuries before the construction of Konark, carving their dwellings and shrines on a humble scale to suit their ancient needs.
Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves, Orissa
“Udaygiri” means sunrise hill. Without the pomp of Surya’s chariot, these ancient cave dwellers likewise aligned themselves with the rising sun. They paid homage to their god more silently and simply, carving a few reliefs here and there on his behalf, with neither colossal wheels nor horses, neither giant staircases nor pagodas. The contrast was profound. It proved how worship, that stems from similar roots, may grow to bear very different fruit.
Which site was more genuinely spiritual? It’s challenging to assess spirituality even in the present, let alone in the past. Both sites were indeed spectacular, Konark for its grandeur, Udayagiri for its discreetness. Naturally, I have my own suspicions, which I openly hint to in this post. Bigger is not always better; sophisticated is not always smarter; more ornate is not always more beautiful. The ugly duckling may well turn out to be the most beautiful swan.
Take a look at our galleries of Konark and of the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves, and decide for yourself.