Sto­ries in stone at Konark

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - RAKHEE GHELANI

I can feel stress melt away head­ing from the dusty town of Bhubanesh­war, cap­i­tal of the In­dian state of Odisha, to­wards the sea­side re­sort of Puri on the Bay of Ben­gal. Crowded streets give way to emer­ald fields and palm groves, and the salty scent of the ocean fills the air. Within an hour I ar­rive in Puri, con­sid­ered by many to be the re­sort des­ti­na­tion of In­dia’s lesser-trav­elled east coast. Past a stretch of white sand, the bay shim­mers in the sun; I set­tle in for a fra­grant crab curry at a shack perched on the sand and that night fall asleep to the sound of waves.

For many vis­i­tors, this is as good as it gets, but just half an hour away by road is the spec­tac­u­lar Konark Tem­ple and this is the real rea­son I’ve come to Puri. “Here the lan­guage of stone sur­passes the lan­guage of man,” wrote 1913 No­bel lau­re­ate Rabindranath Tagore. The stonework cel­e­brates the mir­a­cle of the sun, the sen­su­al­ity of the peo­ple and the ded­i­ca­tion of the pi­ous. Built for the sun god Surya, this UNESCO World Her­itage site orig­i­nally stood on the shore. An idol of Surya was care­fully po­si­tioned within its in­ner sanc­tum, de­signed to cap­ture the sun’s first rays. Nowa­days, the shore­line has moved 3km away and the statue has dis­ap­peared, but the glory of Konark re­mains.

It’s early morn­ing when I en­ter. The ca­coph­ony of street ven­dors crowd­ing the en­trance dis­si­pates and all I can fo­cus on is the breath­tak­ing sight be­fore me. Steps lead up to the Nata­man­dapa, or dance hall, where Odissi dancers would use their bod­ies to make grace­ful of­fer­ings to Surya. The main tem­ple lies past in­tri­cately carved col­umns; built in the 13th cen­tury, it re­sem­bles a char­iot driven by Surya and drawn by seven gal­lop­ing horses. It is flanked by 12 pairs of wheels that have been exquisitely carved, ap­pear­ing as if they will carry away the struc­ture once it’s wo­ken by the sun.

Around the tem­ple are hun­dreds of stat­ues de­pict­ing ac­tiv­i­ties from men hunt­ing ele­phants to mu­si­cians play­ing joy­ously. Each statue is a tale, turn­ing the base of the tem­ple into an an­thol­ogy of short sto­ries of life al­most 800 years ago. Like the fa­mous tantra tem­ples of Kha­ju­raho in Mad­hya Pradesh, Konark has erotic sculp­tures. Some are pri­vate scenes of such ado­ra­tion and un­bri­dled pas­sion that I feel I’m intruding on an in­ti­mate mo­ment be­tween lovers, while oth­ers are ac­ro­batic feats that have been cast in stone as if to prove their ca­pa­bil­ity. The emo­tion in each sculp­ture is pal­pa­ble but they’re not there to tit­il­late — they ex­ist to re­mind vis­i­tors to leave their lust be­hind. While each sculp­ture is won­der­ful, my eye is drawn to the huge wheels. Each pair has been per­fectly crafted with a cen­tral hub from which darts 16 spokes dec­o­rated with fo­liage of minute flow­ers, creep­ers and beads. Within each of the large spokes and axles is a win­dow that peers into a unique scene, all seem­ingly un­re­lated. Gal­lop­ing horse­men, seated gods and amorous cou­ples fea­ture within, await­ing their jour­ney into the next life.

Only the heat of the sun beat­ing down against my fore­head brings me out of my trance. I’ve spent sev­eral hours lost in the beauty of this mag­nif­i­cent struc­ture. While thoughts of a re­fresh­ing drink by the beach in Puri beckon, I know I’ll soon be drawn back to read more of th­ese sto­ries in stone at Konark. • whc.unesco.org • in­cred­i­blein­dia.org

Konark Tem­ple, a World Her­itage site, left; in­tri­cate stonework cel­e­brat­ing the mir­a­cle of the sun, above

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