Why you need to decode the celebrated Sun Temple of Modhera?

Amateur guide to deconstructing Hindu temples…

The common denominating factor binding ancient civilisations of Egyptians, Mayans, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Indians? Temples! But beyond the structural ingenuity and fine craftsmanship of temple architecture lies a deeper science (read common blueprint) alien to the amateur eye. Especially in Hindu temples…where astronomy, astrology, mathematics and metaphysics come together in an enigmatic formula. Know one and you will know all. Ready to break the code?

Its a baffling array of choices across the Indian sub-continent, so go easy on yourself and pick a region first. Recommendation? The west coast, specifically Gujarat…culturally and architecturally the richest, thanks to a spate of foreign invasions. Fine tuning then. Seek authentic Indian, pre-Mughal. Zoom in on the Solanki period for the most outstanding specimens of Indo-Aryan architecture. The object of affection? Sun Temple of Modhera, an 11th-century creation of Solanki King Bhimdev of the Patan empire. Sun-worshipper? But of course!

Coming to name etymology…Modhera is said to named after the Modh community of Brahmins who helped Lord Rama perform a yagna here. Or would you would rather believe the eerie theory that Modhera translates to ‘mound of the dead’ (multiple layers of civilization)? The Sun Temple of Modhera is a two hours (100km) drive from Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad. Easy-peasy. As far as sun temples go, this one is as good as it gets. Much more impressive than its celebrity counterpart at Konark…and two centuries senior too. Archetypal Solanki, right from the intricately carved stone material to all the structural elements. A time-weathered golden brown stone edifice to stun you into a wide-eyed silence, numb you into a zombie-like stupor. But senses on full alert…tons of decoding ahead!

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Design decoder: Location, location, location

First things first. It all about a sweet spot…banks of a waterbody, a hilltop, a verdant valley or a green grove, even an island…any icon of earthly paradise. Preferred direction? Always east facing or east to west. To face the rising sun. Isn’t it obvious?

So, here’s how Modhera, being a sun temple, fits the mould. For starters, the main entrance of the temple faces east. But there’s more. It sits right on the Tropic of Cancer that passes through India. Lost? Ok, this is how it pans out. On the days of equinoxes, the Tropic of Cancer receives the strongest, direct rays of the sun. Wait, it gets better. The temple is built in a away that the sunlight travels through the entrance arches at such an angle that it hits the main idol in the dark inner shrine far inside, illuminating it with the power of a thousand lightbulbs. 11th-century genius without support of modern astronomical gadgets. Modhera’s homage to the sun continues through the inverted lotus plinth design. Hint: lotus blooms only in the sun. Head nod? 

Design decoder: Concept of cosmos

Pray, worship, serve. Right. But did you know that in its purest sense, the Hindu temple is more than just an abode for the Gods? In the past, it was literally the fulcrum of intellectual, social and artistic life. Part museum, part congregation hall, part learning institution for the community…practically a centre for all-round personal growth. Impressed? That’s not all. As a symbol of the universe, the temple reflected all cosmic elements celebrated in Hinduism, including fire (lighting of oil lamps), water (sprinkled for purity) nature, deities and human life cycle (depicted through sculptures) eternal nothingness (signified by empty space in the shrine) and universality (use of repetitive patterns). 

Modhera is no exception to the rule. Get close enough and each stone, each engraving, each pillar, each ledge will start a conversation. Algorithms will emerge from each inch of the marvellous monument. Study the innumerable stone carvings of exquisite celestial beauties, rejoicing figures, rows of elephants and processions of people celebrating life in all its phases, including birth, war, and death. Discover the nuances trapped in the captivating details…12 different Sun idols for 12 months and 52 intricately carved pillars for each week of the solar year. Look out for repetitive, never-ending themes. Towers surrounded by smaller towers, surrounded by still smaller towers for eight or more levels, each part a miniature image of the whole. Observe the geometric patten leading to the massive Surya Kund (stepwell). Consider its symbolism…every part of the cosmos contains all information about the whole cosmos. Reflect on the mountain-like pyramid-shape of the temple’s Shikhar (spire)…an upward movement towards enlightenment? Cross-eyed, no more.

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Design decoder: Science of building

Whims and fancies don’t stand a chance, considering that traditional Hindu architecture is based on Vastu Shastra (literally ‘science of architecture’) developed way back between 6,000 and 3,000 BC! A human figure sitting inside a square is used as the model for proportions, much like the 15th-century Vitruvian Man of Leonardo de Vinci. The Vastu-based building employs two shapes for design…squares (for order or space) and circles (for time/movement). Further, influence of sun, magnetic fields and gravitational forces are combined to syncing vibrations of individual with built spaces and the universe. Result? Spiritual strength, peace, bliss. No secret sauce, pure science! 

Translate this into each of the three distinct parts of Modhera temple. The Surya Kund (stepwell for purification and salutation) is a perfect square. So is the ‘Garbhgriha’ (sanctum sanctorum that once housed the idol made of pure gold and diamonds. Ditto for the clockwise circumambulation path around the shrine and outer wall. On to each pillar and every portico…suits perfectly. What about the octagonal Sabha Mandap (congregation hall)? Look again, isn’t the octagon a variant of the square too?

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Design decoder: Sense of whole

When you’re exhausted from all the heavy analytics, its time to soak in the full splendour of Modhera from an ideal vantage point. Not somewhere high up, but deep into the recesses of the earth. But where? Take the zigzag descent to the bottom of the Surya Kund from any of the four identical sides. Watch the light dance over the shimmering green water. Slip through the shadows of the shrines dedicated to the pantheon of gods. Take a position opposite the pillared portico of the temple and immerse in the stillness. The grandeur is as overwhelming as it is calming. The temple is the entire universe and you have melted into non-existence. Devotees once dipped into these waters before proceeding to the shrine above. Close your eyes and give into the vision…a deep bed of gold coins, a gold and diamond deity of the Sun God, and a brilliant equinox. Suddenly a pigeon flaps past. Ah…rude return to reality!

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Astronomy, astrology, mathematics and metaphysics come together to create an enigmatic formula underlying Indian temples. Sun Temple of Modhera in Gujarat is an outstanding example.

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58 thoughts on “Why you need to decode the celebrated Sun Temple of Modhera?

  1. This temple is such a work of art and so beautiful, who would have guessed at the complex mathematics and science which informed to design! Thank you for explaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Having been to Giza, Tikal, Bangkok, and Polonnaruwa, (Chitzen Itza is coming for Christmas), I don’t agree that all temples share the same code. The Hindu and Buddhist temples had levels and levels more encoding and numerology in their designs that what I saw at Giza or Tikal. Every time I go, I learn more secrets. It’s like National Treasure on steroids. You did a great job introducing the decoder ring and, perhaps most importantly, the need to decode in the first place. The grandeur in the details of these temples should be explored and enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I meant that within (not across) every civilization, the temple had the same code. The more one explores, the more fascinating architecture gets, don’t you agree? lovely to know we have a common taste in this area.

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  3. Can I say this…. Oh my! Oh my! Oh my! What a stunning temple. Now this one has caught my eye and i want to check this out. You really do go to the amazing places in India, places i never even heard off and I cant wait to get out there. India is calling I think 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me that there was a code to break honestly! But it’s interesting to read your process going through the meaning of names, location/regions. Really cool to read how the sunlight hits the main idol in the Modhera without the need for things like electricity! Engravings and algorithms panning out conversations…did you get overwhelmed? I think I would be, it’s a lot but it’s amazing!

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  5. There’s so much meaning in everything you see here! Can you imagine how much work went into designing all of the intricate details? It’s overwhelming to try to see them all, but to have thought it through and laid it all out is mind-boggling! This is such a beautiful temple. I’d love to visit it. Especially to see it illuminated with sunlight on the Tropic of Cancer!!

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  6. What a fascinating post about the myriad potential meanings and symbolisms of the temple, and the photos really bring out the intricacy of the details. Had never thought about any one temple in this level of meaning!

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  7. This is the first time I have enjoyed reading about a temple I knew nothing about! Interesting to know that this sun temple was not only to worship gods, but also acted as a meeting place for intellectuals. The ancient temples really spark my imagination! Especially how they were built and the possibility of ET “help”..

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    1. It is really intriguing once you start learning the science and logic behind all these ancient constructions. I barely knew anything about temples myself before I started researching for this post.

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  8. The Modhera Sun temple is exquisite and part of the enigma that envelops the sun temples of India. Have been to the Modhera Sun temple many years back and also the Konark one a couple of times. Incidentally, last month visited a lesser known sun temple in Katarmal, Uttarakhand, a small one but equally fascinating.

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  9. This is absolutely fascinating, Punita, and I love the way you bring it to life. I absolutely adore ancient architecture, especially the algorithms and the science behind it. Wish I knew more about it. Having read your blog, well, now I do. I especially find it fascinating how ancient civilisations could carry off feats such as having “the sunlight travel through the entrance arches at such an angle that it hits the main idol in the dark inner shrine far inside, illuminating it with the power of a thousand light bulbs.” Brilliant engineering!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Priya! Researching for this post was an absolute delight. We know just a fraction about Indian heritage and culture…there’s so endless knowledge waiting to be taken in!

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  10. The Sun Temple of Modhera not only looks amazing but beautiful as well, that is interesting about what it means. I just love ancient architecture and I want to add this place to my list next time that I am in India.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I am glad I did not write on this temple! You have written with such details that no one can match it. 🙂
    Beautiful write up and there’s so much to learn. Great work girl.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for the guide to decoding Hindu Temples. My wife and I have been to many temples in India during our travels and I can’t believe how many details we missed! Now we’ll have to go back and check them out again to see what we overlooked the first time! I’ll be keeping my eye out for Vastu Shastra from now on.

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  13. We had been there a few years back. Your awesome photos and article has made me relive those moments. The science behind these architectural wonders never fails to interest me. I always wonder, how in those days with minimal instruments, machines and tools, they could build them.

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  14. Modhera is just so so gorgeous. Each of those carved pillars has a story to tell. Amazing to note the science of how the light travels through the temple. Goes to show how advanced that generation was. Beautiful pictures and a lovely post

    Liked by 1 person

  15. The temple has fantastic architecture! And it has been so well preserved, considering it dates back thousands of years. I have not been to Gujarat as yet, it’s one of the few states in India that I haven’t explored and there is a lot to see there! Adding this historical temple to my list, thanks for the recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

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