Surya’s association with Indian culture and civilisation is eternal. Vedic literature defines Surya as an individual deity and as part of the group of solar deities. The famous Gayatri mantra pays tribute to Savitr as the divine Surya, who illuminates all, from whom all proceed and to whom all must return, and whom we invoke to direct ourselves towards righteousness. Early Puranic traditions prescribe Surya worship in domestic rites by reciting mantras, offering lotus, argya, sandal and salutation. Later Puranic traditions mention the advent of Maga priests presiding over Surya worship and the popularisation of Surya images and temples. The Samba Purana tells us that when Samba, son of Krishna, was cursed with leprosy, Narada advised him to worship Surya after constructing a temple at Chandrabhaga river. Since no Brahman was ready to accept its priesthood, Samba brought Magas, specialist Sun-worshiping priests of the Shakadvipa. Shakadvipa is generally identified with present-day Iran and Magas with the Magi Zoroastrian priests.
The later Puranas mention three ancient centres for Surya worship. The first one was at Mulasthana or Mitravana (Multan in Pakistan) on the Chandrabhaga (Chenab river). The second centre was at Kalapriya, generally identified with Kalpi (Uttar Pradesh) on Yamuna river. The third was at Mundira or Udayachala, generally identified with Konark in Odisha. Among the surviving temples of India, the famous ones for Surya are Konark in Odisha, Modhera Sun temple in Gujarat and Martand Sun temple in Jammu and Kashmir.
The earliest epigraphical references to Surya temples come from Madhya Pradesh. A 5th century CE Gupta period inscription at Mandsaur mentions construction of a Sun temple by a guild of silk weavers. A 6th century CE grant of Mihirakula refers to the construction of a Sun temple at Gwalior. Tikamgarh district preserves two ninth century CE Surya temples, one in Umri and another in Madkhera. The Umri Surya temple faces east and is built in the pancha-ratha style. It consists of a garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), antarala (vestibule) and mukha mandapa. Niches in the bhadra (central) offset in the south and the west have images of Surya riding over a seven-horse chariot. The karna (corner) niches have images of Ashtadikpalas. The adhishthana bhadra niches carry images of Vishnu as Varaha, Krishna and Narasimha. The antarala doorway lintel is carved with an image of Surya riding a seven-horse chariot driven by Aruna and accompanied by Usha, Pratyusha, Danda and Pingala. Images of saptamatrikas and navagrahas are also present on the lintel. A mutilated Surya image is present inside the garbhagriha.
The Surya temple in Madkhera faces east and is built over a high raised jagati (platform). Unlike the Umri temple, here we find Shaivite deities, Ganesha, Kartikeya and Parvati, in the adhisthana bhadra niches. The bhadra niches over the jangha (lower portion of the wall) have images of Surya holding lotuses and riding a chariot. The karna niches have images of Ashtadikpalas. Vishnu-dashavataras are present on various small niches around the temple. The antarala doorway has River Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna over the door jambs. The lintel carries an image of Surya with his retinue with sapta-matrikas and navagrahas. Inside the garbhagriha is an image of Surya standing over a lotus pedestal.
Sesai in Shivpuri district has a tenth century CE Surya temple in a much dilapidated condition. Unlike the above two temples, this faces west. It is built over a jagati and follows the pancha-ratha style, consisting of a garbhagriha, antarala and mukha mandapa. The bhadra niches, designed as mini shrines, carry Uma-Maheshvar in the north and Surya in the east while the niche in the south is empty. The karna niches have images of Ashtadikpalas. The doorway is exquisitely carved and differs in its sculptural programme from the above two temples. River Goddesses are present on the door jambs while Vishnu-dashavataras are present on the door bands. Surya is present over the lalatabimba in the centre of the lintel. Eleven Adityas accompanied by Lakshmi and Saraswati are arranged on either side of Surya. The beam above the lintel has Vishnu in its centre accompanied by Brahma and Shiva on either side. At the ends are Lakshmi and Saraswati.
With the advent of the Gurjara-Pratiharas, an impetus was provided to Surya worship in and around the present Madhya Pradesh region. The above three Surya temples are the representatives of Surya worship (Saura cult) during the Pratihara period of the ninth-tenth century CE. The origin of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty is traced to Lakshmana, who served as a pratihara (doorkeeper) to Rama. As Rama and Lakshmana were born in the Ikshvaku (or Suryavamshi) dynasty, it was natural for the Pratihara rulers to pay their due obeisance to Surya. Ramabhadra (833-836 CE) was the first Pratihara king referred to as a Param-Aditya-bhakta (staunch devotee of Surya) in epigraphs. His son Bhoja I (836-885 CE) was the greatest emperor of Northern India in the early medieval period. Though Bhoja I is referred to as a Param-Bhagvati-bhakta, him bearing the title of Mihira suggests his association with Surya. A later Partihara ruler Vinayapaladeva I is also referred to as a Param-Aditya-bhakta in epigraphs.
These temples may also serve as a link in the gradual migration of the Saura sect from western India to the eastern part, culminating in the Konark Surya temple. Further research on this may help us understand this migration better.
Saurabh Saxena, Founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites (Puratattva.India@gmail.com)