Daily Dispatch 8: A Journey to the Thousand-Year-Old Sun Temple

AHMEDABAD – India’s summer heat has finally found us. As we started our day, temperatures soared to 94 degrees in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat. The heat seemed rather appropriate given that our first stop of the day was the Sun Temple, an elaborately carved 11th Century structure that was built to line up with the sun’s path on the solstice. The temple lies on the Tropic of Cancer, one of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the earth.

We arrived in Ahmedabad late Wednesday night, so Yogi-Ji gave us the morning off to report, relax by the pool or explore Gujarat.

Pia and Gudrun’s post-breakfast stroll took them down to the river and across the Gandhi Bridge during rush hour. All along the riverfront park they saw couples and greenery, and an impressive assortment of colorful fashion. One newlywed couple hid together amid the leaves and giggled as the girl furtively pulled up her sari’s veil to reveal her face to her husband.

We all reconvened on the bus after lunch for our first journey to the Sun Temple. The ride was much smoother than what we remembered from our previous bus rides in New Delhi. It is clear that Gujarat benefited under the leadership of Narendra Modi, once the chief minister of the region and now India’s prime minister. Modi’s complex legacy is still reverberating through the country’s politics today, as demonstrated by the elections earlier during our trip.

Our first awareness that we were passing the Tropic of Cancer came in a big blue and white road sign about a mile from the Sun Temple. “Tropic of Cancer is Passing From Here,” it read. We got off the bus to record the moment in a group photo.

We were lucky to have Girish-ji join us for the Gujarat leg of our trip. When we arrived at the Sun Temple, he recounted its history and architecture. First, we came to the ablution tank, a green pool filled with swimming turtles and surrounded by detailed carvings along the edges. The entire temple structure, a UNESCO heritage site, was built over 27 years with the sun calendar in mind. Girish-ji told us that on the day of the spring solstice, there are no shadows at the Sun Temple. The rays of the sun run right through the elaborate structure.

Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Thea said. “I can imagine how spiritual it used to be. I loved seeing how meaningful the sun is across cultures,” she added, remembering how other societies have built structures lined up with the sun around the world, from Stone Henge to Newgrange.

“I found it interesting that the carvings were all done on-site,” Sylvia added. “It’s clear that location was very important to the architect.”

After a short stop for mango ices to break the heat, we traveled to another structure built of sandstone during the same century as the Sun Temple, but which lay forgotten and buried until its excavation began in 1958.

Rani Ki Vav, the “Queen’s Stepwell” is an underground construction carved seven stories deep, where people gathered and traders could do business out of the heat. Amid the columns, the air stays three to five degrees Celsius below the outside temperature, Girish-ji said, and we appreciated its calming coolness today just as the traders did a thousand years ago.

This monument was dedicated to Vishnu, and his 10 incarnations are shown in along the sides. Just as with the Sun Temple, the structure had no bonding agent and was instead held together with interlocking pieces, all carved with extreme detail.

When we left the Rani Ki Vav to head to our last stop of the day, the sun was starting to slant and bathe us in golden light. The drive took us through rural India at sunset before our arrival at Bahucharaji, a Shakti temple for Bahuchar Mata, the patroness of India’s hijra community.

The chanting, incense and stones beneath our bare feet brought back echoing memories of other Hindu temples we’d visited throughout the country. Couples desiring children make their pilgrimages here to pray to Bahuchar Mata for fertility. When their prayers are answered, the new parents bring back offerings of gratitude. One wall of the temple was a collage of baby photos offered as a testament the goddess.

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A young hijra shares her story

ANA SINGH

 

Some of our group interviewed a hijra seated alongside the temple, a member of India’s third gender. She comes to the temple daily, after the first aarti, and makes her living by giving blessings throughout the day until the last aarti at night. As our group spoke with Chaiyya De about her life, a couple brought their new baby. Chiayya De tucked the rupees into her purple sari, then placed her hands over the baby’s head as the family bowed.

Finally, with the sun now gone, we came back to our hotel for one last meal before it was time to head upstairs and prepare for Friday.

 

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang