The history of sun worship in India — a diminishing cult

In India, Sun worship possibly started in the Neolithic period. Images of the Sun can be seen in a rock shelter at Odisha’s Sundargarh district. This rock shelter is located at around 200 feet above a forest road. The mural can be seen towards the center of the wall and the images averaging 20-25 centimetres in diameter are well defined with red ochre tones. The circular representations of Sun form two circles; the images have straight strokes (like sunrays) at intervals and around the outer circle. Though assigning a definite date to the rock shelter painting is difficult, it is irrefutably an evidence of the antiquity of Sun worship in India. The rising Sun can be also seen in rock shelters near Raigarh and at Sitakhardi in Chambal valley. Besides, encircled Sun is depicted on Neolithic pottery found at Piklihal in Karnataka.

The earliest representations of the Sun god riding a chariot can be seen on the railings of the Mahabodhi temple in Bihar’s Bodhgaya (2nd century BC), in Maharashtra’s Bhaja Caves (1st century BC), and at Khandagiri caves (1st century) in Odisha. The carvings of the Sun god at Khandagiri are reminiscent of that at Bodh Gaya. The Sun rides one wheeled chariot drawn by four horses. The god is attended by a female figure on either side. In his right hand, he holds a lotus and in his left he holds the reins. On the right corner there is a demon of darkness in a flying pose.

Rayed disc is also seen on the coins of Panchala-Mitra (150 BC-50 BC). The coins of Bhanumitra and Suryamitra have solar discs on the reverse. The Bharhut medallion (2nd century BC), having a human bust depicting the Sun, and the Shunga period terracotta figures from Chandraketugarh in West Bengal show that the cult was in existence by 1st century BC. In a 2nd century relief found near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, the Sun god rides a chariot drawn by four horses. The significance of the sculpture lies in the fact that it is on a pillar and an indication that there may have been a tradition of a Suryadhwaj or pillar dedicated to the Sun god in ancient shrines.

Ornamental ceiling of the Modhera sun temple (From the book, ‘Abode of the Sun God’)

Royal Patronage

Most religions need patronage of the political class and traders to survive and expand. The Sun cult, too, found patronage among the ruling communities, many of whom associated themselves with the deity. For instance, Pushyamitra, the Shunga ruler, has been taken by many as a Sun worshiper. The Vardhan dynasty of Thaneswar in modern Haryana was a devotee of the Sun, as is evident by the epithet paramadityabhakta applied to three ancestors of Harshavardhan in the Sonepat copper plate inscription. Though Harsha himself was a Shaiva and later inclined towards Buddhism, he did not forsake his ancestral deity; in the religious assembly attended by Hiuen Tsang, the image of the Sun god was installed along with Buddha and Shiva.

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Pratihara kings Rambhadra and Vinayakapala appear to have been Sun worshippers too. We get a sense of royal patronage to the cult in various inscriptions preserved in museums. The Indore copper plate inscription of Gupta ruler Skandagupta, for instance, displays preference for the solar sect. The Mandasore stone inscription of Kumaragupta I refers to the construction of a Sun temple by a guild of weavers at Dasapur in central India. The Gwalior inscription of Hun ruler Mihirkula invokes the Sun as the dispeller of darkness. As per the Pratapgarh inscription of Mahendrapala II (10th century), his feudatory Indraraja Chahamana built a Sun temple, naming the deity after himself as ‘Indradityadeva’. Paramara, Gahadavala, Gurjar and Valabhis of Kathiawar gave grants to Sun temples. Copper plates of Avantivarman II refer to gifts by Chalukya rulers in the 9th century to a Sun temple named Tarunaditya. Chalukya ruler of Gujarat Siddharaj is said to have built a Sun temple. In Bengal, there is reference in the copper plates of Kesavasena of the Sena dynasty (12th century) regarding patronage towards Sun cult. In Konkan, Bhoja II is believed to have given land for Kasheli’s Kanakaditya Sun temple.

sun worship, sun worship india, sun worship history, history of sun worship, cult of sun, sun god, book on sun god, alokparna das, India Express, new books, book excerpt, book review The Sun Temple at Ranakpur, Rajasthan (From the book, “Abode of the Sun God”)

The tradition continued in the medieval period, with Rajput rulers associating themselves with the deity and the mythical Suryavansha

Images of the Sun God

While images of the Sun god seem to have come into existence one or two centuries before the Current Era, it was only in the 5th century that religious texts started mentioning details related to idols of Surya. As per the Brihat Samhita, Surya should be shown with two hands and wearing a beautiful crown. Vishnudharmottara Upapurana (written during the Gupta period), on the other hand, states that Surya should be shown with four hands; flowers in two hands, a staff in the third, and in the fourth holding equipment such as palm leaf and pen and, thereby, depicting him as the lord of both action and knowledge. Surya’s charioteer Arun is to be shown as seated. Two goddesses stand on either side of Surya, they are Usha and Pratyusha representing dawn and dusk, respectively. They are shown to be shooting arrows to dispel darkness. In some images, Surya stands flanked by his two consorts, Sanjya and Chhaya.

sun worship, sun worship india, sun worship history, history of sun worship, cult of sun, sun god, book on sun god, alokparna das, India Express, new books, book excerpt, book review Budhadit Temple, dedicated to Vriddha Aditya, is located around 60 kilometers from Kota in Rajasthan. The inner sanctum has a marble statue of Surya. (From the book, “Abode of the God”)

The Brihat Samhita also states that the god’s feet should be covered, he should wear earrings, necklace, high boots and a waist girdle like the Persian Sun god. In fact, during the early centuries of the Common Era, Surya’s image in the northern part of the country was similar to those found in ancient Persia. Matsya Purana (200-500 CE) says that the weakening of lustre by Vishwakarma also weakened the Sun’s speed and, hence, he started wearing long boots so that no one could see his feet that had slowed down. Surya as a deity is also present in Nepal’s temples.

In Odisha, besides the world famous Konark temple, shrines dedicated to the deity are also found in Suvarnapur and inside the Lingaraj temple at Bhubaneswar. Surya as Biranchinarayan is the main deity in two temples – at Palia near Bhadrak and at Ganjam district’s Buguda. The Buguda temple, renovated by King Srikara Bhanjadev in 1790, has exquisite wood carvings on its ceilings and 46 pillars. The temple faces west and is called the ‘wooden Konark’.

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